HC Deb 03 February 1977 vol 925 cc729-32
11. Mr. Hodgson

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans the Government intend to produce to reduce levels of vandalism to property and violence against the person, especially in urban conurbations.

13. Mr. Peter Bottomley

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans the Government intend to produce to reduce the level of vandalism to property and violence against the person, especially in urban conurbations.

15. Mr. Steen

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what plans the Government intend to make to reduce levels of vandalism to property and violence against the person, especially in urban conurbations.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

I have had preliminary discussions with chief officers of police, who I know give as much priority as they can to tackling vandalism in conjunction with local individuals and organisations. I am also planning with my colleagues a wider conference to see whether there is any further action which can be taken.

The Criminal Law Bill—now in another place—proposes substantial increases in the maximum fines and amounts of compensation which offenders may be ordered by magistrates' courts to pay for offences of vandalism.

Mr. Hodgson

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that because more than 100 crimes against the person are now committed every week in the West Midlands, and because the West Midlands police force is 11 per cent. under strength, people in areas such as Stechford are frightened to walk the streets? What will he do to remedy that appalling situation?

Mr. Rees

Because that sort of statement is linked to a by-election, it makes nonsense of the hon. Gentleman's question. The people are not afraid to walk the streets of Britain. The number of policemen is increasing all the time. A total of £250 million more is being spent by this Government than the last on law and order. The police forces will know what to make of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, which are pure poppycock, are made just for political advantage, and are no use to me in my fight for law and order.

Mr. Bottomley

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the police forces are still undermanned when there seem to be a large number of people available for work?

Mr. Rees

The number in the police goes up and up every month. There are more than 2,000 extra policemen in the inner city areas. In the recent debate I sought not to make party capital out of that just because it had happened in the past two years, but I do make party capital out of the spending of £250 million extra. There are more policemen. Every police force is allowed to recruit to a higher level than the year before. There is no problem in that regard, but dealing with vandalism is not a question of numbers; vandalism is a deep-seated malaise of modern life. I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the Home Office report on the matter, which goes into the wider issues.

Mr. Steen

In view of the dramatic rise in the number of offences of criminal and malicious damage, which have risen from 14,500 in 1969 to 78,500 in 1975, what steps do the Government now propose to take to tackle the problem, other than to set up more committees and inquiries?

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A committee can only listen to the ideas of people on the ground in the areas concerned. When I have talked to people about the matter I have said that I do not want just to set up another committee but that it is a matter of what is done by the chief constables. Some have individual committees. What matters is what is done in the areas themselves. No statements from this House or things of that nature will help. We have found that within days of our debating such issues in the House the amount of vandalism increases. I do not know whether there is a psychological reason.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My right hon. Friend may say in all sincerity what he said to the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) in reply to the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question, but I can give him letters from constituents who say—and we know that it is true—that they dare not walk in certain streets, not only at night but during the day. I think that all hon. Members could give him similar letters. Is it right that an old lady of 70 or 80 should be afraid to do her shopping because of the fear of being mugged or set upon? Will my right hon. Friend try to do something about that? Not only the old people but even young women are now afraid to walk in some streets of our cities.

Mr. Rees

What my hon. Friend said is correct. There are certain areas where there are problems, but that was not the question to which I was replying. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) made an assertion about Britain as a whole. There are areas where there ate problems, and it is locally that they will have to be dealt with. That will not come about through statements by me. I shall have information about the conference passed on. It is a matter for the Metropolitan Police and other police forces.

Mr. Alison

Is the Home Secretary aware—I am sure that he must be—that his own Standing Committee's report on vandalism, to which he referred just now, makes the point that there are already adequate powers for substantial fines for vandalism, including fines on parents and guardians, and that the trouble is that the penalties are not severely enough applied by the magistrates? Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the Lord Chancellor to write to the magistracy asking it to have another look at the levels of fines being imposed under existing statutes to deal with vandalism?

Mr. Rees

I think that the hon. Gentleman is right. We have increased some fines, and parents must pay in certain cases. I cannot be responsible for magistrates, but everybody in the community is aware of what is required now. I shall have a word with my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although we in no way want to condone criminal damage or violence, many of those involved have been subjected to unemployment or are socially deprived, and that it would be far more productive to tackle the problem at its roots rather than to have a hysterical rush to harsher measures, which will not be effective in any case? Will my right hon. Friend consider something that may be a positive help? Will he consider extending a variant of the community service order to, for example, juveniles, so that they can put something back into the community for the damage they have caused?

Mr. Rees

I think that the community service orders in general, which started under the previous Government, or were developed under them, should be further developed first. Deprivation is a factor to which I have put my mind a great deal since becoming Home Secretary. Without moving away from agreement with my hon. Friend on that, I should say that the cause of vandalism is deeper than deprivation. There are many factors. It is because it is so complicated that vandalism is difficult to deal with.