HC Deb 23 May 1991 vol 191 cc1070-8

11.3 am

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

The concept of active citizenship means different things to different people. It is all-embracing. I believe that active citizenship, when it is healthy, makes for a stable and well-ordered society. As I said, it means different things to different people, and as a Conservative I suspect that I place an emphasis on it different from the emphasis that it is given by socialists.

I am proud to say that active citizenship in Basildon is thriving. Indeed, it is leading the way. I intend, Mr. Deputy Speaker, with your permission, to indulge in an unashamed roll of honour to salute all the active citizens in my constituency.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), who has given his name to an excellent document entitled "Releasing the Community Spirit". Many excellent ideas are set out in that document, which provides a framework for the active citizen. It is well worth reading.

I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, is a modest person. He would be the last to entice anyone to praise his efforts. However, I intend to give him praise, for his name is engraved upon the hearts of my constituents. I think that he has visited my constituency no fewer than four times. On each visit he has been responsible for making fundamental improvements to the lives of all my constituents. First, in 1986–87, he was the Minister with responsibility for new towns. He made sure that those who lived in what were termed concrete camps of properties in Vange, who bought them with the best of intentions, were enabled to purchase them back. I cannot over-emphasise how much that has meant to my constituents.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State visited the police station in Basildon and saw at first hand where it was intended to build the new court house. There was an argument about linking the police station with the new court house via an underground tunnel. My right hon. Friend returned to the Home Office and made sure that there would be a tunnel linking the two buildings.

Some years ago, my right hon. Friend replied to an Adjournment debate on St. Luke's hospice. It was while he was a Minister at the Department of Health and Social Security that privately, behind the scenes, he encouraged local residents to pursue the project.

I congratulate the Government on their many initiatives to encourage active citizenship, perhaps the most recent of which was the pledge that £4.5 million of taxpayers' money would be used to support Crime Prevention Week. Sadly, the socialists in Basildon tried to take full credit for the scheme. In fact, it was a Home Office initiative. I am delighted to tell the House that Crime Prevention Week proved to be an enormous success in Basildon. It was successful during the week in question and the many continuing projects will bring enormous benefit for the residents of Basildon in the years ahead.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about our attempts to help Basildon in the past. Is he aware that the attitude of the Labour party in Basildon towards Crime Prevention Week—it claimed responsibility for that excellent and successful concept—ran full in the face of national Labour party policy? The Labour party chose to condemn national Crime Prevention Week and to condemn the actions of all citizens who voluntarily played a full part in making the scheme a success. Perhaps those at Walworth road should talk to the representatives of the Labour party in Basildon.

Mr. Amess

How right my right hon. Friend is. Basildon socialists are frequently out of step with socialists nationally. That is why two Thursdays ago there was a 9 per cent. swing to Conservative party candidates in my constituency. The leader of the Labour group is a treasurer at Walworth road. It must be an increasing worry to those concerned that his advice is being taken by the Labour party.

I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies to the debate he will give details of what local businesses are doing to assist in all the Government initiatives, because I am fed up with people knocking local business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Esher wrote in the excellent document to which I referred, local businesses have been magnificent in their support of active citizenship.

I am not ashamed to say that I am proud to be British. This is the finest country in the world and I am fed up with the British disease of continually knocking ourselves. If we are not moaning about the weather, we are always saying that the grass is greener on the other side. It is not and it is time that we followed the example of others and beat the drum for Britain.

I am proud to live in Basildon, which is the finest new town in Britain and is the beacon of the south. Because some unkind articles have been written over the years about my constituency—we did not necessarily take offence at the article on Essex man and Essex woman—I initiated the "I love Basildon" campaign, which enabled people to wear attractive badges and display bumper stickers on their cars and in shops. It was an extremely effective campaign which said, in effect, "We live in Basildon and we are proud of our town."

The campaign was specifically aimed at the national problems of litter, graffiti and vandalism. Conservative Members believe in leading by example and that is why I undertook, late at night, to go on what I called anti-vandal patrols. I approached groups of youngsters on street corners and asked why they were there and not attending our local youth clubs and other activities provided in the town. Their main complaint was that, as they were under age and could not drink alcohol, commercial enterprises in the town were not prepared to run discos providing non-alcoholic drinks. Local businesses rallied round magnificently and I am delighted to report that in Basildon we are providing discos at which youngsters can enjoy non-alcoholic drinks.

We also worked with such enterprising people as the Guardian Angels, not in an unorthodox fashion but to demonstrate that we were concerned with individual responsibility. There is no earthly reason why people should drop sweet papers on the floor, throw cigarette ends out of car windows and so on. Throwing litter and rubbish on to the floor costs the nation money and at this time, when we are concerned for the well-being of the economy, we must make sure that every penny is well spent. There is no reason why huge sums of money should be wasted because we have a litter problem.

Local people have set up working parties on the Westminster model and, on a voluntary basis, are clearing up some of our estates and more unsightly roads. I am delighted to report that local schools responded magnificently to national spring-clean week, which proved extremely effective.

Why, when somebody changes the lettering on a street sign so that the name of the road becomes a dirty or swear word, is there never anybody present to see the graffiti happen? I assume that not adults but children are responsible for such graffiti. The parents of those children should accept responsibility for the unsocial behaviour of their offspring. Nobody who indulges in graffiti can be considered an active citizen, in Basildon or elsewhere.

I pay tribute to the police in Basildon. When I became a Member of Parliament, we had one local police station. We now have three, thanks to the support of the Home Office. We have a police station at Pitsea, a new one being built at Laindon and our central police station in Basildon.

We have a magnificent new court house, where people gather in a civilised fashion. Gone is the overcrowding that used to take place in Billericay magistrates courts. In those days there was enormous pressure on the counselling given by social workers and the new court house has raised morale among the members of the probation service and among chief officers. I am delighted with the support that the Government gave to our new court house.

Like the police throughout the country, the police in Basildon are absolutely magificent. I would not wish to be a policeman. It is an extremely difficult job and the men and women in our police force, under increasingly difficult circumstances, because of the change in behaviour of the population generally, face great difficulties. We should congratulate and encourage the police in all their endeavours.

Mr. John Patten

If the police are doing such an excellent job in Basildon and nationally, which the Government and people generally recognise to be the case, and if they are doing an extremely fine job in crime prevention, why does my hon. Friend think that it is now Labour party official policy to take responsibility for crime prevention from the police and give it to local councils? Does he think that the Labour party does not really trust the police?

Mr. Amess

Certainly. I cannot think of a worse scenario than local socialists in Basildon having control of the police force. That would be outrageous and my right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the point.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments on my pamphlet. He does a remarkable job for the people of Basildon and we are hearing much of his own activities behind the praise that he is giving to others. Is not it interesting to note that where there is a good police force, the people respond to it, with citizens wanting to assist and taking a more active part in neighbourhood watch and similar schemes? Has he noted the increasing awareness among younger people of what they can do for youth crime assistance with the police, rather than being on the wrong side of the law? All such matters are part of the community working properly and my hon. Friend's efforts are helping to make sure that that happens in Basildon.

Mr. Amess

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and he is right. I was about to deal with the question of neighbourhood watch schemes and the other initiatives to which he referred. Yesterday I had the pleasure to attend the 10th anniversary of the victim support scheme in Basildon. It is a magnificent initiative, again supported by the Government, and the chairman said in his annual report: Until recently victims of crime had long been neglected by the community. My hon. Friends and I feel passionately that the real victims of crime are not given enough attention. The initiative in Basildon has addressed that problem. He went on: The Police, the Probation Service and the Judiciary were primarily concerned with the offender. The victim might be asked to give evidence but there was no organisation to help victims of crime". Does the House understand the role of the active citizen in victim support, which is dependent on untrained volunteers—ordinary men and women who, after selection and training, have time to visit victims? A leaflet on the group says of the volunteers, who are not paid for their sacrifices: Volunteers are caring people who are able to listen and respond to the victim's needs. Information on these and on the agencies and services available to them is given to volunteers during training, enabling them to offer victims a confidential service on behalf of the community. Each volunteer carries an identity card issued by the Police. The victim support group is so dedicated that, when the new court house opened, it initiated a fund-raising team to serve tea and coffee there. It has enjoyed tremendous success with the continuity of its co-ordinators. Although this is a sad and serious project, they have embarked on a scheme to study the causes of murder and manslaughter.

The group has asked me to raise with my right hon. Friend the Minister one point concerning the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. A person in receipt of state benefits can be penalised if he receives a lump sum because state benefits are taken into consideration. I hope that my right hon. Friend can comment on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Esher mentioned the neighbourhood watch scheme. A retired gentleman called Ken Coulter is what is called the divisional controller in Basildon. Every day of the week, he is in Basildon police station working on the scheme on behalf of the community. It is thanks to his efforts and those of his team of volunteers that there are now 600 of these groups in Basildon representing 171,000 residents and guarding 62,000 properties. There are 186 liaison officers and 8,962 people in the youth section. It is a magnificent effort. Our local neighbourhood scheme has piloted a pet watch scheme, which co-ordinates the activities of residents who are naturally upset when they lose their pets. Their contribution to our local society is profound.

Underpinning all this has to be education. I am delighted to say that our schools are doing a magnificent job, in partnership with the police, in educating our young people. Sadly, we lost our way in the 1960s, when we set young people a bad example and in the past decade we have been paying the dividend. Our schools are now in a healthy state. Local police come in regularly to show young people how they can help in developing the concept of active citizenship. I salute the efforts of the police.

Frequently, young people come to my surgery with suggestions for new projects. Only on Saturday, six young people, six or seven-year-olds, asked for my support for an environmental project in Langdon Hills and brought me beautiful coloured drawings. They were going to work with the local community in clearing up their estates.

How sad it is to hear of a minority of parents who expect teachers to do it all for them. Education is a partnership. Schools are responsible for children between 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock, but parents must take full responsibility for their children outside those hours and at the weekend.

Basildon has many voluntary organisations for the handicapped. Sports for the disabled are run by two groups. There is nothing so moving as to go along to these annual sports days and see disabled men and women participating in sporting activities in a way that able-bodied people would find impossible. They never allow disability to hold them back. A wonderful woman, Mrs. Childers, is chairman of PHAB—the physically handicapped and able bodied organisation—which does a wonderful job. I am sad that the socialist council is threatening to take away its transport facilities and those of other similar organisations and is trying to blame such measures on the Government, who are not to blame.

A great deal of magnificent work goes on at Valery lodge, which was inspired by a woman who, sadly, has since died of cancer and her husband, who is blind. Basildon also has a town crier organisation—talking books for the blind. Volunteers meet to produce these tapes, which blind people enjoy. We have the friends of Elmbrook school, which is attended by severely disabled people who have actually climbed to the top of Big Ben.

I have already mentioned St. Luke's hospice. It took a German woman, Trudy Cox, her husband Les and their family to show British people that if one is determined, anything is achievable. We do not have any millionaires living in Basildon, or if we do, they are keeping a low profile. If I knew about them, I would immediately try to sign them up as members of the Conservative party. Despite that, in six years, through tombolas and raffles, the hospice has raised over £1 million.

Mr. John Patten

That is extraordinary.

Mr. Amess

It is quite extraordinary. Last year, the Duchess of Norfolk opened the hospice. Knowing that we have a number of social problems in Basildon, with many people on low incomes, she was able to see at first hand what a magnificent job people had done. Five weeks ago, we were privileged to have a visit from the Princess of Wales. She was deeply moved by the wonderful achievements of Trudy Cox and others in building the hospice.

I congratulate the Women's Royal Voluntary Service, which has 500 members and supplies meals on wheels and book services. The Basildon hospital league of friends has been going for over 25 years and has raised, by the efforts of its 300 members, £25,000. I am the unpaid, voluntary spokesman for the National Association of Hospital Broadcasting Organisations, the largest unpaid voluntary organisation. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would tell the Treasury that the association would be delighted if VAT on hospital radio broadcasting equipment were zero-rated and if the Broadcasting Authority would give the association its own frequency.

The marriage guidance council, RELATE, of which I have the privilege to be president, also does a magnificent job, as do the team of volunteer Samaritans at Little Lullaway and the citizens advice bureaux. We take for granted the work of the Rotarians, the Round Table, the Inner Wheel and the carnival charities, which each year raise money for local people. I have the privilege of being the president of the local scouting organisation, which will be here soon to enjoy the privilege of having tea with Mr. Speaker. Both the scouts and the girl guides do a wonderful job.

I have the privilege also to be president of the St. John's Ambulance Brigade. It, too, does a magnificent job. Basildon boys club and the Unge boys club, of which I am also privileged to be president, do a magnificent job in helping local boys to join in sporting activities. am delighted that the Minister for Sport is here. I know that he will pay tribute to the work done by the National Association of Boys' Clubs.

The private car hire and taxi charity organisation, which organises an annual run each year, should be congratulated. I introduced a ten-minute Bill, now an Act of Parliament—the Protection Against Cruel Tethering Act 1988—that was inspired by the Essex Horse and Pony Protection Society. I congratulate it. Recently we have launched Pets as Therapy. It was inspired by Leslie Scott-Ordish and is based in Maidstone. A team of volunteers offer their friendly dogs to be taken along to old people to be patted. It cheers up the old people.

The Royal British Legion does a magnificent job. I very much regret that the socialists in Basildon seem to be preventing us from having a permanent war memorial. How magnificent the poppy collectors are. The arthritis and stroke clubs also do a magnificent job. Crossroads, of which I have the privilege to be president, provides a care attendance scheme that is responsible on a voluntary basis for providing care to people who have disabled children. It provides counselling advice and looks after disabled people while the carers have a holiday.

Finally, I must certainly not forget the Church. We have 28 local churches which do a magnificent job. I very much regret that only 2 per cent. of the population worship regularly. The Minister and I happen to be Catholics, but to me all the local churches in Basildon do a magnificent job. In particular, I pay tribute to Paul Smith, who leads the Living Word Community church. He goes along privately—I do not have the time to do so—to speak to people who have severe emotional problems. He counsels them on an individual basis.

I hope that in the short time that I have been given for this debate I have demonstrated that we do not need the socialists in Basildon to lecture us on a caring community. It is through active citizenship, through the many voluntary organisations in Basildon, that we demonstrate every day, week and month that we are a truly caring society. We lead the way in the country. I hope that this morning the whole House will join me in paying a very warm tribute to all the active citizens in Basildon.

11.32 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I should like to be the first to join in those words of praise for the active citizens of Basildon. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) has given us an extraordinary list—a litany, if one likes—of all the organisations, with many of which he is notably involved, that contribute so much to the life of that town. It is active citizenship, which is the subject of this debate.

At the beginning of his remarks my hon. Friend paid some kind tributes to me. I do not know whether I shall ever be opened up after my death for a post-mortem to be carried out, but if I am I suspect that they will find the word "Basildon", together with a few other words, engraved on my heart. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and, through him, those who help him, on the magnificent 9 per cent. swing to the Conservative party that they achieved at the recent local elections.

It fills me with horror to learn that obstacles may well be placed in the way of a proper war memorial to the deceased active citizens of Basildon by the socialist council in Basildon. I hope that common sense will break out and that that Labour council will be persuaded to think again about what strikes me as the most disgraceful obstacle being placed in the way of the erection of a proper memorial to the dead of Basildon.

I am growing very worried—and I became more and more worried as I listened to my hon. Friend—about other obstacles that the Labour council in Basildon is putting in the way of active citizens. I understand that the excellent organisation PHAB, to which my hon. Friend referred, is likely to have some of its transport that is provided locally withdrawn by the council. That is disgraceful. Disabled people deserve better, even from Labour councils.

I cannot, unfortunately, give an instant response to my hon. Friend's point about value added tax on hospital radios. However, I shall draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure that either he or one of his colleagues will get in touch directly with my hon. Friend. He has promoted a most notable debate. It gives me the opportunity to pay tribute not only to him and to the active citizens of Basildon but to the tens and scores of thousands of people of all ages and from all sections of our community who work in or support voluntary organisations and charities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is now well understood and accepted by the majority of people in this country that there is a clear role for these organisations alongside statutory provision by national or local government.

It is a deeply outdated argument, redolent of the late 1970s, that there is no role at all for voluntary organisations in working closely with both national and local government and also in working closely with business in what may turn out to be a fruitful tripartite alliance in the 1990s. From small things larger things grow. Thirty or 40 years ago, housing associations—small voluntary organisations—were not thought highly of by many people in this country, yet now they are a major provider of housing, bringing together national and local government, voluntary organisations and business.

It is only a distant blip on the radar screen, but perhaps in the next 10 or 20 years we shall see bodies called care associations springing up to provide care in the community and bringing together statutory, local and voluntary provision and business help of various sorts. That is why this debate is so valuable. The outdated arguments of the 1970s and early 1980s about each area having its territory and there being a frontier beyond which the statutory service must not advance, or over which the voluntary sector must not travel, is deeply outdated and should be consigned to the dustbin of tiresome debate.

Voluntary organisations also provide people with the opportunity to pick up a theme that has been consistent in Conservative thought for the past 200 years. Disraeli is, perhaps, too often quoted in this place, but I quote him again on the need to help the little battalions. If we look across the Atlantic, we see a similar theme, with what President Bush said about the need to look for the thousand points of light in the American community and the work done by the voluntary organisations there. That is something that we wish to promote, not to hold back. That is why we do what we can in the Home Office, and in all Government Departments, particularly through the excellent work of the voluntary services unit, to promote the work that volunteers do.

The House may be interested to know that, starting on 3 June, there will be a major volunteers week during which local and national events are to be arranged to publicise and celebrate the contribution made by volunteers. That will be going on in Basildon, as elsewhere. We take every opportunity to encourage responsible and active citizens to give not just of money but of their time, too. One of the most encouraging trends that we have seen during the 1980s has been the willingness of the business and voluntary sectors to join in partnership with Government to tackle the problems that concern us all. The breaking down of barriers and the willingness to work together is very welcome.

These are not just fine words. I can announce today—I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to hear it—that we shall be making a grant towards the start up of a scheme jointly proposed by the Home Office, business in the community and the action resource centre to attempt to stimulate more volunteering by employees—a theme and a trend, I think, of the 1990s. This grant—£51,000, or £51,500 for those who are precisely minded in this place—will cover half the cost for the next three years of two pilot projects in Leeds and Leicester. Unfortunately, we did not have a bid from Basildon. If we had, I dare say that one of the two pilot projects would have been in Basildon. The pilot projects have been designed to show how closer links between local, voluntary and business sectors can be established and to develop practical models for employee volunteering which can be replicated throughout the United Kingdom. That will help to promote active citizenship by employees, sometimes during employers' time. Many businesses, large and small, are recognising that if employees are allowed to volunteer for activities, it can help to enrich and enhance the experience of those employees.

There have been many definitions of active citizenship. For me it can be defined as someone making more than a solely economic contribution to their community; someone who not only cares but acts on their caring instincts. In his extraordinary list of caring people in Basildon, my hon. Friend put his finger not on the definition of active citizenship but on the practical outcome of it.

Many people have identified with the theme of active citizenship and it has captured a great deal of imagination and public debate. It has been useful in persuading people to think about the contribution that they might make and in developing recognition of the contribution that many already make to their neighbourhood.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon listed a range of things taking place in Basildon as examples of what can be done. He mentioned crime prevention and gave the name of one active citizen who visits the police station daily and is co-ordinating neighbourhood watch schemes. I am afraid that I cannot remember his name.

Mr. Amess

Mr. Coulter.

Mr. Patten

I pay tribute to him and to the neighbourhood watch movement in Basildon. Crime prevention is very important. It caught the national imagination in April during the first ever British national crime prevention week. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon for what he said about Home Office efforts. Crime prevention week was built on the hard work of the police and other statutory agencies and the hordes of volunteers up and down the country.

I have been amazed at the outright attacks and condemnation of crime prevention week from the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen. Their comments are a slap in the face for the tens of thousands of volunteers and active citizens of all political parties and no political party who took part in 6,000 separate schemes during that week and attracted many millions of pounds worth of private sector sponsorship and advertising which was freely given to promote crime prevention week.

It is clear that the Labour party does not approve of voluntary action in crime prevention. What the Labour party has said—I deplore it—is entirely consistent with the two extremely dangerous themes that are now emerging from printed and published Labour party policy documents. It represents a direct attack on the partnership between active citizens concerned with crime prevention and the police. One of the first things that the Labour party has pledged to do is to take away from the police responsibility for crime prevention—the first phrase of any police constable's oath—and transfer it to local authorities. Tell that to the people of Basildon, Lambeth, Haringey, Southwark and Liverpool and other areas with Labour councils.

Even more sinister is the Labour party's pledge in its printed policy documents—the documents are there for us all to see—to extend the political control of the police by having elected police authorities, starting in London. One can imagine what policing would be like in Basildon if the local authority was responsible for crime prevention and the police in that part of Essex. It would break down the fruitful link between voluntary citizens and the police. I applaud the practical work being done by the Essex constabulary and the neighbourhood watch movement in Basildon. For example, they have introduced the innovative pet watch scheme to which my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon referred.

Characteristically, my hon. Friend has picked on a theme that is catching the imagination of people nationally. The Government will do all that they can, financially and in other ways, to promote that in the coming decade. I predict that the coming decade will see a great increase in national volunteering and the rapid coming together of Government, business and the voluntary sectors so that their endeavours may be put on a sound footing to bring into the foreground of public life the little battalions who can really answer local needs in Basildon and elsewhere.