HC Deb 14 December 1992 vol 216 cc251-67 7.49 am
Ms. Ann Coffey (Stockport)

This is an important debate because crime, the fear of crime, and possible solutions to the pervasive fear of crime are of great concern to a wide range of my constituents. Only a few weeks ago, shopkeepers in Davenport whose premises were being systematically burgled came to see me, to express their concern at the state of affairs. Even Heaton Moor Conservative Club wrote to me because its members were worried about that neighbourhood's crime level.

Elderly people regularly come to my surgery seeking increased security in their homes, and council tenants complain about being threatened and abused by gangs of marauding youths. Parents are worried about their children's safety, and women are afraid to go out at night. Such complaints are not unusual, and neither are they isolated.

I wrote to the Home Secretary to convey the concern felt by Stockport people about rising crime. I pointed out that in 1980 there were 15,606 reported crimes, but by 1991 the figure had risen to 35,235—a considerable increase. Among those crimes was an endless catalogue of increasing burglaries, car theft, vandalism and concern in the community.

About a month ago, the Home Secretary replied, saying that the Home Office was approving an additional 179 posts for Greater Manchester police, and that he hoped that I would be reassured. I was, slightly. However, the right hon. and learned Gentleman wrote to me again two weeks later to say that, because of public expenditure cuts, there would be no extra posts.

The Stockport police force is under considerable stress, as are the police in other areas. Public expenditure cuts mean that the number of posts will not be increased and that can only worsen their difficulties and increase concern in the community about the ability of the police to cope with the ever-rising incidence of crime.

The police have to a large extent become a crisis force and, as a consequence, their preventive role in the community has much diminished. Police time must be prioritised. A sign of growing disorder in the community is the degree to which some crimes have become accepted as part and parcel of everyday life. It seems that if someone burgles a person's home and steals a television and video recorder, but does not cause any damage to the property, then, provided the householder is uninjured and his house contents are insured, there is no real problem.

That sort of crime cannot of course compare with some of the horrific incidents that make the news headlines. Neither do everyday occurrences of vandalism that involve wrecking buildings or slashing car tyres. Recently, a British Telecom exchange was set fire to, cutting off 700 lines. Such incidents have become so much a part of everyday life that people almost come to accept them—at least on the surface.

However, no one should underestimate the effect that such crimes have on the community or the cost to the individual victim. Feelings of invasion, insecurity, fear, and anxiety can linger for months, even years. One only has to ask our local victim support team, whose members spend a lot of time helping people to recover from the shock and trauma that are the consequences of being the victims of crime.

Those consequences cannot be measured only objectively, in terms of property being damaged or stolen—which tends to be the Home Office way of measuring problems. The consequences of crime go further. Every crime—every burglary and act of vandalism—sends further shock waves through the community. It increases the number of elderly people living alone who fret at night—sleeping fitfully, woken by every little noise, afraid of becoming a victim. It makes everyone more afraid in their homes and on the streets.

I shall not go into what I think has brought us to this sad and sorry state of affairs, except to say that if we create a society in which only the strong and successful are valued and status is reflected in material goods, while denying some people the opportunity of dignity, we destroy the very notion of community. The rising crime levels reflect the gradual disintegration of our community, and should be taken very seriously indeed.

Those rising crime levels also give rise to something else: the fear of crime that now pervades our community. No doubt the Minister will tell me that, statistically speaking, Stockport is quite a safe town—that, if we measure the number of assaults that take place on the streets or the number of serious injuries that are caused, the streets are quite safe. If he believes that those statistics make the town feel safe, however, the Minister is mistaken: people do not feel safe, and when they do not feel safe the fear oppresses their lives. Someone who does not go out at night because of fear of assault is as much a prisoner as someone who does not go out because they really will be assaulted. The fear of crime affects the quality of life as much as the incidence of crime.

Our streets are dark: they feel unsafe. The areas around our houses feel unsafe. Few people go out at night—certainly not women or the elderly. The streets become a no-go area after dark. Both crime and the fear of crime need to be tackled. I know that I cannot persuade the Minister to adopt some of the measures that I think would help to solve the problem in the long term, because they are essentially social measures, but I hope to win his support for improved street lighting, which has enormous benefits in decreasing crime and the fear of crime.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome one Government initiative, on car parking. Far too many towns and cities think that they can get away with providing just a piece of land, with no lighting or security. There is a pay and display machine ripping off the public. People are afraid to park there because of the lack of lighting and security.

The Government's initiative involves working with the police and local authorities to provide car parking security, with extra lighting, cameras and personnel to ensure that people feel safe about parking their cars, and ladies in particular feel safe about returning to their cars after parking late at night.

Ms. Coffey

Certainly I welcome any initiative that improves street lighting in car parks. The figures clearly demonstrate that improved lighting and other security measures in car parks not only diminish the incidence of car theft, but make people feel safer about returning to the cars at night.

I was about to produce evidence of the way in which improved street lighting has helped to reduce crime in certain areas—and, more important, has helped to lessen the fear of crime. I also wish to mention some of the projects to improve street lighting and, subsequently, systematically to examine the effect of that improvement on the area concerned, in terms of crime and fear of crime. Such projects have been organised in a number of our major cities. In Hull, for instance, before the street lighting was improved the burglary rate was rising steeply. After the area was relit, the rate rose more slowly. There was also some evidence of a shift of burglary away from well-lit premises. Less theft and vandalism of cars occurred at night.

In another project area in Manchester, there were fewer reported burglaries, and they took place away from relit areas, which seems to suggest that the relighting of an area immediately acts as a deterrent to burglars.

In Strathclyde, there were substantial falls in the number of criminal and threatening incidents experienced by people.

The projects also had a great effect on the fear of crime. In Cardiff, 67 per cent. of people in a project area said that improved lighting made them feel safer in the streets around their homes. There were significant reductions in the worry felt by women about all types of crime—particularly burglary, attacks in the street and sexual assault.

In Hull, the proportion of women who avoided going out after dark fell from 38 to 7 per cent., and in Leeds, there was a 31 per cent. reduction in worry about having a car stolen or damaged. In Manchester, 54 per cent. of people felt safer in the streets and in their own homes. In Strathclyde, 32 per cent. said that there had been a reduction in the fear of crime.

The reduction in the fear of crime also affected people's behaviour. In Cardiff, the number of people willing to go out on their own at night increased by 26 per cent. In Hull, there was a 100 per cent. increase in the number of elderly pedestrians out at night. In Leeds, the number of women staying at home when they would have liked to go out at night fell from 34 to 7 per cent. In Manchester, there was an increase of 23 per cent. in the number of pedestrians on the street. In Strathclyde, there was a 75 per cent. increase in the number of women out on the streets between 10 pm and midnight.

The Home Office has been very dismissive of such statistics, feeling that the reaction was unscientific. But the findings, which followed relighting schemes in major cities and detailed survey work by academics from local universities and polytechnics, have shown that street lighting does, indeed, have an important effect on crime, the fear of crime and the quality of people's lives.

Some 65 to 70 per cent. of people regard fear of going out alone after dark as a problem. More than half deliberately avoid certain streets because of their fear. In a large 1960s council estate in Leeds, 95 per cent. of people believe that improved street lighting would be the most effective way to increase women's safety in the locality.

The Minister must listen to people's fears. They cannot be dismissed as irrational, even though they may be unscientific. He must listen because what people are saying makes sound common sense. The dark makes people afraid and, in the dark, criminals are encouraged to think that they can commit crimes without being caught. The dark keeps people in their own houses, and leaves the streets unsupervised by the community.

Those who go out only have their fears reinforced. The other night, I walked home from Finchley Road tube station to my flat, which is about 10 minutes walk away. It was very dark. That is not something that I normally do: like most women, I avoid the streets at night. I do not know how many male Members can understand what it feels like to be a woman walking home at night. Perhaps I may tell them. If one walks down a street, one watches all the time. One looks for the safety of the next lamp post because in between lamp posts, the road is very dark. One does not walk too close to front gardens. One walks well away from bushes. One gets concerned about cars slowing down. If one hears footsteps behind one, one crosses the road so that one can see the person. Similarly, if one sees a man approaching, one crosses the road. One is alert all the time, and the street feels a dangerous place.

I have little doubt that, objectively speaking, that street was safe and that it was unlikely that I would be assaulted. But that statistic was of no benefit to me or to hundreds of women faced with a walk in the streets at night, who do not go out because they do not feel safe. The streets stay deserted and unsupervised, and the fear of crime takes its toll on people's lives.

In these days of public spending cuts, among other priorities, street lighting must take its place in councils' budgets. Given the demands on highway repairs and maintenance, there is realistically very little money for improved street lighting. The situation would be greatly helped if the Department of the Environment and the Home Office assumed some responsibility for street lighting. It would help if, for example, in setting housing investment programmes, councils could borrow for improved lighting. After all, long gone are the days when housing was viewed in terms of bricks and mortar. Environmental works, including the design of estates, are crucial. Local authorities should be encouraged to consider street lighting as part of their bids, because it undoubtedly enhances the quality of council estates in particular.

In the long term, a tremendous amount of money could be saved by paying such attention to street lighting. The high cost of vandalism would be reduced. There would also be a reduction in the time taken by housing officers trying to deal with council tenants' requests for transfers because they do not feel safe and protected on their estates.

The Home Office should also take some responsibility. After all, the Home Office is concerned with the prevention of crime, and part of the prevention of crime is helping people to feel free of the fear of crime. The success of policing policies can be measured only in decreasing crime statistics and people feeling that their community is safer. Local police forces, together with local authorities, could submit bids for capital allocation for lighting. That would enable the community, the police and the local council to work together in a genuine partnership to combat crime. People would regard that as a visible demonstration of concern for the community. Street lighting is not expensive when we compare the investment with the long-term rewards. It is immediately visible by the community, and that is important.

In our residential areas as well as in our town centres, a decent environment demands freedom from robbery and burglary, harassment and threats, freedom from anxiety and fear, and freedom to walk the streets at night. I fear that that will be a long time coming. It is difficult to rebuild what has been broken. It is difficult to rebuild the community in its present state of fear and a lack of trust. However, some measures could be taken now to help to rebuild the process. One of those measures is improved street lighting, and we all could make a start.

8.7 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey). I am pleased that she has raised this important issue. I am pleased also that my Member of Parliament is working hard at this time of the morning. Like my hon. Friend, I represent partly Stockport and partly Tameside. In both local communities, one of the saddest aspects is the number of lives that are disabled by the fear of going about one's normal daily life because of the possibility of crime.

My hon. Friend described how women are frightened to go out on to the streets at night. I fully understand that fear, but many men find themselves in a similarly difficult situation. In our society there is almost an assumption that men are not frightened to go out on to the streets at night. In many cases, no provision is made to assist men to go out. People will try to help women. They make sure that arrangements are made so that women can go to and from meetings with someone. Women try to make sure that they do not have to go out at night. Often, that assumption is not made in respect of men. The assumption is that they can happily go out. Many men go out fearing what will happen to them.

I am also concerned about the fears that are expressed by youngsters who go out and the way in which that relates to crime. One of the things that distress me is the number of times that I have come across parents who are worried because their son or, in some cases, their daughter goes out with an offensive weapon. Those parents insist—I believe them—that their child would no more dream of attacking someone with that weapon than do anything violent. Those youngsters do not feel safe unless they are carrying a knife or a piece of metal. The trouble is that if an incident occurs and the police are called, often the person who instigated the incident has disappeared, so the person found to be carrying an offensive weapon and arrested is the innocent young victim.

It is a sad day when we have created a society in which young people cannot go out at night and, I am afraid, at other times, without carrying something that may be termed an offensive weapon. If we could simply make our streets feel safer for young people, it would be easier to persuade them just how stupid it is to carry any sort of weapon.

I agree with my hon. Friend that the problem is not just the possibility of attack; one of the most disabling factors is the fear that that might happen. There is a great deal that the Government and local authorities could do to reduce that fear. Not long ago, I was canvassing in the evening on a council estate in my constituency during a recent-by-election. There was a time when one thought nothing of knocking on someone's door at 7 or 8 pm, in the dark, because people were only too happy to respond. It is a sad reflection on the times that my recent canvassing was not too popular, obviously because an increasing number of people are frightened to come to the door.

The first problem that I encountered in the street in which I was canvassing was when trying to read the street name on the wall in poor street lighting. I looked down that street and I saw theoretically nice, landscaped areas with bushes. Sadly, those bushes were overgrown and I thought to myself that there might be someone lurking in them. It was just as difficult to walk down the street, while avoiding the dogs' dirt. That poorly lit street was uninviting. As soon as I opened the gate to a house, there was a burst of light from one of those lamps that light automatically when someone passes before them. The owner had installed that lamp because he realised that that lighting offered considerable advantages. Obviously, an unwelcome visitor would be discouraged by it.

Such public squalor and private affluence made an odd mix. All the way down the street I was in a gloom as I tried to pick my way along the street, but as soon as I approached an individual property I was treated to good illumination. It is sad that we cannot find that little bit of extra money for the provision of good street lighting to match that provided by an increasing number of house owners.

If the standard of lighting on our streets matched that provided by those home owners who can afford automatic lights, it would act as a major deterrent to crime and would reassure many of our constituents who are frightened to go out after they have heard about horrific crimes. Perhaps local authorities could consider whether it is necessary for street lights to be on all the time. I do not know the economics of such a decision and I do not know whether it would be more expensive to install lights that switch themselves on when people move in front of them rather than ones that are on all the time.

I notice that the authorities of the House have chosen lights that switch on as one walks along a Corridor. On a couple of Corridors, the lights are so designed that when one stumbles on the first step one's violent movement switches on the light. It might be easier if the light came on a bit quicker. Perhaps such lights offer a solution to the problem of lighting our side streets, but, whatever system is used, massive benefits result from good street lighting.

My hon. Friend referred to her feelings as she walked back from the tube station the other night. I have been walking back from the House of Commons for about 18 years at various times of night. Generally, I am not frightened to walk in the streets because there is high-quality lighting in most of central London. I walked through part of the City of London about 6 am, where most property has to be protected, and the quality of street lighting was marvellous. If the same lighting were available in parts of my constituency where people need to be protected, it would be a much better society in which to live.

I can think of a series of council bungalows that were designed in the 1950s and in almost every way are ideal for my constituents to live in. The only problem is returning to them late at night, because the porch is set back in a pocket of darkness. Anyone returning at night has to get from the street, which is not well lit, through the little pocket of darkness, put the key in the lock and get into the safety of his or her home. How much better it would be if the local authority could provide a light in the porch—preferably the sort of light that comes on as someone approaches the property. It would give pensioners the reassurance that there was not someone lurking in their porch trying to gain entry to their house.

The problem facing the local authority is finance. In one or two cases where they have been able to get money to rewire a house, they have been unable to fit a light in the porch as an extra. It would make life better for many pensioners and other people if we could ensure good lighting on council property.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) referred to car parking. It is worrying that so many car parks are badly lit. That encourages car crime and makes it very worrying for people to return to their car. One sees people looking around furtively as they approach their car to see whether it is safe. They then push the key in, looking around as they do so, and get into the car as quickly as possible. That is unsatisfactory and much better lighting would help. It is important to protect people who are able to travel in cars, but it is far more important to protect people who have to walk along streets.

I want to make a special plea about the way in which Stockport local authority has failed to meet the needs of my constituents. Stockport has a rigid policy for allocating school places. A group of constituents who live in the Station road area of north Reddish are forced to send their children to the Fir Tree primary school, which is situated across a piece of open ground about 300 or 400 yd from their houses. To get from the houses to the school by road, one must travel almost a mile and a half. During the day, it is perfectly easy for the children to walk across a footpath from the houses to the school, but at night the path is not lit, so for a couple of months of the year children have to come along the path at dusk or in the dark and anyone who wants to go back to school for a parents' evening or anything like that is forced to walk on an unlit path or travel around for a mile and a half.

When Stockport council insists on its rigid zoning policy for primary schools, I wish that someone would examine the problems that it creates. Two street lights on that footpath would make a tremendous difference, but Stockport says that council policy is to light only the highway, not public footpaths. That seems an especially mean policy. If the council insists that children go to that school rather than one slightly further away along a well-lit road, it should be prepared to provide the two street lights that would make such a difference.

I could give many more examples from my constituency of places in which improved street lighting would make a big difference. But I add one word of caution. Having raised the question of lighting during the election campaign, I was surprised when one of my constituents complained to me about what he called "light pollution". He was upset that his neighbours on both sides had lit up their entire back gardens to discourage crime. I do not know whether anyone has raised that issue with other hon. Members; I merely reflect that there is a danger that even when we press for better street lighting, someone—other than the criminals—will be disappointed.

I repeat the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport that if we want to fight crime effectively, the cheap solution is often to concentrate on prevention—and one of the best forms of prevention is to have well-lit streets.

It is ironic that in Greater Manchester a helicopter is now being used to pursue criminals, and I am told that one of the most useful things that it does is to light up areas with its searchlight. I realise that there is no prospect of street lighting in many of the areas in which the helicopter has to be used. Nevertheless, it is often used to light up a street that is supposedly already lit.

One of the things that I regret most is that during my time in the House I have seen a steady rise in crime. In 1979, when the Conservative party came to power, one of its election pledges had been the pledge to cut crime. We all know what has happened to crime levels. and to the level of fear among our constituents.

I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us more about the cases that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport mentioned and the experiments that local authorities have carried out into using better street lighting to reduce crime, and the fear of crime. I hope, too, that he will give us more news about how we can have extra policemen on the beat in Greater Manchester. I agree with my hon. Friend that it was disappointing to be told first that Manchester was to have extra police and then that it was not. Well-lit streets, with extra policemen walking them, would be the best deterrent to crime in Denton, Reddish and the rest of my constituency.

I want the Minister not only to say that we shall have more policemen but to tell us what discussions have taken place between the Home Office and the Department of the Environment to ensure that councils do not have to cut local provision. I suspect that street lighting has taken more of the cuts of recent years than have many other services.

Street lighting should be a priority. In areas such as Denton and Reddish there is still street lighting that was designed for the era of gas lamps, when someone came around on a bicycle to light the lamps and turn them out. Those lights no longer run on gas—they have been converted to electricity—but the level of lighting is still in what we could call the dark ages.

If the Government were prepared to give local authorities a little more money in their general allocations, it would be easier for them to put in extra street lighting and to improve the level of lighting. If local authorities were able to spend a little more from the housing allocations, it would be possible for them to light up many council estates, which were lit in the 1940s and 1950s on the basis of the contemporary level of crime. The crime rate has multiplied many times since. Much more lighting would be beneficial.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the things that we should be doing is pressing our own local authorities to prioritise some of the money that they already have for the provision of extra lighting? In far too many cases, local authorities spend their money on other things that the public may not consider to be priority areas.

There are examples in my constituency. The county council has lit up its own county hall, at a massive cost. It looks very nice aesthetically, but perhaps the money could have been spent better elsewhere. What guarantees can the hon. Gentleman give that if extra money were given to local authorities, they would spend it on lighting, rather than on other services, especially as they feel that it is easy to make cuts in areas such as street lighting because they think that those cuts will not be noticed?

Mr. Bennett

I trust local councillors to make decisions. One of the saddest things is that there are too many hon. Members who are prepared to say to local councillors, "We do not trust you to make decisions." In my constituency, whether in Tameside or in Stockport, if the local councils had the money, I have enough confidence in my local electors to believe that they would ensure that their councillors delivered the service. The problem over the past 14 years has been that the councillors have been continually told that they cannot really be trusted with decisions and that they must be restricted in their spending. There is a cuts scenario. Councillors are not able to make positive decisions about expenditure.

I argue strongly that if the local authorities in my area were told firmly by the Government that they could have some more money to improve street lighting, they would get on with the job with enthusiasm. That would have a significant benefit in reducing crime and it would be very important in reducing people's fear of going out at night.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to say a few words in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport on raising the issue. I shall listen with interest to find out what encouragement the Government can give us. I fear that, as so often in the House, I shall be disappointed.

8.27 am
Mr. Gordon McMaster (Paisley, South)

I rise to make a few brief comments in this important debate. I am not at my most cogent, rational or coherent after the 26 hours on the go that many of us have faced, and I still have the prospect of the Scottish Grand Committee before me. I am comforted by the fact that the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart), the Scottish Office Minister with responsibility for industry, has suffered the same fate. That makes me feel a lot better.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey) on securing this important debate. I especially wish to congratulate her on the depth of her research. When the speech is printed in Hansard, it will be a useful summary of the problems facing communities throughout Britain. Better street lighting would go a long way towards helping those communities.

There can be no doubt that crime is soaring all over the country. The crime issue is in the top half dozen issues that affect most people. When I speak to constituents, young and old alike, they tell me that crime deeply concerns them. All the statistics prove that over the past decade crime has soared at an ever-increasing rate and has left many victims in its wake. Action needs to be taken. The Government, as their record shows, have failed miserably so far.

I had a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) earlier today. He made the valid point that when the Government come to power, people were afraid to go out. Now that the Government have been in power for 13 years, people are also afraid to stay in. I do not say that simply in a jocular way. The reality is that many elderly people are afraid to go out on to the streets at night, partly because of the lack of lighting, but they are also afraid to stay at home because so many crimes occur at home these days.

Crime is a growth industry and there is no doubt that there are difficulties in respect of badly lit streets at night. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to a culture within which young people believe that it is necessary to carry offensive weapons. When I asked young people in my constituency why they carried offensive weapons which would inevitably get them into trouble, the response was that others carried offensive weapons so they carried weapons for protection. That is no excuse at all and something must be done to break the vicious circle. Anything that would help would be welcome.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

My hon. Friend will be aware that just as there has been a growth in crime in his area in Paisley, there has been a similar growth in Lanarkshire. To what extent does my hon. Friend relate that increase to the lack of adequate street lighting and, in turn, to what extent is that related to cuts in public expenditure, under this Government, for the regional council?

Mr. McMaster

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Our constituencies faced similar problems during the summer recess, particularly in respect of violent crime.

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) wanted to know whether local authorities were spending money on the wrong things and whether we should be putting pressure on them to make lighting a priority. Of course we should. We also put pressure on authorities to make the issues of disability, housing and the condition of our streets and pavements a priority. We always put pressure on local authorities and tell them to spend the same pot of money over and over again. At some point the Government will have to face the reality that that money cannot be spent time and time again. To argue as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley has argued is nothing more than a con trick that cons no one.

Many of our constituents are afraid to go out. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) referred to problems in my constituency over the summer. The key division of Strathclyde police covers a population of about 200,000. So far this year there have been 12 murders in the area and that is a 1,100 per cent. increase over last year. That has worried the community greatly.

The detection rate for those murders is 100 per cent. and I want to take this opportunity to commend the efforts of the local police force. However, while, for understandable reasons, the police can never come out and say in public that they cannot cope, the reality is that they are so under-resourced that, in many situations, they cannot cope.

Many local authorities are, on the one hand, the police authority and, on the other, the local authority which has to decide on priorities—for example, whether to opt for street lighting which will help to reduce crime or to get more police back on the streets. The solution involves both those proposals, but the resources are not available to cope with the problem. The courts and gaols cannot cope with the increase in crime.

Although lighting is a very important problem, I hope that the Government will act as quickly as possible in relation to the extent of the presence of the drug Temazepam on the streets of Britain. I know that research into that problem is being carried out and I have had a meeting about that with the Minister in another place who is responsible for Scottish home affairs.

The problem with Temazepam is a national problem, not a local problem. Young people are dealing in what they call jellies which, when mixed with alcohol, can cause very violent side effects. As soon as the results of the research are available, I hope that the necessary action will be taken quickly. In the meantime I hope that the Government will encourage general practitioners throughout the country not to prescribe the drug if another is available.

Strathclyde regional council made strenuous efforts over the summer to get extra police, but those resources will not be sufficient to tackle the real problems.

Many innovative schemes for street lighting can be developed. A scheme referred to earlier involved the use of heat-sensitive lights. From my days as a local councillor, I know that elderly people often demanded heat-sensitive lights. If they had such lights at the back and front doors, the lights would act as a deterrent if someone tried to intrude. If the lights came on, they warned the person in the home that someone was approaching.

The matter of lighting is not only for roading authorities; it is for housing authorities which are, of course, cash starved. I make that point because there is no way round the problem. The Government have no argument; it is a matter of resources. Local authorities know the job that needs to be done. They know that there are problems with lighting and a need for increased lighting and policing, but those things cannot be delivered without increased resources. This year, local authorites face cuts in public expenditure. How will they meet the competing demands?

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport eloquently said that it would be sensible for the Government to look at the true economy of crime. Might not the cuts be false economies? If street lighting and policing are cut back, there is a cost further down the line which the public must pick up. It might have been better in the first place to invest money to prevent crime and people from becoming victims of it.

Many authorities are examining the development of closed circuit television, especially in town centres. The use of closed circuit television would be good in Strathclyde, but civil liberty questions are associated with it. In cases in which I know that closed circuit televisions have been used, they have been used sensitively, although no specific resources have been made available. Local authorities must put out the begging bowl to find the resources to implement the use of closed circuit television. Sometimes the private sector becomes more involved and sometimes it becomes less involved. However, such involvement is innovative and helps to solve the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport talked about the importance, not of people being safe in their homes and on the streets, but of feeling safe. That is an important factor because, even if the Minister were able to prove—which he cannot—that people are safer in their homes and on the streets than they were 10 years ago, we know that they are less safe. Even if the Minister could prove that they were more safe, that does not deal with the problem that they must feel safe. If elderly people do not feel safe in their homes, that is a problem.

I welcome this debate. The isssue of lighting and its relationship to crime is important. All sorts of other measures can be taken to reduce crime, although they deal with the symptoms. We must start to deal with the causes of crime. I would never say that anyone who is young and unemployed will inevitably follow a path of crime, because that is not true. Young, unemployed people with no prospects for the future have nothing to lose, and that is the reason why they stray into crime. Crime cannot be dissociated from the issues of lighting and poverty.

I welcome this debate because it deals with the issues. It will help, but essentially it deals with the symptoms of crime. At some stage we must deal with the causes of crime as well.

8.39 am
Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey) on obtaining a debate on such an important topic. Perhaps it is appropriate that we should have been waiting through the early hours for the opportunity of debating the issue because many of our fellow citizens will have become victims of crime during those very hours of darkness. I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) for their contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) and for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid) were also present taking an interest and showing the importance that they attach to the subject.

I pay tribute to the parliamentary lighting group, which has stimulated interest in the contribution that street lighting can make to both safety and crime prevention, and in particular to my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson), who convinced me of the importance of the topic and recruited me to the membership of that group.

Good street lighting has implications for safety. It has implications for traffic safety. Those of us who travel out of the city of London on the M4 see that automatically, as we move from light to dark, back to light and into darkness again as we pass down that road. Street lighting has importance for the quality of life and for jobs in the lighting industry, something that is not to be sneezed at in the current state of the economy.

However, tonight we are concentrating on the way in which street lighting can help the fight against crime. I have been able to see the effects of good street lighting through a project in Tremorfa in my constituency. That is the Cardiff project to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport referred. From what constituents have said to me, I know that the project has been a success. One need only look at the images of the street before and after the installation of new lighting to see the difference.

More objective evidence has been provided by research conducted by Professor David Herbert and Dr. Laurence Moore of University college of Swansea. Street lighting is just one part of the environment in a residential area. One of the conclusions of the project, which in many ways is astonishing, was that the improvement of street lighting had an impact on the general attitude of residents. There are specific cases of improvement. Feelings of safety, a belief that there were fewer youths around the area and visibility are clear and quantifiable improvements.

The report on the research says: But residents seemed willing to go beyond the obvious and to recognise a general upward movement in their quality of life. There may be two parts to this awareness of positive change. Firstly, improved street lighting is highly visible and obvious. Secondly, the installation of new lighting acts as an investment in the future of the estate. That confidence and that recognition of the needs of the community is as important as the lighting that is provided.

Reactions to the improved lighting were all of a positive nature, but we need to build on that success rather than see lighting as an end in itself. Design of estates and the type of services that are provided also help to create that confidence. I recognise the emphasis that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport placed on the feeling of confidence. People feel safer and clearly welcome the change.

However, the report says: improved lighting is only one part of a solution to improving the total environment and wellbeing of people in their neighbourhoods. The Government, and the Minister in his reply, must recognise that. The Government have undermined the feeling of well-being and the feeling that there is a total environment and that people are part of a community that is respected and supported by the Government.

The project in my constituency, like others throughout the country, improves the quality of life—in this case in the five streets involved. It inspired confidence in an area which has suffered increased pressure from crime and the fear of crime. It involved a comparatively small capital cost and minimal extra running costs. It made burglary, mugging and rape more difficult by increasing the chances of recognising the offender.

The research concluded that the change that improved lighting represents makes a positive difference. However, it also stressed the need for a wider local strategy if changes are to have a lasting effect on reducing crime and building confidence in the community.

I have referred to the positive influence on accidents, but that is beyond the scope of today's debate.

The Government do not seem to have understood that alarms, locks, recognising that there is a problem, and putting lights in streets will not deal with the whole job.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley, South was right to say that the Government need to recognise the value of the type of improvement that we are talking about, to tackle the root causes of crime and to recognise that their failures in recent years have undermined local efforts.

Street lighting will help, but it will only make a lasting impact if it is part of a local strategy for crime reduction, of the sort that the Government have signally failed to support. Robbery in England and Wales increased by 24 per cent. between June 1991 and June this year, and by 41 per cent. in the South Wales police area—the rates are also high in other areas—while police numbers have once again been frozen. So, goodness knows, the fight against crime needs some help.

Chief Inspector Gordon Shumack of the South Wales police, talking about the Tremorfa project said: The fear of crime is often greater than the fear of victimisation. It is important that both the police and the community make every effort to reduce this fear. He reflected the theme that my hon. Friend developed and went on:

The Police alone cannot hope to solve all the problems inherent in the community particularly escalating crime reported to them. Any measures which can assist the reduction of crime and its fear and therefore dispel the anxieties of those who are seen as particularly vulnerable such as the elderly, the infirm, or women walking alone can only be applauded. It is significant that the project was sponsored jointly by South Glamorgan county council and Urbis Lighting Limited and that it received positive backing from the South Wales police and the parliamentary group.

As in projects elsewhere in the country, councillors, Members of Parliament, the industry and the police recognise the importance of the work, but where are the Government? Where is the Conservative party? Even with the improved lighting, they are nowhere to be seen.

Members give positive support to the all-party group, but it needs Government support and ministerial leadership to encourage effective initiatives. Look at the background of cuts, to which my hon. Friends referred, which makes the situation much worse. The tightening of the screws on local government makes it difficult to expand the scheme in my constituency or other worthwhile projects around the United Kingdom, which have had equal success.

At a time when the Government should be providing resources to allow the success of such projects to be replicated in many more streets throughout the country, Ministers are making it impossible to maintain what has been achieved so far. Reference has been made to the lighting of footpaths in dark corners. Yes, we should like them to be lit up, but is not the Minister aware that cuts in the finances available to local government threaten both the revenue and capital cash necessary to extend safety and confidence to our citizens?

Councils throughout the country have to consider unacceptable ways in which to save money to cope with the restrictions heaped on them by a Government who have failed to run the economy effectively, and, having run out of ideas, have reverted to Thatcherite dogma by cutting local government expenditure yet again.

To get within the financial cap threatened by the Government, councils are having to consider such steps as turning off the lights an hour earlier, or turning out every alternate light in many streets. We have been brought to that, rather than to the development of lighting projects that we need. Local authorities are having to consider those serious options, as they have been given little room for manoeuvre by a Government who do not understand the way in which the price for their short-sighted policies will be paid by ordinary citizens throughout the land.

The debate touches on only one aspect of the crisis. The closure of youth clubs, consequent on this year's revenue support settlement, has serious implications for crime, as well as for the health of the community generally. Unemployment, the cuts in training referred to by my colleagues, and the impact of so many other Government policies also play their part in defeating the police, councils and local communities in their fight against crime.

One has to consider all those problems against the background of inadequate finances for community care and the many other ways in which the Government are neglecting the physical and social infrastructure of local communities.

The debate will have been worth while if the Minister gives us something positive to take away from it and I challenge him to do so.

First, successful projects, such as the one that I described, should be one shot in our armoury in the fight against crime. What extra resources will the Government provide, now that both the need and the effectiveness of that approach have been recognised?

Secondly, will the Minister acknowledge that one cannot govern by projects alone? Once a pilot project has demonstrated the value of an approach, the Government must develop that idea into a national strategy, giving the resources to local authorities which know their area best and are therefore best able to target resources into areas of greatest need. Will the Minister accept the research's conclusion that improved street lighting must be part of a general approach to crime where it occurs in the community?

Thirdly, will the Government enable a strategic approach to be adopted by the police and local councillors to crime reduction in their area? I challenge the Minister to set targets for reducing crime rather than echoing the Home Secretary's pathetic attempt to say that he is satisfied if the rise in crime is ever so slightly less than the astronomical increases of previous years.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport has highlighted an important element in the necessary strategy to create safer and healthier communities throughout the land. I appeal to the Minister to give firm and clear commitments on what the Government will do to help, with dates and cash figures, and to set those commitments in the context of a significant national strategy to fight crime—something for which our communities yearn.

8.50 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Jack)

Those were firm words from the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and I hope that I shall be able to deal with his comments as well as with the excellent contribution by the hon. Member for Stockport (Ms. Coffey), whom I congratulate on obtaining this debate. Since 1987, no hon. Member has raised this subject for debate, so she is unique in recent parliamentary history.

The hon. Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Paisley, South (Mr. McMaster) also contributed to the debate, painting their own perspectives of this important subject. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) sitting on the Bench alongside me because he, too, has taken an interest in this subject and corresponded with me many times—[HON. MEMBERS: "But he is a Whip."] The fact that he holds that position does not prohibit him from raising the subject vociferously on behalf of his constituents.

The principal point underlying many of the contributions to the debate was the relationship between lighting and the fear of crime. I am slightly disappointed—I am being generous to hon. Members in putting it that way—that no hon. Member has read or referred to the excellent crime prevention unit paper No. 29 written by the Home Office, entitled, "The Effect of Better Street Lighting on Crime and Fear: a Review". Had the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth spent less time huffing and puffing at me across the Dispatch Box and more time reading that report, he would have found that all the points that he raised regarding a strategic approach to crime prevention, with lighting as a key element, were not only well documented and researched but acknowledged. May I say in reply to some of the hon. Gentleman's specific points that that study has taken a part in continuing Government policy on crime prevention.

At the heart of the question of lighting and crime lies the standard to which local authorities adhere. I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have noticed that there is a British standard to which all local authorities are supposed to comply. Referring to the code of practice, the Home Office paper states: The first point made is that, in areas with a 'high crime risk', it is important to ensure that 'any potentially dark areas, which may provide cover for a criminal, are lighted.' Referring to a second aim, the paper states: To provide a sense of security it should be possible to recognise, in time to make an appropriate response, whether another person is likely to be friendly, indifferent or aggressive. Thus the code of practice sets standards for lighting.

It is interesting to see whether local authorities have spent their money on fulfilling those objectives. We find that for those figures that are known—for example, when total local authority expenditure on lighting in the financial year 1989–90 is compared with expenditure in 1990–91—expenditure has risen from £198.1 million to £256.7 million, an increase of 29.6 per cent.

No one can say that resources have not been available. However, when I examined the figures for Stockport, I found that it had spent only 14.3 per cent. of its highway maintenance budget on lighting. That compares with 15.9 per cent. in Manchester, 18.1 per cent. in Bolton and 17.8 per cent. in Salford. There is a little room for improvement in Stockport. Contrary to the views expressed by Opposition Members, resources are available.

I want to pick up on issues raised about the Government's attitude to the subject. The matter cannot be better illustrated than by our commitment to street lighting as part of our integrated approach to crime prevention in the context of our safer cities project. The excellent Home Office publication on the subject—which I hope will be part of hon. Members' Christmas reading—details the projects in which we have been involved.

Since 1988, £1.75 million has been spent on more than 350 individual lighting schemes in the context of safer cities. In the north-west, there is the Fielding Court scheme in Birkenhead, which sought to improve lighting around many access points on an isolated council estate. The hon. Member for Stockport stressed the problem of isolation, the fear of darkness and what can happen on an estate. That scheme cost £20,000. At the time, the area housing office was receiving two or three complaints a week—predominantly about youths causing annoyance and damage. The number of complaints has significantly fallen since the lights have been installed. There are similar schemes in Bristol, Nottingham and Rochdale.

When we consider the scope of the sort of institutions that have benefited from the safer cities expenditure, we find everything from churches and mosques to women's centres, leisure centres, scout huts and garages—a broad cross-section. Time prevents me from going into more detail, but my brief comments show that we are committed to such schemes.

The Home Office document states: Lighting has generally been introduced either as part of a package of measures, as in the Sunderland multi-storey car parks, or to allay the fears of vulnerable residents on housing estates (Bradford, Wirral, Sunderland, etc). It is undeniably a popular measure with those isolated and fearful of crime, enabling them to see who is at the door at night". That tangibly demonstrates the fact that we accept the contribution of lighting schemes to those projects that are designed to reduce crime and we have put our money where our mouth is. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth will know—

Mr. Bennett

Not much money.

Mr. Jack

I am coming to that.

We are committed to expanding the number of safer cities schemes, which will be given the opportunity to take their place in the fight against crime.

The hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the use of city centres and the fear of going out at night. She was absolutely right to concentrate on that aspect. Clearly, as better lighting makes people feel safer—which Home Office research shows to be the case—more people use urban areas, their economic well-being improves and businesses are able to take individual crime prevention measures. Lighting acts as a catalyst to improve the security of such districts.

The Home Office research paper covers that important point, which relates to Hull. It also highlights the importance of lighting in making things light: closed circuit television and anti-crime schemes work because, put simply, better illumination enables one to see what is going on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) mentioned the secure car parks initiative which, in Bradford, with better lighting and closed circuit television, has already reduced car crime by 53 per cent. The safer cities programme helped to finance that initiative in partnership with the local authority. It is no good the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth pointing his finger at me and saying that the problem is down to the Government. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish chastised us for not having confidence. Local authorities have shown that they can accept responsibility because they, too, have worked in partnership with safer cities projects in Bradford and many other places in an enlightened campaign of crime prevention, combining street lighting with other policies.

Behind every one of the crime statistics that we have discussed is a victim. If lighting helps to reduce the fear of crime on the part of potential victims and to prevent crime itself, we must recognise that. The hon. Lady must recognise, too, that the partnership approach to crime prevention which Greater Manchester police have brought to her area through schemes such as estate action, which has played a part in many areas of her constituency—

It being Nine o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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