HC Deb 04 June 1997 vol 295 cc359-74 12.59 pm
Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on your appointment. I have already done so privately, but I take the opportunity to do so formally, on the record, and I wish you all the best in the years ahead.

I am pleased to get the chance to have this debate today, because it is no exaggeration to say that the subject is the most important one that I have dealt with in my five years in the House. It is the cause of considerable concern to my constituents and to various people in the medical profession.

I have a little difficulty, because I must praise both the British Medical Association, in the form of Dr. Patnaik, who has sent me quite a lot of information, and Clare Dodgson, the chief executive of Sunderland health authority, who has done likewise. The trouble is that their figures do not quite coincide.

The one thing that is certain is that the average number of patients registered with a general practitioner in the country as a whole is about 1,800. In Sunderland, the worst figure suggested by the BMA is an average of 2,400 patients. That is a long way above the national average—one third or 33; per cent. extra. Even the lower figure suggested by Sunderland health authority, 2,200, is about 22 or 23 per cent. above the national average.

The position is exacerbated by the fact that, according to the last survey that I read about the general health of the nation, Sunderland was in the bottom five health authorities for the state of the public's health. A GP in Sunderland has many more patients than he or she should have, and those patients are generally in a poorer condition. That term may sound impersonal, which I do not mean it to be, but that is the reality.

The problem is not new. It has been known about since the early 1990s. Indeed, in 1994, when the health authority published its services review, the whole thrust was to take work away from the secondary sector and put it back into the primary sector. In other words, everyone seemed to think that it was a good idea to try to reduce the work load at hospitals and pass it back to GPs.

At that time, many people warned the health authority that doctors could only just manage with the work load that they had then, let alone an increased load. At that time, the local medical committee, general practitioners, consultants, Sunderland community health council, local Members of Parliament—including my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who has been vociferous on the issue—patients and many individuals expressed concerns and proposed alternative views but, unfortunately, as probably happened in many other areas, the health authority chose to ignore them.

We warned at the time that crisis point would be reached in the service if something dramatic was not done to address the problem. Unfortunately, the resources that were supposed to be made available to augment and strengthen the primary sector relied on diverting money saved by a reduction in costs in the secondary sector. Three years on, we find that no resources have been moved from one sector to the other. Indeed, Sunderland health authority has stated publicly that the rundown in hospital facilities will, if necessary, be reduced until such time as the primary sector can deal with its problems.

In their manifesto, the Government stated that there would be a Minister responsible for equalising the service that people can expect from the health service regardless of what part of the country they live in. It is not my intention to deliver a long tirade about what might or might not have been done. I am sure that everyone in the health sector recognises the problem, and endeavours have been made to improve the situation, but I am concerned when I hear about trying to take work away from GPs and give it to nurse practitioners, because I have not met a single member of the public who is in favour of that. If we want nurse practitioners to do doctors' work, they should be properly trained and paid as GPs.

I must give credit to the GPs in Sunderland. The burden that they have and the disadvantages that they are working under are such that they must be really good people, or the service would have collapsed long ago. I know of no place in Britain where the GP:patient ratio is worse than in Sunderland.

The health authority thinks that it has done all that it can. We might disagree at times about the best way forward—for example, I should like the career start scheme, allowing a young doctor to work in the area without the financial obligations of having to buy into a practice, which has been successful in Durham, to be tried in Sunderland.

In addition to the current shortfall, there is not a single GP under 30 years of age working in Sunderland. The average age is almost 48, and the preponderance of people working in the service are in the 50 to 55, or 55 to 60 range. We even have four doctors who are between 65 and 70. With no disrespect to them, it should not be necessary for doctors to work after they are 65; there should be enough young doctors coming in to allow them to retire while they are still in reasonable health themselves.

I want the Minister to contact the people on Sunderland health authority, try to come up with some new ideas, and perhaps appoint someone independent to consider the problem. No matter how hard the health authority is trying—and I give it its due—it is not having any effect and the situation is not improving. The citizens have a right to say that it is a Government responsibility to take the necessary action, to ensure that all areas have an equal health service.

For me, the problem is the No. 1 priority in the health care sector in my constituency and in the Sunderland area as a whole. I get a little depressed when I find that the health authority intends to spend scarce resources on litigation to try to force Northumbrian Water to put fluoride in the water, when the vast majority of the public do not want that.

It is even more depressing that the local hospital, which for many years—most of the century, as far as I am aware—was called Sunderland district general hospital, decided a few weeks ago to change its name to Sunderland Royal hospital, which will no doubt lead to extraordinary costs and will not result in one more patient receiving treatment or any improvement whatever for health service patients.

I know that the Minister knows the Sunderland area well, and worked there at one time, and I wish him well in his new post. I hope that he will be able to see his way clear to trying to bring some relief to my fellow citizens in Sunderland, because the situation is extremely worrying; from being manageable, it could suddenly become completely unmanageable.

When a couple of doctors retired in the middle of 1985, more than 1,000 of my constituents were struck off from the practice and had to find somewhere else. People have to travel all over the town. People are now only rarely able to go to surgeries within walking distance of where they live. So bad is the situation that the health authority employs someone full time to find places for citizens on doctors' panels. That cannot be a satisfactory situation. We need something doing, and urgently. Whatever measures are required to bring it about must be taken. It does not matter who takes them.

I hope that the Minister will be more effective than his predecessors over the past four or five years. My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South and I twice met Ministers in the previous Government. We have had numerous meetings with the local health authority; we have met the regional health authority. I do not doubt that there is plenty of good will, but we are not getting any movement. This is going to be a good test of our new Government in view of our commitment to improving the health service and reducing bureaucracy to get more patients treated.

1.10 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Alan Milburn)

I am glad to have the opportunity to reply to this debate, which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) on securing and which is important to his constituents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) also takes an active interest in the recruitment and retention of general practitioners in the city.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North rightly said, he and I have a great affinity for Sunderland, which is a great city. I spent two years working to keep the Sunderland shipyards open. I therefore have a great deal of sympathy with the points that he raised, and I thank him for raising them in such a considered way. I listened carefully to what he said about his and his constituents' concerns about the situation in Sunderland. Those concerns are shared by the Government. I especially realise that Sunderland has faced considerable challenges in relation to the high work load on existing GPs and the problems of recruiting new doctors.

People in Sunderland deserve the best possible primary care services. Sunderland needs such services because of the situation that my hon. Friend described. There are high levels of mortality and morbidity, and real problems of social deprivation and poverty that have wholesale health implications. In that respect, I understand that Sunderland is engaged in a programme of urban regeneration and that the health authority is actively involved in a range of partnership initiatives with the city council and other organisations in an effort to promote healthier life styles, create job opportunities, improve housing and so on. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that those engaged in such activities are to be congratulated on their efforts; we wish them well. I hope that he also agrees that the new Government's approach on job creation, housing and public health will be of direct benefit to those local efforts.

In addition to that general activity, Sunderland health authority, which is responsible for providing services in the area, is actively trying to redress the situation. It has taken several positive steps to promote recruitment and retention of GPs. I know that my hon. Friend recognises the commitment of the health authority chairman, the chief executive, to whom he paid tribute, and their colleagues on the ground to doing what they can. I was also pleased that Sunderland has at least made some efforts to listen to the views of the local community using the King's Fund citizens jury initiative, which highlighted several issues including making greater use of multidisciplinary teams working in primary care.

I have read carefully the information that has been supplied to me about the progress that has been made in Sunderland, in trying to address some of the problems that my hon. Friend described. I was particularly struck by one initiative, the new out-of-hours emergency centre in the city, which is staffed by the deputising service and tries to relieve the out-of-hours work load on GPs. As my hon. Friend knows, that service became fully operational on 1 March last year. I understand that a recently completed evaluation by Sunderland's local medical committee showed it to be a great success. Patient satisfaction with the service was high, and a further survey of GPs in Sunderland has shown that a significant number of doctors would be willing to work sessions in a modern primary care centre. In the light of that progress, two further such centres are being opened in the city. I hope that those developments will make Sunderland more attractive to young doctors.

My hon. Friend knows that there have been other initiatives, and highlighted one that he would like to be imported from a neighbouring area. I shall ask Sunderland health authority to explore that possibility. I want to build on those local efforts by pursuing policies nationally that I believe will help tackle Sunderland's GP recruitment problems. As my hon. Friend knows, Sunderland is an extreme case, but there are pockets of similar problems in other parts of the country. We intend to do what we can to take action to resolve them. I shall briefly describe some of the measures that are in hand.

In the short time that we have been in government, I have, precisely because of the concerns that have been expressed by my hon. Friend and others, begun to consider in detail recruitment and retention issues in general practice. Family doctor services are the bedrock of the national health service. The Government believe that there is a need for overall work force policies that will attract high-calibre students into general practice. In the light of that view, I was concerned, as I said last week, by recently published figures that show that the number of GP trainees fell by more than one fifth over the decade between 1986 and 1996.

While the falling number of GP trainees is a cause for concern, the issue cannot be seen in isolation. My hon. Friend made some important points about the relationship between the primary and secondary care sectors. We must ensure that we do not consider such issues in isolation, but take a holistic view of the national health service and the range of services that it provides. I intend to look carefully at how primary care is provided, how to get the balance right between secondary and primary care and how to encourage the work force to reflect that balance. We are aiming to integrate medical work force planning more closely across the primary and secondary sectors, so that in future the number of GPs and the number of hospital doctors will be considered together rather than in isolation. We shall talk to the medical profession about all those issues.

We want to consider flexible working patterns to provide opportunities for change that address the needs of the work force while providing high-quality services for patients. We shall seek the views of the profession on what employment opportunities would better suit their needs and how any such needs could be addressed.

We shall also consider opportunities under the National Health Service Primary Care Act 1997 for health authorities to improve the level and types of services that family doctors may provide. We shall also look at other options within the existing national contract, such as whether a salaried doctors scheme within the existing framework might provide some answers, particularly in areas with recruitment difficulties, such as Sunderland. I know that many health authorities have already explored that option, but have found several legal obstacles to its implementation. I shall consider ways in which we might move forward as soon as possible.

We also realise the importance of retaining GPs and attracting back into practice qualified practitioners, especially the increasing proportion of female GPs. My view is extremely straightforward. The health service needs to develop much more family-friendly policies, if we are to recruit people into medical practice and retain them. The world has moved on and the medical profession is no longer a male bastion. With an increasing number of women GPs and doctors comes a need to consider flexibility so that their careers are no longer artificially moulded by outdated practices. I shall look carefully at that.

I shall also examine how general practice retains its work force. We need policies that provide sufficient opportunities for doctors who wish to take career breaks but to retain skills so that they can re-enter general practice at a later date. In considering the needs of the work force, we shall also consider the effect on services. We need to ensure that we continue to build a strong family doctor service in which quality is the watchword.

I believe that access to primary care services is a patient's fundamental right in the NHS. At the risk of repeating a point that was made by my hon. Friend, it may be worth giving just one statistic that will help to put the position in Sunderland into the national context. Average GP list sizes have been falling throughout the country, in some cases dramatically—by about 9 per cent. They stand now at an average of about 1,800 per doctor. The average list size in Sunderland is at least 2,200. I know that there are arguments about whether the health authority and the British Medical Association have got the figure right, but as my hon. Friend says, there is real anxiety that list sizes in Sunderland are much greater than in other parts of the country. Sunderland is working hard to improve that ratio while not compromising quality.

I know that there have been discussions with the Medical Practices Committee of the BMA, which controls the distribution of GPs throughout England and Wales, to ensure that entry into general practice in Sunderland is planned to give the best services possible in the areas of greatest need. If my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North would like to submit evidence to me about the extent of the problem, if he thinks that the health authority has not quite got the measure of the problem, or if my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South would like to do so, I shall take a personal interest in what they have to say.

I shall ask Sunderland health authority to identify the steps that it considers necessary to tackle the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North described. I shall take a personal interest in its response. I do not think that the problem persists for lack of trying to deal with it on the part of Sunderland health authority. It has embarked on a wide and impressive range of initiatives. My hon. Friend says that it has not cracked the problem. That may be true, but it has operated in a national environment that has not been conducive to attracting doctors into general practice or retaining them.

It has become crystal clear to me in the past few weeks that there is real concern among GPs about their work load and the continual public pressures that they face. We shall have to deal with that. I know that there is particular stress and pressure in Sunderland, but it is fair to say that GP morale in the country as a whole is not what it was or should be.

Mr. Etherington

The fact that the number of patients per GP has dropped nationally at a time when the opposite has happened in Sunderland emphasises my point. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his offer to listen to representations from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin). We shall certainly take advantage of that and arrange an early meeting with him to put our views to him privately.

Mr. Milburn

I am always happy to oblige. It might be useful for us to do that. I shall ask Sunderland health authority to report on and assess as quickly as possible the initiatives that it has taken. As public money is involved, it is important that when new initiatives are set in train, a full evaluation is made of the action that has been taken and whether it has been successful. I shall also ask the health authority to describe in more detail the steps that it considers should be taken in future. We want to help as much as possible.

I give my hon. Friend an assurance that I shall take a personal interest in the issue. I also give him a more general assurance that the Government are determined to ensure that patients in all parts of Britain receive the GP services that they deserve.

1.26 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I add my congratulations to those of others on your appointment, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before I go further, I need to declare an interest that I shall record in the Register of Members' Interests. I still serve as a local authority councillor in the London borough of Sutton. I shall make some references to Sutton and some initiatives that the council is taking.

It is appropriate that we are talking today about youth crime, given the early disclosure last week of the 1996 international crime victimisation survey. Whatever the official figures reveal about increases or decreases in crime, there can be no doubt that 18 years of Conservative government have produced a high-crime society. No Home Secretary or Government can be proud of that fact. The House cannot be satisfied or, indeed, safe, until we have taken steps to reduce crime and the fear of crime.

Crime and the fear of crime affect the vulnerable in our society—the elderly, ethnic minorities, disabled people and women. Fear imprisons victims as surely as prison bars imprison offenders. It is important to bear it in mind that the most likely victims of crime are young people between the ages of 19 and 25.

I wish to draw attention to a soundbite that was used before the general election by the then Opposition, now the Government. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime," was the cry of the present Home Secretary when he was in opposition. I shall seek some reassurances today that one part of that equation has not been lost. Some statements since the election have made me fear that it might have been; that the transition between opposition and government has led the Home Secretary to drop the reference to being tough on the causes of crime. I strongly believe that simply to deal with the effects of crime—with its aftermath—is not an adequate response.

I have no doubt that the Home Secretary is sincere when he talks about being tough on crime, but I urge Ministers to do all that they can to move away from the rhetoric and soundbites of the previous Home Secretary. The rhetoric failed to deal with the causes of crime and was unlikely to do anything to change criminal behaviour.

On the face of it, there is little to oppose in the Government's emphasis on the idea of zero tolerance. However, that strategy fails to address the reality and clutches at what appears to be just one solution to a complex set of problems. I stress that crime is not susceptible to soundbite solutions. We need to attack crime and the causes of crime from as many different directions as possible.

When in opposition, the current Home Secretary paid a number of visits to the United States, in particular New York, to look at the initiatives taken there. Those visits certainly helped to reinforce the image of an iron Home Secretary in waiting. From the further evidence taken from other American cities that have tried the zero tolerance initiative, it is clear that they have not delivered as great a reduction in crime as that recorded in New York. Moreover, other American cities have achieved even bigger reductions in crime without deploying the zero tolerance tactics.

I understand from professionals in this field that one plausible explanation for the reduction in crime in New York is the reduced use of crack cocaine. That drug dependency causes many people to commit crime to feed their habit and causes violent and dangerous behaviour. Many professionals, including many of our senior police officers, do not believe that zero tolerance alone is the solution to our crime problems.

I believe that what is necessary for success is to focus not just on the consequences, but on the causes of crime. We need a sophisticated, well-researched and successfully implemented strategy to tackle crime. It should be backed up by practical action carried out in partnership. Partnership is a much used word, indeed, it is becoming one of the buzzwords of the 1990s, but for some of us it has been the foundation of practical action for many years. To that end, I should like to recommend a report published by James Morgan, entitled "Safer Communities". It was commissioned by the previous Government and published in 1991.

There is no better case for the need for partnership in tackling youth crime than that presented in the report. Sadly, it has been left on the shelf to collect dust because of a lack of political will to see it implemented. That report includes the following two recommendations: As the provider of a range of services which directly impact on the causes of crime (such as education, housing and recreation) the local authority is a natural focus for co-ordinating, in collaboration with the police, the broad range of activities directed at improving community safety … in the longer term local authorities, working in conjunction with the police, should have a clear statutory responsibility for the development and stimulation of community safety and crime prevention programmes, and for progressing at a local level a multi-agency approach to community safety". I hope that when the Minister responds he will say that the Government intend to enact those recommendations in their crime and disorder Bill so that local authorities are given the statutory force to develop community safety strategies.

My local authority, the London borough of Sutton, has already taken the Morgan report recommendations to heart. In 1993, it appointed a community safety officer and it established a formal partnership with our local police and probation service. In 1994, that group produced a community safety action plan with the clear objectives of reducing the level of crime, lessening the fear of crime and creating a safer environment for community life to flourish.

That first community safety action plan contained 29 specific projects, which were all completed within the designated two-year period. It is important to note that it is not just statutory agencies that are involved in the plan. Our partnership stretches well beyond that to include the voluntary and business sectors, to ensure a genuine strategic approach in Sutton.

The 1994 and 1996 community safety action plans related to youth crime. Those innovative and imaginative schemes, which have been implemented in partnership, have been successful and produced a real reduction in crime. Although one can cast some doubt on the recorded statistics on crime, I believe that the largest reductions in reported crime in Sutton are as a direct result of the council's initiatives.

If the Government are serious about reducing crime committed by young people, we need to understand what drives them to become offenders in the first place. If young people are the problem, they must also be part of the solution. That means that young people should be included and consulted when identifying the issues, deciding the strategy and taking action.

Sutton's concern about crime stems from a particular group of young people who committed a large number of burglaries, mostly from retail premises, in my constituency. Back in 1992, they had the effrontery to leave calling cards that read, "999". Unfortunately, their fame was increased out of all proportion due to my predecessor's predilection for generating newspaper headlines. The more that that group of young people breathed the oxygen of publicity, the more crime that they, and other young people who imitated them, started to commit.

In June 1994, my council commissioned some research to find out young people's attitude to crime in order to establish why they committed such acts. That study was undertaken by young people who had been trained in counselling and research. They spent time out on the streets speaking to individuals and gangs of young people. That research showed that although the crimes were committed by a small number of young people, a large proportion of them used a range of drugs which contributed to their criminal behaviour. As a result of that research, the council funded and promoted the Sutton youth awareness programme—YAP. That organisation provides services such as one-to-one counselling and treatment and advice to young people using drugs as well as other substances such as solvents and alcohol. It also set up a programme of preventive workshops in schools and offers training and consultancy for staff who work with young people.

An outreach programme was also established in 1996. It is training a large number of young people to work in outreach teams on the streets with the aim of reducing the level of substance abuse and engaging young people in purposeful activities in their local community.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)

I declare an interest as a recorder of the Crown court and a former acting metropolitan stipendiary magistrate. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on initiating this important debate and I agree whole-heartedly with him about the need to tackle the causes of crime. From my experience, I believe that a great proportion of youth crime is connected with drugs and alcohol. Does he agree that the more work that can be concentrated on that problem, the greater the prospect of improvements?

Mr. Burstow

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's good point. I am keen to stress that we need to do more to deal with the problems of solvent abuse and other forms of drug abuse.

I should like to describe how the initiatives taken in my area have borne fruit. A local shopping centre, Stonecot Hill, suffered from a number of minor crimes, which caused a considerable amount of damage to the premises of local retailers. In the spring of 1996, the council called a meeting of those businesses, which was also attended by the local police and representatives of the probation service as well as youth workers and representatives of the Sutton youth awareness programme.

As a result of that meeting, a strategy was agreed to increase the number of police officers patrolling the area. Outreach staff have also started to talk to young people hanging around the streets. A graffiti project has been successfully implemented to engage those young people in productive work. The probation service, through its community services programme, has cleared up the area and painted and made repairs where necessary. Local traders suggested where murals might be painted and the first was completed in March 1997. The outreach teams have spent time with the young people for the past six months. Drug information and advice services have also been offered to young people, and those with more acute drug dependency problems have been referred for more extensive counselling and support.

The council is also supplementing that initiative with the introduction of a closed circuit television camera at the local shopping centre, which is connected to the local control centre. It is important to note that that strategy has focused on the causes of crime, and in recent months the crime level has fallen to zero. In addition, it has helped to upgrade the area. It has brought together the traders and statutory agencies, who have agreed a programme of action. It has also diverted a significant number of young people from drifting into a life of crime and has prevented the inevitable spiral that leads to more serious offences.

So far, I have described initiatives for young people on the verge of crime, but it is vital to try to work with those young people who have already fallen over the edge. One scheme in which my local authority of Sutton has become involved in recent years is the youth at risk programme. It was the second local authority to engage the youth at risk team. The team works with some of the most difficult children in our society and it has now run three programmes targeting persistent young offenders in Sutton. They are intensive programmes: residential courses are followed by a nine-month programme of training and one-to-one support. The programme was described in The Observer as the kick start of a radical, 9 month programme to turn their (the lives of some seriously dysfunctional children and young people) around…Like Michael Howard's Boot Camps this is a relatively new idea from the United States. But boot camps are about tough punishment. Youth at Risk is about tough love. Young people involved in the initiative are able to reveal their backgrounds and experiences—many for the first time. The initiative often reveals very damaged children who have been abused, sexually and physically. Many of them have been through the care system and many have never experienced normal family life and the love of parent or parents. I do not say that to seek the House's pity for the children and I do not wish to pretend that the youth at risk programme turns them into angels—it does not. But it makes a difference to their lives and, as a consequence, to the communities in which they live.

In National Volunteers Week, I want to pay particular tribute to the dedicated partners who play a part in the youth at risk programme. The volunteers allow the programme to succeed. We should pay tribute to them for riding the incredible roller-coaster of emotions involved in the programme.

The youth at risk scheme has delivered positive results. It has shown that a large number of children with such problems in Sutton and other parts of the country can be diverted from offending—it has substantially reduced the level of offending. Many young people move back to employment or return to school as a result of the programme.

I do not believe that it is enough simply to address the problem of young offenders; we must also work with the victims of crime. In Sutton, the council has recently completed a survey of young people as victims of crime. It produced interesting findings which I have had the opportunity to study in the past few days. More than 1,000 young people responded to the survey; more than two thirds of them said that they had been the victim of crime. More than 20 per cent. of women had been subjected to sexual harassment. Some 33 per cent. of black respondents and 61 per cent. of Asian respondents said that they had been the victims of racial harassment.

I wish the Home Secretary and his ministerial team the best of luck in tackling the legacy of the Home Office team in the previous Government. I hope that the Home Secretary and his team will not pander to the right-wing dogma that believes that prison works. A rising prison population is not a sign of success, but an admission of failure. Of course we need prison for serious and violent offenders, but the fact that 90 per cent. of young teenagers who are sent to prison are reconvicted within two years shows that that system is clearly not working.

For every £50 that the Government spend today on catching, prosecuting and imprisoning a criminal, they spend just £1 on trying to prevent the crime in the first place. That is a bizarre sense of priorities. While the Home Secretary and his team are putting the finishing touches to their zero tolerance plans, I ask them to consider the many examples, some of which I have given today, of crime prevention and multi-agency projects where councils and voluntary organisations have worked with young people and delivered results. If the Home Secretary, Home Office Ministers or Home Office staff want to see for themselves the success in Sutton, I invite them to the borough to talk not just to those who run the projects, but to the young people themselves.

In this debate I have tried to highlight the success of programmes that the Liberal Democrats have introduced in my local authority area. I have done so not to praise my colleagues in particular, but to persuade the Home Secretary and his Ministers that being tough on crime also requires action on the causes of crime and action to engage young people in positive activity rather than to lock them away. Prisons, while necessary, only seem to prepare young people better for a life of crime. This country needs to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime.

1.44 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Alun Michael)

I was delighted by the compliment paid to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), when he used the words that my right hon. Friend made famous when he was shadow Home Secretary. The words are considerably more than a soundbite: they stand the test of time, which is why they are being used now, several years later, just as the hon. Gentleman has done. They can be unpacked and tested for their meaning, which is basically what the hon. Gentleman has done in today's debate.

I welcome the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam to the House. I am having to say that more than once as many of us in the House became used to responding to his predecessor's contributions—contributions which were different in tone and nature from the speech that we have heard today. I welcome the constructive and positive way in which the hon. Gentleman has approached the topic. His manner invites positive engagement, which I am happy to undertake.

In making his initial remarks, the hon. Gentleman said that he was drawing on his continuing experience as a local authority member in Sutton. It is right that he should do so—all of us bring our experiences to the House. For two years after I entered the House, I continued as a city councillor in Cardiff. I drew on that experience as well as the experience that I gained when I chaired the juvenile bench in Cardiff and when I worked with young people for many years before entering Parliament. All my experiences have informed my debates. As I worked in and represented local areas, I also saw crime at its worst and saw how it affects and damages the lives of individuals, families and communities. We must consider the problem of crime as a whole in order properly to understand and tackle it. The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of tackling youth crime—as well as the importance of tackling crime generally and the fear of crime.

I have also spent the past few years as the Labour representative on the board of Crime Concern, where I worked alongside the former Member of Parliament, Sir Ivan Lawrence. Between us we made some interesting contributions to those meetings.

I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman emphasise the balance to be struck between being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. I can assure him that I have no doubt about either side of that equation. I am glad that he accepts—everyone should—that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be tough on crime. My right hon. Friend is equally keen to be tough on the causes of crime. The hon. Gentleman will see that balance in everything that we do.

The hon. Gentleman referred to zero tolerance. I think that that idea is sometimes misunderstood or subjected to an alternative interpretation. One interpretation of zero tolerance amounts to intolerance. Another interpretation means not allowing things to drift—one takes note of the first pane of glass that is broken instead of waiting for many panes to be broken, or one takes note of and does something about the first piece of graffiti instead of waiting until the town is covered with it. It is that sort of interpretation that is important.

It was interesting when the chief constable of Thames Valley, Mr. Charles Pollard, expressed his reservations recently about zero tolerance which, he said, could end up with conflict on the streets, particularly in those communities that are most suspicious about police motives and actions. He went out of his way to stress that he agreed with the sort of zero tolerance argued for by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) shortly before the election. Many other senior police officers have supported that sort of approach.

The evidence from the United States must be treated with caution. Many lessons can be learnt—indeed, last year I spent time looking at policing in Chicago, Washington and Baltimore. The example that impressed me most was Baltimore, where the city authorities, led by a vigorous, young, black mayor, thoroughly supported the chief of police's view that they should reclaim communities so that there would be no no-go areas, the recreation areas would not be taken over by drug pushers and a sense among young people of seeing the police in a positive role would be encouraged and developed.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the Minister agree that the real problem with the policy of zero tolerance is that many people involved with tackling youth crime tend to feel that it leads to zero understanding of why young people become involved in crime in the first place? That, in turn, leads to zero respect and creates a vicious circle.

Mr. Michael

Yes, I do see that. Some people do not want to understand what is happening. They should listen to the detail of what is being said, which brings us back to the phrase, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." One of the causes of crime is a general feeling that nobody cares very much—it does not matter what happens and slight misbehaviour does not matter—which runs on into worse behaviour and more serious offences. A proper understanding should lead people, whether they want a policy of punishment, one of prevention, or a proper balance between the two, to the message contained in the phrase, "zero tolerance", which is that we should not put up with increasing levels of crime and bad behaviour and a feeling of being unsafe in one's home or on the street. That is the message that needs to be got across and understood.

Mr. Burstow

The Minister may have partially addressed the point I planned to raise, but I shall build on it nevertheless. In a sense, zero tolerance has already been defined in a way that does not coincide with what the Government say it means; it is open to misinterpretation or misunderstanding. In the past, it has been misunderstood and applied in a way that might even have led to riots in this country. Will the Minister consider other ways of describing the strategy and tactics involved, so that the Government do not risk being misunderstood when they talk about zero tolerance?

Mr. Michael

In the mother of Parliaments, it is right that we should look at the way in which we explain our policies and try to find better ways of expressing ourselves, but there is a definition of zero tolerance—the one that I have described—that is clearly understood and that has elicited a positive response from both the police and the public. That is the concept on which we need to work. We must get across the idea that one can do something about crime and disorder, that communities can be reclaimed and that the partnerships between the police and local authorities to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be built.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of the Morgan report, which was published by the previous Government and not so much left gathering dust on a shelf as buried deep under a large pile of earth. The previous Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), was unable to mention local government without becoming increasingly sibilant and looking rather frustrated. It is clear that it is not simply a matter of giving a duty or responsibility to local authorities, because, as in Sutton and in most parts of the country, local authorities have moved on and already accept that they have that duty and responsibility. That acceptance has been driven by the experience of crime among councillors and the people who have been to see them and by the fact that there is now a lot more crime around than there was even when the Morgan report was published. Current levels of crime are unacceptable.

In Croydon, where one of my new colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Davies), was a leading member of the council when it became a local authority, a speedy move was made to put community safety and working with the police high up on the agenda. We have reached the stage at which local authorities and the police recognise that the issue is important to both of them and that a partnership approach has to be developed.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam was right to say that "partnership" is easy to say, but hard to put into effect. Personal partnerships have to be worked on—they do not just happen—and that is also true of partnerships between the police and local authorities. Such partnerships must involve both parties together identifying problems of crime in their area, together identifying the strategies needed to tackle those problems and together delivering that strategy. It is also important that the partnership is between the police, the local authority and the local community, which includes not only the resident community, but voluntary organisations and the business community.

I join the hon. Gentleman in saying that it is appropriate that we are discussing this issue during volunteers week. Yesterday, I took the opportunity to join the Women's Royal Voluntary Service for a session of pouring tea—[Interruption.] I shall be happy to give the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) a demonstration later if he likes. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam referred to volunteers contributing to their local community, perhaps by recognising the need for a youth club in the area, or the need to confront local youths about their behaviour and find more positive activities for them and for younger children so that they do not start to get involved in the pattern of crime.

I can reveal that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border and I spent some time together this morning in a way of which even the Liberal Democrats would approve. We were going through the applications for the Prudential youth action awards, the result of which will be announced in July. I hope that they will engender a great deal of interest, because we saw improving standards in the entries and creative responses to the problems that were being tackled. Young people themselves were identifying problems such as bullying or drugs and coming up with solutions to those problems in their local area.

When other young people talk to children about such problems, it is far more convincing than when those of us who are well over the hill are talking—almost from the beyond the grave—and telling them what to do. Young people have a power among those younger than them within their generation—say, a couple of years younger—that is extremely important. Without giving away any secrets regarding the results of the awards, I was particularly impressed by the way in which many of the applicants were looking forward to developing what they had learnt while doing this year's project. That is an excellent example of a widening pool of young people who understand, not only that there is a problem, but that they are part of the solution. We will be making progress if we as a society can encourage young people to be a part of the solution, as the Prudential youth action awards do, and encourage them to feel that they can do something about the nature and quality of the community in which they live.

I have concentrated on responding to the points raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam, but I came prepared to make some other remarks because it is important that the debate should be balanced. There are problems with crime that have simply not been tackled. We have proposed community safety orders, whereby we can tackle the problem of neighbourhoods being plagued by continual anti-social behaviour, perhaps by a family or a group of families. The persistent harassment of a community can devastate people's lives and that is why we have proposed that local authorities and the police should be able to seek this new order from the courts. The order will be addressed to a named individual or individuals and focus on behaviour that has caused distress or fear to neighbours. Those named in the orders will be told clearly what it is they must not do or where they must not go. The trigger for harassment and bad behaviour may well include racial antagonism and the order could help in such circumstances.

That is an example of a problem that has not been addressed in recent years, yet as soon as we started to talk about it, hon. Members on both sides of the House said, "Yes, there is such a family on one of my estates," or, "I have heard complaints about this sort of thing." The police and local authorities have not had the equipment to tackle the problem and we hope to put that right in our crime and disorder Bill.

Above all, we want to speed up the youth justice system. The scandal was identified by the Audit Commission last year, but those of us who have had any association with youth justice have known of the problems for far longer. It takes far too long for youngsters who have been caught to be brought before the courts and punished. That sends out all the wrong messages—it tells young offenders that nobody cares, that nothing much will happen if they misbehave. Repeat cautioning had the same effect. We have to tighten up the system so that, as with one's own children, young offenders are punished today—not tomorrow or in six months' time. We need to introduce that sense of urgency to the way in which we punish young people when they go wrong, as well as trying to prevent them from getting involved in crime in the first place or diverting them quickly if they do start down that path. Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.

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

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.