HC Deb 11 May 1999 vol 331 cc225-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hanson.]

10.27 pm
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I welcome this opportunity to bring to the House's attention the serious problem of crime and vandalism in rural towns and communities in my constituency. I was not surprised to discover that rural crime and vandalism was a far more widespread problem than I had first imagined. Since the subject of this Adjournment debate appeared on the Order Paper, I have received a number of representations from organisations and individuals throughout the country who share my concerns about vandalism in rural towns in England and Wales.

I have received representations from the British Retail Consortium, for example, about crime in shops in rural areas, from crime prevention groups, from individuals and from hon. Members on both sides of the House, who have expressed their deep concern. It was interesting to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) describe almost the same problems in his constituency that we are experiencing in my constituency. Large gangs of teenagers are committing wanton and reckless vandalism and damage for no apparent reason in our rural town centres.

The problem came to my notice a couple of months ago when Mr. Colin Webster came to my constituency surgery. I sat in disbelief as he described to me the catalogue of destruction and damage to his property in the past few years. His shop window has not just been smashed on the odd occasion, cracked or had something bump into it, but has systematically been broken, week in and week out for months and years. The poor man has had to pay in excess of £104,000. It is a small hardware shop in a rural part of my constituency, and in a rural area such shops are an essential facility. Often, it is hard to keep retail outlets going in rural areas. Mr. Webster has had to pay an enormous amount to replace the glass broken as a result of teenagers congregating on Friday and Saturday nights.

I listened to him in disbelief, not only because of the extent of the damage, but because it occurred in one of the most attractive rural towns in my constituency—Llantwit Major. It did not take place, for example, in an urban area of high social deprivation, where, it is sad to admit, one might reasonably expect to find that sort of vandalism and where one would think that it would be more common. However, that is not the case at all; the vandalism occurs in a rather prosperous and attractive town in the heart of my constituency. Indeed, it is a very attractive town; it has some of the highest land values in Wales. To the south of the town lies the beautiful, heritage coast of the Vale of Glamorgan; to the west is St. Donat's castle, which was at one time the home of William Randolph Hearst and is now the Atlantic college—the international college; to the north are the rolling hills for which the Vale of Glamorgan is famous; and to the east is RAF St. Athan.

The area is an ideal place in which to live and to settle down, but unfortunately it is being blighted by the mindless actions of gangs of teenagers. I was shocked to discover the extent of that vandalism; it is not confined to only one town. As I discovered, it occurs much more commonly throughout the country than I had first realised, so I am sure that many people can relate to the problem. The teenagers who commit that vandalism come from respectable families in a middle-class area. I believe that is a relatively modern phenomenon. In the 1980s, we saw the lager louts spring up and now, in the 1990s, we seem to have the phenomenon of gangs of teenagers from respectable homes committing vandalism.

I promised Mr. Webster that I would do what I could for him and that I would take the matter up at every level and investigate the causes of the problem. Those investigations proved most interesting. There are many structural reasons for such vandalism and many simple, practical reasons. I think it is worth drawing the House's attention to some of those reasons, because the problem is not confined to one area. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, and people throughout the country, will hear the ring of truth when I tell the House what is happening and why it happens.

For example, in recent years, Llantwit Major has undergone a dramatic increase in size; the population has increased by more than one fifth. However, the sad truth is that the facilities for youngsters and teenagers in that community have not experienced an increase commensurate with the population increase. My old friend, Bob Fussell, who runs the youth centre, told me that as many as 120 young teenagers, up to the age of 14, might be at the youth club on a busy night. That is an indication of how many teenagers now live in the town. I am not convinced that enough is being provided for them to occupy their leisure time.

A common complaint from the youngsters is that, for years, there has been inadequate transport serving rural areas—a common theme throughout the country. We have inadequate bus services; a railway line runs through the town, but there is no passenger service. Youngsters have no access to cities and urban areas. It takes mum a couple of hours to do a round journey to the city to drop off the children so that they can go to the cinema, go skating or take up the same leisure options as other youngsters. That can cause some frustration, so the youngsters congregate in large numbers—30 or 40—usually after the disco on a Friday night, and end up doing a great deal of damage.

The area in which the youngsters congregate has extremely bad lighting—it is a shopping precinct off the main road in Llantwit Major. There are many alleyways through which the youngsters can get in and out, so, when the police arrive, as they frequently do, the youngsters disperse quickly. The local shop, Somerfield, leaves its trolleys out overnight, and we are trying to get it to stop doing so, because the youngsters use the trolleys to ram shop windows and do all sorts of damage. There are practical steps that we can take—for example, improve the lighting in that area. We have made representations to local agencies, and I am glad to say that, through the partnership approach that has been adopted and encouraged by the Government, great strides are being made in dealing with the problem.

I have to point out that one of the key factors is underage drinking by these very young teenagers and younger children. During my investigations on behalf of Mr. Webster, I was surprised to learn that the alcohol does not come from the local off-licence or the pub, being bought by an older teenager or an adult, or from the shops in the area that now sell alcohol. In fact, most of the

alcohol comes from the youngsters' homes: they take it from the fridge or from the cocktail cabinet, and—I hate to say this—occasionally their parents know what is going on and turn a blind eye, thinking that it is only a little youthful mischief. The children cannot handle their drink and they go out, get drunk and congregate in large groups; they often start showing off to each other and end up doing a great deal of damage, so undermining the quality of life for people living in a community that would otherwise enjoy many advantages.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning me earlier. I concur with his argument that underage drinking is a common theme in these problems. From talking to my local police, I know that, often, when they have had occasion to take home very young, drunk children, either no parents are at home or, if the parents are at home, they tend to laugh off the incident; yet underage drinking and the behaviour associated with it feeds into a vicious circle and causes the problems about which my hon. Friend is talking.

Mr. Smith

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he raises one of the key issues on which we should focus, and gives me an opportunity to draw it to the Minister's attention. I have already said that the partnership approach is the way to achieve results. We must support the police in any way that we can in policing such areas, by using the local authority, the voluntary sector and neighbourhood watch schemes. However, I passionately believe that parents must be part of that partnership: they must play a key role in what we are trying to do to stamp out vandalism in communities like Llantwit Major. If we do not involve parents fully, it will be extremely difficult to get rid of the relatively modern phenomenon of teenage gangs vandalising our rural town centres.

I do not think that parents believe what their children are up to. I have said it once, but I shall say it again: these are respectable families. The youngsters come from good homes which are, by and large, secure homes, and I do not think that parents believe that their little Johnny and their little Mary are out doing damage on Friday or Saturday night. Let us take tonight: I wonder how many parents in rural communities throughout England and Wales can put their hand on their heart and say with certainty where their 13, 14 and 15-year-old children are right now, at 10.30 on a weekday night. Many of them would be extremely surprised to discover what some of their youngsters are up to even in the middle of the week, and on a Friday or Saturday night the problem is 10 or 20 times worse. Parents have a key responsibility.

I have spoken to Mr. Webster and the other shopkeepers in the precinct and the surrounding area, and all give me the same message: something has to be done—this has gone on for years.

The local authority is considering the lighting and the access and egress. The police are focusing resources on the area, and the local youth club and the voluntary sector are co-ordinating their activities with other agencies. The shopkeepers believe that they need closed circuit television because of the area's layout. I support them in that request, and I have written to the Minister about the issue. I am delighted to say that he has replied, pointing out that the prospectus for the Government's crime reduction plans will be released shortly, and that the £170 million accompanying it could include provision for closed circuit television in the area. I hope that the CCTV proposal will be considered sympathetically, and I am sure that the retailers and the whole community will submit a bid to that effect.

Something must be done to encourage parental responsibility. I hope that drawing attention to this problem in this short Adjournment debate will get the message across to the mums and dads, not just in Llantwit Major in my constituency but in rural communities throughout the Vale of Glamorgan. I promised Mr. Webster that I would do all that I could to help him in this matter. I promised that I would take it as far as I could and I think that, by raising the issue on the Floor of the House this evening, I have fulfilled my commitment.

If the vandals win and Mr. Webster is forced to close the store that he has run in the town for 18 years, the whole community will lose. Everyone will lose that valuable service and facility by giving in to vandalism. We cannot afford to give in, and I hope that the Minister can offer me help and encouragement in solving this problem.

10.42 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

By bringing this important matter before the House tonight, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) has not only done Mr. Webster and his other constituents a service but assisted the Government in addressing an issue that concerns us all. My hon. Friend gives the lie to the notion that crime and concern about crime is the preserve of urban, not rural, areas. We in the Home Office recognise that that is an important issue in rural areas, and we share the real determination expressed by my hon. Friend, his constituents and the local police in south Wales—and the Vale of Glamorgan in particular—to ensure that all agencies concerned with, and affected by, the criminal justice system work in a concerted and focused way to tackle the crime and disorder issues of rural areas.

I had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend's constituency during his initial election campaign—it is some years ago now—when his constituents first had the good sense to send him to this place. I visited both south Wales and Dyfed-Powys recently and saw for myself the impact of rural crime. I surveyed the situation from the vantage points of a patrol car, a patrol helicopter and a coastal patrol boat, which I helped to launch. Rural crime clearly deserves the attention of the House and of the police and the local community.

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise partnership in combating rural crime. The countryside suffers its share of criminal activity and disorder. In rural life, issues such as stealing stock, breaking into premises to take animals, damage to crops and the stealing of farm equipment are as current as the problems of burglary, theft and violence that are familiar to us in an urban environment. People in rural and urban areas are fed up to the back teeth with having their property violated, their freedom of movement constrained, their public spaces wrecked in the manner that my hon. Friend has described and their peace and tranquillity threatened by the criminal or anti-social activities of a selfish minority.

The Government have taken action through the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and we are determined to continue focusing on the issues. As strategies have developed, we have been heartened to see how local partnerships have emerged to tackle the problems. I recently had the privilege of visiting the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), where I saw the development of a local strategy that embraced issues of rural crime and the importance of the work of the police, but also properly addressed the need to involve young people as part of the solution to the problem that a tiny minority of them represent.

It is important to put the problem in perspective. We are talking about a minority of young people involved in crime and anti-social behaviour. We should not forget that, but nor should we excuse it. I heard what my hon. Friend said about recreation and access to facilities. The lack of access to leisure and educational facilities is a concern. The Home Office programme development unit is funding a Suffolk-based project aimed at reducing risk factors and offending in rural areas by improving access to facilities and increasing participation in community life. The project is due for completion at the end of 1999. We are determined to learn lessons from it and to roll out some of the good practice in succeeding years.

I do not underestimate the importance of leisure and educational facilities, but we should remember that the examples that my hon. Friend gave involved activity on a Friday night after a disco. The people involved had access to a recreational facility and they subsequently trashed the surrounding environment, making themselves a nuisance and a menace to honest, law-abiding elements in the community. That cannot be tolerated or excused.

One of the lessons that we are learning from the emerging crime and disorder strategies is the importance of identifying problem hot spots such as those to which my hon. Friend has referred where loitering, creating mayhem, vandalism and graffiti are all too often prevalent. We must work concertedly with local agencies to address that. Partnerships are particularly important. They involve the private and public sector, off-licences, other community facilities, pubs and clubs. They must all be part of the solution, or they will constitute part of the problem. We have to ensure that we support the police and local authorities in the leadership that they give in the crime and disorder strategies so that we have a joined-up approach that takes advantage of licensing law and regulation, planning in relation to lighting and closed circuit television.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for corresponding with me about CCTV, which enables me to assure him, as I did in my letter to him, that he and his local authority and the police in Llantwit Major will be able to respond to the prospectus that we shall issue, probably at the end of May. They will be able to demonstrate how they would use that technology as part of a wider strategy to reduce crime in their area. CCTV needs to be viewed in its widest context because it is not designed to be a quick fix; it needs to be linked to the actions of the police and, for example, the door-keeping activities of local retailers and proprietors. It needs to be linked also to neighbourhood watch schemes and various other local schemes that can contribute to the partnership.

There will be an opportunity for local authorities to bid for the resources that will be available as part of the £150 million programme of work over the next three years, which was announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget. We know from work that is already going on that there is much to be gained from that partnership approach.

Neighbourhood watch is a fine example of what people can do together, particularly in rural areas, acting as the eyes and ears of the police. There are many other excellent watch schemes. In my recent visit to Wales, I had an opportunity to learn about schemes such as farm watch, horse watch and country and poacher watch, which are all directly relevant to rural areas and have a contribution to make. They reflect the rural community's willingness to help the police to fight crime. They represent an opportunity for the community to get involved, eschew what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has described as the walk-on-by society and actively watch out for each other—especially the most vulnerable.

The crime reduction programme, which includes £250 million over the next three years, will underpin that partnership and evidence-based crime reduction work. It is the largest-ever single investment of its kind anywhere, and it aims to reverse the long-term rise in crime of 5 per cent. a year since 1980. We recently announced 11 proposals under the programme's targeted policing initiative which have been shortlisted and are now being developed further. Those measures are designed to develop policing techniques that we can spread across the country. Rural areas will be the beneficiaries of that.

As my hon. Friend said, vandalism is a problem. That was identified as a priority in the Vale of Glamorgan's audit. It will be tackled in the first year of its strategy, along with domestic burglary and vehicle crime. The Home Office's retail crime reduction action team and its predecessor, the retail action group, have produced various guidance for large and small retailers. I shall arrange for the team to forward details to my hon. Friend so that he can pass them on to his constituent.

All the evidence demonstrates that we need to maximise effective co-ordinated, preventive action at a local level to identify the means of tackling issues and bringing parties together. We envisage such partnerships developing in the Vale of Glamorgan. They will work towards reducing the unpleasant and extremely expensive menace of vandalism. Vandalism contributes to environmental degradation. It is not to be excused, and will not be excused. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 enables, where the value of goods damaged is more than £2,000, the imposition of a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment for those aged 18 or over, and two years' detention in a young offenders institution for those aged 15 to 17. Within the maximum limit, it is for the courts to decide in the light of all the circumstances; but they will bear in mind the impact of such vandalism on the communities that they serve.

The police are there to stand four square with those local communities, building on intelligence-led policing and using and building on the framework that we provided in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I have no doubt that CCTV, which my hon. Friend mentioned, can play a major part in the development of that.

Our rural life is precious. It may on occasion appear idyllic, but, as my hon. Friend says, appearances can be deceptive. The fear of crime is real, and must be reduced. The environment must be protected. We are determined that the measures that we have introduced, are introducing and will continue to introduce will support the decent, law-abiding people who constitute the overwhelming majority by maintaining the safety, security and tranquillity of their communities. In the Vale of Glamorgan, those communities have been served by my hon. Friend's initiating tonight's debate. The House is grateful to him and to his constituent for raising the matter: we will not fail them.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.