HC Deb 26 April 2002 vol 384 cc607-41

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Kemp.]

11.57 am
Mr. Cox

We have listened to an important statement, and, given its length, I shall—in fairness to parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House who wish to participate in the debate—curtail greatly my intended speech.

In closing, I want to refer to an issue that relates to my constituency, but which is also relevant to the experiences of my hon. Friends the Members for Battersea and for Putney. I want to mention it now as I may well turn to the Minister for advice and support in the coming weeks.

London Members are fully aware that one great problem we face is that of affordable housing, whether to rent or to buy. It is a particular problem for key public workers in our constituencies. Last Friday, I met prison officers at Wandsworth prison. We talked about many issues, but in terms of the recruitment and retention of prison officers, one key issue for them is the lack of housing.

There are people in my constituency—people who were born in the borough—who need housing and who are on the housing list, but who are getting absolutely nowhere with Wandsworth council in securing the kind of accommodation that they and their families believe they are entitled to. My hon. Friends the Members for Battersea and for Putney can doubtless say the same. In fact, many of those people are living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There is no doubt that their quality of life is suffering because of the lack of suitable housing.

I turn to my main point, on which, as I said, I may seek the Minister's help. Wandsworth council plans to sell off a piece of land of more than 1 acre at the Ernest Bevin college in my constituency, as it is surplus to needs. I understand that the council has given planning permission to build houses on that site and there are many inquiries about the land. A local housing association that I have long been associated with has told the council that it is interested in purchasing the land and that it would take people from the council housing list to be tenants of the properties that it would build.

I have been told that Wandsworth council is not interested in that offer because it wants to sell the land to a private developer. It has been apparent for years to those who live in the Tory-controlled borough how detrimental its policies are to constituents. That relates to what the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire said.

The Tory-controlled London borough of Wandsworth has no interest in providing social housing either to rent or to buy. Local people ask me as their Member of Parliament what action the council will take on the development of that land. If the local housing association is given permission to develop it, many people—possibly several hundred—would be able to live in a pleasant part of my constituency by either renting the property or paying an affordable price to purchase it. Without doubt, their quality of life, and that of their families, would improve greatly. That is why the issue is so important.

The constituency represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has suffered more than mine from up-market housing development, which is always fully supported by the Tory-controlled council. However, I got involved in dealing with a scheme to build up-market housing in my area after plans to turn the psychiatric hospital in Tooting Bec into a shopping centre were turned down. The council instantly moved in and gave permission for developers to build the most up-market housing development imaginable. It had no concern whatever for the needs of local people.

The debate has been useful. We have been given the opportunity to cover a range of issues. Although I do not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to my comments today, I will be in touch with her to see what help she and her Department can give me and my constituents to ensure that the views and needs of the local community on that housing development are listened to because, sadly, the Tory council in Wandsworth has not done that in recent years.

12.4 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

According to statistics published by the urban taskforce, one in four citizens of urban areas believe that their neighbourhood has got worse in recent years, whereas only one in 10 people feel that they have seen improvement. The Government have recognised that by directing funding at inner cities to try to improve them, but the scale of the task ahead and the small sums of money that have been committed have not stopped the migration from our inner cities to our suburbs and smaller towns. That has been the trend in recent years and we should pay attention to it.

The outward flow from our main conurbations has many implications for the quality of life in surrounding communities. It has priced many people out of their local housing markets and put increased pressure on greenfield sites, yet 1.3 million commercial and residential buildings stand empty, and brownfield sites are drastically under-utilised.

Not only is the land and housing supply under severe strain but, as more people move further out of cities, transport is inevitably affected as well. The increasing number of cars on our roads and passengers on our trains is not due to the fact that the roads have improved or that the trains are cheaper, but because more people need to travel and commuting time has increased. It is already 40 per cent. higher than it was 20 years ago, and now, more than ever, people are moving over to a commuter lifestyle.

It is predicted that car traffic will increase by a third in the next 20 years, and pollution, congestion and general inconvenience can only increase as a result. Progress must be made to improve urban communities to halt the exodus from the nation's larger cities and towns. At the same time, we must improve our smaller cities and towns so that they can accommodate the new growth. Although the quality of life in local communities can be improved on many fronts, one of our most important priorities is to ensure that everyone has a place to live and that housing is of the highest possible quality.

Local councils can make a difference if they are given the opportunity. As housing needs vary greatly from place to place, greater discretion should be given to local authorities to invest directly or to attract investment in housing that is appropriate for their community. In addition, they should be given the power to set greenfield development levies, which can be put towards the reclamation of brownfield sites. By equalising the VAT charged on new build and refurbishment expenditure we can make renovation a more attractive option, and by strengthening the powers of compulsory purchase orders we can encourage the practice of putting empty buildings back into use.

It is imperative that we provide more homes, but we cannot ignore the fact that many existing homes are in dire need of maintenance and repair. Addressing that problem would improve the quality of life of countless citizens nationwide. When the Liberal Democrats took control of the London borough council of Islington, there was a £500 million backlog of housing repairs. Some estates had not been painted for 20 years. The situation is now much improved because the council has implemented a new 24-hour-a-day emergency repair service. It has also given council tenants the right to get repairs done themselves and to bill the council if it has not arranged for those repairs to be carried out in a timely manner.

Another key issue that needs to be addressed locally is safety and security in the community. When people feel unsafe walking about their own town, they cannot possibly enjoy a high quality of life. Even in areas where violent crime is not an issue, antisocial behaviour and nuisance crimes can impact severely on citizens' day-to-day lives. Clearly, more full-time police officers are needed, and the sooner the better, but there are other possibilities for dealing with smaller-scale offences. For instance, the establishment of community safety forces to co-ordinate the efforts of traffic wardens, estate and neighbourhood wardens, park superintendents and other public safety officials could help to foster a unified campaign against nuisance crimes.

Mr. McCabe

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's last remarks. However, in view of those remarks, how does he justify the behaviour of his Liberal colleagues in the other place, who last night voted against the proposals on which he is commenting?

Mr. Sanders

I think that they were concerned with a different issue—that of giving certain powers of enforcement to those who would carry out that job. Their opinion was that the Government had not fully thought that through. In principle, the Liberal Democrats support community officers and community security forces.

We also need to bring more flexibility to the police force and to find alternative staffing options to help fill some of the gaps left by inadequate numbers of police officers. One idea is to introduce a new category of part-time community officers. That would help alleviate the pressure on full-time officers and lay the foundation for a network of named local police officers for every community.

Another option that has been successfully implemented by Liverpool city council is to rent extra police officers from the local police authority. Those extra officers have been used to reinforce the patrolling of Liverpool's busy city centre, and have had an impact on shoplifting and crime in that area. Such ideas should not be taken up by every local authority. Liberal Democrats sometimes take issue with the Government for saying that particular initiatives should be adopted everywhere—our view is that we should allow local areas to come up with the best ideas and let them flow from the grass roots rather than impose them from the top down.

Islington council has recently achieved substantial results with its new acceptable behaviour contract initiative. In this programme, 10 to 18-year-olds sign contracts promising that certain standards of behaviour will be upheld. The contracts are administered by the council's housing department and the police, and a breach of the contract can jeopardise the family's tenancy if they are residents of council or housing association accommodation. So far, ABCs—as they are known—have proven very effective in reducing teenage antisocial behaviour, as linking behaviour standards to tenancy privileges has forced parents to take action to ensure that their children are better behaved. Of the original 60 contracts signed last year, only two were breached.

The most effective way to bring about an improvement in the quality of life in local communities is to involve the people of those communities. We should let the people determine what they need and want and involve them in the management of change. This task is best suited to the lowest level of government, which is closest to the people. A blanket approach to improving the quality of life in individual communities is doomed to fail. Rather than formulate a centralised plan to address this issue, it would be much more effective to empower local government to create plans that best meet local needs.

Often, the things that make the biggest difference to people's day-to-day quality of life are those that seem relatively insignificant. I am sure that hon. Members are aware of that from their mailbags or from the people who attend their surgeries. Discarded rubbish, cyclists riding on pavements, overgrown hedgerows, faulty street lamps and broken paving stones all come into that category. Despite the fact that local government is clearly the appropriate tier to deal with many issues affecting the quality of life in communities, it is often severely hampered by underfunding, by grant regimes that do not recognise local needs, or by spending requirements and targets handed down to them by a higher authority.

The report "Towards an Urban Renaissance", released by the urban taskforce in 1999, stated: Local authorities will lead the urban renaissance. They should be strengthened in powers, resources and democratic legitimacy to undertake this role in partnership with the citizens and communities they represent". To do that, they must be given the proper fiscal tools, as well as be afforded more opportunity to use those tools as they see fit. We can protect, enhance and improve the quality of life in local communities only through powers exercised in the community, by the community and for the community. It is therefore no surprise that what the Government are attempting to do, often based on that report, is happening piecemeal. We need to free up local government completely, give it the competence to meet local government need, devolve finance-raising powers to the local level, and allow communities into the town halls to affect decisions and carry forward change together. That will give communities a sense of ownership about the improvements that they want to their quality of life to ensure that those improvements are sustainable and long-term.

12.14 pm
Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby)

It is always a pleasure to follow a fellow seaside Member in a debate. We have unique seaside communities around the country which, as I am sure the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) will agree, reflect in microcosm the problems that we see nationally, as we find out on a weekly basis in our constituency surgeries.

The debate is very welcome. I am honoured to represent 74 parish councils in Scarborough and Whitby, which means that there are 74 distinct communities in my constituency. Two, obviously, are particularly significant: many hon. Members will recognise the pre-eminence of Scarborough as the first ever seaside resort and recall Whitby's historical importance, particularly to the Church of England.

The two towns have quite different and distinct communities. I want to reflect in my remarks the uniqueness of each community in my constituency, and to acknowledge the differences between Newby in Scarborough and Danby in the north York moors, and between the Eastfield housing estate and Scalby, a rich suburb of Scarborough. Each has a community forum. I look forward to the Government's policies renewing, reinvigorating and revitalising the grass roots of those communities.

As many hon. Members will know, I am one of only seven chartered engineers who are honoured to attend this Chamber. Our training means that for us the word "quality" has a meaning quite different from the standard dictionary definition. We have to he able to measure quality and refer to it in terms of yardsticks, specifications and standards. When I was designing bridges, I had to adhere rigorously to a code of practice known as BS 5400, which enables engineers to design bridges with a lifespan of at least 120 years. I hope that the policies that we are now implementing to improve the quality of our life in our local communities will have an equally long-term effect, benefiting generations to come.

In earlier interventions in the debate I tried to focus on the importance of young people and of the next generation. Their participation in, and contribution to, local life dictates the quality of life experienced by the rest of society. My constituency varies from typical seafront arcade areas to countryside in the national parks which is probably some of the most beautiful in England, and that variety leads to different problems in individual communities. Sometimes my constituents feel that visitors to the area are afforded a far greater welcome than people who live in the area all year round.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) spoke of the importance of clean streets and of dealing with litter. I am proud to say that my local authority has regularly won a "Keep Britain Tidy" award because of the cleanliness of its streets. However, the inspectors for the award were probably looking at the "front of house" parts of the constituency—the areas to which tourists come, such as well laid-out parks and gardens. I commend Scarborough council's parks department for its excellent work.

Behind the front of house, however, we have housing estates such as Eastfield, Barrowcliff and Edgehill in Scarborough and Strenshoelh in Whitby. Those are areas of long-term decline and, for the communities, failure. In the northern end of my constituency is the picturesque little seaside village of Staithes, which is a real treat. It should be regarded as a wonderful world heritage site because of its position on the beautiful North Yorkshire coast. Behind that, however, is a housing estate that has suffered from long-term unemployment, and a failure to renew housing stock and the basic infrastructure available to the people who live there year round.

The Minister is welcome to visit any part of my constituency whenever she likes. I know that she did a great deal of work on the fishing communities regeneration initiative. Former fishing communities are starting to benefit from the Government's policies. In Staithes, £19 million is being focused on rebuilding a community of several hundred people in the terms unique to that community and linked with it.

In an intervention, I asked the Minister what importance she attached to the contribution of local people to the design and content of the built environment. I am pleased to report that this very weekend Scarborough borough council is to engage in the sort of dialogue that I want to take place throughout the country. Scarborough's community planning weekend is being held to enable the people of Scarborough—not the visitors, but the regular residents—to say how they want their community to develop.

I shall participate tomorrow, although the events start this afternoon. In addition to important issues of economic development and tourism, which are standard fare to anyone who represents a seaside community, the arts, entertainment and culture are to be considered, not only for visitors—for example, those who flood in from northern Europe to see Sir Alan Ayckbourn's latest play at the Stephen Joseph theatre—but for the people who live in the town and want to improve their lives and participate in local activities. A significant part of the time available to local people will be devoted to children, and to young people who are at that crucial age when they are trying to find their way in the world, take on citizenship and make a contribution to local society.

Such initiatives sound like acts of optimism, but the ability to take them has been hard won. It is only because of Government policy that the necessary resources have become available to us. I lobbied the Minister's predecessor, who is now the Minister for Sport, hard to get objective 2 status for my area. I am pleased to say that all but one of the wards in my constituency now have that status.

The possibility of investment and spending forces us to focus. I hope that others share my view that we should not fall into the trap of engaging the usual suspects—the highly paid consultants who trek over from Leeds or up from London and mop up vital capital investment. At the earliest opportunity we must engage in the type of work embodied in this weekend's events, which are taking place under the title, "A Vision for Scarborough". People have to be involved if they are to be able to specify the quality they want in their various and diverse communities.

Scarborough and Whitby contain a crucial group of people who should never be overlooked. I think that we stand 26th in the league table in terms of our population of over-55s. Many seaside constituencies have similar demographics. People come to our part of the world to retire, but the facilities that older people need—especially when couples move to the seaside and one partner dies a few years later—are often under great pressure. We need to plan our health and social services provision in the light of the inevitability that that large age group will increase in number.

The Government listened to the many older people who demanded that provision be made for concessionary bus passes to improve their mobility. Scarborough and Whitby was one of 12 communities in the country that did not recognise those needs. I am proud that I participated in the passage of what became the Transport Act 2000, which resulted in older people and disabled people having that facility nationally. Great work is done for local people in both Scarborough and Whitby by action groups for disabled people. They nag, encourage and try to ensure that the council does not forget that if we make public places and facilities in a town convenient and accessible for disabled people, we shall achieve greater access for many more people within society.

As an engineer, I had often to design footbridges over railway lines. It was a common phenomenon that, as I designed to a standard that allowed people with wheelchairs and other disabled people to have access to a bridge, it gave young mums and people who were not so badly disabled but a bit slow in their movements that access too.

I welcome the statement about bus stops and public transport facilities. To make them more accessible for local people improves the quality of life considerably, and the accessibility improves the environment, too. If buses and trains can be used more easily because of better design that takes into account the views of the local community, that will be good both for people and for the budgets of bus companies and train operators. In the end, it will be better for the public purse.

Quality matters, given the perceptions and daily experiences of local people, especially those who think that the visitors who come to my constituency over a 20-week period during the summer—there are about 20 million of them—are afforded a better quality of experience than they are. Quality matters for everyone, all the time.

We now have a global media frenzy, and the Internet is accessible to anyone in the world. Local people's perceptions of quality affect the perceptions of potential visitors—potential tourist customers—who are considering whether to come to places such as Scarborough and Whitby.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) referred to the pressures on London. Let us get some of the many visitors who come to places such as London away from those pressures. Let us have infrastructure available in places such as Scarborough and Whitby that will encourage them to have a different experience. Let them experience the special quality of life that we want to encourage.

We have touched on the importance of transport. I know that the Minister is aware of the importance of the A64 corridor because she has answered questions on the subject. Her departmental colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), who has responsibilities for transport, is also aware of the importance of the corridor. It brings 20 million tourists to the Yorkshire coast every year, and it is a lifeline for the rest of the community—for the manufacturers and for the people who live and work in Scarborough all the time.

I urge my hon. Friend's Department to give even more emphasis to the developments that I hope will flow from the recent study commissioned by the Highways Agency to improve the quality of life and experience for people travelling to Scarborough. People become frustrated, turn off the A64 and go down to Bridlington, and that is no good for my constituents. They want people to come all the way to Scarborough.

We have a serious problem with people waiting for social housing provision. Like all seaside towns, we have a large private tenant sector, which is a consequence of changes in the tourism industry and the move away from bed-and-breakfast accommodation. As part of Lord Falconer's planning consultation, officials are considering having discrete areas for residential accommodation and hotel and bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Huge tension can be created when people are moved into to private sector accommodation next door to high quality hotel or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. They do not live in our community or respect its values and, frankly, they cause a nuisance and make life hell for some visitors and other people in the sector. I shall stress those points to Lord Falconer in due course.

I am pleased to have been able to participate in our debate, and I hope that the Minister will pass my messages on to her colleagues in the Department. I trust that she will reply from the Dispatch Box to some of my points, particularly those concerning younger people.

12.31 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

As the third seaside Member in a row, I am pleased to be able to participate in our important debate. As a precaution, I should like to declare an interest; I am a director of a family business, as is recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I am not likely to stray on to that, but because our debate is wide-ranging, I cannot be sure.

Assessing quality of life is extremely difficult. Several organisations undertake the task, including the United Nations, which produces a periodic survey. Not surprisingly, Norway, Australia and Canada tend to dominate the top three places, with Sweden, Belgium and the United States making the top 10; we tend to be somewhere in the middle of the table. A variety of things, ranging from cleanliness and restaurants to life expectancy, are taken into account.

Having participated in yesterday's debate on international development, I believe that we should all be aware that in many parts of the world, qualify of life is getting substantially worse; life expectancy in the African continent and the former Soviet Union, for example, is getting shorter. When quality of life in cities is assessed, Zurich tends to come top, with Vancouver close behind. Brazzaville in the Republic of the Congo comes bottom; no doubt Members will take that into account when deciding where to go on holiday.

Lawrie Quinn

They should come to Scarborough.

Mr. Syms


The key starting point for achieving a good quality of life in Britain is to get the economy right. Unless we generate wealth, we cannot invest in public services and our citizens will not have employment or the resources to make life choices. Generally, in the last century, we did pretty well; we account for 1 per cent. of the world's population, but account for a rather higher percentage of the world's wealth. We are a small island on the edge of Europe, yet we are a major trading nation; we are an innovative nation that, by and large, works hard. Colleagues and friends who have worked in Germany have always found that the Brits there work longer hours than the Germans, who go off skiing or whatever on Friday afternoons.

In the past 20 to 25 years, our economy has become much more flexible, and the Government were lucky to inherit that legacy from the last Conservative Government. We must acknowledge and take satisfaction in the fact that Britain has done pretty well compared with other countries. It is important that the fourth largest economy continues to grow so that, one day, we can be the third largest economy and make our full contribution in the world.

All our constituents, including mine in Poole, have concerns about law and order. We see people in our surgeries who are worried about crime in their area. Between January 2000 and January 2002, the number of street crime incidents in London rose from 4,000 to 6,700. We cannot be complacent about crime; much more needs to be done about it. Dorset is not a high-crime area, but there is a great fear of crime, which any politician must address. Dorset police authority, which does an excellent job, is the 29th worst funded in the country. That requires difficult juggling by the chief constable and creates difficulties in terms of the precept levied on my constituents. Our police authority has one of the highest precepts in the country, because people demand policing. They like to see police officers on the streets. That is important to their quality of life, yet we are not resourced to provide the level of policing that people demand.

We know that it is important for quality of life that people can access health services when they want them—when they are ill. We should all reflect on the fact that waiting lists affect quality of life. Like other hon. Members, I see constituents who have been assessed as needing urgent operations, yet sometimes they are told that they must wait months. Behind the figures about which we argue in the Chamber, there are people in pain, people who cannot go to work, people whose families are concerned about them, sometimes waiting months to get treatment.

There is a particular problem at present in Dorset: some of my constituents who go to Southampton for brain surgery find that the hospital there is taking only patients who need emergency operations, because of a shortage of staff. That creates pressure and difficulty for my constituents.

The debates that we have had this week have been useful. We may disagree about the politics in relation to the future of health care and how we organise the NHS, but it is important that we have such debates. While accepting the principle that a free service is vital to most of our citizens, we should look creatively at ways of delivering health care to them. People will feel that their quality of life has been enhanced if they can access services quickly. Scotland spends 8.6 per cent. of available resources on health, which is about the European average, yet its health outcomes are worse. We must consider reform and different ways of delivering services.

As a member of the all-party group on haemophiliacs, I know that there is sometimes inequity in the delivery of health services. I shall give one example, which affects the quality of life of my constituents and many others throughout the country who are haemophiliacs. Those who happen to live in Wales and Scotland receive recombinant blood from the NHS. In England, that is provided as of right up to the age of 18.

People go to the haemophilia centre in Manchester for treatment and blood products. People from Wales get recombinant—that is, man-made—treatment; those from England do not. They get plasma-based treatment. Anyone who knows the haemophilia community well knows that its members want recombinant treatment because of the history of plasma-based products, which have caused them all sorts of difficulties, such as the infections of hepatitis C and HIV. There must be equity in the provision of health care in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if we are to engender good quality of life for our citizens.

Educational opportunity is a further important aspect of quality of life. Poole is a beautiful place in which to work, but it is difficult to own a home there because of housing costs. We therefore have difficulty recruiting teachers. I recently went round Poole high school, which has a problem recruiting sufficient maths teachers to teach pupils at key stage 3. There are real challenges to be faced in education, which we all know is the means by which people access opportunities for the future. The Government should be aware that the problems of teacher recruitment may be impacting on the children of my constituents.

Much of the debate has focused on the leading role that local government can play in communities. By and large, Poole borough council, which is a unitary authority, does a good job, although it labours under difficult grant settlements. We have suffered under the regime that ensures that we do not get the area cost adjustment. As those of us who live in the south-west rather than the south-east know, that system means that Poole received £17 million less than it would have received if it were situated in Hampshire. That impacts on services and the ability to deliver some of the enhancements to quality of life that we have been discussing.

My hon. Friend the Member for North'East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) mentioned the very high council tax increases. Poole has had an 11.9 per cent. increase, set against an inflation rate of 2.2 per cent. Many people on minimal fixed incomes will find the extra amount difficult to pay. Apart from the estimated cost this year of £300,000 for storing fridges under Government regulations, the Budget changes in national insurance contributions will probably add £400,000 to local government costs. Those costs are very substantial indeed.

Poole has much potential for development; it is a beautiful place with a lot of water. Earlier this year, we made a submission to the Government on building a second bridge over the harbour, and I am pleased to say that it was accepted. The project is an exciting prospect that will allow us to develop much of the waterside area in Lower Ham worthy and to redevelop the West Quay road. The building of the bridge, which may cost £14 million, will substantially improve the quality of life for constituents who live in central Poole. It will allow sensible development and improved traffic flow, and will enable the borough to take a strategic view so that it can plan for the future. The development will also improve local transport in general.

I could make many more comments, but I am aware that a number of other hon. Members wish to speak. In conclusion, quality of life is important for my constituents. Poole is a beautiful place, but underneath the beauty, there is concern about law and order, access to the NHS, provision of top-quality education for our children and improvements in transport. Over the coming years, I shall do all that I can to campaign for a better deal for my constituents.

12.42 pm
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I could speak at considerable length about improvements in the quality of life of my constituents. Since 1997, my constituency has received substantially increased investment in schools and hospitals. Investment in housing has doubled and we have seen reductions in unemployment and crime; indeed, Sheffield is the safest city in the country. However, I shall concentrate primarily on ways in which my constituents' quality of life is not good, although I recognise that the Government have many proposals to deal with such problems, which I strongly support. I urge quick action on them.

When I was sitting in my surgery last Saturday, as many hon. Members will have been sitting in theirs, a young couple came in, sat down and began to describe how they were regularly kept awake until 5 o'clock in the morning by their neighbours. They told me that they had been keeping a diary sheet for the past five months on the antisocial behaviour of their neighbours at the request of the local housing officer, and that environmental health officers had visited to monitor the noise levels, which were found to be unacceptable. They asked how long it would be before they could go to work the next morning without being virtually unable to keep their eyes open. The man does a very dangerous job that requires him to be alert and completely awake. Their whole quality of life has clearly been affected by what has happened.

Unfortunately, after they had given me three or four minutes of description and I had warned them that the trouble might go on for some time before they finally got some action, I found that I could tell them what was happening to them before they told me. I could do so because I had dealt with the person who was causing the problems three or four years previously, when they had caused exactly the same trouble for their then neighbour, an elderly lady. I visited her regularly and she used to sit down and cry, virtually losing control of herself, because she simply could not stand the harassment and break-ins that were blighting her life.

I chose to describe that case because, unfortunately, it involved regular and repeat perpetrators, but I could have chosen another three cases that arose in the surgery and which involved very similar problems.

As I said in a debate in the House on the Housing Bill in 1996, when I first became a councillor in Sheffield in 1976, the majority of my cases were to do with housing, but mainly with repairs and improvements. Most of my cases still involve housing, but they are now mainly about neighbour nuisance, which is unfortunately a recurrent problem for many constituents.

It sounds harsh, but local authorities and housing associations have to consider carefully whether to renew some people's tenancies. The case that I described may end with eviction, but it is no good sending people to another property where they will cause similar problems to another set of unsuspecting neighbours. Obviously, we must look after the children in those cases, but I welcome Government proposals to put registered social landlords and local authorities on a similar path. They could thus take account of each other's experiences with specific tenants, who would not simply be able to get another property with a different landlord and recreate the problems.

On the previous Saturday, I attended a meeting on the Stradbroke estate. It is a pleasant, post-war estate with Bevan houses, decent space and tree-lined roads. It is not at all a sink estate. A year ago, I was called in by the local councillor, who was fed up with getting persistent complaints from dozens of tenants about a handful of families on the estate for more than two years.

We got together the police, housing officers, the tenancy enforcement team, the local neighbourhood watch and the tenants and residents associations. In the past year, they have worked on evidence on cases that are about to come to court. I shall not go into detail in case I prejudice them, but we have agreed to twin-track procedures for antisocial behaviour orders and evictions, and to go for both when appropriate. The lesson is to get everyone—the police, housing officers, enforcement officers, tenants and residents—to work together as a team to save the estate from antisocial behaviour.

Seventeen people were prepared to come forward as witnesses. That is a lot—people are often frightened. However, at the end of the process, only four were prepared to come forward. It is easy to understand the reasons. The estate had been subjected to vandalism; people had been threatened and intimidated; break-ins and damage to cars had occurred; and motoring offences, including joyriding and dangerous driving, had been committed. People were intimidated and worried. We sat them down and talked to them, and we believe that we now have more witnesses and strong cases.

I welcome recent Home Office proposals for changes to the antisocial behaviour procedures. I especially welcome the proposal to issue interim orders so that at the first court hearing an order can be made to ban someone from an area, if appropriate, instead of waiting until the end of the process. In far too many cases, defence lawyers use deferments and delays in the court procedure while the antisocial behaviour is repeated many times.

I also welcome proposals for not granting bail in all cases. One young person on the estate has been charged 90 times with motoring offences. He knows that it does not matter if he is charged again because he goes to court, gets out on bail and commits another string of offences. The punishment will be no greater because one cannot punish someone any more for 90 offences than for 70. That is a genuine problem, and I welcome the Government's plans to tackle it.

I also welcome the proposal to allow county courts as well as magistrates courts to issue antisocial behaviour orders. When an eviction is sought, the same court can issue the antisocial behaviour order.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was first appointed to his new job last year, I wrote to him and said that the procedures for obtaining antisocial behaviour orders still needed to be reviewed. People still claim that they are too bureaucratic and there are doubts about whether the standard of proof is too high. For example, antisocial behaviour often stops just before the case gets to court. A month or so before the hearing, a sudden lull in unacceptable activities occurs. That is not a reason for not pushing or granting the order. The fact that antisocial behaviour that has gone on for three or four months miraculously stops just before a hearing is not a reason for not pursuing or granting the order.

I am sorry to go into detail about my surgeries, but all too often they reflect the genuine problems that my constituents experience. Most of us have heard most things at our surgeries over the years.

Ms Keeble

indicated assent.

Mr. Betts

My hon. Friend agrees with that. However. I sat in amazement when a constituent described what happened one evening when he was sitting watching television. He lives in a flat in a relatively small block. At the back, a verandah runs along from one flat to the next, which is probably a slight design fault. As he sat there, someone burst in through his back door, breaking the lock, and ran past him as he watched television, pursued by two or three other people. He went to the housing department and to the police, and after the police had made inquiries, they advised him not to lock his back door because they thought that it would get broken down anyway when these people came back. All that he could do was accept that. He did so, and one night afterwards, they came back on three occasions.

The problem was that the intruder—the boyfriend of the next-door tenant—was involved in taking drugs. He owed the drug dealers money and they pursued him. I obviously complained to the housing department and the police, and wanted to know what was going on. The housing officers invited me to walk round the estate with them and have a look. Before that happened, there had been a shooting on the estate—possibly connected to the other incidents—and a rent strike had been threatened. It became clear to me that the problems there were on a much wider scale.

I decided to go there with the housing officers and to make it a public event, so we invited the press along and took the local chief inspector and the area housing manager. We also met people from the tenants and residents associations. Fifty-odd people turned up, and many of them said to me, "We don't want to leave the estate, but we know who we want to leave. There's a handful of people causing mayhem and disruption." When we went round, we saw tenants living in properties that were boarded up—not as empty properties but to protect those living inside. That is completely unacceptable.

We quickly set up a taskforce. The police got involved again, along with the housing officers and the local tenants and residents associations. Sheffield's long tradition of good-quality tenants and residents associations dates back to the 1970s. It was strengthened by the changes that we made in the 1980s to establish them as part of the consultation arrangements. We now have increased police presence in the area and we are starting eviction processes. A clean-up is going on, security measures have been put in place, and a general attempt is being made to improve the estate and to make the environment better for people to live in.

When I talked to people on the estate, I was told that it was not the whole estate that was the problem—it is a 1970s estate, but it is in quite a nice environment—but pockets where certain individuals lived, and it was those individuals who were causing mayhem. An old lady said to me, "Why should I have to move, Mr. Betts? I've lived here for 20 years and I know my neighbours. By and large, we are happy, but our lives have been blighted."

We need a better, quicker and more effective eviction process. I therefore very much welcome the consultation document that the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has issued on tackling antisocial tenants. It is an excellent document, and we shall look at some of its proposals with interest and give them our support. In particular, I welcome the proposals to speed up eviction procedures by giving local authorities the power to establish inquiries and investigations—yes, there would be a right of appeal—before taking issues to court. The courts would be assured that the local authorities had pursued the right procedures, which would mean that the whole case would not have to be conducted in court.

I do not know whether those measures would be introduced for all tenancies—I understand that they currently apply to introductory tenancies—or whether they would be used as a first stage in the process of dealing with antisocial problems, by saying to people, "We have put you on a different status of tenancy and we can now evict you without having to have the case heard in court. We can speed up the procedures and deal with them internally." That might be a way forward, but, one way or another, I and many others will welcome the introduction of a speeded-up process of eviction in cases of substantial antisocial behaviour.

We need not only speed but certainty in the process. We need to protect witnesses who are simply too frightened to come forward. People who experience substantial harassment from their neighbours that often involves threats of violence are often the last people in the world who can face going to court and giving formal evidence. We must find ways round that, and the consultation document is excellent in that respect. We should support the proposals that it contains, and I look forward to their implementation as soon as the consultation period is complete.

I make no apology for talking about taking action against people involved in antisocial behaviour, because I feel really strongly for those on the receiving end. Of course, people must have rights, and spurious complaints are sometimes made about people. Sometimes, a dispute between two neighbours is simply six of one and half a dozen of the other

I am amazed that people take so long to come to me and wonder how they have put up with things for so long. It is those people—often elderly, often vulnerable—whom we have a duty to protect. The procedures must be robust; the courts must be sure that the revised procedure has been followed properly, and there will be a right to judicial review. I believe that the process is correct and must be put in place as soon as possible.

Of course, we must consider measures of prevention. If mediation is appropriate, let us offer it. We should look more carefully at lettings policies; we must make sure that we do not put a young person straight out of care, with relatively few social skills, who might be noisy and a bit disturbing, among a group of older people and then, a few weeks later, wonder why we have a problem. When people with a history of mental illness or drug-taking go back into the community, there must be a proper standard of care to support them. They must not simply be left on their own. Sometimes, they are put into a flat with a bed but with no other furniture or carpets, so the noise travels to the neighbouring flats. That is a cause of aggravation that happens all too often.

I welcome the changes to the letting system, such as the choice-based experiment taking place in my constituency. We must make sure that the points system is fair and equitable, and does not discriminate against tenants who have a good record but find it impossible to move because they can never get the number of points that will allow them choice in their housing.

Antisocial behaviour problems do not apply simply to the tenants of local authorities, registered social landlords or owner-occupiers. The private sector has its own difficulties, and I welcome the proposals to license certain private sector landlords. I wonder whether we should go further and make landlords of all kinds responsible for dealing with antisocial behaviour and giving individuals the right to sue landlords who do not fulfil that duty properly. That would be a wider power. I understand that the common law means that cases that have been taken to court have generally been lost.

The group of tenants and residents that I met on the Westfield estate said that they strongly supported the idea of neighbourhood wardens and wanted them in the area. I was surprised because I have in the past been sceptical of neighbourhood wardens. I have my reservations; I do not want to them to take on the job of the police, pushing the police out and being used as an excuse for having fewer police officers. However, the local chief inspector said that that was not the case and that, because we are getting extra police officers in Sheffield and south Yorkshire, wardens are seen not as a replacement but as an addition—as complementary. He said that he would welcome them in the area and would like to work with them.

We tend to expect too much of the police. When I go to public meetings with the police, constituents say to them, "Our big complaint is that you don't come quickly enough when we have an emergency. We dial the number and expect you within five or 10 minutes, but sometimes it takes half an hour or you do not come until the next day." We know that the police are under pressure. Then the next person will say, "We never see a police officer in our area; we don't see them on the beat. They're not around any more." We know that, by and large, police officers walking the beat do not catch criminals. That is not their function; they are there for reassurance, prevention and deterrence.

With the wardens' support, the police could carry out their response activities as well as a bit of beat-walking. In that way, there would be more people in the area wearing uniforms. They would be there for deterrent and preventive purposes, for reassurance and to give people a feeling of safety. I would welcome such a measure. I hope that more money can be found in the spending review for community wardens and that the Westfield estate will benefit. I am sure that such a measure would stop many problems in their infancy, rather than allowing them to get out of control.

I welcome the increased investment in housing, which is badly needed. There is, by and large, very good council housing in my constituency, but some houses still have no proper heating systems, with the same sink units that they had 30 years ago and the same windows that they had 50 years ago. For a bit of extra money—that money is starting to come in, with the doubling of investment that the local authority has seen since 1997—they could be even better places to live.

I want the Government to reassure me that, if the tenants in my constituency and in Sheffield generally vote against the stock transfer, for which the Liberal Democrat-controlled council is pressing although there is substantial resistance, it will not prejudice future investment in my constituents' houses. I welcome the Government's commitment to bring all public sector rented housing up to a decent standard by 2010, but it should be honoured for all tenants irrespective of whether they vote for a stock transfer.

People come back to that issue time and again because Liberal Democrat councillors are telling people that their houses will not be repaired or improved if they do not vote for a stock transfer. Those threats are wrong, and I hope that Ministers will clearly resist them and say that it is wrong to make such threats to try to force the vote in a certain direction. The vote should be fair and people should be able to make their choice without intimidation.

I agree with what the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) said about the importance of local councils having the freedom to act in raising the quality of life of the inhabitants of their areas, but the Liberal Democrat party, which he represents, happens to be in power in Sheffield and is using those freedoms to bad effect in my constituency.

I have already referred to the cuts in the youth budget. We should be worried about such cuts. Not having enough to do is not a reason for young people to engage in antisocial behaviour, but it certainly does not help if they have no alternative to standing around on street corners. Those cuts represent a serious attack on my constituents' quality of life.

There have been substantial disturbances in another poor part of my constituency—Tinsley—but the police and the community have worked effectively to sort them out during the past six months. A facility for local people—the local recreation ground—has remained derelict for the past two or three years. We were promised that the Tinsley recreation pavilion would be restored last summer, but it remains unusable and unoccupied, as the council still has not got around to carrying out its promise.

The local advice centre that works on behalf of many poor families in the area was shut two months ago. The council took away its £32,000 grant, closed it and told people to travel two miles across an industrial valley to the nearest advice centre, despite the fact that there is no direct bus service.

The Darnall community nursery makes a valuable contribution to my constituents' quality of life, but its budget has been cut this year. The Handsworth community nursery's budget has also been cut. However, the chief council officers have received a £30,000 pay increase and the publicity budget has been boosted to £1 million to publicise the work of the ruling group. Those are ways in which the freedom for local authorities to act has been used to the detriment of my constituents.

I support the principle of freedom, but not what the Liberal Democrat council in Sheffield is doing with that freedom. It is destroying the quality of life of my constituents in many ways, despite the fact that it has received grant increases this year at twice the rate of inflation and a council tax increase of two and a half times the rate of inflation. The council simply has its priorities absolutely wrong.

As I said at the beginning, there are many respects in which my constituents' general quality of life has improved during the past five or six years, but there are still real problems. A handful of people cause mayhem and disruption for whole communities. I welcome the Government's proposals to deal with those matters through changes to the antisocial behaviour order arrangements and eviction procedures for tenants who behave badly.

I would tell my hon. Friend the Minister that we need speedier and more effective procedures, but the changes to those procedures need to be introduced speedily as well. We must remember that every day of delay in Parliament is a further day of misery for thousands of people not just in my constituency, but throughout the country. We must act urgently on those issues.

1.3 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). I agree with what he has said and want to deal with one or two of those issues myself.

This is an important debate because, of course, communities collectively make up the nation. I want to refer to the fact that a community is more of a spirit; of course communities are created in many ways and pubs, churches, village shops and post offices make them up, but the social interaction that takes place is also important.

I fully accept that the Government and local government have roles to play in engendering that spirit and in improving the lives of people in their local communities. However, we should remember that the social interaction that I mentioned springs from self-responsibility and from people doing things for each other, not just leaving it to the Government or local government. Too much influence from central and local government can break down communities; that is evident in many areas.

People should feel that they have stake in the community. That is a matter not only of owning their own houses, although that is important, but of taking pride in existing institutions—in the churches, pubs and shops—and in each other and in their neighbourly behaviour. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe gave many examples of how antisocial behaviour can break down communities. Ownership of communities and of the institutions and spirit within them is extremely important.

In a constitutional context, too much government can break down community spirit. Where possible, local councils should be made smaller to make them responsible and responsive. Many parts of the country have parish councils and town councils, which are more local and more responsive. Local people who sit on them often feel a sense of ownership and responsibility in doing so. Parliament should consider the role of town and parish councils. District councils, although smaller than county councils, can be remote from many of the people whom they represent—especially in areas that are larger in terms of size or population. Certainly, county councils can be remote.

I urge the Government not to go down the road of regional government. In the south-west, it matters little to people in Tewkesbury whether decisions are made in Exeter or Bristol or in London. If possible, decisions relating to Tewkesbury should be made in Tewkesbury; if not, it makes no difference whether they are made in London or in Exeter, as neither would bring local benefit to the community.

On development—house building, in other words—it is important when providing housing not just to build houses. Several places in my constituency started off as pretty villages where there was a community spirit. More houses were built, but not a balanced community, because there were no amenities to go with them. People who live in them have to go elsewhere to shop or to use leisure facilities. That does not build up community spirit: it breaks it down. Any development that has to take place—although we should question whether certain areas should be developed—should be sustainable. We hear a great deal about sustainability, but what does it mean? It means building a balanced community and having respect for it, so that people can both live and function in it. They should not just go home to sleep, and have' to go elsewhere to do other things—those amenities should exist within the community.

Decisions on where to build houses should take account of towns and cities, which require regeneration. That can by done by building on brownfield sites, or by using flats above shops—and by ensuring that shops do not close in the first place, as they often do. That has the dual effect of not destroying green belt sites or greenfield sites, which are quickly being swallowed up.

We could also regenerate towns and cities by not taking so much money out of them. We should be imaginative about what used to be called enterprise zones. If there are serious problems in an area, perhaps instead of taxing people who live there and then feeding them the money back under a scheme that was designed in London the Government should take less money out of that area in the first place. It might be a revolutionary idea. Perhaps we should have tax-free zones in those areas for two or three years, to encourage enterprising people to move there to live, to set up businesses and to employ local people. On second thoughts, I do not think that it is a particularly revolutionary idea, but it is an imaginative idea, which I have had for a long time. I would like the Government to engage in that type of thinking.

Many hon. Members have spoken about the destructive effect of crime and the fear of crime on local communities. It eats away at the spirit and the performance of a community. Tolerance of crime is not an option. People who have studied what has happened in New York—I have not done so in detail—have found that the successes that they have had in that city seem to have come from the opposite of a tolerance of crime: a zero tolerance of crime.

I understand that, in that city, people can be arrested for very minor offences, but it may then be discovered that those people have committed many other offences, and if they are charged for them they can be taken off the streets. It has long been true that, as has been said, a very high percentage of crimes in a given area are committed by a very few people, and we really cannot let those people keep disrupting communities. In my opinion, zero tolerance is the way forward, not the tolerance of crime that we seem to be accepting these days.

That brings me to the subject of drugs, because we hear reports—I do not know how accurate—that in certain areas tolerance is shown to the possession of cannabis. I declare straight away that I oppose the legalisation of cannabis, on practical as well as moral grounds, because when I speak to the police in my area, they tell me that a very high percentage of heroin addicts started off on cannabis. It is no use going down the politically correct route of saying that cannabis is okay and is the same as drink or cigarettes; it is not. It is very different, and if we are going to start tolerating crime in that way, it will be the thin end of the wedge. It is no use having antisocial behaviour orders if we are to tolerate illegal acts. That cannot be the way forward.

We all know how much crime is committed in the pursuit of money to buy drugs. We should move in the other direction; we should stamp out drug use and the drug trade because it is destroying the lives of very many people—not just those who take the drugs but those who are affected by the crimes committed by people who want to purchase them.

A great deal of crime is committed by people with little or no education. I cannot quote the statistic exactly, but between 50 and 60 per cent. of people in prison are illiterate or have very low literacy. That is not an excuse for crime, however, and we cannot say that because someone is illiterate they should not go to prison. I am not making that case; I have said that I believe in the tougher control of crime. I believe in tougher sentencing for many crimes. However, we should recognise why crime is committed—not tolerate it, but try to understand why it is committed by some people in the first place, with a view to stamping it out. If we can, we should not only provide better education for those who go to university but turn our attention to those who have an alleged education for 11 years and yet leave school without any literacy or numeracy skills. That cannot be right, and we should try to find out why it is happening.

Geraint Davies

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that about 70 per cent. of people now in prison had been permanently excluded from school? When such youngsters, who are already disruptive, are excluded from school they get about five hours' tuition a week and then roam around, stealing mobile phones and the like. They end up in prison, and within two years of being released they are back inside again. It costs £34,000 a year to keep them in prison. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the extension in September of pupil referral units, which will provide such youngsters with at least some level of concentrated education, should help the drive against criminality?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Like other hon. Members, I have discussed such issues with teachers and head teachers. However, they do point out that the inability to exclude such pupils easily enough causes great disruption to schools. That problem must be dealt with, but I recognise what the hon.

Gentleman is saying. It is all right expelling pupils, but where should they then go? Should they go to another school, which they then disrupt, or should they simply hang around on the streets, where they are a nuisance to society?

Should they end up in prison? When someone ends up in prison, it is a tragedy for them, for their family, for the taxpayer, and even for the victim of the crime. We should do our utmost to prevent people from getting into the situations that lead to their committing the crimes that result in going to prison. One method is to improve education at school age. As I said, I am delighted that many people go to university and get a good education, but we also need to consider those who are slipping through the net and not getting any education at all.

A great many people are in employment these days—as my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said, we handed the Labour Government a very sound economy, which they have not quite managed to destroy just yet—so to some extent there is a skills shortage. However, I speak with some experience when I say that the collapse of certain industries has destroyed many communities. The mining and steel industries are the obvious examples, but we should remember the textile industry, in which I worked for many years. Many people in that industry, who were low paid to start with, lost their jobs. It is very difficult for such communities to share in the general wealth of the nation, given that they started from such a low base, only for their industries to be destroyed. That has proved a terrible problem, particularly in the farming industry.

We have concentrated—probably rightly—on many of the problems in towns and inner cities, but I want to touch on those affecting rural areas. I represent a constituency that is, by and large, rural, and its communities have experienced many difficulties. They suffer because of their rurality, which is not adequately compensated for because of the way that local government grants are assessed. However, there are also problems with transport. Rural areas suffer from very poor transport links, and there is also much poverty and crime.

More and more people from rural communities are complaining to me—in person and in writing—about crime in their areas. We should not ignore that issue. Although my constituency is not considered an area of deprivation, pockets of deprivation exist. We have awful problems with drug dealers and with theft in certain parts of the constituency, and I am rather peeved that the national lottery grants do not adequately reflect that fact. Areas are assessed in terms of overall deprivation, but it is not recognised that certain pockets of deprivation—perhaps such as those in my constituency—do not have the full amenities and levels of wealth that other parts of the country enjoy.

To some extent, the Government have recognised the problem. They intend to concentrate on improving national lottery grants for 51 areas that they have identified throughout the country, but I should point out that 50 of those areas already receive more money than Tewkesbury does. As the Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury, I find that a little difficult to understand and hard to take. I have initiated one Adjournment debate on that issue already, and I am applying for another. Although Tewkesbury has applied for about a sixth of the money that has been applied for in Gloucestershire—there are six constituencies in the county, so that is about right—it has received only 3 per cent. of the amount available to the county. That is not acceptable to my constituents who play the lottery as keenly as anyone else. They do not think that they are getting an adequate reward for that.

On the theme of rural communities, farms are not only family businesses that generate sources of income on which people rely for their living, but a crucial part of the countryside. Farmers are the custodians of the countryside and have suffered terribly not only from the BSE crisis, but from the foot and mouth crisis as well, which hit my constituency hard. In addition, although I do not want to make a party political point, the Government are ignoring some of the bigger problems in the country and are determined to ban hunting.

I do not hunt and never have. Indeed, I have not always lived in a rural area. I lived in Bolton in Lancashire for 33 years and did not have a view on hunting because I knew nothing about it. I remind the Government that the Burns report, which they commissioned, identified that events and organisations like gymkhanas and pony clubs are dependent on people who participate in hunting. Hunting is important to some parts of our communities, such as my constituency, and in a few areas, it is crucial. It will be a further blow to those rural areas if it is banned.

A community is not just about a physical area; it is also about a community spirit. Many communities, each with their own spirit, are what make up a country. I am delighted to have been present for this important debate. I am glad that the Government introduced it and that I have been able to participate.

1.22 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

When the Minister opened the debate, she talked in measured terms about the Government's proposals to improve the quality of life. It was unfortunate that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) accused her of issuing a distorted press release before going on to give us the Tory press release for the day.

When the Tories and others denigrate the national health service as part of the quality of life argument, they should be careful. It is true that the Daily Mail can find a casualty here, there and everywhere every day, but those of us who go to hospital on a regular basis have seen for ourselves the smiling faces of the winners who come out after seeing the doctor for a check-up or whatever. When I discuss things with those people, almost every one of them praises the NHS to the skies. That was true of my brother as well, who recently died of cancer. Before he passed away, he had nothing but praise for the treatment that he received from nurses and everyone else who cared for him during his four to five-year struggle.

When politicians—the Tories and Liberals in particular—slag off the NHS, they do not fully realise just how many people have to use it. As we live longer, more and more of us will rely on it. Those of us who have had a second mortgage on life will defend the NHS. I am pleased that, in order to improve the quality of life, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has come up with an idea that some people might regard as old Labour. For me, however, it is sensible and necessary. It means that those pensioners who are going to benefit from the NHS like never before are not going to have to contribute to the national insurance levy.

I therefore think that it was a good proposal. It will mean that the quality of life in all our constituencies will be vastly improved over the course of the next 10 or 15 years. It may not be perfect—I am not one of those politicians who believes that we can discover or produce nirvana in the morning—but it will make one hell of a difference to those people who use it.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire also referred to crime. The Tories ought to keep their trap shut about crime. It is not just a problem on the Sheffield estates, although my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) spoke eloquently about his meetings. If we think about Archer and Aitken and about Lady Porter—and where she ought to be, as she owes £27 million but they cannot get hold of her—the truth is that crime cuts across all swathes of society.

The same thing applies to the argument that we have heard about drugs. The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)—I say this advisedly—was talking about the drugs issue as if it related to working-class people alone. However, the truth is that it cuts across large sections of society. I have had people in my surgery such as 27-year-old heroin users who are in a job; they have not been dragged in and they did not work in the pit. This issue has accelerated and has been accentuated in the last 20 or 30 years. It was not around when I was a kid. We used to smoke fags as we were going over the hills to school, and we thought we were involved in a great escape. Today, however, it is totally different.

I have not yet got caught up with those who believe that we ought to legalise this, that and the other. I shall certainly not advance the idea that was put forward by a leading Liberal Democrat the other day to improve the quality of life. She said that we ought to be handing out free cocaine. If I voted for that, people in my ex-pit villages would be saying, "What about free fags and free ale and all the rest?" Liberal Democrats say some barmy things. We can all dream up a fantasy solution, but we must find the money; it must be sensible, and it must make a difference.

I entered this debate principally because I was born and bred in a pit village and I represent a constituency that used to have about 25 pits. I watched the quality of life deteriorate in the period when pits were being shut left, right and centre in my constituency. By the time the Tories had gone, the net result was that every single pit in north Derbyshire had gone. As a result, thousands of people were without work. One of the things that I have been trying to do to improve the quality of life in each of the pit villages is to try to restore the social fabric that was decimated by those Tory Governments who decided to get rid of all the pits.

At the end, there was a qualitative change—in 1962, when I was a miner, I was transferred from one pit to another one, but there were no transfer pits for those that were closed in the late 1980s and in the 1990s. That is why, in the past four or five years, we have had limited success in trying to rebuild those communities. I would be foolish and naive, however, if I did not give the impression that once the social fabric and the tightly knit community of a pit village has been destroyed, it is a big job to try to get it back on its feet. That is why I have always concentrated on the issue of jobs and the need to get more jobs into those areas that have suffered even more.

I am pleased that in the past five years we have had an economy that is getting more and more people back into work. I was here between 1974 and 1979 and I saw the opposite. One of this Government's redeeming features is that, whereas in 1976 we were having to tear up the Labour manifesto and shoot off to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, we now have a bob or two to give the IMF to bail out the 22 under-developed countries and improve their quality of life as well. I know that the quality of life in Bolsover will not continue to improve unless we manage to get our macro-economic policies right. That means concentrating on reducing unemployment. There is no doubt that it has gone down even in my area, principally because of the general state of the economy.

My hon. Friend the Minister visited my area to look at Shirebrook and one or two other pit villages. Together, we are trying to rebuild those areas. I have to tell the hon. Member for Tewkesbury that we got a sum from the lottery to refurbish Shirebrook miners' welfare, and I have been as good as the next Member at getting money for this, that and the other. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and her predecessor both declared that the pit areas that were hammered mercilessly will get favourable treatment, so Shirebrook miners' welfare, a necessary part of the village, has been improved.

I have to be careful about what I say about all these figures, but I got £24 million for the Shirebrook pit site, not from the lottery but from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He had to sign for that personally because the amount was more than the original £20 million, but I managed to force him into it. There will now be an industrial site on the old pit tip. My hon. Friend the Minister went there and knows that the heat was tremendous because of the spontaneous combustion underneath.

We are going to develop the housing, much of which is derelict as a result of pirate landlords moving into the Coal Board housing estates and taking over. They take the rent for a short period but do nothing with the houses, which fall into rack and ruin. Now we have to pick up the pieces and try to ensure that the whole village can last the next 40 or 50 years. So there is the miners' welfare, housing and jobs where the pit used to be. I have been taking action in many of my villages. We have to get a bit more money, so I hope that my hon. Friend is listening carefully. We want some more money for Creswell model village. We have made a start and got rid of 80 old houses, and I think there are another 160 to go, so my hon. Friend will be hearing about that.

Another proposal is to do something with the old Markham area, where there were several pits. An announcement has been made by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. That is the Department that took back Railtrack. Our shiny new Labour Secretary of State upset the Tories because it looked as if he was acting out of character when he took Railtrack back into the public sector. Frankly, I think he did a great job on that score. On top of that, he agrees with me that the M1 will have a new junction, 29A, leading to an industrial site at Markham that will produce between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs. It will be bigger than Meadowhall, which my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe knows all about. These jobs will not be in shops; they will be in factories and so on. It will be the biggest industrial development since they sunk the pits.

Hon. Members can see that I have been pretty active behind the scenes, trying to restore the social fabric and improve the quality of life in our area. I do not think that my hon. Friend the Minister knows this, but we have got £7 million for the King's Mill hospital. That is not in my constituency, but right on the border, so I cannot take the credit for that. However, there is £7 million to improve the Frederick Gent school at South Normanton, and there is another matter that I hope to sort out eventually.

What I am trying to say is that we cannot do any of that unless the economy is doing well. We cannot do anything, in socialist terms, if we are skint and if we are having to beg and borrow. That is why it is very important that the national economy is kept on an even keel, with more people in work and more people paying tax and national insurance. We can then have a regional policy whereby we can provide more money where it is absolutely necessary. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan) is here. People in Wales and other parts of Britain understand that we have to restore opportunities in the areas that got hammered.

The quality of life in mining areas was never superb. I am not one of those ex-miners who has a romantic view of the wonderful past working down a pit. The camaraderie was wonderful, but it was a lousy job. We are trying to recreate jobs and improve the quality of life in those areas, and we have made a bit of a start. If we continue along that path, in 10 or 20 years' time, we will have made some of the pit villages that were almost destroyed, with their boarded-up houses all over the place, look a bit better; and if we can get jobs in those areas, I have no doubt that the quality of life will have improved in ways we can be proud of.

Quality of life means that people have to have the right to roam, whether or not they have a job. I am pleased that we passed the legislation securing that right. We shall be able to see the little foxes roaming all over the place, because we will ban hunting—there will be no third way, will there? No. We shall be able to see all the little foxes in Chatsworth park—we shall be able to trample all over the Duke of Devonshire's land.

Mr. Laurence Robertson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Skinner

I think the hon. Gentleman wants to go there as well.

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is my parents' MP and that my father was a miner. Will he not respect the right of rural communities to live the life they have lived for many years, just as he wanted mining communities to be able to do?

Mr. Skinner

It is a false distinction to separate mining communities from rural communities. Most mining communities are rural communities, with each pit separated from the next by 20 or so fields. I was born in a rural community, and I know that we should not get the impression that the drive to ban foxhunting emanates from city dwellers. The ban is supported by a majority of people in my constituency and all the rural areas as well.

We will have the right to roam. Tomorrow marks the 70th anniversary of the mass trespass at Kinder Scout. We shall celebrate the fact that, after all those years, all the Labour party resolutions and all the previous Labour Governments, the current Labour Government have passed the legislation giving people the right to roam. I think that that, together with jobs, the health service, other public services, housing and all the rest, will improve the quality of life of all our people. Those are the things that improve the quality of life.

Improving the quality of life is not an abstract concept. It is about doing things and having the brass to do them with, and in the past five years we have had a bob or two to spend. I want us to spend the next five or 10 years doing the exact same things.

1.38 pm
Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), although he is a hard act to follow—

Mr. Laurence Robertson


Mr. McCabe

I quite agree.

Like my hon. Friend, I was bemused by the synthetic anger displayed by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss). Only after reading the press release and hearing the rest of his speech did I realise what he was doing. There were two elements, the first of which was an innocuous but fairly good press release that pointed out that certain Government activities were addressing some of the problems that people consistently bring to the attention of Members of Parliament from all parties. There was a little good news about some progress being made after a bit of work, but the hon. Gentleman could not bring himself to acknowledge that. Instead, he used it as a hook for a party political broadcast. Quite a broadcast it was too. He told us that rail privatisation was a good thing. Anyone would have thought that Mrs. Thatcher had been a friend of the railways. He relied on quotes from 1995 to tell us how well Conservative councils are doing now.

That was a shabby attack. The second element is that a pattern of opposition on the part of Conservative Members is emerging. It is not only that they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge any good news, or that they constantly want to denigrate what is happening, just for the sake of it. We know now that it is a strategy. The person who let the cat out of the bag was the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). He did not intend to do that. Instead, he intended to tell members of the Conservative party in secret what the strategy was. Unfortunately, he was taped and the Daily Mirror blew the gaff.

We know that the hon. Gentleman's strategy is to persuade the public that the health service will not work. That is phase 1 of a four-phase strategy. The idea is to denigrate the health service and demoralise people generally, including those who work in the service, so as to be in a position to do away with it.

I wonder whether the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire is widening that approach. Is the Conservative strategy on every other subject the same? If so, they will tell people who are worried about crime that we cannot solve the policing problem, and people who are worried about housing that we cannot do anything about that either.

I suspect that that pattern is emerging from a party that does not have any real engagement with the issues that concern people, but does have a clear desire to denigrate and smash public services. That is supposed to provide the platform for the Conservatives to remove the investment that the Labour Government have been putting in. I suspect that that is what we saw demonstrated by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

I had intended to talk about what is happening in some of our communities, including the progress that we have seen through the strengthening of the economy, the jobs that are coming back and the money that has been put in, as well as some of the difficulties that we are still trying to confront.

As I was travelling to the House on the bus this morning, I read the report of an interview with a 13-year-old girl in the estate in which Damilola Taylor died. As I read it, I realised that the truth is that however much progress we are making and however many things we are doing that are making a difference, we must accept that for many people there is still a long way to go. We read about youngsters growing up in estates who at the age of 13 can say, "I've handled a gun. I know a 13-year-old boy who regularly walks round with one stuffed into the waistband of his pants." That should cause us all concern.

The problem is not confined to estates in south London. Only the other week there was a drive-by shooting in Birmingham. I know that the number of offences involving guns is creeping up all the time. They are becoming a regular occurrence. I know also that it is far too easy for people to gain access to guns.

I feel that the time has come to review gun laws. We should seek to stop guns coming in from external sources, and we should investigate the mail order business, the internet business and those who sell apparently "safe" guns—air pistols or replica guns, for example—that are re-engineered in back-street workshops and used in crimes.

If we want to show concern for the quality of life in our communities, we must tackle the big things that are destroying our communities. We must say that the gun lobby has had its day. It is time we tightened up and did everything in our power to take guns out of our communities.

It seems that we have guns in our communities because of the scourge of drugs. I am astonished that we should find ourselves in a position where debate is reduced to narrow arguments about which policing tactic is effective. People who are using guns and killing other members of the community, often in drive-by shootings, are locked into the heroin and crack cocaine trade, and they are ravaging communities across the country. We should go after those people with a vengeance and root them out.

We should use the powers in the Proceeds of Crime Bill to strip those people of every asset that they acquire from that illegal trade. I served for months on the Committee that deliberated on the Bill, and I was astonished how often Opposition Members sought to weaken the powers in it so as to preserve the interests of the folk who are wrecking our communities. I am not trying to make a desperate party political point; I am warning Opposition Members that if they are serious about dealing with the problems that ravage our communities, they should support us when we give the police and other agencies the power to make a difference. They are out of order when they try to whittle away those powers.

Finally, there is a debate to be had about the nature of policing in this country. It would be a terrible mistake if that debate were reduced to the details of police numbers, or how police co-operate with other agencies that may engage in support activity. In my community, the crime fighting fund has been beneficial in establishing small squads in particular areas to tackle the antisocial criminal behaviour with which we are all familiar. A substantial reduction in crime and antisocial behaviour on the Pitmaston Estate in Hall Green is the result of work by a dedicated squad funded by the crime fighting fund. We should encourage and welcome that kind of activity.

If we are serious about trying to tackle ongoing crime, we must recognise that the police themselves want intelligence-led policing. Neighbourhood wardens and community support officers, for example, can provide them with assistance. When a house is burgled it is probably a waste of time sending a police officer, but it is a good idea to send a forensics team, which is much more likely to be of assistance in catching the people involved. I am sure that most Members know that 90 per cent. or more of forensic teams are civilians, not police officers, but work hand in hand with the police to boost the detection rate.

That is the kind of mature debate that I want on policing; it is the kind of debate that my constituents understand and are happy to engage in. They do not want slogans, they do not want our public services denigrated, and they do not want people to talk tough and then, in the privacy of Committees, water down Bills that would make a difference. They want real action on the things that concern them, and I hope that our activities in the months and years ahead will focus on that.

1.48 pm
Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

The contributions to our debate have been wide ranging—not least that of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who rightly made the point that unless the economy is in shape and we are delivering an extra 1.5 million jobs instead of spending money on debt and the dole, we cannot deliver the services in health and education that people want for a basic quality of life.

I shall not focus on those important wider issues, but on the quality of life on the street and in our communities. We have made enormous progress in providing better education, more jobs and a better health service, but in many of our areas people still have a fear of crime as they walk down their street.

Particularly in my area, one of the reasons why some people might experience such fear is the presence of graffiti, abandoned cars, and other signs and symbols of neglect and vandalism, which make people scared to walk their own streets. Much has been done by councils and by the Government to tackle the problem through lighting, CCTV, more police, street wardens, efforts to design out crime, and investment in youth provision.

In the brief time available, I shall focus on some of the pioneering work that is being done in Croydon and suggest what more might be done. In my home patch, there is enormous co-operation between the council, the police and the community to clean up the area and make it a safer place to be. We have six teams of two who go out and scrub off graffiti. We have action against young offenders, which does not necessarily mean a hard-line approach that pushes them through the courts and puts them in prison. The aim is to find out who is responsible for the graffiti and go to their homes, tell their fathers and get the culprits to clean off the graffiti. That is working, in co-operation with the youth service, and it is more effective than pushing people through the prison system.

Earlier, I mentioned the problem of the 70,000 people in British prisons. Many of those people had in the past been permanently excluded from school. I am glad, as I said, that the Government have decided to provide excluded children with permanent education. I believe that they deserve more and better education than the average, to ensure that they do not end up in our jails and become repeat offenders, causing mayhem on our streets. It is not value for money to spend £34,000 a year to keep someone in jail.

Other preventive measures implemented locally include the introduction of climbing plants and pre-grown ivy on flank walls that tend to be attacked regularly. That has eliminated the problem of graffiti and improved the local environment. There has been heavy investment in CCTV and we have asked local retailers to lock away aerosol cans. We found that as most of the paint that is used to spray graffiti is stolen, that has reduced the amount of graffiti locally but has not affected trade or the viability of local shops.

By the very nature of the crime, the offender leaves his signature on walls to show how clever he is. That allows us to create a database of tags and eventually identify the offenders. I believe that there is much mileage in advertising hefty rewards to discover whose the tags are. In the world of competing graffiti vandals, it is known whose the tags are—that is the whole point. If a reward of £1,000 leads to the identification of an offender through his tag, and Scotland Yard gets a warrant, enters his flat and finds the evidence—aerosols and so on—he should be charged with everything it is possible to charge him with.

What sort of people are committing those offences? Historically, graffiti vandals tended to be hard-core criminals. Increasingly, however, we now find that they are first-time offenders who think that they are participating in some sort of popular culture largely imported from the United States. We need to confront that at the core and demonstrate to people that they are destroying their own environment.

Speaking to primary school children in an area that I represent, I found that many young children said that they were scared by the emergence of more graffiti and abandoned cars. It is not true that the vast majority of young people tolerate vandalism. They want to stamp it out as much as we do. That is why Croydon is spending £250,000 a year on anti-graffiti measures. Across London the figure is more than £10 million. The Government have made some headway on the problem in terms of antisocial behaviour measures, and the Greater London Authority is asking, in clause 18 of the London Local Authorities Bill, that under-18s should be prevented from buying aerosols or marker pens.

In Germany a new anti-graffiti law was brought forward in January to extend the powers against graffiti vandals and ensure that less evidence was needed to exercise them. In the United States it is already obligatory to lock up spray paint in shops and restrict its sale to adults. In Chicago, there is a complete ban on the sale of spray paints. I have written to the Home Secretary suggesting that we simply ban the production, sale and import of aerosol cans of paint.

Some people may lift their eyebrows at that proposal, but we are dealing with a balance of costs and benefits, and we must consider the reasons why people use the sprays. People who legitimately want to spray over a scratch on their car can use other means of applying the paint. Professional painters of cars have mechanisms other than cans at their disposal, which leaves only artists. Restrictions apply to guns and restrict their use to clubs. Perhaps artists should join clubs so that the items in question, which are used to destroy our environment, are kept under close guard. In my area a gentleman called Philip Ditton is running around the residents' associations trying to gain support for that idea, and I certainly think that it is worth while.

The least that we should do is impose very tight controls on the retail and manufacture of these devices, which are largely used by young people and are sold on the internet explicitly for the creation of mayhem and damage. The paints are also dangerous; many of them contain especially dangerous solvents, gas and resins. Some contain nitrocellulose and acrylic elements that bite into the painted surface to which they are applied.

Aerosol cans should be locked up in shops and kept away from children, and there should be local laws against their possession by children. The police should have greater powers to stop and search, so that they can deal with somebody who is walking along the road with aerosol cans clearly sticking out of his trouser pockets, while fresh graffiti has just appeared around the corner. When the police see such people, they should be able to demand that they turn out their pockets.

We could also introduce dry mineral cleaning equipment of the sort currently used in France, and there are some possibilities with anti-graffiti coatings—chemicals that are applied to signs and the like, and stop graffiti staying there and allow it to be wiped off. Also, as I said, there should be a more comprehensive tag database that the police can use to hunt down the perpetrators using the incentive of rewards.

Warrants for entry into property should also be available, and we should consider banning the advertisement of imported products, especially those coming from Spain and Germany, that are designed to be sprayed on walls and public spaces. They are mainly advertised on the internet. I wonder whether, if a ban were agreed to, some of the stuff coming through the post could be detected by X-rays and the like.

The private sector, too, has a duty to clean up its space. It is disgraceful that when people travel to London on the train, they pass massive areas of derelict railway land that has been completely vandalised and is covered in graffiti. It would be better if such places were covered in advertising, which would pay for itself, cover the areas and pay for some sort of clean-up. In general, there is an argument for the principle that the polluter pays. The manufacturers of aerosol paints should pay to repair the damage that misuse leads to.

There is a lot to think about in all those proposals. Members of my local community are sick and tired of having to see signs of graffiti when they walk down the road. They are also aware that council tax is being used to eliminate some of the problems. Croydon council is doing a marvellous job in fighting back to clean up the streets, but more measures need to be taken.

We also have a problem with abandoned cars. It is largely created by second-hand cars that have a negative value, partly because the scrap steel is no longer worth anything. The Government gave local authorities greater powers to clear up abandoned cars after the Prime Minister made a speech in Croydon. We are now clearing up approximately 5,000 abandoned cars every year. Last month the figure was 450.

There is a peculiar mystery involving the hon. Members for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) and for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), who recently visited Croydon—without notifying me, of course. They appeared in the news beside a burnt-out abandoned car that had not been reported to the council. However, when the council went to remove it, it had already gone. There was some suspicion that the visiting Conservative dignitaries put it there. We are still looking into that rather strange matter.

Contrary to the impression that those Conservative Members gave in the local newspaper, Croydon is second to none in clearing up abandoned vehicles. As I said, last month we cleared up 450, compared with 350 in Tory Bromley and 160 in Liberal Democrat Sutton. We take the problem seriously, as does the local community. We are grateful for the Government's support and wish them well in giving us more powers to tackle that difficult problem.

2.1 pm

Ms Keeble

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate, which has been wide ranging and has shown the importance of environmental issues to people throughout the country. Hon. Members from all parties understand that pavement politics issues are important to the well-being not only of individuals and local communities, but to local economies.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) struck a jarring note by focusing on the press release. It and the method that produced it will withstand any scrutiny. In drawing attention to it, he has created a story when none existed. I welcome the fact that more people will read it, but his actions fail to do justice to a serious, well-informed debate on an important subject.

Mr. Moss

Will the Minister confirm that, in her opinion, the press release did not break the civil service code?

Ms Keeble

I am absolutely clear that it did not break the civil service code.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned destruction of greenfield sites. He was wrong about that. The Government's approach is to monitor and manage, whereas that of the Conservative Government was to predict and provide. In many cases, our figures for housing need in different areas are lower than the current rate of building. When figures for town centre development are compared with those for out-of-town development, they show that our policies to support town centres and protect greenfield areas from urban sprawl, especially out-of-town retail centre development, are working well.

The hon. Gentleman criticised the Government on transport. Our approach to London Underground was determined by a legacy of underinvestment and the well-perceived need to improve its quality as a key part of improving the capital city's infrastructure.

The hon. Gentleman also criticised our record on social services, but that of the Conservative Government was bad. Those who remember care in the community know that what should have been a good policy was fatally flawed because of the Conservative Government's failure to fund it properly. Many old people are now paying the price of that underinvestment. We have learnt from that, and in introducing our supporting people programme, we shall ensure the provision of good-quality, supported accommodation across the board for the people who need it. My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox) will be interested in that.

We recognise that not only elderly people, but people who have come out of prison, those who have left care and psychiatric hospitals and those who are fleeing domestic violence need supported accommodation. That applies also to some very young people who, on being given the key to a council flat and being told, "There's your flat; go and get on with your life", have real difficulties because they do not yet have the necessary social skills. A number of hon. Members have spoken about that today, and about the consequences for communities of young people not getting the support that they need when they need it.

We have provided free nursing care for people in care homes, and invested more money in the health service and in local authorities to deal with the pressing problem of ensuring that, when older people are discharged from hospital, they can go into appropriate accommodation. Having lived in their home for, perhaps, 50 years, many of them have the awful experience of seeing it for the last time out of the back of an ambulance as they are carted off to hospital. They never manage to get home to pack up their belongings because the necessary support systems are not in place. We have put the money into local government to unlock some of those acute difficulties.

In looking at ways of providing services, I have previously mentioned Castle Vale, which has come up with some extremely good partnerships—involving the private sector, the housing authority and the health authority—to find ways of helping older people in their transition from hospital back into the community. That brings me to the most depressing aspect of the contribution of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire. His speech did not do justice to the outstanding work being done in communities throughout the country to tackle those difficult issues.

The hon. Gentleman might say that I look at life through rose-tinted spectacles, but I think that he had the most severe bout of the blues today that I have ever come across. Many disadvantaged areas have been beset by crime, drugs, poverty, poor housing and poor local management of services. They have taken a grip on those problems through measures such as the new deal for communities and have transformed what is happening. That has taken a lot of hard work, commitment and dedication by a range of people at local level.

Mr. Moss

Will the Minister point to any one of the statistics that I gave in my speech which she thinks is inaccurate, or with which she takes issue?

Ms Keeble

Yes, I will indeed be coming to one. I shall deal with it when I respond to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) on crime statistics.

The Conservatives have made much of wanting to be compassionate and to be the party of the disadvantaged. If they want even to start going down that road, they should support their communities, listen to them and look at what they are doing. They should also look at their problems. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire spent most of his speech denigrating the outstanding work that many of those communities are doing. The Conservatives are turning the crime statistics round and running them down. That does no justice at all to the work being done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting talked about the problems of older people who are out of work, which the Government are dealing with through the new deal for the over-50s and through the work being done to encourage volunteering. He also drew attention to the need to ensure that the needs of black minority ethnic communities are catered for in our towns and cities, including through the provision of facilities. Issues about the provision of facilities often relate back to planning decisions, and I draw to his attention, and pay tribute to, the work of the planning inspectorate to attract more people from the black minority ethnic communities into the planning profession, and to get them to stay and become inspectors so that they can play a part in shaping our urban communities.

My hon. Friend also referred to the impact of property leases on people starting up in business. I draw his attention to the code that my Department recently agreed with all sectors of the commercial property industry to deal with some of the problems that he identified. I shall ensure that he gets a copy of that, and of the "Plain English" leaflet that goes with it, which is quite outstanding—it is a model of how to produce plain English leaflets.

My hon. Friend asked about the procurement of affordable housing through the planning process. We are extremely concerned about that and see it as part of the planning process to make sure that developments include some affordable housing. It is key to tackling some of the problems in London. If he writes to me about the issues that he is concerned about, I shall certainly look at them, although he is aware of the restrictions on the Department's role in the planning process.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) set out some of the serious issues raised by the urban taskforce. All of those have been taken on board by the Government and substantial progress has been made in delivering on them. He also talked about the flight to the suburbs. Some big cities are doing extremely good work in reversing that flight and increasing the residential population in city centres. I mentioned Newcastle previously, but Manchester and Nottingham are also doing good work through design and innovative housing. Nottingham works with the private sector and some housing associations, and environmental standards are being improved.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) talked about including young people and children. The green spaces taskforce is looking carefully at the needs of children and young people. It recognises that young people can be a problem because they just want to hang out, like young people do. Parks and open spaces have a role in providing facilities where young people can do that without being perceived as a threat or a nuisance. Recommendations on that will, I hope, be made shortly.

I was pleased to hear about the success of the programmes for fishing communities. The Government recognise that the need to deal with the environment is particularly serious for seaside towns and all areas trying to attract tourists. I wish my hon. Friend's council all the very best for its planning weekend and its effort to engage the public in the planning process.

The hon. Member for Poole raised a number of issues. I agreed with many of his comments about the country's strong economic performance, but I take issue with his position on crime. Fear of crime must be tackled as well as crime itself. The Home Office statistical bulletin 18/1, which draws from information in the 2001 British crime survey, shows that crime went down by a third between 1995 and 2000 and has dropped by 21 per cent. since 1997. It also deals with fear of crime, because crime can be considered in terms of enforcement or victims, and shows that the chance of people being victims of crime is the lowest for nearly 20 years. That is important in terms of people's day-to-day experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) described eloquently the problems of antisocial behaviour. Most hon. Members have heard similar stories at their advice surgeries. He described many of the measures that my Department is considering, so I shall not go through them all again. We are also working closely with the Home Office. I re-emphasise the fact that we need to ensure not only that the police, local authorities and communities work together to enforce law and order, but that we prevent crime by building safety into the design of urban areas.

Geraint Davies

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) mentioned the problem of witness intimidation. The statute book provides opportunities to protect the victims of rape as well as juvenile victims. Will my hon. Friend the Minister talk to her colleagues about the possibility of providing anonymity for those who have been subjected to violent crimes on estates and are in fear of coming forward as witnesses?

Ms Keeble

I shall certainly take up that point with my colleagues in the Home Office.

The hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) talked about the distance between local councils and the local community. He also talked about rural problems. We recognise those issues, which is why funding has been provided for rural policing and bus services. I understand that the funding for those bus services has produced an extra 4 million passenger journeys—a remarkable increase.

The hon. Gentleman rightly said that small pockets of disadvantage are often found in affluent areas. The aim of our proposals on the local strategic partnership and neighbourhood renewal—I agree that the jargon is often absolutely appalling—is to ensure that those involved in all local services sit down to address the problems that occur in all areas, not just those that are most disadvantaged. Problems must be properly identified and targeted, even in affluent areas—his constituency is fairly affluent—so that we can end the disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is a hard act to follow—and an even harder act to comment on—but he is absolutely right to say that the No. 1 issue is the economy. The economy determines our quality of life to a very basic degree. I thought that it would probably be helpful to try to limit this debate a bit, which is why I did not talk about the NHS, schools, employment, mortgage rates and all the other issues on which the Government have an outstanding track record. Obviously, those factors and services also dictate a person's quality of life.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to refer to the work being done in the coalfields and to the investment in the economy, transport infrastructure, roads and motorways and in regenerating the former colliery sites. In his area, the investment has gone into an industrial park. Elsewhere, it has gone into leisure parks and nice green spaces, as well as into housing regeneration. In place of the dereliction of the Tory years, the Government have rebuilt.

The work in the coalfields shows perhaps one of the starkest contrasts between this Government's approach and that of the Conservatives. There are 13 or 14 villages in the Eden valley, and it is extremely important that we see that project through, because it can provide us with a model of how to deal with some of the problems found elsewhere in the country.

It is essential that we ensure that all sections of our society benefit from the strong economy. In addition to economic growth, we need to spread that development throughout our society. Again, one of the big differences between the Conservatives and Labour is the fact that we have put in place the mechanisms to ensure that, at the grassroots level, people can feel the benefit of our economic strength and progress.

The fact that those mechanisms did not exist previously is best summed up by what happened in London during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Canary Wharf was developed while some of the most disadvantaged communities nestled around it. We need to ensure that those disparities are ended and that all sections of society feel the benefits. That is what much of this debate has been about.

Mr. Skinner

Notwithstanding the success that I mentioned, I have about another 10 projects lined up, so I hope that they will not be disadvantaged. The job is only half done; there is a lot more to do.

Ms Keeble

"A lot done, a lot more to do" is a slogan that I have heard somewhere else, and I agree with it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) was right about the cynicism and despair engendered by Opposition Members. Telling people that they can do nothing about anything and that nothing will make a difference only days before local authority elections—

Mr. Moss

I did not say that.

Ms Keeble

Actually, the hon. Gentleman did. It is tantamount to putting out a notice saying, "Don't bother to vote." In fact, all the evidence shows that people can make a difference. They can reduce crime and improve their estates and schools. How—and, indeed, whether—people vote does make a difference and does count.

The biggest antidote to the cynicism and despair that the hon. Gentleman encouraged and engendered is to go to one of the new deal for communities areas, such as the one in Tottenham that I visited recently, to see the difference that people have made by taking control of their own communities and saying what they want out of local services. It is not only a question of how much money is spent; what ultimately makes the difference is the way in which it is spent and the involvement of the community.

Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, mentioned what happened on the North Peckham estate. As a former leader of Southwark council—I see that the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is now here—and a former governor of Oliver Goldsmith school, I think that we should be cautious before we leap to conclusions. I am sure that the whole House would want to extend great sympathy to the family of Damilola Taylor. His loss was a complete tragedy, and recent events must make things infinitely worse for them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) made direct links between micro-actions at community level and the big picture. If we are serious about achieving urban renaissance and regenerating our towns, cities and rural communities, and about ending the disadvantage that has been a scar on many parts of the country, we must deal with the day-to-day and street-level problems that make a substantial difference to people's experiences and chances in life. As my hon. Friend said, we should celebrate what our local communities and local councils are doing. The changes that they can deliver will improve people's quality of life in their local communities and help to transform our society very much for the better.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.