Council Estates (Security Patrols)

Clause 38 – in the House of Commons at 10:32 pm on 13th June 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test 10:34 pm, 13th June 1988

I begin by quoting the report of the chief constable of Hampshire for 1987, which contains some chilling figures. One paragraph states: Public disorder on the streets of Southampton has manifested itself in serious wounding offences including four murders. As there were only 14 murders—if I may say "only"—throughout the length and breadth of Hampshire, the House will appreciate the seriousness of the offences taking place because so many young people now carry knives. In Hampshire there were 95,267 crimes, a recorded increase of 2,726, with a detection rate of 32,618 or 34·4 per cent. —just one out of every three crimes.

I called this debate because I felt that if even a small proportion of the thought, time and money expended on the terrible national problem of football hooliganism were spent on the seemingly insoluble problem of estate hooliganism, that problem would swiftly be solved. At present, we are just sitting down and letting it happen.

Great concern has been shown about the problem. The Home Office has produced an excellent booklet, "Practical Ways to Crack Crime", which I hope will be the subject of mass distribution throughout the United Kingdom. Other elements in that concern include a one-day seminar in London on Tuesday 28 June on "Combating Vandalism to Public Services". The seminar is financed by TVS and British Telecom and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be speaking at it.

There is clearly a hiatus somewhere. We are all becoming aware of the problems, unfortunately, but more through watching football matches than through watching the vandalism on council estates. I believe, therefore, that it is time to go round the estates again. In 1978 I put forward a programme for security patrols on housing estates. These were intended not to take over the duties of the police but to supplement them and to convey information to the police between the hours of 4 pm and midnight each day.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and some chief constables are firmly convinced that neighbourhood watch schemes are a good thing. There are currently about 50,000 such schemes covering more than 3·5 million households and they seem to be doing a worthwhile job. I am worried, however, because this aspect is left entirely to the discretion of the chief constable concerned and I must tell the House with some regret that Southampton does not enjoy neighbourhood watch schemes of any importance.

Community policing is extremely worth while but, as every Member of Parliament knows, each year brings requests for further increases in establishment.I have here a plea from the Hampshire police authority for an increase of 47 in the establishment for next year. From year to year, I have been perfectly willing to support the police in lobbying the Home Secretary.

I am particularly concerned in that problem areas such as Lord's hill have not received any increase in police establishment. The chief constable of Hampshire and the Hampshire police authority are worried about manning levels. They wish next year to take the full establishment to 3,175 men. Also, to enable experienced police officers to re-join the beat and be released from administrative tasks, they are continuing their programme of recruiting civilians. We need more civilians in police headquarters, and we need more security services provided by the private sector.

If neighbourhood watch schemes will not work on large council estates—due to harassment of committee members or, perhaps, because of the feeling about "grassing" to the police—we must think of the next move. The next move is to encourage civilians to take part in neighbourhood watch schemes, to observe, distribute leaflets, and to communicate with the police—to become almost a civilian arm of the police force. If neighbourhood watch schemes cannot be set up in certain neighbourhoods, it is perfectly logical for the relevant local authority to set up a similar watching patrol. When I suggested that alternative some years ago, there was a good deal of acceptance by those living on council estates.

Estate officers would have a terrible task. They would need to have a high profile, prevent vandalism and the incidence of graffiti and anti-social behaviour. They would have to try to prevent abuse of amenity areas, underpasses and play areas. They would have to establish links with tenants and their problems. They would have to identify problem areas and families for committee action as appropriate. They would have to be a liaison force with the police. If they found poor maintenance or vandalism—on some estates, whole brick walls have been pushed over —they would have to take the problems to the relevant part of the housing management and, of course, report repairs when needed. They would have a primary role.

I have often thought that it is quite wrong for local authorities of whatever colour and persuasion to build estates worth many millions of pounds and then to say, "That is it. Put the people in and let them get on with it. If they do not get on with each other, so what?" As we all know, even if one asks for an unneighbourly family in a row of houses to be moved because they do not get on well with their neighbours, it is almost impossible to remove the rotten apple from the barrel.

We have created vast concrete estates—I shall not call them jungles, as they are beautifully laid out, but many safety measures were not built into the architectural brief. We developed such estates throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Thank goodness many local authorities, including my own, stopped high-rise building in the 1960s. Of course, the great problem in moving a man, his wife and a couple of little babies to a new estate is that, 15 years later, we shall have an army of teenagers. Some of them may be the most upright citizens in the world, but many of them join gangs.

My supposition is that those gangs are a microcosm of the football hooligan group. If a person is to learn the basic arts of gang warfare, what better place than on a council estate—such as Lord's hill in Southampton—where the only opposition is one policeman? It is hard for my hon. Friends to believe, but there is only one policeman on a bicycle, who is the sole communicator with the police station almost two miles away. Of course, those gangs of youths, even if they are moved on because someone has phoned the police, re-form in a few minutes.

Those gangs harass the elderly by their presence, by the bricks and rubble that they throw at windows and by the disgusting materials that they push through people's letter boxes; and, of course, the least word that is said by those elderly people against them is greeted with a complete conversation of four-letter words.

When helping the BBC and the ITV to make a programme on the estates so that they could see what was happening, there were many complaints but practically no one wanted to be identified. No one wanted to stand up and say, "Those hooligans are here every evening and I am not afraid of them." What they actually said was, "I will tell you everything, but I do not want my name and address to go forward." That is the first time that I have ever seen the British public afraid of the television camera. Normally, they gather around TV cameras like bees around honey. But the fear on the estate was radiated through to the television cameras. That is something that cannot be allowed to continue.

Of course, if there are young children of five, six and seven developing this trend, it is they who will eventually become the teenagers who are the muggers, the rapists or the murderers. We have to think long and hard whether we will allow the collective strength of those groups—unopposed by any real force—to destroy children's playgrounds, pull down massive fences, kick in doors, smash windows and push unspeakable objects through letter boxes.

I have great regard for the police, but even if the incidents are reported to the police, they can do little or nothing about most of them. Until a physical act takes place and the person can be identified—which is so difficult when dealing with a group—the police are helpless. That is why security patrols should come on to the council estates.

Hon. Members may ask who will pay for this. In the days when I first suggested those security patrols, the council tenants were willing to pay 4p, 5p or 6p a week for them. Now the picture has slightly changed. We have sold off a lot of the council houses and it would be a terrible problem collecting a levy from every person who would be safeguarded by those security patrols.

That may be one sector in law and order that the Home Secretary might wish to look at, with the idea of making it mandatory for local government to safeguard its own property—shops as well as flats and houses—but, most of all, its tenants. That can only be done by way of a subsidy. It would be a small sum and it could be taken out of the capital receipts from the sale of council houses. Although it would be a small sum, it would go a long way towards assisting the police. I hope that if my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gives the Hampshire police authority 47 more established places next year he makes sure that most of them are in the black areas that I have described.

I should like to leave plenty of time for my hon. Friend the Minister of State to reply. I know that I have not given him warning of some of the points that I have raised, but as passionate Conservatives we must deal with the harassment that I have described. If that means spending a little money outside the police area, it would be well worth spending.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon 10:50 pm, 13th June 1988

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Hill) is well known to the people of Southampton for the interest that he takes in such issues as this. I am advised that, for the three or four years that he was the distinguished chairman of the housing committee of Southampton city council, he took a special interest in trying to arrange the sorts of security and anti-vandal patrols on our great housing estates which he believed then and believes now—I have more than a shred of belief myself—could under certain circumstances, perhaps when all else has failed, have an effect.

I welcome very much the welcome that my hon. Friend gave to what the Home Office is trying to do on crime prevention and the tribute that he paid to those who composed the booklet, "Crime—Together We Can Crack It". My hon. Friend asked how many of those booklets have now been distributed around the country. I advise him that demand has almost outstripped supply. We have distributed about 1 million copies of the booklet and will shortly have to reprint a revised and updated version. It has had a warm welcome.

Many crimes in this country are eminently preventable —for example, one quarter of all domestic burglaries and perhaps one in five of all car crimes. People must and should, take more care of their property because one of the things that so contribute to the feeling of fear and uncertainty on our great housing estates is the fact that people read in the headlines that hundreds of thousands of crimes are being reported. However, many of those crimes are petty, and many are avoidable.

About 95 per cent. of all crime is not against the person, but against property. However, crimes against the person, such as my hon. Friend referred to in Southampton, are important, as were the remarks made in the chief constable's report about violent crime. I was extremely disturbed to learn from my hon. Friend the facts about the incidents, which I judge to be stabbings and woundings, which have caused so much trouble in the streets of his beautiful and prosperous city.

I advise people who go about armed with sharp-bladed instruments such as knives, stilettos, Stanley knives and other implements of wounding—and sometimes, alas, murder—that the Criminal Justice Bill, which returns to the Floor of the House on Thursday this week, introduces severe new penalties for those who are caught, not just using but even carrying sharp-bladed instruments in the streets without due reason. Over the years, the classic defence of the yob and the bully when he has been searched and found to have a knife on his or, more rarely her, person has been, "Oh, I use it for peeling oranges, guy, —or constable." That has been used time after time, but will no longer apply, and people will be severely treated for the offence.

In the Criminal Justice Bill, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department is bent on introducing for the first time the prosecution right of appeal through our right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General against allegedly over-lenient sentences. That is something that people who go about armed, bent on causing trouble, in our great cities such as Southampton, should face up to.

There are severe new penalties in the Criminal Justice Bill which I hope will act as a deterrent. I hope that, in a year or two, the chief constable's report will not need to refer to such tragic events. So much depends on excellent policing and the work of those who police cities such as Southampton. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those who police our cities. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking forward very much to the TVS seminar to which my hon. Friend referred.

Law and order and crime are at the centre of public debate, and we must realise that. As I have said, so much is preventable. The effort that can be made, sometimes on very difficult housing estates is formidable where neighbourhood watch schemes have been started up and successfully implemented. When the Government came to power in 1979, there were no neighbourhood watch schemes. In 1982, the first such scheme was started, and now, in 1988, there are some 50,000. The number is growing fast; the momentum is unstoppable. I hope that my hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I was sorry to hear that neighbourhood watch schemes in some parts of Southampton at least had not been progressing as fast or developing as well as my hon. Friend had hoped. However, perhaps I misunderstood my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr James Hill Mr James Hill , Southampton, Test

My hon. Friend understood me very well. I have asked numerous questions to try to get the Home Secretary to ensure that the chief constable of Hampshire was happy to set up the neighbourhood watch schemes. He is more concerned with community policing. As we cannot set up neighbourhood watch schemes on the vast estates, we shall have to try another method.

Photo of Mr John Patten Mr John Patten , Oxford West and Abingdon

Those are operational matters for the chief constable to decide. Although the police have the primary role to play in crime prevention, they need not necessarily have the major role to play in setting up neighbourhood watch schemes. In many parts of the country, the local community has taken the lead and demanded neighbourhood watch schemes in those areas. I have seen that on numerous visits around the country.

It is clear from recent published research—and by recent I mean within the past 14 days—that, on some of the most difficult housing estates in the country, concentrated neigbourhood watch schemes can produce radical reductions in crime. I do not think that neighbourhood watch works only in the leafy suburbs or in middle-class, well organised areas; it works extremely well in many areas where there are housing estates. The research to which I have referred deals with an estate in Rochdale. That estate suffered from difficulties similar to those experienced on the housing estate referred to by my hon. Friend. The estate in Rochdale housed 2,000 people, but in only seven months under an intensive neighbourhood watch scheme, domestic burglaries were reduced by 60 per cent. That depended a great deal on the commitment of local people and the police. It also depended on the commitment of all the people involved in running the estate.

That is important, and that is where my hon. Friend's experience showed as a distinguished ex-chairman of housing in Southampton. He is aware how complex and difficult the problem is and how good management is at the root of so much that can be done on our estates to provide better housing that is desperately needed and a better environment, a better neighbourhood and a safer community in which people can grow up.

The work being carried out by my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning is very important. The Department of the Environment has assisted local authorities to try to manage estates better through the priority estates project, and a similar project is sponsored by the Welsh Office. The priority estates project has achieved remarkable improvements in some very difficult estates through the twin process of devolving responsibility for essential management functions to the estate, rather than doing everything through the town hall, and involving residents as fully as possible in the running of estates.

I am convinced that, in improving the environment, the neighbourhood and community safety, it is critical to use the active citizens who are to be found on all of our estates as much as possible. That is why my Department is impressed by what has been achieved and has mounted its own study into the effects of the approach I have mentioned on the level of vandalism on a sample of estates.

I am delighted that the Department of the Environment in particular can give such formidable help to a number of local schemes around the country, in terms of additional finance, and that the Estates Action programme run by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is contributing so much to, for example, the arrangements to put caretakers into blocks of flats so that they may be properly guarded and secure, with entry and exit made fast.

That has greatly turned around a number of high-rise blocks and estates which were hitherto very rundown. A recent pilot scheme in west London showed what can be achieved. It involved a typical, system-built block of flats, of the kind which can, I know, be found in my hon. Friend's constituency too, which suffered high levels of vandalism and other crime.

The experiment was terribly simple but very effective. Two receptionists were installed. I greatly prefer the term "receptionists", which is a good English phrase, to "concierge"; I do not see why we should use "concierge" in our housing language. Those two receptionists working in shifts and operated a controlled scheme, monitoring those entering and leaving the block. It sounds simple but it was astoundingly effective. They also ran errands for the elderly living in the block and made sure that the lifts worked properly.

As a result, vandalism there went right down, there were no personal attacks during the period of the experiment and there was only one burglary. That experiment has been linked to high levels of crime in blocks of flats not very far away. I have seen a similar scheme operate in Wolverhampton, where the crime rate in the block concerned was cut, but when I walked into other tower blocks in the area I was surrounded by residents screaming, "When are you going to do something about it?"

That is not to say that under certain circumstances the security patrols suggested by my hon. Friend cannnot be of use. I am advised that they are being tried out in some of our midlands cities such as Nottingham, where they have been effective. One wants to go step by step, trying to do all that one can through neighbourhood watch, which I believe has enormous untapped potential, and through the introduction of receptionists, caretakers and intensive management. If necessary, perhaps one can then introduce patrols—but that must be a matter for local decison. In that way, substantial sums of money can be saved. In the case of the one block of flats I mentioned, in Brent, west London, there was an estimated net saving of £17,000 because vandalism, graffiti and other gratuitous damage were reduced. There are considerable lessons for local authorities to learn from that experiment.

Ultimately, the local community must take responsibility. I would dearly like to see in Southampton, and in other areas suffering from similar problems, the local communities themselves, with the encouragement of all involved, banding together to defeat these problems. One should not be afraid, from time to time, of looking back to practices 20, 30 or 40 years ago, when there was greater social control and more people prepared to say, "Oi! Don't do that!" when someone—perhaps a very young child—was about to cause trouble. Perhaps one of the keys for our great housing estates, such as those in Southampton, would be for people—be they patrols, receptionists, caretakers, community policemen or community leaders involved in neighbourhood watch to say, "Oi! Don't do that." In that form of social control, which is not a case of people being nosey parkers but of being good neighbours to one another, we are likely to find some of the roots of a successsful anti-crime drive in this country.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.