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Council Estates (Security Patrols)

Part of Clause 38 – in the House of Commons at 10:34 pm on 13th June 1988.

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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.