It is a pleasure to follow Rushanara Ali. I join her in praising the valuable contribution that charities and volunteers make to our local communities.
Modern lifestyles mean that we often do not interact with our closest neighbours as much as we used to. Some people may not even know the name of their elderly neighbours, who are perhaps alone and vulnerable to doorstep crime, such as rogue traders and scams. Although there is no substitute for personal contact with our neighbours, our busy lives sometimes make that difficult so we should look at other ways to keep people connected. Technology in the charitable sector can empower volunteers and enable people to address crime in their community.
In my constituency, people want to see more officers on the beat, and I welcome the Government funding to address that. However, the residents I speak to also highlight the lack of community awareness and cohesion. If we are truly to tackle that and address vulnerability and crime, people need to know how to get to know their neighbours and work with the police and their local authorities.
As part of the coalition Government’s localism agenda, Baroness Helen Newlove was appointed Government champion for active, safer communities. In 2011, she published a report that argued that there is a public appetite for greater involvement with neighbourhood watch and other activities. It said:
“Being actively involved in your community and helping to keep it safe needs to become the norm rather than the exception.”
The Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network has been successful in connecting people. There are 170,000 neighbourhood watch schemes across England and Wales, supported by 173,000 dedicated volunteer co-ordinators, covering 3.8 million member households. It is the UK’s largest voluntary crime prevention movement. Every week, tens of thousands of residents and volunteers share information to keep themselves and their communities safe from crime.
In my borough of Stockport, the neighbourhood watch association is helping the Greater Manchester police’s economic crime unit to tackle scams by providing free training sessions to make residents scam-aware. The borough of Stockport has the highest percentage of residents aged over 65 in Greater Manchester and the highest number of recorded scams in the region. I hosted a similar scam smart event last autumn, which brought together Greater Manchester police and charities such as Age UK and Citizens Advice. Although it was distressing to share stories of criminal fraud, there was a real appetite among the attendees to learn how best to protect themselves. By harnessing technology we can encourage active community engagement, which will have the knock-on effect of helping to address urban crime and strengthen local bonds.
People really are starting to get connected; social media and mobile phone apps have been adopted by some neighbourhoods to distribute and discuss information in an informal way. Sharing information in this way can make people feel that they are part of a wider network, working together to keep their community safe. Mobile phone apps also generate a sense of community, through feelings of collective safety and information sharing. Indeed, some Cheadle residents having been organising and engaging in neighbourhood groups for some time. The challenge is in connecting such groups with local police forums in order that there can be an exchange of information, but it can be overcome. A national roll-out of a neighbourhood watch app could be an invaluable tool in joining up volunteers spread across different force areas. If successful, it would enable charities and volunteers, working together with residents, police and local authorities, to make a real difference to the wellbeing of the community.
That is why I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State’s commitment to establish the charity digital skills partnership, to help charities build their digital skills. That fund is investing up to £1 million in upskilling civil society leaders so they are able to embed digital into their organisations. I hope that money will also filter down into organisations such as Neighbourhood Watch. It is essential that those working in the charity sector are equipped with the skills they need to fully embrace the potential of new technologies and empower communities. This debate has enable us to show our appreciation for the tireless work of volunteers and the third sector, and I look forward to the advancement of new technologies in the charitable sector, too.