Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: Slade Road, Birmingham

– in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 11th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Bim Afolami.)

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 5:24 pm, 11th June 2019

Built in Victorian times, the Frances Road, Mere Road, Kings Road and Victoria Road areas of Stockland Green are over 100 years old. Historically, they were a haven of peace and tranquillity and a strong community—no longer. Twelve months ago, seven residents asked me to meet them in Frances Road. I arrived and 70 were there, and it all poured out. A woman said, “Our great-great-great-grandparents bought the house, and successive generations have lived in it ever since. Now we fear to walk the streets.” There was a daughter and her mum, and the daughter said, “If ever I want to go down to Slade Road to get a bus, I ask my mum to come with me. I am afraid.” One man who had lived there for 32 years said that gangs, as he called them, who were drugged and drunk had tried to break into his house at 3 o’clock in the morning only the previous week.

The area is still a great community, but it is racked with crime. The increase is not exclusively due to the rise in the private rented sector, but at the heart of it is a rise to 53% of local homes now being in the private rented sector and rapid growth in the numbers of houses in multiple occupancy and unscrupulous landlords. Registered social landlords are importing vulnerable people into Stockland Green from all over the country, offering supported housing but without the necessary support.

Senior police officers put it well in a recent discussion, saying that they had seen a disproportionate number of vulnerable people and ex-offenders imported into the Slade Road community from all over the country. They also said that rogue landlords often offer a room for £80 and make a lot of money—if they were providing the necessary support, it would cost three times that, but public agencies want to go for the cheapest possible outcome. They said that there are rogues in what sometimes seems like an unregulated marketplace, and that it is harder to get a decent student HMO than to prevent victims of domestic violence from ending up alongside ex-offenders. I do not want to send the wrong message—of course it is right that we accommodate the vulnerable and those on probation having come out of prison, but there has been a disproportionate dumping in Stockland Green without the necessary support to help either group rebuild their lives.

The statistics for rising crime in Stockland Green are stark. Between May 2018 and April 2019, there were 1,179 violent and sexual offences, 480 examples of antisocial behaviour, 380 burglaries, 326 cases of criminal damage and arson, and 277 vehicle crimes, including cars being set on fire. Not all of Stockland Green can be painted with the same brush, but there are hotspots, particularly the Frances Road, Mere Road, Kings Road and Victoria Road areas and the shops further down the hill at the bottom end of the Slade Road.

We now see open drug dealing in the area, and the vulnerable are fearful of walking the streets. I spoke to local residents only last Friday, and Michael said, “My two daughters used to love going to Brookvale Park. We no longer let them out because they just do not feel safe.” His neighbour opposite said, “I have lived here for 29 years. Every morning I come out and see open drug dealing in the street.” I have seen with my own eyes both those who are peddling drugs and clearly mentally ill people on the streets without supervision. I discovered one particular case of an individual who should never have been out other than under supervision, but nevertheless they were free to walk around.

I also see powerful testimony in my own casework. Every week we get an approach from the Slade Road area. For example, a resident on Frances Road wrote to me to say that they have had to put their property on sale because of drugs, people banging on doors at midnight, and the fact that her children do not feel safe to go out of the house. She said, “This started in June 2016, when houses in multiple occupancy sprung up on the street. A lady climbed out of a window and was knocking on the front door at 3 o’clock on the morning. I reported the incident, but the police said they cannot do anything. They sent a PCSO to deal with the issue. Nothing was resolved.” She now cannot even sell the property, because at viewing times next-door residents are smoking drugs at the front door and the smell comes straight into her house.

A second constituent wrote, “There are now many halfway houses on my road. We are really concerned about the drug deals that go on in at least three of the houses. They happen in broad daylight, and we see a lot of drug users coming into the street to buy from drug barons actually living in the street.” She said that residents are intimidated by some of them, and “I have been sitting in my car and watching deals take place as staff are leaving at the same time. They did not bat an eyelid. Most of the old neighbours want to move out now. Another neighbour and I cleaned piles of rubbish from our street recently, as most residents pay no attention if it is spilling into the street, particularly from the HMOs and the rapid growth in the private rented sector. Mice are common in our house now.”

A third resident said, “In my street, and in the street opposite, we had two cars in a matter of weeks set on fire.”

If we go down the hill to the shops in Slade Road, which is the heartland of the Kashmiri community in Stockland Green, we see a similar pattern of open drug dealing and various offences. For instance, one mentally ill man, released without supervision into a second-class HMO in the Slade Road area, came down the hill and assaulted five people, including a grandfather who was seriously hurt, until the police arrived—actually, one of the police officers was assaulted, too.

I pay tribute to our local councillors, particularly Josh Jones and Penny Holbrook, for the work they have done. I also pay tribute to our local police officers Sergeant Jim Reid, Helena and Wayne for the work they do. But as the thin blue line is drawn ever thinner with the loss of 2,100 police officers in the west midlands, their problem in dealing with rapidly rising crime and antisocial behaviour becomes ever more acute. Last week, one resident showed me statistics from the neighbourhood watch arrangements we have now set up, and 83% of crimes recorded in the Slade Road and Stockland Green area do not lead to a conviction or resolution.

I also pay tribute to those in the local authority: Matt Smith, who works on enforcement in the private rented sector; Rob James, the housing director; and Sharon Thompson, the cabinet member. They have taken welcome action, including a series of prosecutions in recent months at 170 South Road, 118 South Road, 11 The Drive, 472 Slade Road and 30 Hunton Road, with more to follow.

Just as the police have suffered the biggest cuts to any police service in the whole of Europe, which is having an impact on our community, the local authority is reeling from the biggest cuts in local government history of £690 million. Those responsible for tackling these problems are doing their very best—I stress that once again—but their numbers have been cut by three quarters.

Both the police and the council can and should do more. Indeed, I want to see the local authority move down the path of selective licensing schemes to tackle the undoubted problems in the Slade Road area, and in other areas of Birmingham. When I worked with the then mayor of Newham, I remember seeing at first hand the borough’s imaginative work on a selective licensing scheme and the enormous progress that was made as a consequence in tackling bad landlords. So the police and the council can do more, but the Government must accept that they cannot work miracles. If there is a hopelessly overstretched police service and a badly under-resourced local authority, of course it impacts on their ability to do their job.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. We have raised with the Government on a number of occasions the issue of police numbers and resources. The Government think it is a big deal that they have said, “We will put just under £1 billion into the police service.” At the end of the day, that is not sufficient, because when we look at the police numbers, we see that things have actually got worse. We have three areas of Coventry—parts of Tile Hill, parts of Willenhall and parts of Hillfields—where, although the police do their best, they are under-resourced and we experience some of the problems that my hon. Friend has experienced in relation to bad landlords. They are in the voluntary sector as well, with organisations such as Orbit not carrying out repairs in those areas. That creates a situation that affects people’s health. So I totally support my hon. Friend, because in Coventry, where we have experienced the same thing, the police are doing their best but they are basically firefighting in a difficult situation.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The irony is that, in the heat of a Conservative party leadership election, suddenly commitments are being made to reverse police cuts, including on the part of the current Home Secretary, who has presided over those cuts. The simple reality is that 21,000 posts have gone nationally and 2,100 in the West Midlands. The police are doing their very best; they do not always get it right, but they cannot work miracles with the badly depleted resources that have affected our police service.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (International Development)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate. Benmore Avenue in my constituency has recently seen reports of open drug dealing and antisocial behaviour. Although no arrests have been made, the police are being forced to make difficult decisions about what to prioritise. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the police for their hard work in keeping our communities safe, and does he agree that forcing such choices on a police force is unacceptable?

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend puts it exceptionally well. I stress again: the police do not always get it right, but they are good men and women, often doing remarkable things in the most difficult of circumstances. If two or more police officers are gathered together and we are talking to them as MPs, they pour their heart out about the mounting problems that face them, because they do not want to be in the position that they are in, where time and again they feel the brunt of public anger. They want to serve the public, but when there are huge reductions in police numbers, the simple reality is they just cannot do it in the way that we did under a Labour Government. We built, dare I say it, neighbourhood policing—17,000 extra police officers, 16,000 police community support officers. Crime came down by 43%. Now that has all been slammed into reverse.

Photo of Richard Burden Richard Burden Labour, Birmingham, Northfield

I think all of us will recognise the picture that my hon. Friend is painting. The details may be different from area to area, but the overall picture is very recognisable. I put it to him that the problem with the overstretch is affecting the police and other services. It is not simply a matter of numbers; it is the fact that the overstretch is preventing them from intervening early, when it is most necessary. It is interrupting the neighbourhood policing that, if successful, heads off problems before they arrive. The mental health services can work effectively only if they intervene early, but the numbers are not there for them to do that. If nothing else, the Government need to address that point, because by restoring some of the budgets they have cut, they will enable those services to intervene in the way they need to—it has to be early intervention.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because it is about support for the vulnerable on the one hand, but early intervention and prevention on the other hand.

For neighbourhood policing at its best, may I give an unusual example from the Stockland Green area? Six years ago, Sergeant Simon Hensley, now the sergeant in Kingstanding, formed a canoeing club on Brookvale Park Lake. I know, because I was asked to launch it on a rather shaky canoe. Some people asked, “What’s canoeing got to do with the police service?” But he had linked up with the local youth service and some of the local voluntary organisations. It involved at one stage hundreds of local young people, helped to form a good relationship between them and the police, and then, when there was an outbreak of burglaries, young people were coming forward, saying, “We think we know who it is, Simon.” So prevention is critical.

We are doing everything we can in Birmingham, but the Government have a responsibility. The police and crime commissioner for Birmingham will visit Slade Road this Friday to see at first hand what can and should be done next. Resource is key, but resource alone is not enough: we need all agencies with responsibility to come together and act. So, together with the police, the police and crime commissioner and the local authority, I will be convening a summit, at which we want to bring around the table the national health service, the mental health trust, the probation service, the Prison Service and the social housing regulator, which, to be frank, has a lot to answer for in respect of how the powers under the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 have been used to register and deregister bad landlords. It is going to be key to bring them together to get a concerted action plan to make a real difference in Slade Road.

Let me say a couple of things in conclusion. I have referred in particular to the rapid growth in the private rented sector and the problems associated with that in the Slade Road area, but I do not want to demonise all landlords. On the contrary, I want to celebrate the good, because there are many good landlords in the area who feel as strongly as we do about the bad ones. The good landlords include Jackie, who I was with only last week, and also the legendary Birmingham City striker Geoff Horsfield, who owns a number of homes in the Stockland Green area and particularly in Slade Road. If one goes to one of Geoff’s houses, one sees a house in good repair with proper support for vulnerable people, helping them to rebuild their lives. He is the opposite of the bad landlords in the picture I have painted.

As far as the bad landlords are concerned, let me serve this notice: I have referred to certain addresses, but it is my intention, in the next stages, to name and shame the bad, as well as to celebrate the good. We are not going to have people who have bought lucrative homes exploiting the vulnerable miles away, then dumping them, without support, in areas of our constituencies such as the Stockland Green area of Slade Road. Some of those landlords will end up in the dock and, if I have anything to do with it, out of business.

Quite frankly, the great community of Slade Road, whether it is the upper end—the Frances Road area—or down the shops at the bottom, has had enough. On the streets or at a surgery, one sees the pain on people’s faces for the place where they grew up in the houses they loved—that great-great-great-granddaughter telling the story about her own home that she and her family had been proud to live in for in excess of 100 years—and it is a pain that is absolutely heartfelt. It is totally unacceptable that that fine community is suffering in the way it is. That has to end, but for that to happen not only the Government but all parties need to play their part in erasing a stain on the history of a great community.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 5:43 pm, 11th June 2019

I congratulate Jack Dromey and thank him for securing this important debate. His constituents can rest assured that their concerns, worries and experiences have been represented eloquently by their Member of Parliament.

We all know from our own constituencies the significant impact that antisocial behaviour and crime more generally can have on people, families and neighbourhoods. What is often so depressing about this antisocial behaviour is that it is carried out by a very small group of people, and they have such a huge impact on a neighbourhood, on a street or, indeed, on Slade Road.

It is that tiny, tiny group of people nationally—a minority of people—whom we have tried to target through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which I will come on to in a little detail in a moment. We are very conscious of the social impact that such behaviour can have. We recognise that there are countless ways of behaving antisocially, and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman has today set out just a few such examples. That is why, in the 2014 Act, we simplified the powers that were in law at the time and introduced six new powers to replace the previous 19 powers. The powers are flexible and are designed to enable local areas to respond quickly to stop the behaviour and prevent it from reoccurring.

We were conscious of the fact that law enforcement is not always the answer. Action by local authorities or local agencies may well be much more effective in targeting a particular group of people or a particular type of behaviour. The powers that came into force in 2015 comprise community protection notices, civil injunctions, criminal behaviour orders, which can be issued by a court in the event of a conviction, public spaces protection orders, a dispersal power and a closure power.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I apologise that I could not be here for the beginning of the Adjournment debate, but I am very aware of what Jack Dromey said as I was watching the debate on the screen at the meeting I was attending. There are serious problems on Slade Road, but there are also serious problems in other places across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. My constituency had one of the highest figures for antisocial behaviour. We did a number of things to change that. When the Minister refers to those means of change, I wonder whether she will include local authorities. The antisocial behaviour team at the council specifically tasked officers to do that job, and it worked with the Police Service in Northern Ireland. Church groups and street pastors also got together. Community groups do things with young people as well to take them off the streets and give them something to do. It is also to do with parents. There are five or six things that can be done together, but they can make the change. We did it in Newtownards in Strangford, so it can happen elsewhere.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

It is always a pleasure to welcome the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts into a debate and, indeed, we have discussed antisocial behaviour on a number of occasions recently. As I have always been very keen to point out, if a local area finds a way that works for it, then, of course, that is to be supported. Let me just mention the 2014 Act here. I am sure that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington knows this, but I keep trying to address it when I am in the Chamber, just because the more awareness our constituents have of it, the more—hopefully—they will use the power if they are able to do so. The Act introduced a community trigger and a community remedy, which means that victims of persistent antisocial behaviour can demand a formal case review where a locally defined threshold is met. In the case of a remedy, victims of low-level crime and antisocial behaviour have a say in the punishment of perpetrators who receive an out-of-court punishment.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that there is a number of welcome remedies in the 2014 Act. For certain, some of those are already being used, but we want them to be used to the maximum extent possible in the Slade Road area. Does she not accept that, while first and foremost we get on with the job of doing precisely that, it becomes much more difficult to do so on the scale necessary and as effectively as this serious situation demands if we have an acute resource problem—be it with the police or the local authority.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

The hon. Gentleman will know that we rightly debated the reasons for the very difficult decisions that had to be made in 2010, but, as the Prime Minister herself has said, we are now managing the economy so that we can begin to invest more in the services that are so vital in all our constituencies. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased that this year we have managed to put forward a settlement that will increase police funding by more than £1 billion in the year 2019-20—with the help of police and crime commissioners, as I am always happy to say—including through the additional £100 million serious violence fund that was recently announced in the spring statement. I will return to that in a moment. I am pleased that the police and crime commissioner has committed to increasing officer numbers by 200 over the next two years, taking full advantage of the police funding settlement that was passed just a few months ago.

The Home Office chairs a national board on antisocial behaviour, which brings together representatives from key agencies to share information and reflect best practice. I hope that that will help individual forces to ensure that they try everything they can to address the ever-changing problems of antisocial behaviour, of which the hon. Gentleman has given some examples.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned houses in multiple occupation, and he did so responsibly in that he made it clear that he was not talking about the whole private rented sector. We have listened to concerns in local communities and the housing sector, and know that a positive and vibrant local private rented sector can be a great thing for a local community. Licensing has been effective in driving improvements in the quality and management of larger houses in multiple occupation. However, there has been an increase in landlords letting out smaller HMOs, which do not require a licence, and there are problems with some of those properties. To address the issue, we have extended mandatory licensing to single and two-storey properties. We have also set national minimum room sizes for sleeping accommodation and a requirement for landlords to comply with local authority refuge schemes, which came into force in autumn last year. Under the Housing Act 2004, larger properties occupied by five or more people forming more than one household require a licence. The hon. Gentleman is organising a summit to bring together housing associations, local authorities and local agencies. I very much hope that that will reassure him that licences are being applied for and are being applied appropriately in his local area.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the wider issue of drug use, which of course plays a role not just in lower level antisocial behaviour but in the rise of serious violence. I will come to that in a moment. We are absolutely committed to reducing drug misuse and the harms it causes—not least because the criminals who supply drugs and exploit vulnerable people are making a profit off the back of those who are addicted to such substances. Although drug misuse is at a similar level to a decade ago, some indicators have been worsening. In part, that is driven by external factors such as an increase in global cocaine production. In response, the Home Secretary has launched an independent review of drugs, led by the eminent Professor Dame Carol Black. The review will look into the ways drugs are fuelling serious violence in the 21st century, and we look forward to its initial report in the summer. There is a strong link between drug use and offending, as 45% of all acquisitive crime is committed by regular heroin, cocaine or crack cocaine-using offenders.

I must touch on serious violence, because all too often in this House we have cause to reflect on the terrible scourge that serious violence is in our local neighbourhoods, streets and communities. We are taking forward a range of actions, with local and regional partners, to tackle serious violence. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Policing Minister and I hosted a briefing to update Members on the Government’s work in this area. We intend to do that regularly because we know that this is a matter of real concern to colleagues across the House. We were pleased to be able to help colleagues to understand some of the work that we are undertaking. In terms of the national picture, the serious violence strategy puts a greater focus on steering young people away from crime while continuing to promote a strong law enforcement response.

We very much believe that the best way to tackle crime is to stop it happening in the first place. That may seem obvious, but removing the incentive for crime means offering young people sustainable life chances and a real alternative to a life of violence. That is why one of the schemes we have announced is the early intervention youth fund totalling £22 million, which is funding 29 projects endorsed by police and crime commissioners. Of that, £2 million has been allocated to the west midlands police and crime commissioner until March next year to help West Midlands police to communicate and disseminate key messages and to target those who are most at risk of serious violence.

We have also invested in a national county lines co-ordination centre, which has seen really significant results in the few months it has been operating. For example, in most recent week of sustained activity, police officers made 586 arrests, engaged with 519 vulnerable adults, and with 364 children for safeguarding purposes, and 46 weapons were seized. We are also supporting a new national police capability to tackle gang-related activity on social media. On the early intervention theme, we have introduced a new £200 million youth endowment fund that will be locked in for 10 years, enabling projects and charities to have much longer funding options available to them.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

The Minister has referred to some welcome initiatives. However, when it comes to diverting young people from crime, on the one hand there is the point I made earlier about the importance of neighbourhood policing, but on the other hand, how can she square what she is saying with the enormous cuts that there have been to youth services—91% in the West Bromwich area? The impact of that in terms of the capacity of youth services, working with the police and others, to divert young people from crime has been very serious indeed.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women

I think we all have to recognise that youth services must develop in line with social mores and the modern ways in which we live. Of course, youth services are the responsibility of local authorities, but through programmes such as the troubled families programme there are different ways of reaching different children and families.

As I say, the point of the endowment fund is to lock in this investment so that the money will be targeted at young people who are at risk of serious violence, either as perpetrators or as victims. We believe that it could really produce some very significant results from the range of projects that we imagine it will fund. It focuses particularly on young people aged 10 to 14. But this is just part of our overall programme across Government, including, for example, work by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and the other Government Departments I have referred to, as well as the troubled families programme. A range of measures are being conducted to help to impact not just on children’s vulnerability to serious violence but a whole range of other issues.

It is also important that we get the message out that carrying a knife is not normal. We have a campaign called #knifefree, which has been running for some time and has had 6 million views. It sends out the message that it is not normal to carry a knife, that there are alternatives and that help is available if a young person or their carer or parent is worried.

We are conscious of the fact that the summer holidays can, sadly, provide opportunity for criminal activity, so we have arranged for teachers across the country to receive plans for lessons on knife crime and how to avoid carrying a knife, if that is appropriate for their pupils. Again, that will spread the message that it is not normal to carry knives. It will challenge myths and help 11 to 16-year-olds understand the realities of carrying a knife.

Legislation is an important part of the measures to tackle serious violence and antisocial behaviour. The House has just passed the Offensive Weapons Act, to target the sale of knives, corrosive substances and some firearms. We are aware that it cannot be a matter of law enforcement alone. As the hon. Gentleman said, it has to be about working together, with the various agencies taking a collaborative approach. That is why we have run a consultation on a new legal duty to underpin a public health approach to tackling serious violence. We are considering the responses to that consultation very carefully.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and other colleagues for their contributions. I hope I have provided some reassurance that the Government are determined to tackle antisocial behaviour and crime, while recognising that this must be led at a local level by not only the police but a whole range of local agencies and authorities, to ensure that the wonderful area he described—not confined to Slade Road; he mentioned many places—remains a happy and safe place to live.

We cannot overstate the importance of people feeling safe from crime on their own streets and in their own communities. We believe that through concerted and collaborative action, we can bring the perpetrators to justice, mitigate the impact on other residents and offer young people a real alternative to a life of crime.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.