Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: Small Towns

– in Westminster Hall at 4:42 pm on 5th June 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education) 4:42 pm, 5th June 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered rising crime and antisocial behaviour in smaller towns and communities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I thank hon. Members for coming to this important debate. I am grateful to have the opportunity to hold the debate, because crime is one of the most important issues that my constituents face.

My constituency is a collection of small towns and villages perched just outside Leeds in West Yorkshire. As such, we fall under the responsibility of West Yorkshire police, which covers an enormous area—more than 2,000 sq km—that is home to upwards of 2 million people. Its jurisdiction includes the big cities of Leeds and Bradford and the large towns of Wakefield and Huddersfield. With those big bustling urban centres, it can often feel like a competition for the smaller places that I represent, such as Batley, Birstall, Liversedge, Gomersal, Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton, to get the attention they deserve.

There is a perception that the serious crime happens in big cities, but that could not be further from the truth, which is why this debate focuses specifically on towns and smaller communities. I will use examples from my constituency to demonstrate my concerns. Before that, however, it is important to put the cuts that have been forced on West Yorkshire police on the record. Since 2010, it has lost £140 million in central Government funding and more than 1,000 officers.

Photo of Paula Sherriff Paula Sherriff Shadow Minister (Mental Health and Social Care), Shadow Minister (Mental Health)

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is often the low-level antisocial behaviour that is an absolute blight on neighbourhoods? The police have so many competing demands, largely because of the reduction in their numbers, that it is difficult for them to respond to everything that they might like to.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting antisocial behaviour, which I will come to. The cuts certainly have an impact on our streets.

The funding cuts to West Yorkshire police would be worse were it not for the action of the Labour police and crime commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson, who raised the police funding element of council tax to stem the loss of officers and restart recruitment in the face of cuts to the central grant. I am not a spokesperson for the police, and, let us be honest, many people in my constituency are frustrated with police services, but it is important to acknowledge the context of what they have faced in recent years, because it has an impact on their ability to respond to and deter crime.

Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee

As a fellow West Yorkshire MP, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I strongly agree that West Yorkshire police has faced major cuts, which are hitting our towns. Does she agree that towns have often been particularly heavily hit by austerity, because overstretched police forces have been forced to concentrate many of their resources in the bigger cities? In Knottingley, there have been recent reports and challenges regarding antisocial behaviour, and in Normanton, there have been attacks on shopkeepers in the town centre. We need neighbourhood police officers in our towns, as well as the crime prevention work, to keep people safe.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

My right hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. We need the community presence, as well as the intelligence that comes from relationships with communities. That can stem the flow of antisocial behaviour, because the police know where it is coming from and because they know the families.

Photo of Ian Lucas Ian Lucas Labour, Wrexham

It is also important to appreciate that police community support officers—an excellent Labour initiative that contributed to neighbourhood policing while Labour was in power—have faced reductions too. The decline in their number is important, and the reduction in Wrexham town centre is having a noticeable impact on antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

That is an excellent point. I pay tribute to those officers who are increasingly asked to go beyond the call of duty and attend what are sometimes quite violent situations that they may not have the resources at hand to deal with.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there is a crime epidemic in my constituency, which my constituents are sick to the back teeth of. I, too, am completely fed up and exhausted from hearing from constituents who are at their wits’ end and frightened to leave home after dark because of the menace of nuisance bikes and mopeds.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Chair, Committees on Arms Export Controls (formerly Quadripartite Committee)

It is commendable that my hon. Friend has brought this debate to Westminster Hall. I also commend my right hon. Friend Yvette Cooper for her work on towns. Like many hon. Members, I have two towns in my constituency. People feel not just a sense of loss, but fear and worry when there is no visible police station. Great Harwood and Haslingden in my constituency have lost their police stations, for the reason that my right hon. Friend stated—the cuts take place in the small towns—and criminals can see that there is an opportunity to commit crime, so people live in fear.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. Certainly, in Batley, the police station has gone up for sale. It is disconcerting for communities when they see that “For sale” sign appear. People wonder, “If I was in a crisis, how long would it take for the police to arrive?”

To return to nuisance bikes and mopeds, the problem goes beyond antisocial behaviour; it is extremely dangerous, not just for the bike owners, but for other road users and pedestrians. The bikes keep people awake at night, which has a serious impact on health, wellbeing, stress and anxiety. It is also a difficult crime to clamp down on, as the perpetrators are on fast-moving vehicles, and most bikes are being used illegally, so simply taking them off the streets is a time-limited hindrance rather than a solution. Equally, we do not necessarily want high-speed chases to happen in built-up areas and little villages.

I am pleased to say, however, that West Yorkshire police and Kirklees Council, working with me, have been able to provide protective equipment for a couple of police motorcycle riders, so that officers can be trained to safely catch those who cause havoc. We know that we need a proper, nationwide response to tackle this problem, rather than piecemeal solutions when an MP gets concerned about something. We know it is going to involve the police, along with schools, youth services and local authority outreach teams. Sadly, those are all things that the Conservatives seem to have no problem cutting.

Let me turn to burglaries. What is happening in my constituency is truly shocking. When I visit the shopping centres in my towns and villages, the frequency of burglaries never fails to shock me. The towns of Batley and Birstall have been particularly badly hit. Burglaries affected almost every shop in Birstall town centre, one after the other. What is most frustrating is that in many cases the crime seems completely brainless—money is not kept on-site and items of high value have been removed. The criminals break in, wreak havoc and usually leave empty-handed. In some cases, they take the charity box. There was a break-in at the Chaiiwala café in Batley. The charity box was taken, and the café reached out on Facebook and said that that person must be very hungry or struggling financially, and that if they contacted the café, it would give them a week’s free food and perhaps support them financially. The shop owners should not have to do this to try to solve a problem that is not necessarily of their making. It is almost as if causing damage is for its own sake.

Last Saturday was Small Business Saturday, and I was really taken aback when visiting business owners. One said they were seriously considering leaving their door open, having been a victim of so many break-ins on numerous occasions, given that it is almost cheaper to leave the door open than have it repaired every time they are broken into. I could go on highlighting such cases, but we need solutions. Town centres are struggling enough; they should not have to contend with repeated break-ins.

The reality in smaller towns is that there usually will not be a police car round the corner during late evenings and through the night, and response officers are prioritising urgent cases such as domestic abuse or violence. So what can we do? Can the Minister tell us whether the Government have given consideration to crime prevention measures as part of plans to support high streets? Perhaps central funding could be made available for co-ordinated alarm systems or even high-quality CCTV, which can be too expensive for smaller shops acting on their own. If criminals are to be caught and prosecuted, surely that is the greatest deterrent possible.

I have used a number of case studies, but Members should be in no doubt that the figures more than back them up. I will come to that shortly.

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Labour, Don Valley

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. On actions, the police in my area are concerned that when a person commits an offence on an estate, it is not standard for an injunction to sit alongside the prosecution, banning them from the area and imposing curfews that do not allow them to go out at night. That should be part and parcel of what is meted out to individuals who cause such havoc for businesses and residents in our communities.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

That is a very well-made point. By working with Safer Kirklees and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing, we can have a joined-up effect on the most persistent burglars and try to get them out of those areas. Our communities do not want such behaviour. However, when we move people on, they can always stay with friends or on people’s sofas. It is important to ensure they are restricted in their opportunities for criminality, so my right hon. Friend makes a very good point.

I now turn to one of my deepest concerns: violent crime. We have seen an escalation in violent crime in our towns and villages. I recently went to our local pub in Cleckheaton, where a couple had been attacked violently with an axe while the pub was open. Although traumatised, the staff, landlord and landlady have been very brave in continuing to open their pub, and they have been overwhelmed by the community response to support them. A pensioner was also brutally attacked on a popular walkway by a gang of youths. A serving soldier was mowed down while celebrating the new year—luckily, the perpetrator is now behind bars. Guns are being discharged far too often in our community.

West Yorkshire police have recently been judged outstanding for reporting crime, for which I celebrate them. Their website breaks down the figures by parliamentary constituency, and I am afraid that it does not make for happy reading. Between April 2018 and March 2019, 2,686 incidents of antisocial behaviour were reported in Batley and Spen. There were 2,700 incidents of burglary, criminal damage or arson. More disturbingly, there have been almost 4,500 reported incidents of violence and sexual offences. Not a month has gone by when fewer than 1,000 crimes have been reported. This is a constituency of just over 100,000 people. Those numbers are shocking and wrong, and we deserve better. For each of the examples I have given, there are literally hundreds of other cases that people felt too demoralised or jaded even to report. We simply must stop crime continuing to rise.

Batley and Spen sounds a bit like the wild west, but it is a wonderful place to live and work. We cannot allow our lives to be blighted by the minority.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she think that, at the very heart of this, the concern of people in constituencies such as Batley and Spen and Great Grimsby is that quality of life is severely affected as a result of crime, be it violent crime, which has increased in my constituency, or the antisocial behaviour that she has been discussing?

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

I absolutely agree. In comparison with cities, the quality of life in some towns is being diminished because services are going out to cities—infrastructure and so on. We should not have to put up with the increase in violent crime and antisocial behaviour in nice backwaters; we should have a proper quality of life and choose to live in communities such as ours because they are safer, the quality of life is better and they are great places to bring up children.

We have to be frank: the rise in crime is not just about a couple of bad apples, a family or a gang of kids. The Conservatives used to be the party of law and order—they used to pride themselves on it—but they have done their absolute best since 2010 to destroy that reputation. Police-recorded violent crime has more than doubled since 2010. Knife crime is at its highest on record. Arrests—the currency of deterrence—have halved in a decade, and the number of unsolved crimes stands at an unthinkable 2 million cases. Nine years of austerity has led to 20,000 fewer officers on our streets. The National Audit Office estimates that police funding fell by 19% between 2010-11 and 2018-19, and direct Government funding fell by a staggering 30% over the same period.

Police are not the only force for resolving, and preferably deterring, crime—no hon. Members present would argue that they are. However, they provide a vital service. When the police are seen on the streets less or take longer to respond, or when a crime goes unsolved, trust is diminished and fear creeps in.

Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak

My hon. Friend is making an excellent case about her constituency, which is very similar to mine—a rural area with lots of towns and where crime is rising. Our police have almost halved in number. Our police stations have been shutting, our magistrates court has shut, and now our custody suite is shutting as well. Police officers will have to travel almost an hour to take people who have been arrested into custody. Does she agree that those cuts, and austerity more widely, lead directly to the rise in crime?

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education)

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the reduction of police officers on the streets. If an officer has to travel further with a prisoner, they will be tied up for longer and less available to respond to emergency 999 calls. It is a powerful point.

I said at the beginning that there is a crime epidemic in Batley and Spen. I know that that is strong language, but I think my speech has proved that it is justified. I very much look forward to hearing the contributions from other hon. Members and the Minister, so I will not take up too much more time but finish with this. The challenge is that cities, towns and rural areas are often very different, but the ambition should be the same. Crime ruins lives, and citizens should not be blighted by it or live in fear of it. The purpose of this debate is not to say that towns and smaller communities are more important than other places; it is simply to get a better understanding of the issues and to kick-start the debate about the solutions.

Does the Minister have plans to undertake an audit of crime in towns? My office staff and I tried hard to find data about crime in towns compared with cities, and it is not available. Will she and her Government produce a report that shows the difference in the levels of reported crime and crime that has been resolved in towns, compared with cities? We also need a greater understanding of where money is spent. Most police force areas include towns, cities and rural areas. Perhaps the Minister can work with police forces on that and update the House at a later date.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Order. Ruth George was not here at the beginning of the debate, so I will not call her. Incidentally, I do not think that she or her hon. Friends should really have arrived in the middle of the debate and intervened straightaway, not having been here throughout the speech of Tracy Brabin. The hon. Member for High Peak will have to forgive me for mildly ticking her off.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 5:01 pm, 5th June 2019

I congratulate Tracy Brabin on securing this important debate. It is great to have the opportunity to talk about policing and to commend our policemen and women, who do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. There is no doubt that they face difficulties. We have fewer police and police community support officers, and that has created problems. I remind hon. Members and everyone who is listening that if Labour had not left the finances in such a state, perhaps that would not have happened. [Interruption.] Labour Members can argue about that, but the bottom line is that if the money is not there, we cannot employ the police we need. I have not met a politician on either side of the House who wants fewer police and to make the environment more difficult for them. Difficult decisions had to be made because the money was not there. We have to accept that and work together to make our communities safer.

I meet my police a lot and spend a lot of time with them. It annoys my police and crime commissioner that I have such a close relationship with them. They tell me not just that there is a lack of cash—there certainly is—and that they have lost lots of police officers, although that is certainly the case, but that crime has changed dramatically in the period we are talking about. They have to spend a huge amount of resources on counter-terrorism, even in west Cornwall and the far south-west. Hon. Members might think that it is not an issue there, but people come in through our ports and harbours, and they need to be followed, arrested and dealt with.

The police also say that they are spending a lot of time and money investigating historical sex crime and abuse. We must recognise that this debate is about not just money but attention being needed elsewhere.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as usual. Does he agree that we hear a lot about rurality in this place, but sometimes towns next to large conurbations have resources sucked out of them? Police stations are closing in Solihull, yet resources are going directly to Birmingham all the time. That is sometimes a huge challenge for those towns.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I welcome that intervention. I assure my hon. Friend that every person in Cornwall knows that argument. For a long time, including before we came to power, resources have been concentrated in Exeter and Devon, rather than in Cornwall, and that has always been a bone of contention. We have argued strongly that resources are needed right down as far as Penzance and the Isles of Scilly.

There is no doubt that in towns in Cornwall, there has been a rise in crime—sometimes violent crime, but certainly drug-related crime. I have talked about the change in the way that things are happening, and certainly drugs are moving around differently. The Government and the police and crime commissioner have made resources available, and have concentrated them in areas such as Penzance and elsewhere in Cornwall where people just did not feel safe. Things were going on in broad daylight that would not have gone on in the past. I completely accept that as we reduce numbers and the visibility of the police, other things are allowed to happen, which much be addressed.

Money has been poured in, and we have seen improvements, although there is still lots to do. The key thing is to communicate to the public that they must report every incident they see, even if they sometimes feel that that is not acted upon. The police tell me that the intelligence they collect is really useful in helping them get to the root of the problem, rather than just deal with the individual on the street corner causing a problem.

I pay tribute to Cornwall Council, the safer communities teams and the police in Cornwall for working together effectively over the past 18 months or so to address these problems, but as my hon. Friend Julian Knight said, that has sucked resources from other parts of my constituency. I ask the Minister to consider the audit that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen recommended. As resources have been reduced and focused on areas with particular problems, we have begun to see low but concerning levels of crime, antisocial behaviour, and alcohol and drug misuse in our very small towns, and people are not used to that. I represent a town that was always awarded the title of safest town in the country, but now people come to me because they are concerned about things going—at night, but also in the daytime—that they are not used to seeing. When that happens, it does not just make life uncomfortable for people, but harms the individuals who are caught up in that behaviour. There are opportunities that were not there before.

I ask the Minister to have a look at what is going on in very small towns where we are seeing problems. She should speak to police chiefs about how they will address that, and about what resources they can be given to put people on the street and to engage with the community. I have hosted meetings in St Ives and Helston with businesses, local communities and the police to talk about how communities and businesses can know when to report stuff, what to report and who they should report it to. It is really important that the police know where their resources are needed.

No one in this Chamber would deny that people deserve to feel safe and live in a place they can feel proud of. When they see concerning levels of antisocial behaviour and drug and alcohol misuse, their feeling of pride and safety is significantly compromised.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Will the hon. Gentleman also consider the impact that antisocial behaviour has on local businesses and restaurants? After a stabbing in Mitcham town centre only two weeks ago, the restaurateur of the local Italian restaurant said that his business dropped by 20%. Even though the stabbing was linked to gang issues that were of no consequence to the rest of the community, it made people feel unsafe, and they no longer wanted to go to his restaurant.

Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives

I welcome that intervention. High streets are in big enough trouble as it is without all this stuff going on. In St Ives and Penzance, people started to put stuff on Facebook. People who know St Ives will know that it is a massive tourist attraction, as are Helston and the Lizard. I am concerned about what the people putting stuff on Facebook are doing to their local economy by suggesting that those towns are not places to visit. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a real impact on the local economy, which we must obviously work to support more effectively.

We do not want our families and children to be confronted by these problems or—dare I say it?—dragged into them. Policing is obviously important, but keeping people safe is about much more than how the police do their job and how visible they are. Will the Minister also look at what can be done to support local initiatives, often in the voluntary sector, that work with the police and the local authorities to nip these issues in the bud, and to support people who would otherwise be drawn into the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour that can be a slippery slope? We have all seen that in families that we represent.

Can the Minister talk to police chiefs about what is going on in rural areas? There is growing concern, and it is absolutely right that we nip the problem in the bud. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issue; it is the right debate to have. Hopefully, we can work across the House to make our constituencies safer, and to make them places of which we can be proud.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Hon. Members now have two minutes. I call Mike Hill.

Photo of Mike Hill Mike Hill Labour, Hartlepool 5:09 pm, 5th June 2019

Thank you Mr Gray; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin on securing this debate.

I confess that Hartlepool is not a small town by any means, but the constituency is made up of small and distinct communities, such as the Headland, and villages, such as Greatham, Newton Bewley, Dalton Piercey, Hart and Elwick. Although we are part of County Durham by nature—Hartlepool is its historic port—we are in reality one of four local authority areas in the Tees valley that are covered by Cleveland police, which is one of the smallest forces in the country.

The Government’s austerity agenda means that Cleveland police force has suffered a 37% reduction in its staffing budget since 2010, which has resulted in the loss of 500 frontline officers and a substantial number of police community support officers since then. The net effect of policing cuts on Hartlepool was made clear to the nation when my constituency became the focus of a BBC film that was broadcast on the national news; it brought home the stark reality that in a town of 92,028 at the last count, only 10 police officers were on duty on a Saturday night.

Understandably, the reaction of my constituents was a feeling that streets and communities had been abandoned, and that the film was an advert to criminals, showing them that Hartlepool lay unprotected. To compound that, local police cells had been mothballed because of budget pressures, meaning a 30-mile round trip to the custody cells in Middlesbrough for officers depositing offenders.

We have just recruited a new chief constable, Richard Lewis. One of his first jobs was to come to Hartlepool to witness for himself the strength of feeling in our communities. Hartlepool and its outlying villages have never been abandoned by the police—far from it. We have one of the best multi-agency crime prevention teams in the area, and a strong neighbourhood policing ethic. Resources are so stretched, however, that there is a distinctive lack of bobbies on the beat, and because of increased demands on police officers’ time, some of the basics are beginning to suffer. It is sad to say, but the number of incidents that the police have failed or not had the capacity to deal with is increasing, according to my mailbag. That includes break-ins, burglaries, damage to vehicles and even assaults.

Cleveland police force is doing what it can by trying to refocus on emergency calls and increasing the number of special constables in its ranks. It is clear as day, however, that without proper funding, the force is fighting with one arm tied behind its back. For our rural communities—villages in particular—the thinner the blue line is spread, the more difficult it becomes to maintain proportionate policing cover. Rural crime is as much an aspect of life in my constituency as urban crime is in urban areas. This situation simply cannot continue. It is imperative that the Government act now for the good of my constituents.

I will make two points to end my speech. First, single-crew policing, which correlates with crime, presents a threat to individual officers attending violent crime scenes. Secondly, only this week, a 48-year-old man was held down by two men and robbed in broad daylight, at half-past one in the afternoon, outside our local hospital. That is not Hartlepool.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

My mistake; we have slightly more time than I thought. The Front-Bench speeches will start at 5.22 pm.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden 5:13 pm, 5th June 2019

Thank you, Mr Gray; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin on securing this important debate.

Perhaps more controversially, I would say that most people do not see themselves as living in one city or town. Even within a city, they see themselves as living in towns. In my constituency of Mitcham and Morden, people live in Mitcham. They do not live in the borough of Merton or in London, but in Mitcham. That is the area that they are concerned about.

Although Merton is regarded as the fourth safest borough in London to people living in Mitcham, that does not wash when they see escalating antisocial behaviour in the town centre and how petty crime quickly becomes serious crime if left unchecked. If I have time, I will also talk about the sale of air guns in high street shops and the desperate need for more school police officers.

Mitcham town centre is unfortunately a hotbed of antisocial behaviour in the heart of the suburbs. Unchecked antisocial behaviour is the first step on a very slippery slope to the level of crime that we have heard described in the debate; the gulf between antisocial behaviour and serious crime is not as large as many of us allow ourselves to believe. There are small steps between noise and nuisance, drinking and drunkenness, and inconvenience and illegality.

When such antisocial behaviour goes unchecked, it begins to foster and grow. That is about what becomes normal and acceptable, and what goes unchallenged—for example the drug takers who routinely gather outside my constituent Alberta’s backyard in Mitcham, or the street drinking and urinating that has become commonplace in the town centre, or the atmosphere of noise and nuisance that street drinking encourages. All of that often goes unpoliced.

Why does antisocial behaviour go unchecked? It is because we no longer have enough bobbies on the beat to control it. The simple truth is that there is no substitute for a visible police presence in the community. Is it any wonder that Merton alone has lost 90 police officers since 2010, when the Met has been forced to make more than £700 million in cuts in that time, with a further £325 million to be cut by 2021? So much for the end of austerity. The challenge that that depleted force faces is alarming. It simply does not have the support or resources from this Government to challenge the crime that is frightening our streets.

Mrs. B wrote to me to describe how understandably terrified she was when she looked out of her kitchen window and saw a group of young men on bikes with 40-inch machetes. Mr. G wrote to me in horror last month after seeing a man attacked with yet another machete, less than 24 hours after multiple stabbings nearby. He said:

“I’m angry that this has happened where I live and in such a blatant way. I feel sad at how cheap life would seem to these people. And I’m absolutely frustrated with the disintegration of any real responsibility from the state on this issue.”

How many more people need to die on our streets? How many more families need to grieve the tragic loss of a loved one? How many warnings need to be given? We simply need more police on our streets.

In the light of the spread of violent crime across our country, we in this Chamber all have a responsibility to ensure that our streets are safe. That is why I am so furious to report that a store in my constituency is selling guns—yes, guns. Cash Exchange is—legally, I must say—selling airguns in my constituency. We do not have rolling fields; we do not have a rural culture. We have airguns masquerading as sub-machine-guns, which are sold to people who want to look intimidating and frightening on our streets, and it is done legally. Why is the display of those weapons permitted by law? Why is their sale not licensed by the police? Why are the Government not taking active steps to ensure our safety? We do not need those guns in shops in suburban south London.

This is not just about our streets, but about our schools. National funding cuts and high vacancy rates have led to the decline of our treasured school police officers. My local headteachers wrote to me describing school police officers as instrumental to building relationships within their school communities, breaking down the barriers that some families have with the police, and ensuring that more youngsters leave school with a positive view of the police. Sessions and workshops led by officers are important, but they simply do not provide a like-for-like alternative for the school police officer who those youngsters get to know and trust.

Two of the secondary schools in my constituency now share just one school police officer; the other secondary school shares an officer with a school at the other end of the borough. There is a total of just seven officers for Merton’s secondary schools and further education college. That is simply not enough. This is not about point scoring but about the safety of our young people. Adequately funding our police force so that school police officers can be retained is essential to ensuring the safety of those young people.

I ask loud and clear: bring back bobbies on the beat; stop the sale of airguns on our high streets; and stop the loss of schools police officers from our secondary schools. The first duty of any Government is to ensure the protection of their citizens. By that measure, the failure of this Government is devastating.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 5:20 pm, 5th June 2019

Thank you, Mr Gray. I also thank Tracy Brabin for securing the debate and the opportunity for us to participate.

I am conscious that the Minister does not have responsibility for policing or antisocial behaviour in Northern Ireland, but I want to make a contribution to describe what we have done in Northern Ireland and in my constituency in particular. That might add to the debate and help us see how we can move forward.

The issue of antisocial behaviour, of misbehaviour, causes concern. Our force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has had its numbers reduced. Rural community policing has not existed since the closures of the village police stations. Some seven have closed over the years—Portaferry, Greyabbey, Donaghadee, Saintfield, Carryduff, Killyleagh and Ballynahinch—with one on the edge of my constituency and the other six in it. No longer is a police officer in a position to take a call, go round to the problem area, lift the children and bring them home to their parents to be dealt with—we simply do not have the police numbers to do that.

Unfortunately, groups of young people can, perhaps inadvertently or unknowingly, cause hassle. Music playing in a field behind someone’s house at midnight is not okay, because it affects a mother and her children who are trying to sleep. Throwing cigarettes and matches into a farmer’s field in a dry spell might cause a fire. Those are all important issues for many people. To the parents who do not know where their child is or what their child is doing, that should be a concern.

Many people try to address antisocial behaviour by creating church groups in their areas. A local church group runs an event on a Saturday night in Newtownards. That helps for part of the time, but not beyond 10 pm. For years, community workers, the PSNI, the council antisocial behaviour team and street pastors have worked together to build up relations with the children and try to find a way forward. What really helped make the change, however, was when planning permission was granted for a development in the area they went to, so the misbehaviour did not happen any longer.

Churches and volunteer groups do a tremendous job, but they cannot run half the night, and antisocial behaviour teams are challenged. What is the answer? We have to put in a foundation. That means more bodies—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Order. Sadly, the House will never know what the answer is. It is time to call the first of the Front Benchers.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 5:22 pm, 5th June 2019

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Gray, and to follow Jim Shannon—I am sorry he was cut off in his prime.

I thank Tracy Brabin for securing the debate and for her passionate and eloquent introduction. As she said, we all want to feel safe in our homes and communities. That is as true of constituents living in smaller towns as of those who live anywhere else. It means safety from the full range of offences, from serious violence to antisocial behaviour. As she and other Members have illustrated with some pretty horrifying examples, too many people are impacted by all that. I will briefly set out what the SNP sees as the key strategies for driving down crime and antisocial behaviour.

My starting point is slightly different, because in Scotland, thankfully, we have continued to see a significant and sustained fall in crime over the past decade. Yesterday, for example, we saw analysis showing that attempted murders and serious assaults are down by about 38% on 10 years ago. We have also seen a long-term sustained reduction in experiences and perceptions of antisocial behaviour. I pay tribute to and thank all who have been involved in setting that downward trajectory. None of that is to say that there will not be bumps along the way, that the trend will continue in one direction every single year, or that we take the trend for granted; there is always more that can and must be done.

On that note, as the hon. Member for Batley and Spen said, the work includes not only policing—though that is a focus of this debate—but prevention. It is not simply the police who have to be involved, but every single Government Department.

Photo of Hugh Gaffney Hugh Gaffney Labour, Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill

The hon. Gentleman and I share North Lanarkshire Council. We have heard stories from around the country, and it is exactly the same in Scotland—that is what we are hearing. This year in North Lanarkshire, 900 formal warnings have been given for antisocial behaviour, and 200 have been prevented from going further with mediation. Will he congratulate North Lanarkshire Council on its work?

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control)

I am happy to congratulate North Lanarkshire Council on that work, which emphasises the role that local authorities have to play. Among the statistics from yesterday was the 35% fall in serious violence and attempted murder in North Lanarkshire, so pretty much every part of Scotland is benefiting from some of that work. The point that I was making, however, is that it has to be a whole-systems approach; it is not just about policing, but about local authorities and every single Government Department being involved in the challenge.

On prevention—or nipping things in the bud, as Derek Thomas pithily put it—a lot has already been said in recent debates about the work of the violence reduction unit in Glasgow, which has also been rolled out elsewhere. The “No Knives Better Lives” campaign and programme have complemented other youth-diversionary interventions and activities. The mentors for violence prevention programme is designed to lead young people to more positive destinations and has 140 schools across 22 local authorities taking part. Another initiative, under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, is the cashback for communities fund, through which almost £100 million seized from criminals over the past 10 years has been invested directly in partnership organisations that put on free activities for those who might be at risk or who live in areas with higher than usual crime rates.

Policies need to address head-on the causes of offending behaviour. We know that deprivation is linked to higher crime rates, which is why in years ahead there will be additional investment and focus in the next phase of cashback for communities to raise the attainment of young people from areas of deprivation across Scotland, or those who are at risk of exclusion from schools or of unemployment. That mirrors education policies such as pupil equity funding and the Scottish attainment challenge, which are all designed to improve the life chances of those from more deprived areas of the country.

From another angle, we know that alcohol is a significant factor in all sorts of offences. Again, policies must be directed at that, and in Scotland we have seen the introduction of minimum unit pricing, which studies suggest can deliver a significant fall in some types of crime. I urge Members to consider engaging in that debate.

Siobhain McDonagh raised the issue of air rifles. Again, the experience in Scotland has been pretty positive. We introduced licensing two or three years ago, and so far crime involving air rifles is down significantly.

I will finish on policing, which was at the crux of the debate for most Members. To cut to the chase, over the past 10 years police numbers in Scotland have gone up by about 5%, which contrasts with the cut in numbers of about 14% elsewhere in the UK. The Home Secretary himself has acknowledged that that is a crucial factor, so while I recognise that budgets are tight, it can be done. Policing in combination with all that work on prevention must be the way ahead.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Immigration) 5:27 pm, 5th June 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Tracy Brabin on securing this vital debate.

Since records began, violent crime has never been as high as it is today. Knife crime has never been as high—homicides involving knives increased by 22%—while arrests, the currency of deterrence, have halved in a decade. Unsolved crimes stand at an almost unthinkable 2 million cases. Each of those numbers represents victims, families and friends who have been scarred by violence, and together they represent a national crisis.

Two key things cause rising crime: cutting police numbers and slashing funding for youth services. What have this Government done? They have cut police numbers and slashed funding for youth services. To begin with the police cuts, it is important to remind the House that the Conservative party promised the public that its cuts would not hit the policing frontline. One week before the 2010 election, the previous Tory leader, David Cameron, said:

“Any cabinet minister…who comes to me and says ‘here are my plans’
and they involve front-line reductions, they’ll be sent straight back to their department”.

Five years later, the current Prime Minister claimed that the frontline service had been protected, but we now know that that was not true.

Police numbers are at their lowest for 30 years. We have lost 21,000 officers, more than 6,000 PCSOs and more than 15,000 police staff, including crime investigators. My own police force in Greater Manchester has lost 2,000 officers since 2010. No Government in post-war history—none—have cut police numbers in every year that they have been in office.

The public instinctively understand that cutting police numbers causes rising crime. After all, as the Home Secretary said recently, it is “not exactly rocket science”. Under-resourced police are forced to focus purely on reactive policing. Hotspot policing is known to reduce crime in areas where there has been a surge. Far from simply pushing it away into other areas, evidence suggests that the benefits are felt in areas outside where the hotspot policing is focused. It should therefore concern hon. Members that Chief Constable Thornton, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council says:

“I am utterly convinced that intelligence-led policing with a focus on prolific offenders and hot-spot locations makes a real difference. But few officers and staff are able to do less policing.”

Local policing has been shown to increase the legitimacy of the police, which encourages the local community to provide intelligence and report crimes and suspicious behaviour.

Last year, as part of the national initiative to spend a day with the police, I spent a day with my old force, Greater Manchester police. The officers told me that they no longer had the resources to go into schools and talk to students about what the police do and how to stay safe—a vital part of building community links. There is no doubt that the Tories have cut frontline policing, which is driving rising crime.

The second driver of rising crime is cuts to youth services. Our social safety net has been steadily unpicked by this Government. The most vulnerable are struggling to get support, starting at the very first stage of life. Sure Start was a lifeline for many vulnerable families, but it has been cut back and the support it can provide has been reduced. Schools have been crushed under the weight of punitive funding pressure. Cost cutting has hit teaching assistants and special educational needs—just the kind of targeted support that is needed by young people who are falling behind.

Chronic underfunding of the NHS means that young people are routinely denied the mental health support we know can reduce aggression. For those who set out on the wrong path, the Government have ensured an almost total lack of provision for those involved in gangs. Even at this late stage, education, training, employment and health services can reduce violence, including homicides. The sad truth is that, despite the research showing that specialist services for vulnerable youngsters and families can fundamentally alter outcomes, there is not the political will to create a system that will support them. Those decisions taken together have precipitated the crisis we face today.

The Government have cut police numbers to a historic low and cut youth services at every stage of development, and they are now surprised by record crime levels. The most despicable criminals are exploiting the space where well-run and effective early intervention, prevention and diversion strategies once existed.

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Minister for Women 5:32 pm, 5th June 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate Tracy Brabin on securing this interesting debate, which looks at the issue from the perspective of smaller towns and communities—we call them villages in my part of Lincolnshire—and I am pleased to take part in it. I thank hon. Members from across the House for the examples they have given of crime and antisocial behaviour in their constituencies. There have been some particularly moving examples, and I am sure the whole House is united in hoping that those who have been devastated by those crimes get the help and support they need.

This Government are committed to tackling and preventing crime and antisocial behaviour, and we recognise the particular challenges that smaller towns and communities may face, including in Northern Ireland; we may not have heard all that we wished to hear from Northern Ireland, but I am sure Jim Shannon will tell us what is happening there.

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

Let me give the Minister some examples of what we have done: antisocial behaviour officers are in the councils; the PSNI work alongside street pastors and churches; and local community groups organise events to take young people away. Those are three things that make a difference. Also, it is not down to the police only, but the parents.

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

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is a community effort, in spite of the importance of law enforcement. That is why, in our Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, we put in place six powers, some of which can be exercised not just by the police but by local authorities. We appreciate that there will be different solutions to different problems in different areas.

The debate is about “rising crime”. I fully recognise the concerns that Members have raised, but I must remind them of the analysis by the independent Office for National Statistics, which sets out that most people are not victims of crime, and that the likelihood of becoming a victim remains low. We also recognise that there has been a genuine rise in serious violent crime, and there is a range of actions under way to tackle that.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Does the Minister realise how maddening the comment, “You are not likely to be the victim”, is to our constituents? If somebody is stabbed in their street or there is a drunk and disorderly person in their shopping centre, they are the victims, and that has an impact on their behaviour.

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

That is the finding of the Office for National Statistics. We have to work on the evidence; that is the way in which we formulate policy. It is a great shame that the hon. Lady was not able to join the briefing session I held yesterday for colleagues from across the House, to update them on our actions to tackle serious violence. She would have seen the range of activity going on, not just in London but across the country, to tackle crime and the causes of criminal activity. Although the statistics are very worrying at the moment—that is why we are acting as we are—it was acknowledged yesterday in the meeting that there is a cyclical element to them. We saw similar spikes in serious violence in the mid to late 2000s. We bore down on them, and we need to ensure that our actions have a similar impact.

In our serious violence strategy, we put a much greater focus on steering young people away from crime while continuing to promote a strong law enforcement response. We are investing in early intervention projects—my hon. Friend Derek Thomas made that important point. I am delighted to tell the hon. Member for Batley and Spen that West Yorkshire is receiving more than £1 million until March next year to allow the police, community safety partnerships and others to work together on a programme of early intervention projects to prevent serious violence in the county.

We have also launched the national county lines co-ordination centre, and its work has produced huge benefits; in a single week in May, there were 586 arrests, and 519 vulnerable adults and 364 children were engaged with for safeguarding purposes. I am sure that many colleagues are conscious of the exploitation of young people by criminal gangs. On serious violence, we are looking at how gangs communicate in the 21st century and helping the police to tackle gang-related activity on social media.

We recently passed the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, which tightens up the law on the sale of knives and corrosive substances. We are in the middle of a consultation, to which I encourage hon. Members to respond, on a new legal duty to underpin a public health approach to tackling serious violence. We have introduced a new £200 million youth endowment fund that will be delivered over 10 years. It is locked in. That money will be invested, and it will support long-term interventions with children and young people at risk of involvement with crime and violence. We are conducting an independent review of drug misuse, which will report its initial findings to the Home Secretary in the summer.

As colleagues have mentioned, we have established vehicle theft and burglary taskforces to bring together Government, the police and industry in order to improve our response to those crimes. With reference to burglaries, we are looking at building standards and whether we can design out crime, as has happened in the past with vehicle theft. We continue our work with moped-enabled crimes; in London there has been a heartening decrease in that type of crime. That shows that working across civil society, industry and local authorities can really bring dividends. Colleagues will also be aware of the announcements about retail crime we made recently with regard to the Offensive Weapons Act. I very much hope that we will be able to announce the results of that consultation in due course.

Hon. Members also mentioned the impact of antisocial behaviour. We absolutely recognise the impact that forms of antisocial behaviour can have, which is precisely why we introduced the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. The point of the six powers in that Act is that they are flexible and give local forces and local authorities discretion in how they deal with instances and patterns of antisocial behaviour in their areas.

In summary, we very much recognise the impact of crime on not just big cities, but market towns, urban towns, if I am allowed to use that phrase, and villages. That is precisely why, as well as putting in place the suite of measures that we have touched on in this important debate, we have secured an extra £1 billion of funding for the police. That is already enabling police and crime commissioners, including in West Yorkshire, to increase the recruitment of police officers.

As always, I thank hon. Members for their contributions. I very much look forward to debating this issue again in the future. I think we all recognise that concerns about the safety of our constituents and our communities are central to our work here, and to our taking a collegiate approach across the House to ensuring that our country is a safe and comforting place in which to live.

Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education) 5:41 pm, 5th June 2019

I thank colleagues across the House for their contributions. It is really interesting to know that I am not alone in representing a community that feels that crime has got out of hand. I congratulate West Yorkshire police on the work it does. The Minister talked about money for the police, but the money for West Yorkshire comes from an increase in the precept—the precept is increased in order to increase the number of police officers—so we are paying for it.

I was happy to attend the serious violence strategy meeting, at which I learned a lot. It was really interesting, and a lot of initiatives seem to be going on. However, those initiatives feel focused on knife crime, which is the sort of violent crime that comes at the end. I asked at the meeting what is being done to intervene right at the beginning, and in our communities, to ensure that people do not feel abandoned or that crime is their only hope of getting money, having status or whatever, and are not vulnerable to gangs and so on. As my hon. Friend Afzal Khan said, early intervention is so important.

Although I understand why it was said, there is an element of complacency around this, in that—

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady in full flow. We all wanted to hear it, but the rules are strict, and we must stop at precisely the right second.

Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10 (14)).