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Volume 902: debated on Friday 19 December 1975

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Question again proposed.

11.30 a.m.

It is with real personal pleasure that I welcome this short debate, because, although the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) is on the other side of the House, I find it fortunate that in my first calendar year as a Member of Parliament I can join with him and praise him for bringing this topic forward for public attention.

The problems of vandalism are associated with a number of others. There is the intimidation which a number of people are suffering. The facts that I have learned in the borough of Greenwich, part of which I have the honour to represent, are a surprise to me. For example, a constituent comes to see me and says "Do you know that in a certain area there are many people having their windows broken who do not dare report it to the police because they are frightened that they might get more attention from the vandals?".

It is time that the whole House drew attention to the importance of reporting all incidents. Obviously, one cannot expect the police to catch every old or young person who hurls a stone or a brick through a window, but at least we and they would have the opportunity to see the pattern of events, and the more information we have, the better able we should be to support those who have to deal with this problem.

We know also of the way in which young people dissociate themselves from the youth provision which is made. In my constituency there is a youth club where there are often six leaders and sometimes no more than six young people in it, yet, regrettably, on the walls outside one sees totally unnecessary writing, respectable though the language may be, and, what is more, if one talks to the neighbours one hears of young people running amok on the roof of the club and climbing over their walls, generally making the kind of provision which we all want to see unacceptable to the neighbours because of the influence it has on their daily lives.

I turn now to the way in which children are brought up in this country. I say at once that it is important to make it possible for families to do what they can for their children in their own way, because once one forbids them or denies them opportunities to bring up their children in the way they believe right, they will not give much attention to other children in the community, and it is the general community influence which I believe to be most important for young children.

When I am on a railway station platform and I see young people playing about in a dangerous way, I often wonder why only I shout out—drawing attention to myself, which is embarrassing, but at least making them feel embarrassed as well and doing something to stop them. In such a case, they are doing something dangerous. In the same way, when children are playing round a church and throwing stones so that the church is likely to be damaged, mature members of the community should be willing to draw the children's attention to the fact that that sort of behaviour is unacceptable. It is at that level that community involvement and control is so important.

To take it a stage further, I draw attention to what happens among younger children in primary school. In most primary schools the staff and parents combine to set standards. But there are, I believe, among those who have misread the Plowden Report, a number who believe that one should let children do what they wish, forgetting that just letting children do what they like, allowing them to be totally free, means that they end up by imitating one another, and it is not those among their peer groups who set the higher standards of conduct.

One usually finds that the attention given to authority drifts away. For example, in a primary school where school uniform is worn, if three-quarters of the children go back to their parents and say that they do not want to wear the uniform next day because three-quarters of the class will not wear theirs, if three-quarters of the parents pay attention to that, the school uniform is gone the next day. In itself, the wearing of school uniform is not all that important, but maintaining the authority of the school and the way that parents treat that authority is vital.

I have visited a large number of schools, and I have been interested to see the differences between them in this respect. There are schools in which there is no writing on the walls. One asks when a brightly painted wall was last decorated and one is told that it was done about four years previously, and it looks almost as good as it did then. There are other schools where there is writing on the walls and the windows look as though they have been frequently broken.

But the difference, I am sure, is not purely class based. It depends far more on the attitude of the head and the support from his staff. Going about the country, or in South London, the area which I know best, one can see how certain schools have gone up in the anti-vandal stakes, or good behaviour stakes, while others have gone down.

In much the same way, if one watches children coming out of school in the afternoon, one can usually get a fair indication of the sort of social control within the school from the way they behave as they come out. Let us hope that this debate will help to remind all heads and school staff, as well as parents of schoolchildren, that behaviour of this kind is part of the spectrum which goes from the ideal at one end—which I am sure none of us managed to live up to in our youth—to the other end, the "Clockwork Orange" style to which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East referred. We ought to do all we can to encourage the one rather than the other.

I believe that deterrence can be achieved by catching those who misbehave, and catching them early is far more important than what one does after they are caught for the first time. The problem of avoidance and prevention is, I believe, basically one for families, and families will need support. This should come in the main from the schools, because that is where children spend five hours a day from the age of five, but it must come also from the rest of the adult community.

A week ago I had a letter from a constituent who said "Could you please get the Government to pass a law making families control their children?". During my by-election campaign, I had people come to me and say, I hope you will stamp out the children who are the vandals in our society." I thought that rather extreme language, and I pointed out that the children they were talking about were our children, and that we all had a role in controlling them and in showing them what civilised behaviour was.

If our debate today receives the measure of publicity which it deserves. I believe that, without major changes in legislation, we could make a drastic reduction in the incidence of vandalism.

11.37 a.m.

First, I must apologise to the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) for my absence hitherto. Unfortunately, I was held up in my constituency. I sincerely regret that absence and I extend my apologies especially to you, Mr. Speaker.

I wish to direct attention to an aspect of this problem which we sometimes lose sight of, namely, the practice of squatting and the vandalism perpetuated by many squatters when they occupy private or public property. We have had problems for many years, especially in certain parts of London. I remember the days when I was chairman of a local government committee before the war, when, as soon as we planted some young saplings to make a street look more beautiful, children would come along and take a delight in bending the trees right to the ground so that they snapped, with the result that all the effort and money spent by the council "went for a Burton". That sort of thing happened then, and it is still happening.

On Wandsworth Common, where a very nice avenue of new trees was planted, 50 per cent. of them are now desecrated, mostly, I suppose, by adolescents and youths, or even by girls, who at night make a sort of foraging expedition to destroy the work done and paid for by ratepayers and taxpayers.

The point I emphasise is that squatting has changed its nature. After the Second World War, in 1946, 1947 and 1948, there was an enormous number of empty Nissen huts, formerly used by the Army and RAF, on commons and open spaces in London, such as Clapham Common and Wandsworth Common, where I come from. They were in a dilapidated condition, but because of the extreme housing shortage squatters moved into them and turned them into first-class homes. The squatters, who were perhaps just out of the Forces—married men with children—made the huts homes to be proud of, homes that were a credit to them.

Today we see the reverse. Many squatters occupying private property bought by the local council for conversion into flats or similar purposes bring in mattresses for the time being and sleep on the floor. Sometimes from 10 to 15 people move into one house. All around the house are owner-occupiers and tenants of owner-occupiers and of landlords who do not live on the premises. Their houses and flats are kept in very good condition. In less than a month of the squatters' moving in the place is far worse than a slum. They destroy the fittings and take out water heaters, electric fittings and anything else that can be moved and sold. In some cases they can connect up with electricity and gas and obtain free supplies. People who go to work and pay their taxes and rates see others moving in who render no service to the community and who destroy the pleasant nature of that community. That is happening in London now.

The squatters do not hesitate to pull up the floorboards of some rooms and use them for firewood. They will do anything. They will throw out anything into what is called the garden or backyard and create a health menace, because mice and rats move in. The people all round have to put up with it. They complain to the local authority, but it is very difficult to get the squatters out without going to court, and when that is done they usually leave the week before the hearing. Then the council or private owner must usually barricade, board and lock up most securely both the front and back of the property.

The squatters concerned are a menace. I cannot advise my hon. Friend the Minister what she should do, because it is a problem not only for her but for the local authorities and for us. In the past three months I have been inundated with letters from residents of Broomwood Road and Gorst Road, which is at the back of it. Number 51, Broomwood Road was offered to the council by an owner-occupier because the private buyer who wanted it was unable to obtain a building society mortgage, as the property was too old. That is a problem in London, which contains many houses built between the 1980s and early 1900s, and building societies are loth to advance considerable sums on such property. As a last resort the owner-occupier often has to ask the council to buy his house, and the council is often willing because it wants property to convert for letting to families.

As soon as the owner-occupier moves out of his house, which is often in first-class condition, the squatters get to know, and they move in straight away. They can break open the door or easily come in through a back window. Then, their whole idea is to sell what they can and leave the place after six or nine months. That is what has happened to No. 51, Broomwood Road, in my constituency. 1 feel very annoyed to think that constituents of mine who are tenants and owner-occupiers living around that property have to put up with the noise, dirt, smells, garbage and everything else that the squatters bring with them.

I hope that the debate will have shown that this is a serious problem in London and that local authorities must be more vigilant, that when they buy property they must make sure that it is occupied as soon as possible, and that they do not wait for plans to be drawn up for it to be converted.

Squatters create a nuisance to everybody around them. The local residents near No. 51, Broomwood Road have been up in arms for months about the nuisance created by people known as squatters, who in my opinion are not genuine squatters. They are not seeking a home for their wives and families. They are there only to take what they can out of the place and move on to another unoccupied property.

The local authorities and the Government must tackle the problem. There must be more severe penalties for such people. In inner London the problem is becoming worse every month. It is not easy for people who pay their rates and taxes, and go to work and bring up their families properly, to have squatters moving in—people who have no connection with the locality. Many of them do no work, but live on social security. The existing residents cannot sell their properties if they want to move, primarily because the squatters are next door, or two doors away.

I hope that my hon. Friend will see what she can do about this problem, which is particularly acute in my constituency and other parts of inner London.

11.47 a.m.

I welcome this opportunity to express on my own behalf and on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends our thanks to the Home Office working party for its Report, and to thank the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) for initiating this debate on the Report and on the financial and social costs of vandalism.

The financial costs of vandalism are enormous. It has been estimated that in any one year the cost of school fires, mostly not accidental, is about £9 million. British Rail estimates that the cost of repairing damage caused by vandals is about £1 million a year. London Transport reports that in 1972 the cost of repairing damage caused by vandalism was £55,000. It tells me that it now estimates that the cost of repairing damage to its properties—stations, bus stops, shelters, and so on—and to bus and Underground rolling stock is running at about £200,000 a year.

In addition, London Transport is having to spend large sums primarily to combat vandalism and assaults—including £200,000 on closed circuit television at certain Underground stations. It has a rolling programme amounting to nearly £4 million to equip buses with radios so that drivers can summon help when they are in difficulties. That is not to mention the additional cost to London Transport of extra staff, and the paying for police at railway stations to deal with football hooligans from time to time.

It is not a peculiarly London problem; the Assistant Chief Constable of Manchester has estimated that damage caused by vandals in the city amounts to £10,000 a day, a frightening figure.

The hon. Member for Woolwich, East referred to his inner London borough. I have made some inquiries of my outer London borough, where one might have thought conditions were such that vandalism would be a relatively minor problem. My local authority in Bromley estimates that in the past financial year it had to make insurance claims amounting to £38,000 for straightforward vandal damage, not to mention an enormous amount of smaller damage put right in the course of routine repairs by the council.

These are substantial figures, and their importance is only too clear when we remember that during this week we have been expressing concern about the State's vast spending. The cost is borne by ratepayers, taxpayers and the passengers of the transport authorities. Perhaps we can measure the costs in financial terms, but the social cost is immeasurable. For example, there are the people who no longer attend football matches because of the attendant circumstances. There are some areas in which people no longer like to walk along the streets, because of what takes place. There is a deterioration in the environment because of the widespread damage that is taking place. Park staffs find that trees are uprooted and flowerbeds trampled underfoot after many hours of careful work.

We must also bear in mind the inconvenience to the general public. There are the damaged trains that are put out of action, the buses that do not run because the drivers are on strike in protest against the way in which they have been attacked, and the straightforward loss of facilities. For example, my home backs on to a recreation ground on which there are tennis courts and where there was a changing hut. Time after time and week after week the windows of the hut were broken and the tiles ripped from the roof. The woodwork was stripped and the huts contents were thrown into my back garden. Eventually, the stage was reached when the hut was pulled down because it was not worth repairing. The tennis players have now lost their changing facilities.

These matter have serious implications for society. It is mainly the under-21s who are responsible for this sort of damage. They may well commit damage to property today and turn to personal violence tomorrow. Unfortunately, relatively few of the vandals can be caught, but how are we to deal with those who are caught? How can we try to cure this problem? Reference has been made to fines and compensation, and the difficulty of getting money out of those concerned. Wherever possible it is desirable to hold the parents responsible and make them pay the fines and compensation.

I agree with the suggestion that community service orders could be used for the older offender and that the under-17s should be subject to intermediate treatment, where appropriate. It is notable that the Report comes to the conclusion that vandals are often lads with relatively little attainment at school, in academic subjects or in sport. They have a sense of failure, and the damaging of property may give them a small sense of achievement.

Would it not be much better if by all sorts of means, including intermediate treatment, we could give them an opportunity to achieve something in other directions? For instance, they could learn to swim, or sail a dinghy. They could be taught to climb rocks, or to do some modest home decorating. That sort of scheme, even on a modest scale, would cost some money, but surely it would be a worthwhile investment if it diverted young lads from vandalism.

We have so far considered cures, but we must look for some means of preventing vandalism. There is a basic need for more police. If we could have a greater number of policemen we would go a long way to deterring the prospective vandal. After all, he is not likely to become involved in unlawful activity if he knows that there is a copper round the corner. At the moment he knows that if a police car has driven past he is not likely to see another for a couple of hours. That means that the coast is clear.

Other action can be taken. The local authorities could make their contribution. They could help the youth clubs and the many voluntary organisations that provide facilities for youth. In my constituency there are sea cadet premises where about 70 lads are kept occupied three or four nights a week, but the organisers are having the utmost difficulty in keeping going because of the costs of running the premises. The rates amount to £150. The local authority, if it wishes, has the power to remit the rates altogether for such an organisation. I am sure that £150 would be a relatively small price to pay if it kept some lads off the street and away from vandalism.

Greater use could be made of school premises, not only for youth activities but for various other matters that take place in the evenings, on weekends and during holidays. That use could keep youths off the streets. If school premises are occupied they are less likely to be vandalised. Local authorities and architects should be far more concerned about the design of buildings and street furniture. They should bear in mind the opportunities for vandalism. That is one of the lessons to be drawn from Kirkby.

The GLC has estimated that when it empties homes for modernisation an average of £1,000 worth of damage is done to every home before it gets around to doing the necessary work. The answer is that when administering their schemes authorities must do their utmost to ensure that the properties are empty for the shortest possible time. I know that there are difficulties in decanting people from one property to another. In a block of flats in my constituency the sole occupant is an elderly lady. The GLC is having difficulty in rehousing her. Meanwhile, the rest of the block is being steadily vandalised at enormous cost to the community, not to mention the fear that is felt by the dear old lady. Perhaps there is something to be said for having electronic systems in schools and similar public places, such as are being installed by the Devon and Cornwall authorities. That sort of equipment is expensive but effective. There is no doubt that in the long run there is some benefit to be gained from that sort of installation.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do this morning is to increase public awareness of the cost of vandalism and the need for vigilance. Perhaps the local authorities could quote the cost of vandalism not merely in the lump sums that we have been discussing, which are difficult for the man in the street to grasp, but by pointing out to every ratepayer that the vandalism in his area is costing him money and that every passenger is having to pay increased fares because of the vandalism that takes place to transport systems. In that way we could bring home the cost of vandalism and not least, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) said, the element of parental responsibility.

Parents are taxpayers, ratepayers and passengers and they should know what their youngsters are doing. They should instill into them respect for other people and other people's property. Like my hon. Friend, I was a magistrate. I was also the chairman of the local juvenile court. I have a vivid memory of one case in which a group of lads burst into a baker's yard, getting into some of the vans and driving them about the yard. They did thousands of pounds' worth of damage in the course of one Sunday afternoon. Some of the children concerned could not even be brought to court because they were under the age of 10 years. The lads that appeared in court were ordered to be remanded in some sort of custody until further reports had been made. I remember the violent reaction of the parents to the idea that their children should be taken away even for a week or so, but those parents had not the slightest idea what their youngsters had been up to during the previous Sunday afternoon.

Much can be done if the effect of this debate is only to make the public generally, and parents in particular, more aware of the problem of vandalism. If that can be done, our time and the initiative of the hon. Member for Woolwich, East will have been well spent.

12 noon.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) has raised this extremely important subject. He and other hon. Members who have spoken—the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims), my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Perry) and the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) have all given vivid examples and statistics to illustrate the seriousness of this problem and they have made valuable suggestions about how it can be tackled.

Vandalism is of extremely great concern to the Government, the police, the public authorities and, I should like to think, to all members of society.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East referred to and supported the report of the working party of the Home Office Standing Committee on Crime Prevention which was published only last month. The Report drew attention to the increasing seriousness of this widespread problem and, judging from its reception by the police, local authorities and the construction industry, it will offer a very valuable contribution to discussion and action on measures which can be taken to prevent vandalism. The demand for the Report has already exhausted initial supplies and further copies are being printed.

The working party could not make a precise assessment of the incidence of vandalism. Detailed records of damage are not always kept, and where they are kept, often no distinction is made between deliberate and accidental damage. Some costs are absorbed into general maintenance.

Concerning police records, unfortunately few cases of vandalism are reported to the police, who in any case do not report to the Home Office acts of damage where the value of the damage is less than £20. However, these cases are recorded by the police.

Therefore, there is no comprehensive national system of records on the incidence and cost of vandalism, although some estimate of cost can be made by using a number of sources such as local authorities, the Post Office and transport agencies.

Local authorities probably incur the heaviest costs. Figures submitted to the working party included an estimate of £150,000 a year from just one city borough with a population of 500,000. One London borough reported damage to housing alone at £40,000. Another borough had 200 to 300 street lamps broken every week. Damage to schools cost one authority alone £114,000. In addition, transport and recreation facilities, parking meters, parks and cemeteries were all reported to suffer damage amounting to many thousands of pounds. The total cost of vandalism throughout the country has been estimated at tens of millions of pounds a year.

The Post Office reported a total cost in 1971–72 of £426,000 for damage to telephone kiosks. British Rail reported damage to trains, signals, telegraphs and building totalling over £1 million. London Transport estimated the cost of reinstating damage in 1972 at over £55,000. In addition, private concerns such as building firms, shops and insurance companies pay large sums to cover the cost of malicious damage.

There are many difficulties in assessing the cost of vandalism. The effects of much vandalism may be damage which is indistinguishable from ordinary wear or tear or accidents. Another problem is that any record of vandalism will tend to refer only to the cost of repair or of materials. These figures do not necessarily reflect the true cost of vandalism. Much vandalism has been shown to be perpetrated against property which is already worn or partly damaged and which was in any case probably in need of replacement. On the other hand, when repairs are not done or are impossible because the vandalism is so severe, there will be no cost attributed to vandalism.

Local authorities tend not to record such damage separately from other kinds of damage. However, a few local authorities have started trying to keep such records and although these are likely to be only a rough estimate, they should provide in the future some information about which preventive measures are most effective. Accordingly, work can be done based on those figures. The fact that separate records on vandalism are kept not only by some local authorities but also by the Post Office and by public transport agencies illustrates the seriousness of the problem and that these bodies are trying to find positive ways of handling it.

Another problem is that the definitions of vandalism used by different authorities seem to vary, so that their costs cannot always be compared. Police records are more standardised but most vandalism, as I have said, is unfortunately not reported to the police. This is where every member of the public can take a positive and active step to help. Even if they think that there is minor vandalism or a threat of vandalism, they would be well advised to report it. Some damage, consisting for the most part of more trivial incidents, is expected in some areas and written off. Other cases are not reported because vandalism tends to occur where there is little public or police surveillance and offenders are unlikely to be caught—for instance, very late at night, or in bad weather. One Home Office research unit project revealed that police records, including damage of under £20, covered only one-twelfth of the estimated total extent of vandalism damage on one large estate.

In addition to all these problems of definition and recording there are difficulties in costing any type of criminal activity. For example, there is the cost of police time, the cost of taking an offender to court and the cost of punishment or reformation of the offender as well as the cost to the victims of the crime. With vandalism it is difficult to assess the cost to local authorities, for example, of the extra maintenance and staff needed to deal with this problem alone and the extra expenditure involved in introducing vandal-proof and vandal-preventive measures.

Then there are the social costs likely to be felt by the community as a whole. Much vandalism is extremely visible and directed at public property and communal facilities, thus reducing the quality of the environment as well as inconveniencing the public. Examples are the destruction of park benches, public telephones, street lighting, bus shelters and lifts in blocks of flats. It may also result in the wastage and under-use of space by the public, so that community facilities specifically provided for them, because of their derelict appearance and vulnerability to attack by vandals, are under-used. In the case of telephone kiosks, fire-equipment damage and obstruction on railway lines, vandalism may even endanger public safety.

Less obvious perhaps is the influence which the appearance and upkeep of an area has on residents' attitudes to their community and to the authorities responsible for maintaining public property. Many tenants living on estates where damage is persistent, or the vandal-proof building materials used give a particularly austere atmosphere, feel that they are reduced to the status of second-class citizens.

In areas which are generally run down and where damage is widespread the residents become apathetic and indifferent to local issues and sometimes hostile to local authorities. The problems in these areas include the concentration of low quality housing and poor families. But it would be wrong to assume that vandalism is the main cause of neglect and apathy in such areas.

The Home Office research unit is undertaking four projects on different aspects of vandalism. None bears directly on the financial and social cost of vandalism, but each has met with the problem of assessing its extent and prevalence.

One study in Manchester examined whether the amount and location of damage on buses was related to the extent to which passengers could be supervised by the crew. It was noted that a great amount of damage was left unrepaired because it was assumed that the property would be redamaged. The cost of some repairs had been reduced by using hard-wearing plastic covers, which meant less comfort to the public.

Another study undertaken on a public housing estate in Manchester examined ways of measuring vandalism. Residents and shopkeepers were interviewed about incidents they had experienced or noticed. It was found that no one source of information was comprehensive but that the individual sources usefully complemented each other.

A third study examined the incidence of vandalism in 52 housing estates in two London boroughs to see whether and how they varied according to the layout and design of estates and the numbers of children living in them. That study is not complete, but it has shown that lifts were the most expensive item to maintain, although glazed items were the most frequently damaged. On some of the estates glass was becoming so expensive to replace that designs were modified and brick finishes used. The study also found that communal facilities, such as laundries, store sheds and public conveniences, had often ceased to be used due to their state of disrepair.

In the fourth study in an attempt to gain some understanding of behaviour 600 Liverpool schoolboys were asked about vandalism they had committed. They were also questioned about their homes, leisure activities and their attitude to school. Early findings from the study confirm that vandalism is prevalent among 11- to 15-year-old boys in the city and that police records represent only the tip of the iceberg.

The courts possess extensive powers in this respect. They are able to give sentences of up to 10 years' imprisonment on conviction on indictment and up to six months' imprisonment or a fine of up to £400, or both, on summary conviction.

I have tried to emphasise that vandalism is a matter of great concern to everybody—not least to the Government, the police, local authorities and ratepayers. Everybody must make every effort to do what he or she can to report any incidents to the police so that more precise records of the type of vandalism and the places affected can be kept. The police are doing everything possible in my constituency of Halifax to cope with the problem. We have a Damage Squad. It is known to the public as the "vandals squad". It has been in existence for some time and has shown itself to be both effective and worth while. Chief officers everywhere, within the limits of their resources, are doing what they reasonably can to control vandalism and bring offenders to justice.

There is a need for the wider use of vandal-resistant materials and especially for greater awareness by parents and teachers of their responsibilities, as has been emphasised in this debate. We also need to provide for the diversion of young people's energy into more useful pastimes.

Most important is the need to awaken public consciousness to the extent of the problem. I hope that this debte will contribute to that end. We want to enlist the co-operation of everybody in the community in the prevention of vandalism and the detection of offenders by reporting all incidents, large or small, to the police.