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Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: Stockton South

Volume 660: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2019

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

It is a pleasure to have secured this, my first Adjournment debate. I wanted the debate because there is a problem in my constituency, and I am sure that the problem I hear about from my constituents is echoed in other parts of the country. As the representative of all my constituents, whether they voted for me or not, I want to put to the Government the problems they are describing to me. I hope the Minister is in listening mode for a while.

It is difficult to imagine what it is like to live in a community where residents are woken at night by people loudly bashing on the door looking for somewhere to buy drugs or where people are frightened that if they take their dog for a walk somebody will break into their home. It is difficult to understand the impact that being a victim of crime can have and how it can sap somebody’s confidence. It is also difficult to understand the impact it can have on entire communities when people feel that their streets are not as safe as they used to be.

The area I represent is not one homogeneous area. Stockton South is a mixture of many different communities, some more affluent, some with higher levels of deprivation. Each community has its own characteristics, but there are common concerns. I have held several public meetings in response to the concerns of constituents and people have contacted me directly. Our local newspaper, The Teesside Gazette, is full of stories and, as in many other parts of the country, there are virtual communities on social media. An overwhelming number of people are describing what they perceive to be a rising tide of crime and antisocial behaviour.

First, I would like to tell some of those stories, look at what the numbers tell us, talk about what the police have told me about their response, and perhaps touch on the local authority response. I then want to put some specific asks to the Government to help the communities I represent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on what I am sure will be the first of many Adjournment debates he leads in this place. Mine is the next-door constituency, and what he describes is replicated there. As a group of Tees MPs, we wrote to the Home Secretary on 13 February asking to meet him to discuss these issues, and he has yet to reply. Is my hon. Friend surprised that the Home Secretary is ignoring the MPs in Cleveland and does not seem to care about the people we represent?

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for drawing attention to that. The fact that we did not receive a response to what we collectively thought was quite a reasonable request was one of my reasons for initiating the debate. I wanted to ensure that the Government were listening to people throughout the borough of Stockton-on-Tees who have a common set of concerns.

In Thornaby, there is a real public awareness of the rising levels of vandalism of public property. There has also been a spate of attacks on individuals in parts of the town, which have made people really frightened. A 90-year-old woman told me recently that she had become frightened to leave her home. There are increasing numbers of burglaries and break-ins. Residents describe groups of young people who are being deliberately provocative, throwing stones and driving quad bikes around. Some of that is clearly antisocial behaviour, but some of it crosses the boundary into criminal activity.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on raising an issue which, as he has said, is important not just in his constituency, but in constituencies throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Street pastors have done some incredible work in my constituency. A group of churches have come together to address antisocial issues. Along with Government bodies and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, they have managed to reduce antisocial behaviour. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best way of reducing crime and antisocial behaviour is to provide alternatives for young people, and that that means funding the churches and voluntary bodies which provide schemes and places for those young people to go, as well as relationships to discourage destructive behaviour?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Of course there is not just a criminal justice response to crime and antisocial behaviour. Many people, including those in voluntary and community sector organisations and schools, are working to build the capacity of our communities. However, there is also a need for an adequate police response.

In Ingleby Barwick, a great deal of attention has been paid to antisocial behaviour. Again, there have been attacks on individuals. People shopping at the local branch of Tesco have been subjected to unacceptable levels of intimidation and abuse. I recently met the Low Hartburn residents group. People are so concerned about the rising levels of property theft in that area that a group of concerned residents—who stress that they are not vigilantes—have formed a strong residents group. They organise activities such as playdays and community capacity-building, but they also have a rota, taking it in turns to patrol their estate at night. These are hard-working people who have jobs during the day. They are not doing this off their own bat—they are working with the police, and are taking plenty of necessary precautions—but they are having to enhance the community’s response by organising their own street patrols.

In Parkfield and Oxbridge, I have heard testimony from the excellent local councillors, including Louise Baldock. She has told me about intolerable levels of antisocial behaviour. People have referred to a lot of abuse in the streets, many residents are worried about the high level of drug dealing in the streets, and there is street sex work. Even in the more affluent area of Hartburn, where I spent time with residents on Friday, there are high levels of car crime and shoplifting. I am sure that all that is being echoed in many other areas in Stockton South.

What I have related so far is a series of anecdotes, but the data is quite shocking. I asked the House of Commons Library about the figures for reported crime. I know that it has increased throughout the country—there has been a 31% increase throughout England and Wales, although that may be due partly to increases in crime and partly to better reporting—but in Cleveland there has been a 55% increase, and in my constituency there was an 83% increase between 2011-12 and 2018-19. The perceptions of people on the street are clearly borne out by that data. That may be because there are some unique problems in Cleveland. We have the highest level of reported antisocial behaviour in the country, the second highest levels of domestic violence and the highest levels of drug abuse. We are an area of very high deprivation and have some serious and organised criminals involved in the supply of drugs. There are some serious urban problems in our area and a serious response is required, but in the period since 2011-12 there has been not just a real-terms cut, but a cash-terms reduction. Cleveland police force is £34 million worse off, and that is including a slight increase in funding last year, although for the area with the fourth highest reported crime rate in the country we had the second lowest level of increased funding. Since 2011-12 there has been a cash-terms reduction of £17 million in our police budget. That has meant that in a time of increased crime—an 83% increase—our police numbers have been slashed from 1,700 to 1,200; there are 500 fewer police and 50 fewer police community support officers.

Unfortunately, we have had several chief constables. One retired, one suddenly left, and we now have a brilliant new chief constable in Richard Lewis. I have listened to all of them and they have said that uniquely in Cleveland—many of them have worked in other parts of the country—the police just do not have the resources to respond to the levels of demand.

We are very proud in Cleveland of the partnership work between the local authorities, voluntary organisations and others and our communities in trying to deal with some of the issues, but of course they need resources. We have seen tremendously large cuts to local authority funding in our area—50% in Stockton’s case—and I know that my hon. Friend understands why our constituents are feeling so angry and frustrated when they do not see the action that they need in our communities.

Again, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. We are seeing a great response from the local authority antisocial behaviour teams, but they tell us that they just do not have the resources they need to deal with this significant increase in crime and antisocial behaviour in our area.

I did not initially want to air some of this in public. One of the reasons why we wrote to the Home Secretary privately is that—I hope the Minister understands this—there is a genuine concern about keeping confidence in the police locally. I do not want to undermine public confidence in the ability of the police to do their job, but when the police are telling me that they do not have enough officers to police our area safely, and when we approach the Home Secretary privately to try to get a response and do not get one, I am afraid that there is no other way open to MPs than to air some of these problems in a public forum.

I want to compare Cleveland to some other areas. Nationally, police forces are funded at an average level of about £2,400 per crime; in Cleveland we get £2,140. Let us compare areas of similar sizes. Some might say that Cleveland is an area with a particularly small population and that therefore it will not be funded at the levels of other areas, but Warwickshire is a similar size force and it gets £2,494 per crime as opposed to our £2,140. Let us compare areas with similar budgets. Gwent has a similar budget to the Cleveland force. It has to contend with 54,784 crimes a year and we have 61,982, so we have more crimes for a similar budget. Whichever way we cut the numbers, I believe the chief constable and the police when they say that they just do not have the resources to do the job that they need to do.

We have levels of crime that are 21% higher than the national average and that figure is rising, but even with the recent very small increases in funding—according to the House of Commons Library there has been a 3% increase in funding in real terms nationally—there is a 0% increase in Cleveland. Local people just do not understand why we are not getting the resources. There must be something wrong with the formula.

I have challenged the police and asked them what they are doing to reform. I have asked them what they could do to use their money in a better way. They have given me a long list of things that they are trying to do better. They have put extra resources into the force control room to try to get more timely responses; they have tried to get more police on to the frontline; they have tried to improve the levels of community policing and intelligence; they are trying to use technology; and they are trying to have a named police community support officer for every council ward. They are also conscious of the fact that, because of the rising levels of crime and the rising pressure on the police, their levels of sickness are very high. Around 100 of the 1,200 officers are off on long-term sick leave at the moment, which brings extra pressure.

The force is in a spiral of increasing problems but, despite that, all the police I meet are doing a remarkable job. Despite the historical problems with Cleveland police, there are high levels of trust in the police among the community. The individual police I meet are doing a brilliant job. I have to pay particular tribute to our Labour police and crime commissioner, Barry Coppinger, whose levels of engagement are phenomenal. He has attended hundreds of public meetings and gatherings and is a fine spokesman for the work of his team. He is doing the very best he can with the resources that he has.

I am afraid that I have to be a bit party political about this as well. We have a Tory Tees Valley Mayor. Oversight of the police is not the responsibility of the combined authority, but our Tory Tees Valley Mayor has taken it upon himself to make public pronouncements about Cleveland police, and his response to the woefully inadequate funding and the rising levels of need in the community has been to suggest that we abolish Cleveland police. That shows that he is really not listening to our communities. Our neighbouring forces in Durham and North Yorkshire have to contend largely with rural crime, but we have unique levels of urban crime, including serious organised crime, and our police have developed a unique level of expertise. It is clear to me that any kind of abolition or merger would split my constituency in two, with one half being policed by one force and the other half being policed by another. It would completely dilute the police’s effectiveness. Such a split would also mask the fundamental unfairness of the funding. Taking away the expertise of Cleveland police by following the Tory Tees Valley Mayor’s suggestion of abolition would be a criminals’ wet dream on Teesside. It would dilute the police’s effectiveness and be entirely the wrong strategic response.

What would we like to see happening? We wrote to the Home Secretary to outline the rising levels of crime, the rising demands on the police, the increases in sexual offences and in children missing from home, and the massive increase in homicides, in the levels of domestic abuse and in the number of robberies. We know that this is not just about a criminal justice response, however. Indeed, there are some brilliant organisations working in my constituency to provide a community response. A lot of young people there have a very difficult start in life. Many of them are in households where they are exposed to adverse childhood experiences, including parental mental health problems, domestic violence and substance misuse. We have to invest in those young people and I try to bring representatives of the organisations making that investment to every public meeting that I go to. I must give a real shout-out to Nicola Garrett and Darren Iveson from the Five Lamps organisation in Thornaby, and to the Corner House Youth Project, which works across into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and does brilliant, sterling work helping vulnerable young people to find alternatives to crime. The work that our schools do is fantastic as well. There are many other organisations working hard in our community.

However, we have to face the facts here. The biggest problems felt by our communities are the lack of an adequate police presence, the fact that the police are not there to gather the intelligence that they used to and that the police response is not sufficient. I have challenged and listened to the police on that. I do not think that any force in the country would be able to deal with a 55% increase in crime over the past eight years—the statistic for Stockton South is 83%—given the massive cuts that Cleveland police have faced, which have led to the loss of 500 police officers and 50 PCSOs. Beyond anything else, I as the local representative of my community and the other Members of Parliament in the Tees Valley, particularly Labour Members, are asking the Government to consider the particular local issues and to see whether the police funding formula is the right one to deliver sufficient resources to help my constituents and my community to feel safe.

I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) for securing this important debate—his first Adjournment debate. I am grateful to him for his points, particularly the one about his letter to the Home Secretary. I am not aware of that letter, but I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would expect me to be, given the number of letters that the Home Office receives weekly, let alone annually. However, should he ever have a similar communication in future, he should feel free to raise the matter directly with me and I will endeavour to ensure that he gets a response. We will look into the matter and I am sure that we will respond.

I thank the Minister for giving way and for her warm words about her responding to letters, but will she do us a wee favour, go and bang on the Home Secretary’s door tomorrow and ask, “Did you get this letter? Did you get the two or three reminders that were sent? Will you now respond?”

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say that officials and I will look into the matter because we want to ensure that colleagues’ letters receive a response.

The hon. Member for Stockton South made many points, but I will first refer to the overall national picture of crime. The independent Office for National Statistics is clear that the likelihood of being a victim of crime remains low, but we are not complacent. We know that there has been a genuine increase in serious violent crimes, and a recent YouGov poll showed that crime was a more important issue to the public than health for the first time. We are determined to tackle all forms of crime and we are taking decisive action in a number of areas.

The hon. Gentleman made particular reference to serious violence. The measures that we are taking include £17.7 million for 29 projects endorsed by police and crime commissioners under the early intervention youth fund—part of the £22 million that has been committed overall—and a new £3.6 million national county lines co-ordination centre led by the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the National Crime Agency, which launched last September. In the few months that the centre has been operating, it has seen more than 1,000 arrests and over 1,300 vulnerable people safeguarded, which perhaps underlines the fact that many of the crimes that the police now have to deal with involve not only criminality, with serious organised crime gangs and so on, but the manipulation of vulnerable people. Tackling that forms part of our approach under the serious violence strategy.

The Government are also investing in a new national police capability to tackle gang-related activity on social media, which is a new, 21st-century methodology that gangs are using, and we are in the middle of strengthening legislation on firearms, knives and corrosive substances through the Offensive Weapons Bill, which I hope will receive Royal Assent this week. We are also launching a consultation on a new legal duty to underpin a public health approach to tackling serious violence.

I would not want anyone to think that the Home Office does not take the concerns of the north-east seriously when it comes to crime. I was in Darlington last week at a serious violence engagement event for the north-east. I spoke to a hall full of local people from all manner of agencies—education, healthcare, local government, trading standards and so on, as well as the police—about what we can do locally to ensure that the approach to tackling serious violence is as co-ordinated and effective as possible.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that Cleveland is also receiving more than £546,000 through the early intervention youth fund to support the development of early intervention programmes aimed at young people at risk of engaging in criminality, including serious violence and knife crime. We are also taking action to address the drivers of such crime. For example, we recognise the devastating impact that illicit drugs can have on individuals and communities, which is why the Home Secretary has commissioned an independent review of drugs, in which Professor Dame Carol Black is looking at drug use in the 21st century and the ways in which drugs are fuelling, for example, serious violence. We look forward to the review’s initial findings in the summer.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned antisocial behaviour and described its wearing effect on local communities. We recognise the impact it can have on people and communities and on people’s enjoyment of their communities. We reformed the tools and powers available to local areas to tackle antisocial behaviour through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Those tools and powers are designed to enable local agencies to respond to such behaviours, to stop them escalating and to prevent them from reoccurring.

Both the police and, on some occasions, local councils can use a range of powers to help members of the public with antisocial behaviour. They include court orders to stop the behaviour of the most destructive people, powers to close premises that are causing nuisance or disorder, and powers to stop antisocial behaviour in public places. The community trigger and other measures enable the public to feed back to the police and the local council when they think antisocial behaviour is not being dealt with as they would like.

We have published statutory guidance on this to help local areas, and we have updated it to reflect feedback from professionals and to remind them of the importance of proportionality and transparency in the use of some of these powers, which are very varied. These are strong powers that can be used, and we keep them under review through a national strategic board that brings together representatives from key agencies and from across Government to consider our approach and to identify any developing issues.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned police funding and—I almost hesitate, because I know hon. Members know this—I will give a little history lesson on why very difficult decisions had to be made at the beginning of this decade. We inherited a terrible economic mess and had to make very difficult decisions not just in policing but in a number of areas to live within our means and to try to repair some of the damage. It is precisely because of that stewardship that we are now in a better position financially and we are able to increase police funding, as we did last year, thus ensuring, with the help of police and crime commissioners, that there is more money for local police forces, counter-terrorism and those officers who tackle serious and organised crime. Nationally, funding will increase by more than £1 billion in 2019-20, including, as I say, with the help of council tax, extra funding for pensions costs and the serious violence fund announced by the Chancellor in the spring statement. Interestingly, this funding is already enabling the police to recruit to fill key gaps and to meet the financial pressures they face next year.

Cleveland police will receive an increase of £7.3 million next year, to a total figure of £132.7 million. That is an increase of nearly 6%. It is a shame the hon. Gentleman did not feel able to support the Government giving that £7 million more to Cleveland police, but I am sure that Cleveland’s PCC will use it wisely. He asked me a pertinent question at the serious violence engagement event on Thursday. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his neighbour, the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham), will lobby the PCC to spend that money on more officers.

I note the time. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Stockton South has been able to secure this debate. I very much look forward to discussing this with him further.

House adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 9(7)).