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Antisocial Behaviour (Vehicles)

Volume 697: debated on Monday 14 June 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

I begin by thanking the Speaker’s Office for granting me this Adjournment debate. This will be a difficult speech to make tonight, because I, like 50,000 other couples, have today found out that—cruelly, in my opinion—their wedding is unlikely to go ahead in the next four weeks. But I will soldier on regardless.

Carshalton and Wallington is lucky to be statistically one of the lowest crime areas in London, thanks to the efforts of our fantastic Metropolitan police officers, but it still suffers at the hands of criminals. Today I want to touch on a couple of the most challenging and worrying problems facing my residents when it comes to crime: antisocial behaviour, particular that which involves the use of, or targeting of, a vehicle.

The pandemic has led to a sharp decline in crime overall in the London borough of Sutton, but this type of crime and antisocial behaviour have seen a worrying increase. Indeed, there was an increase in antisocial behaviour of over 230% last April, when we first went into lockdown. I have been in regular contact with our excellent local borough commander, and it is clear that the police are doing what they can, but the police need to be supported, either through partner organisations that need to do their part, or by new rules of powers to make their job easier.

There are two forms that I want to raise today. The first is the theft of catalytic converters, which are located on the underside of cars and remove harmful pollutant gases. However, the precious metals that enable them to do that are very valuable—some are three times the price of gold. A thief can take a catalytic converter from a car in a matter of minutes, or even as quickly as 30 seconds in some cases, often using a pipe cutter or similar tool simply to cut the converter from the exhaust pipe. Last year saw a rise of nearly 50% of catalytic converter theft in London alone. This has been for two primary reasons: the ease with which these crimes can take place; and the huge financial potential for those who are successful. the perpetrators have become more and more violent in their desperation to commit these crimes, with many stories being reported to me of residents being barred into their own homes, chased or even attacked with blunt implements, such as my constituent Saffron in Beddington.

There has been some good news in relation to tackling these crimes. I pay tribute to the Metropolitan police and the British Transport Police for their efforts to try to tackle this issue. The police set up Operation Basswood to tackle the rise in catalytic converter thefts. Collating evidence from thefts across London and parts of the home counties such as Essex, the police were able to deduce that the overwhelming majority of the crimes being committed came from one group of people based in Hackney.

On Tuesday 23 March this year, hundreds of officers were deployed to execute simultaneous warrants in Hackney and in Essex. On the day itself, there were four arrests and seven subsequent arrests have been made. Over £60,000 was seized, while multiple vehicles that were stolen or had false plates, various quantities of drugs, tools used to commit these thefts and 33 converters were recovered. This was the very first police raid of its kind and I am pleased to report that it has been successful, with a 66% reduction since 23 March, including in Carshalton and Wallington.

This hit day was followed by a further catalytic converter week of action by the British Transport Police in mid-April, which saw 244 offences identified, 664 vehicles stopped, 926 sites visited, 1,610 vehicles forensically marked, 1,037 stolen catalytic converters recovered and 56 arrests made.

However, while these operations have thankfully been successful, the fact remains that without changes this crime is still very easy to commit and the police are in a really difficult situation in tracking down the perpetrators or returning stolen parts. The difficulty in policing this comes down to the basic fact that catalytic converters are easy to steal and almost impossible to trace back to their owners. That is why I am joining local police in calling for changes to help them to tackle this crime. First, we need to look as far back as vehicle production, ensuring that catalytic converters cannot be so easily accessed by potential thieves, but also including identifiable markings on each catalytic converter, so that a recovered catalytic converter can be traced back to the vehicle it was stolen from, thereby allowing for more successful convictions in individual cases.

We must also do more to tackle the dodgy scrap metal dealers that these thieves rely on not to ask any questions when selling on the metals. In fact, this goes for all types of crime that seek to make money in this way. I would agree with the police that these dealers must keep a register of their customers, or even that we should go as far as asking a regulator, perhaps the Environment Agency, to license or certify who can handle these precious metals, again making it easier to trace criminals or to shut down dodgy scrap metal operations covering up for the criminals who use them. Although police operations have led to a reduction in catalytic converter thefts for now, they are likely to rise again unless we get on the front foot and make life more difficult for these criminals.

I want to move on to the antisocial use of vehicles more widely. We have seen scenes from across the country, particularly London—sadly, they have also manifested themselves in Carshalton and Wallington—of people using vehicles, particularly motorbikes, mopeds and quad bikes, to ride antisocially in parks and open spaces, on pavements and high streets, and much more. In my constituency, the residents of Roundshaw and South Beddington have been particularly impacted by this.

Back in my constituency of Strangford, one of the issues has been the advertising of these events on social media. There is a role for the police in relation to that. Does the hon. Member agree that it is imperative that communities are able to have a source of redress against those who sit in public car parks near to housing developments in the early hours of the morning with their altered vehicles, whatever they may be, waking children with every acceleration and leaving people at their wits’ end? It is time that there was legislation to stop it.

It is an honour to be intervened on by the hon. Gentleman. He was not here during my first Adjournment debate and I felt at a loss, so I am happy that he is here now. I completely agree with everything he said about these perpetrators. Although the crime or the antisocial behaviour itself might seem minuscule to some, constant abuse of vehicles in this way can cause absolute misery for local communities.

I am really sorry to hear about the delay to the hon. Gentleman’s wedding. He is raising a number of issues that my constituents in Pontypridd and Caerphilly are faced with on a daily basis. The key issue that I hear about is that they are harassed and intimidated by these car modifications—the cars backfire with loud bangs that literally sound like a shotgun going off and can be utterly terrifying—but because it is essentially antisocial behaviour they feel unable to report it to the police. Does he agree that central to tackling these issues is improving how police support services are communicated to residents across the UK, so that they feel confident to report such incidents?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady’s point about reporting. I will come on to that later in my speech, but something the Metropolitan police have in place, which I find very helpful, is an online reporting system that does not require residents to phone 999 or even 101 to report a crime. I have found it much easier to persuade residents to report more regularly through that online system, because they do not feel like they are harassing the police, taking up too much of their time or being a burden by reporting something that they think is small, but that is causing them grief. Perhaps the Minister will address in her closing remarks whether we can use that example from the Metropolitan police across other police forces, because it has been a useful tool. Of course, there is always more to do.

I was talking about the impact on residents who live near Roundshaw Downs. It has had an impact on me, because I regularly use the downs to walk my two dogs, Willow and Lola, but have become more and more apprehensive about doing so. That concern is shared by Sutton Rovers football club, which is based at the site. This is not a new issue—residents tell me that it has been going on since before I was elected—but lockdown has exacerbated the problem incredibly. It has clearly gone way beyond a small band of young people looking for a quick thrill and become something more organised.

Perhaps this will explain why. Roundshaw Downs is a 52.7 hectare site of metropolitan importance for nature conservation and nature reserve, based on the site of the old Croydon airport. Some of the old airport remains there today. It is the largest area of unimproved chalk grassland in the borough and, as such, it provides an extremely valuable nature conservation resource for insects, birds and wild flowers—my partner Jed and I particularly enjoy the cows at the southern end of the downs. However, that also makes it very attractive for those who want to use vehicles in an antisocial way.

I will talk through some of the reports I have received from residents about the impact this issue has had on them. Residents have said to me that they are too frightened to walk in the area. The noise has led some to say that it feels like they are living next to a racetrack. They speak of the destruction of the local environment and habitats, including those of breeding pheasants and skylarks—which, by the way, are a red list species for protection—in the area where the activity has been occurring, as well as other illicit activities such as littering and drug use. There have been serious safety concerns about use of the downs as well. One resident tells me that they have experienced verbal abuse and threats simply for walking on the public pathway. There has sadly been at least one appalling incident of violence against a dog walker, when they were physically assaulted by someone riding a motorcycle.

The Metropolitan police, to their credit, have stepped up patrols where possible, and have even conducted helicopter flyovers. They have managed to stop some people, remind them of the law and seize vehicles, and so on. However, these are expensive and temporary measures, at best. Antisocial behaviour is not reduced solely by reactive police activity; it needs to be tackled by working together with local authorities and communities to introduce preventive measures to stop it happening in the first place.

That has proven difficult because Roundshaw Downs straddles the boundary of the London boroughs of Croydon and Sutton. For well over a year, I have attempted to get both councils in a room with the police to thrash out a solution. Sadly, neither council has been forthcoming.

I associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones)—I am very sorry to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s wedding. I am a former police officer and I know the damage that antisocial behaviour does, but I want to press him on his point about Sutton Council. I know that my Liberal Democrat colleagues on Sutton Council are working hard to stop the offenders. My understanding is that the hon. Gentleman refused a briefing from the ward councillor leading on the issue. If he is as passionate about solving it as he seems to be tonight, would he not better serve his constituents by working with local councillors?

I am happy to correct the hon. Lady. I asked for the meeting to take place, and it was actually the Liberal Democrat ward councillor who blocked me from attending, so I am afraid she has been given incorrect information. But that proves the point I was going on to: only the police have bothered to engage with me properly on this issue; the councils have been engaged in politicking and game playing, and residents are suffering as a result, because the Lib Dem council is unwilling to work with the Conservative MP.

Order. Under Standing Orders, we have to adjourn the House again. Then you can resume from where you left off. I promise you do not have to start again.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

The police have told me that about 90% of the solution to this problem is about how the vehicles get on to the downs in the first place. The two councils need to secure all entrances to the downs to prevent vehicles from accessing them in that way. The answer is not, as I understand the Lib Dem councillor has suggested to the police, that they act as a permanent bodyguard, stationed there 24/7. Obviously, that is not feasible. The issue is easily prevented, so could the Government look at what more we could do to give the police powers of compulsion when partner organisations such as councils are being slow or intransigent in doing something that will help the police to do their jobs or reduce crime.

That is important, because the downs are not the only place this antisocial behaviour is occurring; it is also prevalent in other parts of my constituency, such as St Helier, Hackbridge, the Wandle trail, central Wallington and Wallington Square, Beddington, Carshalton Beeches, Clockhouse and others. Can the Government assure me that we are providing the police with the tools and powers necessary to deal with these criminals, who are intimidating and sometimes even harming others by using a vehicle?

It is not always possible to prevent a crime from happening, but we do not have to make it easier for the criminals. Where there are solutions available, such as markings on catalytic converters or vehicle barriers on Roundshaw Downs, we should be backing our police by helping to get those in place, not asking the police to continue on an incredibly difficult venture unnecessarily, unable to bring justice or give residents peace of mind.

I would like to end with a plea to my constituents to please keep reporting. I understand that it can be frustrating if they feel they have done it before and not much has happened, but each report does add to the body of evidence and will make it harder for those in authority to continue turning a blind eye to the issue. I would also like to thank the Metropolitan police for their engagement with me on these issues and for the action they have been taking where they can. The brave men and women who serve in our police deserve nothing but praise for their work, so I hope the Government will join me in giving the police our backing, and help the police and residents in Carshalton and Wallington to tackle these issues.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for securing this important debate. I was sorry to hear of the adjournment of his wedding to his beloved Jed, and I hope that, the next time I respond to one of his debates, I am able to congratulate him and Jed on their nuptials.

I very much sympathise with the problems that my hon. Friend has raised extremely eloquently and powerfully, if I may say so, on behalf of his constituents. The sort of behaviour that he describes, and indeed that we have heard about on both sides of the House, has a huge impact on the residents who are troubled by it. We are absolutely committed as a Government to tackling this problem in all its forms and wherever it surfaces. The antisocial use of vehicles by a few people causes alarm and distress and can have a disproportionate and corrosive impact on local communities. Beauty spots such as the Roundshaw Downs and South Beddington are to be enjoyed and cherished, not blighted by the dangerous, noisy and illegal use of motorbikes and other forms of motor vehicle. The Government are also aware of increasing concerns regarding the theft of catalytic converters. We very much recognise the negative impact that that can have on members of the public and on the car industry, which is why we are tackling vehicle crime as a priority.

Let me talk my hon. Friend through some of the measures that we are taking to tackle antisocial behaviour. The Government have provided the police, local authorities and other local agencies, including councils and the various agencies, with a range of tools and powers that they can use to respond quickly and effectively to incidents of antisocial behaviour through the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which includes nuisance involving vehicles. The police also have powers under the Police Reform Act 2002 to seize a vehicle used in a careless and inconsiderate manner on or off-road. It is an operational matter for the chief constable and for the locally elected police and crime commissioner as to how this power is used. I have listened carefully to his very positive observations regarding the online reporting mechanism that the Metropolitan police use. I encourage other police forces that do not yet have that power to look carefully at this, because enabling the public to record these incidents in the way that he has described, particularly in giving them confidence that, in so doing, they are not wasting police time or getting in the way of more urgent business, will be a critical part of drawing the public’s trust in how we tackle these crimes, but also in helping the police to tackle these crimes in local areas where appropriate.

I am grateful to hear of the robust action that the Minister’s Department is taking to tackle the antisocial behaviour relating to vehicles. Part of the problem, according to my local police force, is that these unnecessary modifications to vehicles that make these loud noises are currently not illegal. Will the Minister consider introducing legislation to make these unnecessary modifications that cause antisocial behaviour illegal?

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. I have to confess that I am not an expert in the mechanics of cars and other vehicles, so I am very much feeling my way in answering this. She will know that, through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are looking at measures in the criminal justice system, and while I do not for a moment pretend that I am creating Government policy at the Dispatch Box, I would certainly welcome an opportunity to discuss with her, perhaps outside the Chamber, the sorts of measures that she raises. It would have to be a matter on which the car industry and others have the chance to contribute, but certainly let us discuss it to see whether there are ways that we can tackle those particular problems.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus just how important shared spaces and, indeed, nature are to community life. Local agencies can use their powers to tackle irresponsible use of these spaces, such as the Roundshaw Downs, as this kind of behaviour is both a nuisance and can present a very real danger to the public. I am pleased that my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to advise his constituents to report these incidents to the neighbourhood policing team and to the local authority responsible for the public land so that they understand where the problems are happening and the volume of those problems. However, as he says, we must, as communities, report these incidents so that the authorities can begin to use the powers that they have under existing legislation.

When the problem is entrenched, it is for the local authority and community safety partnership to set a strategy and response that go beyond reactive policing of this kind of repeat behaviour. Local agencies should know how best to approach this matter and how to deploy their powers depending on the circumstances. Home Office statutory guidance was created for local areas in order to support them to make effective use of the powers given to them. I cannot stress enough how important it is for local areas to encourage multi-agency approaches to this kind of issue to prevent it as well as to deal with it as and when it surfaces. The reason these powers apply not simply to the police, but to local councils, is that we understand and recognise that there has to be a whole-systems approach to tackling this sort of behaviour, which is why I was disappointed to hear of the experiences that he has had with his local council, Sutton Council. His constituents will expect, as indeed all of our constituents expect, that their elected representatives will work together to tackle antisocial behaviour.

The Home Office continues to fund projects that will increase the safety of local communities. As well as increasing police funding and the recruitment of more officers, a third round of the safer streets fund was launched on Thursday 3 June, which brings the total amount invested in the fund to £70 million over two years. I am going to take the opportunity to emphasise to colleagues across the House that the third phase of the safer streets fund has a particular emphasis on tackling violence against women and girls, so I encourage hon. Members and my hon. Friends to look at that fund with their local partners—councils, police and so on—to see whether there are projects that they can put forward in their local area to tackle that and many other forms of criminal behaviour.

Overall, police funding available to police and crime commissioners has increased by up to £668 million in 2021-22, and on 4 February this year, the Government published a total police funding settlement of up to £15.8 billion in this financial year, an increase of up to £600 million compared with the previous year. We are also committed to giving the police the resources they need to tackle crime through increasing the number of police officers by 20,000 by March 2023. I am delighted to say that, as of the end of March this year, 8,771 additional officers had been recruited across England and Wales. That is ahead of schedule, but we will continue to recruit in order to meet our target of 20,000.

In its area, the Metropolitan police had recruited an additional 1,369 officers, and a further 1,344 officers have been allocated for the coming financial year. The deployment of those officers is, of course, an operational matter for chief constables and their team of senior officers, but I am really pleased to hear of the admiration and thanks that my hon. Friend has for his local policing team.

On policing the roads, we are committed to tackling vehicle crime as a priority. We are working in the Home Office with the Department for Transport and the National Police Chiefs’ Council on the first roads policing review, which is a thorough examination of roads policing in England and Wales. Responses to last year’s roads policing review call for evidence are helping to shape the development of the action plan by the roads policing review governance board. The Government plan to publish the call for evidence response this summer.

My hon. Friend raised some really important points on the theft of catalytic converters. We continue to work closely with the police and motor manufacturers through the national vehicle crime working group established by the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for vehicle crime. We are working together to understand what more can be done to tackle the theft of catalytic converters, and that work is overseen by the Government’s crime and justice taskforce. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating our officers on tackling this type of crime; indeed, he set out the successful Operation Basswood in March and the British Transport police’s operation in April this year.

On the use of those catalytic converters that are stolen, of course that sits side by side with the recent rise in metal theft. The Government have funded, therefore, the setting up of the national infrastructure crime reduction partnership, ensuring national co-ordination of policing and partner agencies to tackle metal theft.

The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 continues to be a powerful tool in the fight against this form of criminality. Supporting enforcement initiatives is key to the effective operation of the Act. Since the introduction of the Act, there has been a steady downward trend in metal-related thefts, with recorded offences of metal theft having decreased by 74% from the year ending March 2013 to the year ending March 2020. We carried out a review of the Act in 2017 and found that it had been effective in addressing metal theft and should be retained. It remains a powerful tool to combat these thefts, but, of course, it requires consistent and effective enforcement. Some excellent nationally co-ordinated efforts have recently been made to encourage local authorities, law enforcement and other agencies to carry out such activities, but we must work together to ensure that all possible actions are taken to combat this crime.

We are acutely aware of the damage and distress that antisocial behaviour causes to law-abiding citizens. I very much hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that the Government take this problem very seriously, including when it involves vehicles, and that we are committed to giving the police the power and resources they need to tackle this type of offending. I very much join him in thanking the police for the efforts they go to, not just in his constituency, but across the country, to tackle these dreadful crimes and to try to ensure that all our constituents can enjoy their homes and their neighbourhoods in the peace and safety that we should all deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.