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Crime and Antisocial Behaviour: West London

Volume 735: debated on Monday 3 July 2023

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

It is a pleasure to lead this debate on crime and antisocial behaviour in west London. I am pleased that this debate comes so soon after my most recent crime survey for residents. We had more than 300 responses this time, and the results were sadly more shocking, more worrying and more concerning than those from our last survey in 2019.

While the title of the debate covers west London, I know that the experiences and challenges we face in my constituency are felt across London and the whole of England. I want to discuss four central themes today: my constituents’ own experience with crime, based mainly on my recent constituent crime survey; the responses of the Metropolitan police; the response of the Government; and, finally, what we can and should do to tackle crime and keep people safe.

I could have started this debate by reeling off a long list of figures and statistics about crime and policing, but I will not. Debates about crime are not abstract. It is not a line on a bar chart, but so much more. It is often a life shattered, confidence taken away and a hole left behind. Take one constituent who contacted me after a string of car thefts outside their home. They told me:

“We are scared to walk outside alone, we are scared to wear a watch, we are scared for the safety of our children.”

That is what crime does.

Crime has an acidic and poisonous impact on communities, whether that is cars being violently stolen outside of houses, homes being broken into, schoolchildren being mugged at knifepoint or young people afraid of getting involved and being sucked into gang activity.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does she agree that it is a wake-up call when children tell their mums they are afraid to walk home through the high street after school? That is taking away their childhoods.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Children are afraid of being the victims of crime. They are also afraid of the gangs. Too many parents and young children are being targeted and, once sucked in, if they do not have the money to pay the gangs back, it is difficult to get out. I will come to that later.

The fear that crime puts into victims lasts so much longer than the time taken to experience and report the crime itself. Something wider has also emerged in recent years: a sense of broken Britain. People tell me of seeing drugs being dealt openly in plain sight, bike theft and phone theft becoming virtually legal due to the lack of policing response, and fraud and cyber-crime becoming more and more widespread. There is a sense that this is a country where certain forms of crime simply happen without any consequence. Recently, even calling 999 was a futile gesture that led nowhere.

I will touch briefly on the responses I received to my recent constituency crime survey. Of those who responded, 35% had been victims of crime in the last 12 months. The most common thefts were vehicle theft and catalytic converter theft. West London is at particular risk because of the A4 and M4 passing through, which allows for a quick getaway. For years, I have been raising the issue of catalytic converter theft with the Home Office. As we know, they are stolen to order and passed on for the valuable materials they contain. One of the many policing Ministers told me that the Government would consider a review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 if necessary. Will the Minister tell me whether the Home Office is doing that review? If so, when will we hear of any likely action? His script might mention the national vehicle crime working group, which apparently meets regularly, but will he tell the House how it measures its outcomes?

In my survey, the top three areas of priority for constituents were burglaries, violent and sexual crimes, and drug-related crimes. Antisocial behaviour was also frequently bought up, and it is also raised when I meet constituents, although the phrase rather obscures just what that crime is. Whether it is constant fly-tipping on estates, long-running harassment campaigns against neighbours or illegally modified bikes speeding through parks, it feeds into the sense of hopeless and powerless and the sense that our justice system is simply not working as it should.

My hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. Does she agree that when residents contact us, contact the police and contact others for help, they have the feeling that the answers are there but those who should be helping them—local authorities and the police in particular—are not responding and not joining up to ensure swift action and cutting this off so that residents and communities can live in safety?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem with antisocial behaviour is that it is often dealt with as “no crime”. It is true that there are more serious crimes that need to be dealt with, but, for so many, antisocial behaviour feels like the thin end of the wedge.

There is a thread connecting these crimes that impact on all of our constituents, and ASB in particular: the sense that they are allowed to happen in plain sight. There is an assumption that the police are at the core of the solution. In some ways, they are.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. She is describing something familiar to all of us in west London. In the post-covid period, there has been a rapid increase in antisocial behaviour, vehicle crime and drug-related crime. I have an active local authority that has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other in the country and which has employed 70 law enforcement officers of its own. What is missing is the neighbourhood policing that we used to have that reassured local communities and gathered intelligence. That really did make a contribution to both reassurance and keeping crime down, and that is what we need back.

I agree. We remember the time in the noughties when we had five officers for every ward, but they have been cut to less than half that.

Let me talk about the role of the Metropolitan police. I am grateful for my regular meetings with Chief Superintendent Wilson and other inspectors in Hounslow, and for the fact that Commissioner Mark Rowley has met London MPs frequently, including last week. In Hounslow, I have been on a walkabout both in Osterley and in Isleworth, and in a response car all around my constituency. I have had the chance to see just how well local officers know our community and how hard they work.

However, there is a huge gap between those positive experiences and the wider services provided by the Met, as we know from both the Casey report and the experiences of our constituents. I am well aware of the work that Metropolitan Commissioner Mark Rowley is doing to try to turn around the appalling prejudices of a number of police officers and the generic responses that all victims of crime get, so that people have some confidence in the core service. We look forward to seeing significant progress on that before too long.

Many residents, constituents and businesses have told me that when they have reported crimes, they receive either not a proper response or no response at all. They get a crime reference number—that is it. A crime reference number is not justice served. That is Commissioner Mark Rowley’s task. The lack of response feeds into the sense of powerless and unfairness. People want the police to investigate, catch the criminals and stop crime from reoccurring. Mark Rowley has promised to turn around the ship and restore trust in the Met. That trust needs to be rebuilt urgently.

I want to focus on the Conservative Government, who have overseen the last 13 years of broken promises on policing across England. First, there was the decision to cut 20,000 experienced police officers. In London, more than 2,000 were cut, and in Hounslow borough, 80 experienced officers were cut. They knew their communities and knew the appropriate response to ensure that information was gathered and conflict situations were not escalated. Those experienced officers have, too often, gone.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way in which the cuts took place and police were taken from our communities has had an impact on the relationship between the police and our residents? The loss of knowledge of people, their lives and communities, and those in our schools, has had an impact on that trust and familiarity, which go such a long way to preventing crime and giving reassurance.

My hon. Friend explains so clearly the points that we made back then when the cuts were being made. When I was deputy leader of Hounslow council, we said that the cuts would have consequences, and my hon. Friend just described them perfectly. So, what has happened? The Government have realised that they made a mistake, and are providing funding to re-recruit those vacancies. However, recruiting is difficult. The experience has gone out the door. Getting new people in involves cost and training, and it takes years for knowledge to be built up. There are not the number of keen, competent and experienced recruits the Metropolitan police so badly needs, particularly from within London.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, ward teams were cut from five or six police officers and police community support officers, down to one or two per ward. The police have told me that they still do not have the numbers to carry out regular, high-profile foot patrols in at-risk areas. That is what people desperately want to see, but Conservative cuts have made it impossible. In parallel to the cuts were the swingeing cuts to local government and other key frontline services: Sure Start centres, play areas, parks, public health, social workers, schools and colleges—all areas that form the soft safety net.

Local groups have had to fill the gap. One group I have worked with is Action Isleworth Mothers. It is just one of many community groups across west London working tirelessly to support families, in particular young people at risk of being exploited by gangs. For three years Astrid Edwards, who founded AIM, has been working unpaid with mothers and their sons to support them in keeping away, or getting away, from gangs. She cannot do that alone. She has worked hard, using a progressive public health approach, to ensure key agencies in the borough—schools, the police, social services, housing, mental health and youth offender services—get out of their silos and work together. After three years of doing that unfunded, AIM now has funding from Hounslow Council and the Mayor of London’s violence reduction unit to be the lead facilitator for the Hounslow parent-carer champion network to provide peer support to parents whose children are, or may be, at risk of serious youth violence, criminal exploitation and/or getting involved in the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, the Government have been bystanders on the issue of crime and the causes of crime. On their watch, the number of arrests has halved, prosecutions have almost halved and the number of crimes solved has halved. More crimes are being reported, but fewer crimes are being solved. Criminals are getting away with it. Don’t worry, the Home Secretary is working hard—but only to prepare her leadership bid. She is often missing in action and seems to talk about crime only when she thinks she can get a cheap hit and headline out of it.

I hope to finish on a slightly more positive note by saying that we have seen some signs of improvement locally in recent months. We have a new dedicated policing team in Hounslow town centre, made up of over 20 officers, focused on the high street which has been a hotspot for crime. Businesses and shoppers say that it has made a positive difference.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the way our police and local authorities work with other organisations, such as No Shame in Running, run by Garvin Snell, and Project Turnover, working with children on the very edge of crime, is really important, and that our institutions must have the capacity to support those who do such frontline work in our communities?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some of the most effective work is being done by people of, and from, the community—people like Garvin Snell and organisations such as AIM. They know the young people and they know the parents, but they cannot do it alone. They must work in partnership with statutory agencies. I am glad to say that in the borough of Hounslow there is better working together and less silo working between key public services. Only then, when we see the child as a whole and work around the child as a whole, can we support them in keeping away from crime and gang activity.

One other success, following my intervention, was the installation of CCTV cameras behind a local estate and extra police patrols after residents contacted me about crime gangs using the alleyway for a quick getaway.

To feel safe, all communities need a visible police presence, proactive community work and engagement with the local council. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) the shadow Home Secretary has called for the Government to bring back neighbourhood policing and to recruit over 10,000 neighbourhood officers and PCSOs. These are people who know their streets, know their community and know how to tackle crime. That is what we desperately need: a Government focused on tackling crime rather than chasing cheap headlines. After 13 long years of Conservative rule, people locally desperately want change.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) on securing the debate. It is particularly well timed, given that this week is Anti-Social Behaviour Awareness Week. In fact, the launch event happened in Parliament earlier this evening, attended by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales (Miss Dines) who is the Minister with responsibility for safeguarding.

We are clearly all extremely concerned about the effect of antisocial behaviour: the effect it has on our communities and the way that it can undermine residents’ feeling of safety in their own neighbourhoods. Whether it is a high street, a local park or a playground, people should be able to feel safe on their own streets and not feel any sense of fear or menace. The hon. Lady is right to say that antisocial behaviour should not be considered a low level or minor thing, because it affects how people feel in their own neighbourhoods. For that reason, it is a very important topic, and I am glad that we have an opportunity to discuss it this evening.

The hon. Lady started by saying that she did not want to talk about figures. However, although the stories are important and we will talk about how people feel, it is also important to have a firm statistical grasp of what is actually happening. As Members will know, the only statistically approved measure of crime in England and Wales is the crime survey, endorsed by the Office for National Statistics, which says that it is the only reliable long-term measure of crime. If we look at the figures since 2010, just to take an arbitrary year, we will see that violence has reduced by 41%, criminal damage by 68% and various forms of theft by about 40%. We have, therefore, seen dramatic reductions in crime, as reported by the crime survey, over the past 13 years, but we should not be complacent, and we clearly need to do a lot more.

One thing that we have in our armoury to fight antisocial behaviour is police officers. The hon. Lady spoke passionately and eloquently about that. It is particularly welcome that we now have a record number of police officers across England and Wales—149,572, to be precise, which is about 3,000 more than we had in March 2010. There are now more than 35,000 officers in London—every Member present is a London MP—which is more officers than it has ever had at any time in its history. That is thanks to the police uplift programme that the Government funded.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. London could have had another 1,000 officers on top of that, funded by the Government, but unfortunately Sadiq Khan was not able to organise himself to hire them, which is a great shame. I am sure that Labour Members, including the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), will join me in calling on Sadiq Khan to get his act together and recruit those extra funded officers.

I just want to give the Minister a quick reality check. If he is right that crime is massively down, why are my constituents telling me every day that there is a feeling of lawlessness on the streets that they have not experienced before? Offences include drug offences and cars being broken into and stolen. If he has replaced the 20,000 officers that the Government initially got rid of, why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth has said, do my neighbourhood teams have only one or two officers per ward, rather than the six officers that they had before the Conservatives started running them down?

It is not me that is telling the hon. Gentleman that crime has reduced; it is the crime survey of England and Wales, endorsed by the Office for National Statistics. What he is talking about is the perception of crime, which is very important as well. It is important that people feel safe, and that is why we need to do more, but the figures are very clear. If he doubts them, I honestly recommend that he looks at the crime survey statistics, because they actually make for quite comforting reading. The perception of crime is important and there is more to do.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the deployment of neighbourhood officers. How the record number of officers are deployed is an operational matter for the commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley, and the police and crime commissioner for London, Mayor Sadiq Khan. The hon. Gentleman’s representations would be well directed to them, but London has never in its history had a greater total number of officers. I agree that having them on neighbourhood deployment is valuable. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth said that an extra 20 officers are part of a newly established town centre team. The same is true of Croydon, which also has about 20 extra officers, and that is very welcome and useful. In addition to officers, we also need bases from which they can patrol. I am sure that Labour Members will join me in calling on the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan to ditch his plan, announced in 2017, to close 37 police stations. I notice that, miraculously and for reasons that I cannot imagine, he has just decided to cancel the closure plan for Uxbridge police station. Let us hope that he cancels the closure plans for the other 36 police stations.

Let me move on to the importance of prevention. We have talked about police stations, officers and the importance of their being deployed in the neighbourhood, but prevention is important, too. The hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth referred to the Mayor of London’s violence reduction partnership, and in the next breath she said that the Government had been bystanders. What she forgot to mention was that the so-called Mayor of London’s violence reduction partnership is entirely funded by the Government. For some reason, she omitted to mention that. I am glad to say that violence reduction units, or partnerships, have received £170 million of Government funding. They do valuable work in providing diversionary activity. The Youth Endowment Fund, which has £200 million over 10 years, identifies the best kinds of intervention and funds them, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps many young people.

We have an antisocial behaviour action plan, which was launched by the Prime Minister just a couple of months ago and is being rolled out as we speak. It has a number of elements; I will not detain the House by going through all of them at this late hour, but I will mention a couple. One is hotspot patrolling: antisocial behaviour hotspots are identified, and police officers are “surged” into those areas. Ten police force areas around the country are conducting pilots during the current financial year. I spoke to the police and crime commissioners about it today, and all the pilots will be up and running this month. From next April, every police force in the country—all 43 of the forces in England and Wales—will have hotspot policing, and there will be just over £1 million for each police force to fund the ASB patrols. That will be welcome, and will address some of the issues that the hon. Lady raised.

There will also be 10 immediate justice pilots, again funded with about £1 million for each force, and starting this month. People who take part in antisocial behaviour will very quickly—ideally within 48 hours—have to undertake restorative work such as removing graffiti or cleaning up a park or a high street, wearing branded hi-vis jackets. Once the pilots have been completed this year, every police force in the country, from next April, will have an immediate justice project, again fully funded by the Government with £1 million for each police force—about £43 million in total. We are banning nitrous oxide, which I think will also help on the antisocial behaviour front. I hope Members will agree that the antisocial behaviour action plan, of which those measures are just a small part, will help us to clamp down on ASB in our communities. The total funding for the plan is about £160 million.

In the moments remaining to us, let me commend the safer streets fund. The hon. Lady mentioned CCTV in an alleyway, which may well have ultimately been funded by the fund. London has so far received about £3.2 billion. The fund is designed to fund measures such as CCTV to help people feel safer on the streets, with particular emphasis on women’s safety but with the aim of combating ASB more widely as well. We will shortly announce the next safer streets funding round.

We take vehicle and bicycle theft very seriously—the incidence of both has fallen dramatically, and I think that bicycle theft may have fallen by as much as 65% since 2010—and we also take catalytic converter thefts very seriously. We had a spate of those in Croydon. I was told by our borough commander that a gang had been arrested a few months ago, and since then we have seen a big reduction, certainly in south London, although I am not sure whether the same is true in west London. We experienced a big drop about six months ago, when that gang was arrested. The Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013—which began as a private Member’s Bill, taken through the House by my constituency predecessor, Sir Richard Ottaway—has helped a great deal. The Bill was originally inspired by thefts of lead from church roofs, but it is also making it harder, although sadly not impossible, to sell the rare earth metals to be found in catalytic converters. We are working on that with the National Vehicle Crime Working Group.

I did ask whether there would be a review of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act. It is clearly not working, because we are still experiencing spates of catalytic converter theft.

My predecessor’s private Member’s Bill, now the Scrap Metal Dealers Act, has dramatically reduced the theft of scrap metal from things like church roofs, which is what inspired his PMB 10 years ago, but we are always happy to look at whether the legislation can be strengthened. Broadly, the Act deals with metal, but I would be very happy to respond if the hon. Lady would like to write to me with specific proposals for how it could be improved or for how regulations could be strengthened.

It is welcome that crime has fallen so much since 2010 and that we have record numbers of police officers—more than we have ever had in England and Wales, and more than we have ever had in London, too—but we all accept that there is more to do to fight crime. This Government are committed to doing that, whether through the safer streets fund, violence reduction units or the ASB action plan. When we need to do something, we will do it. I look forward to working with Members across the House to keep our constituents safe.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.