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Antisocial Behaviour in Town Centres – [Esther McVey in the Chair] | Westminster Hall debates

I do not know about that particular case, but I do not think it acceptable that over the past 13 years the Government have not taken antisocial behaviour seriously and that the lives of people across the country have been ruined as a result. The hon. Gentleman is perhaps sad that he did not become a police and crime commissioner when he stood for election—I am sure he would have done an excellent job—but he cannot deny, and did not deny in his speech, the damage that has been done to our town centres and our communities over the past 13 years.

People across the country know exactly what antisocial behaviour feels like. They know what changes in their neighbourhood when community respect is worn down, and they know what broken Britain feels like. Parents worry about their children playing in the park or being targeted online. Pensioners worry about scams. Small businesses worry they will be targeted by thieves or vandals. Knife crime plagues communities, women feel less safe on the streets and antisocial behaviour ruins lives without consequence.

Labour’s driving mission is to deliver safer streets. If a family does not have a big house with a garden, the kids play on the streets, or hang out in the parks or the town centre, and it is vital that people feel they are safe enough to enjoy their local area. Criminal damage to shops, schools, leisure centres and businesses has increased by more than 30% in the past year alone. That is an extraordinary figure. There are 150 incidents of criminal damage to non-residential buildings a day. Antisocial arson went up 25% last year. Knife possession is up 15% on pre-pandemic levels. More than 6 million Brits are witnessing drug deals on their streets. That is 6 million people seeing drug dealing and drug taking on our streets.

Some town centres have been particularly hard hit by vandalism, harassment and abuse. Do not be fooled by the Government’s announcement today that they have met their arbitrary police recruitment target of 20,000. The Tories should hang their heads in shame that they decimated policing. Replacing some of the officers cut by the Government is not a victory. A press release will not suddenly make the public see police officers on the streets who are not there. Nobody will be fooled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful speech about how people just want to see action; they want something done when a crime is committed. He rightly paid tribute to the police in his area. They are trying to do the right thing, but they do not have the resources. How insulted will they be when they hear the Home Secretary say in her speech today that the police need to stop concerning themselves with political correctness and get on with basic policing? It is nonsense that the police are not doing the things we want them to because of the way they approach their job. They are trying but they are massively overstretched. We have seen such cuts that it is very difficult for them to do the things that we all demand of them. They will not praise the Home Secretary for what she says today.

In her shocking 300-page report on the Met, Louise Casey made it really clear that visible neighbourhood policing is crucial to restoring confidence in police. Neighbourhood policing has been slashed. There are 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police and PCSOs on our streets today than there were eight years ago. The population has also increased, so we have fewer officers per person in this country by some margin than when the Tories came to power.

Charge rates are plummeting, victims are dropping out of the process in record numbers, the Conservative Government scrapped the major drug intervention programme that the last Labour Government had in place, and support services for kids have been decimated. YMCA says that £1 billion has been taken out of youth work across the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck mentioned, the police spend hours, if not days, dealing with mental health cases, simply because there is no one else to pick up the pieces. Community penalties have halved and there is a backlog of millions of hours of community payback schemes, not completed because the Government cannot even run the existing scheme properly.

Far from punishing perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, the Government are letting more and more of them off. The Conservatives weakened Labour’s antisocial behaviour powers 10 years ago, and brought in new ones that are barely used. They got rid of powers of arrest, despite being warned not to, and they introduced the community trigger, which is sadly something most people have not heard of. When polled, the public say there is no point in investing in improving the community if it is just going to be vandalised by criminals. It is impossible to level up without tackling crime.

Labour announced months ago our action plan to crack down on antisocial behaviour that blights communities. Respect orders will create a new criminal offence for adults who have repeatedly committed antisocial behaviour and are ignoring warnings by the courts and police. Labour will introduce new town centre patrols, and a mandatory antisocial behaviour police lead for every local neighbourhood, as part of our neighbourhood police guarantee, with 13,000 extra neighbourhood police and PCSOs.

We should, of course, pay tribute to the Welsh Government, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) did, for committing more PCSOs, because they are the eyes and ears on antisocial behaviour and can stop things escalating. They can find out the problems, they know people’s parents, they know where people live, and they can go round communities to stop antisocial behaviour escalating. The hon. Member for Keighley’s force, West Yorkshire police, has the second highest proportion of PCSOs by population in England, which I am sure he is pleased about.

We will bring tough action against town centre drug dealing, with tough powers for the police to shut down crack houses, and local neighbourhood drug teams to patrol town centres and lead data-driven hotspot policing targeted at common drug-dealing sites. We will introduce a national register of private landlords, and a duty for local partners to tackle antisocial behaviour, with mandatory antisocial behaviour officers in each area.

Under a Labour Government, if somebody wants to commit vandalism or dump rubbish on our streets, they had better be prepared to clean up the mess. We will bring in fixed-penalty cleaning notices and tough penalties for fly-tippers, and establish clean-up squads, where offenders will clear up litter, fly-tipping and vandalism that they have caused. The next Labour Government will not let another generation of lost boys and girls grow up without hope. That is why Labour will introduce full prevention and diversion programmes, with new youth mentors for the children and young people most vulnerable to crime, and access to mental health professionals in every school.

What are the Government proposing to do about the 13 years of neglect? Recently they called for hotspot policing, faster community payback, and stronger powers of arrest. That sounds familiar—because it is exactly what Labour has been calling for, and is already in Labour’s plans. However, the Government have left out the most important part, which is putting our neighbourhood police and PCSOs back on the streets. They are not investing in that. Labour’s plans to support victims have also been neglected. On the community trigger that is not working, the Government have decided to rename it, and they have re-announced plans on youth support that the Levelling Up Secretary announced more than a year ago.

The Government have said that 500 young people will get one-to-one support. There were 1.1 million incidents of antisocial behaviour last year. Supporting 500 people just will not cut it. The Government are still not changing their weakened enforcement powers on antisocial behaviour, and neighbourhood policing is not even mentioned in their action plan. The Minister knows that hotspot policing cannot be a replacement for neighbourhood policing. Neighbourhood teams made up of officers, PCSOs and specials are the eyes and ears of our communities. They are the Catherine Cawoods of policing. They know what is going on in their communities, and are trusted to understand and fix problems.

I hope that the Minister can answer a few questions. What is the plan for the police workforce now that the uplift programme has finished? Will she back Labour’s plan to put 13,000 more police officers, PCSOs and specials back in our neighbourhoods? Will she support Labour’s respect orders, so that the police can have the powers that they need to arrest and deal with persistent antisocial behaviour, and can she confirm whether cutting the number of PCSOs by half was a deliberate policy measure or just an accident of no planning?

Where the Conservatives have dismantled neighbourhood policing, Labour will bring it back. Where the Conservatives have weakened antisocial behaviour powers, Labour has a tough new plan to tackle it. Where the Conservatives forgot about our young people, Labour will prioritise them. Labour will revive the reassurance that if you are a victim of a crime, something will be done.