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Graham: Fighting the menace of arson in Wales

Welsh Conservatives back moves to combat fire-related crime.

Speech to the National Assembly for Wales

"We are all aware of the facts with regard to arson. The overwhelming number of fires tackled by firemen are, sadly, nearly always caused by acts of arson.

In Gwent, for example, of 8,500 fires attended by fire crews in 2003, 7,500 were arson. In Brynmawr, 93 per cent of fires were arson, and in Newport and Torfaen, the figure was 89 per cent.

This is an extraordinary outburst in our society. Gwent is now the United Kingdom's number one spot for fire starters, at a cost to Gwent taxpayers of £14 million in the last financial year.

However, one fire statistic that should be welcomed is that the number of deaths through fire is actually falling.

This is, in part, through the proper use of smoke detectors and partly due to people's increased awareness of the potential dangers of many household appliances.

As a party, we greatly support measures to introduce water sprinklers, particularly if there could be an amendment to building regulations.

Combating arson begins in the home, at an early age, by making children aware of the dangers of fire. That is continued in our schools and must be pioneered within the wider community by our fire services. That was the case for many decades—before devolved government was on the United Kingdom political agenda.

I was privileged, recently, to attend a fire training demonstration in Dolgellau, put on by the North Wales Fire Service. I encourage Members to make use of their fire service in that respect. It is widely regarded as a good method of educating the public. After all, educating people about the dangers of fire has always begun, and will begin, in the home, and is continued in the school and then in the wider community. It is, and always will be, an all-Wales strategy in everything but name.

We all have a part to play in this strategy by increasing awareness of arson and combating those who commit these criminal acts. This strategy belongs to all the people of Wales and not to an individual political party.

The divisional commander of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service has outlined how arsonists have no regard for people's lives or property. The funeral of firefighter Richard Jenkins, which took place yesterday, clearly illustrates how little consideration arsonists give to the risk to people's lives.

He died while attending a routine call as part of his job. I pay tribute to the bravery, professionalism and skill shown by the members of our fire and rescue services.

The Welsh Conservative group has continually called for a proper engagement with the independent sector. The arson dog has been provided through a partnership with Firebrake Wales, the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and Hill House Hammond insurance services. This service is unique in the United Kingdom and illustrates the proper engagement with the independent sector that we believe should be incorporated into the Assembly's policy strategies.

Since December 2003, the arson dog has been constantly used in the detection of accelerants and in helping to collect evidence to convict those who commit arson.

We also welcome Firebrake's initiatives to tackle arson attacks on school property, of which there have been recent examples in Newport. Rogerstone Primary School was completely destroyed, the children's work was lost and their education severely disrupted, and, at St Julian's School, a teacher required rescuing from the school roof.

I am sure that we all note with concern the increasing incidence of arson attacks on schools and support all measures necessary to combat this crime.

We are also aware that many vulnerable people become trapped in their homes by the fear of becoming victims of crime or of being subjected to unruly behaviour if they go out into their neighbourhood.

Some people are fearful in their homes, because of the crowds of young people who gather in their locality, the noise that they make and their numbers.

We are also greatly concerned about the damage caused to property by acts of drunkenness and violence in our towns and city centres and support the measures necessary to address these problems.

However, we must take note of the effectiveness of some of these measures. How effective are the anti-social behaviour orders?

Are they simply good for public consumption but unrealistic to sustain over prolonged periods, and do they tie up wider police resources? They only become effective after five steps of enforcement, and, once enacted, sadly, over 80 per cent are not completed.

We note that one of the first children's curfews in Wales came into effect last weekend in Rhumney. It was imposed in a bid to stop anti-social behaviour spiralling out of control.

It gives the police power to disperse groups of two or more, and unsupervised youngsters under 16 will have to adhere to a curfew between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., or risk being returned home by officers.

We recognise the need to overcome all types of anti-social behaviour, including graffiti, which can make even the tidiest urban space look squalid; abusive and intimidating language, which is too often directed at minorities; excessive noise, particularly late at night; fouling the street with litter; fly-tipping; abandoning vehicles; drunken behaviour in the streets and the mess that that creates; and dealing with drugs, with all the problems to society that arise from that.

Citizenship must become an integral part of our school curriculum. This subject must become the gateway to providing the opportunities for everyone to become respectful of their communities and responsibilities and of those who share their home.

In this way, we can begin to eradicate the issues that chip away at our confidence and make many people vulnerable.

We must accept that the fear of becoming a victim of anti-social behaviour will only be reduced by ensuring a high rate of detection and prosecution."

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