HC Deb 09 July 2002 vol 388 cc797-801
Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

I beg to move amendment No. 62, in page 63, line 20, at end insert

'(6A) At the end of subsection (3) there is inserted "; save that, where the behaviour giving rise to the complaint involves prostitution, the complaint may alternatively be made to a county court. (6B) In subsection (4), after the words "magistrates court" there is inserted (or, as the case may be, county court)".'. The amendment would allow antisocial behaviour orders involving prostitutes to be considered in the county courts as an addition to current powers that permit them to be considered in magistrates courts.

Residents in central Swindon suffer severely from the prostitutes and pimps who frequent the area. A recent survey of residents found that most men had been propositioned. Only last week, a gentleman told me that he was driving normally and safely from the community centre and was shocked when someone jumped into the back of his car. If that can happen when someone is simply leaving a community centre, hon. Members can imagine the problems that many men in the area are experiencing.

Many women are also propositioned, causing offence and distress. Prostitution has an impact not only on people's social and family lives but on businesses in the area.

Mr. Hogg

I understand the problem that the hon. Lady is outlining, and I am not against her. However, why does she want the application to be made to the county court, not the justices?

Ms Drown

I shall deal with that shortly.

First, I want to explain the disruption that prostitution is causing. I know of a child minder who is obviously embarrassed about the situation when the people whom she helps come to her door. Even 10-year-olds have been propositioned by prostitutes. That is clearly unacceptable. Condoms are discarded in people's gardens and in alley-ways, and there is harassment from pimps and prostitutes. We have got to the point of telephone lines being pulled out of people's homes.

I congratulate the police on their work on the problem. They have put extra resources into the area. Councillors, especially local Labour councillors, have been trying to tackle the problem. The community council has also been supportive. However, those are temporary solutions, and the community welcomed the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders. Great faith was placed in taking prostitutes to our magistrates court.

When the four prostitutes were identified, much work was put into ensuring that there was a strong case, especially as it was the first use of antisocial behaviour orders. I am attracted to the orders because they can be used to tackle other issues, such as the drug problems that many prostitutes in the area experience.

There was a co-ordinated effort to get an antisocial behaviour order through our magistrates court. The community experienced extra frustration when there was a delay. As hon. Members know, magistrates are voluntary, and the court worked hard to get the three magistrates together for a three-day hearing. The delay caused problems; once again, I congratulate the community council, which kept threats of vigilante action at bay. Hon. Members can imagine the community's frustration when a defence solicitor in the magistrates court described antisocial behaviour orders as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is not the case, and that the orders are appropriate for dealing with the genuine problems that prostitution causes.

6.30 pm

The magistrates did not believe that the case was strong enough or that it fulfilled the requisite conditions. Hon. Members can imagine the huge disappointment in the community after that decision. A lot of work went into analysing the case, and into assessing whether it had been strong enough and whether the conditions had been fulfilled. The local borough council and the police strongly believe that the conditions were fulfilled, and that the problem was caused by having to deal with the case in a magistrates court. There was a real feeling that if it had gone to the county court, the application for an antisocial behaviour order would not have failed.

The reasons for that were, first, that county court judges are used to drawing inferences. In Swindon, the magistrates refused the antisocial behaviour orders because they did not have the evidence to link the individual prostitutes to the antisocial behaviour that they admitted was being caused by the soliciting. There was also no question but that those particular people were prostitutes. County court judges are much more used to drawing such inferences. Secondly, they are much more used to weighing up hearsay evidence, which is particularly prevalent in cases involving prostitution. That greater experience would really help in assessing such evidence.

Thirdly, county court judges are used to applying a civil burden of proof. Just as they have greater experience of hearsay evidence, they also have greater experience of applying such a burden of proof, and are better informed as to how much evidence is needed to balance the probabilities in such cases. The other advantage of allowing cases to be taken in either a magistrates court or a county court is that the more possibilities there are for bringing antisocial behaviour orders, the more likely a case is to be heard quickly. When we are dealing with real frustration in communities, it is important to try to get the orders in place as soon as possible.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I am following the hon. Lady's argument carefully, but I have to say, with great respect, that the delay involved in finding three whole days for a county court hearing would be immense. In most county courts, that process can take three or even six months.

Ms Drown

I appreciate that comment. It took that long in Swindon, too, to get this whole process running. The amendment would allow more possibilities and flexibility. The time scale varies up and down the country, and I would hope that most of these cases would not need three days. The proposal would provide a sensible way for the Government to improve the quality of life for many of my constituents in central Swindon, and I urge the Minister to consider accepting the amendment.

Mrs. Brooke

Antisocial behaviour orders are multi-purpose tools—sometimes rather blunt ones—and because they are applied in many different circumstances, I can follow the argument of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). Indeed, I listened to her speak on the matter in an Adjournment debate which I found very interesting. I had not really thought about the prostitution side of the argument at all; I was hooked into the argument relating to young persons.

I would remind the Minister that I was very concerned about one use of antisocial behaviour orders, which involved attaching them to a person moving from one area to another. That could have dreadful consequences for a young person. I have also pointed out a use for the orders that had considerable appeal in my area, certainly over the last few weeks. We have to think quite broadly about the orders, and we need a degree of flexibility.

I am no expert on the different kinds of court, so I do not know what the best solution is to this problem, but I support the hon. Lady's amendment. When we need to address a particular problem, we may need extra flexibility to make the provisions work and, I imagine, to let lots of other measures kick in so that that can be achieved.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

I, too, support the amendment. I think that all hon. Members want these orders to be more effective than they are, as I mentioned at Home Office questions yesterday. The argument that the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) put forward in support of taking this particular route—namely, that county courts would be better equipped to draw inference, to handle hearsay evidence and to judge the burden of proof—might well apply to other categories of offence as well as to prostitution. I am afraid that this brings us back to the question of whether the orders are still sledgehammers, blunt tools, or however we want to describe them. We need to look again at how the orders are processed, taking the time delay into consideration as well.

It would nevertheless be churlish of me not to recognise that the Minister is trying to improve the way in which the orders work. I certainly welcome the extension of the relevant authorities, and the inclusion of housing associations, which will make a big difference in my particular part of Kent. I hope, however, that when he replies to this short debate, he will recognise with some humility that the orders have been cumbersome to operate and that, three years on, cases such as the one brought before us by the hon. Member for South Swindon show that they are still not working as effectively as they should be. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Mr. Denham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon for raising this matter. She has raised it in the House before, and I understand her concerns. No one would deny the real nuisance caused by prostitution and also by kerb-crawlers—an issue on which the Government have recently taken action by making kerb-crawling an arrestable offence.

I have some concerns about the amendment, however. One, touched on by the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), was the difficulty that we might set up an anomalous treatment of antisocial behaviour orders as between one type of offence and another. One of the Government's reasons for routing antisocial behaviour orders through magistrates courts was the perception of the difficulty of accessing county courts through a more traditional type of injunction. I fear that a consequence of accepting the amendment would be a great deal of pressure to put a lot of other antisocial behaviour orders into the county court, much of which might come from defence lawyers seeking to prevent orders being put in place, rather than from those who wish—as do all hon. Members—to make them more effective. For that reason, I must resist the amendment.

The Government have recognised that there are ways in which antisocial behaviour orders can be improved, and part of the Bill deals with the interim ASBO to that end. We also recognise that a county court dealing with an eviction matter, for example, could impose an ASBO—as, indeed, could a criminal court dealing with a prostitution-related matter. Those measures will be helpful.

Research that we published earlier this year suggests that some of the time taken in getting ASBOs has, in my view, reflected the way in which people have gone about collecting evidence, the expectation of the courts, and so on, rather than anything in the primary legislation. Part of that stems from our own guidance about ASBOs, which we shall aim to slim down when it is revised once the Bill has completed its passage. There have certainly been cases in which the weight of evidence collected has been greater than anyone would have thought necessary for a criminal case, let alone for a civil injunction of this kind.

I have travelled round the country talking to people about antisocial behaviour orders, and there is no doubt that magistrates must, of course, consider each individual case on its merits. When local authorities, the police, and others have sat down with the magistracy, however, and explained the context in which ASBOs are being used, their purpose, and the types of problems being tackled, there has been greater consistency by magistrates in supporting applications for the orders. I do not know whether that is relevant to my hon. Friend's constituency, but it may be an issue that needs to be looked at there.

After this debate, I would, of course, be happy to consider whether we need to address any of the specific issues of inference, evidence, and so on, that my hon. Friend has raised, or whether we need to ask my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor to address them in the context of his role as president of the Magistrates Association.

Lady Hermon


Mr. Denham

I shall give way to the hon. Lady.

Lady Hermon

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must apologise to you, because I spoke with such haste last time that I forgot to thank you for calling me to speak.

Will the Minister please have a quiet word with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, just to put on record with him the fact that we in Northern Ireland would very much like to see antisocial behaviour orders made available to the magistrates courts? We do not have the orders in Northern Ireland at all; perhaps the Secretary of State could give some thought to that gap at another juncture.

Mr. Denham

I shall draw the hon. Lady's remarks to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Ms Drown

I do not want to detain the House, so I shall not push the amendment to a vote. However, I hope that the Minister will continue to review the matter, which is important to improving the quality of life of my constituents in central Swindon. I am reassured by his commitment to continue to tackle the issue, and I look forward to continuing our correspondence about it. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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