§ 3.1 pm
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
It is always a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). I cannot understand why, instead of struggling with writing these Bills themselves, the Government do not ask him to write them. He would have produced a far better Bill than the Home Office has done. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's views.
It is right that the Government should be forgiven for getting something wrong the first time and trying a second or third time, but, as my hon. Friends have said, they have tried 15 times since 1997 and three times since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, so Opposition Members' patience is rightly wearing thin. The Government have had many shots at this and it is about time they got it right. The Home Secretary and other Labour Members will forgive Conservative Members if we appear to be cynical about the Bill. One of the things about Bills that crop up for the second, third, fourth or fifth time is that they always seem to do so when an election is approaching. Is it not curious that this Bill has come up just before the local government elections?
The Bill has been introduced with indecent haste. The fact that the ink has hardly dried on the White Paper "Respect and Responsibility" and that hardly anyone has read the White Paper when out of the woodwork has come the Bill makes us smell an election gimmick. As my hon. Friends have said, we doubt whether the measures will work. Similar measures have not worked in the past and I doubt whether they will work in future.
One of the reasons why the provisions will not work is that the people whose job it is to implement them have no confidence or faith in them. It is interesting to look at the briefing material produced by organisations that work in the sector. Here is the Children's Society's view on giving police powers to disperse groups of two or more young children any time of the day or night—I emphasise day or night:We believe that these measures represent a potential breach of children's civil liberties and rights and we are concerned about the impact that this will have on children living in their communities.How can the Bill be made to work if the people who have to implement it believe that gangs of youths in black hoods gathering in shopping centres intimidating elderly people should not be moved on because their civil liberties and rights may be affected? Those are the sort of people with whom we are dealing: they, and people in local authorities, will have to implement the Bill.
I have a similar quote from Barnardo's, once a well respected organisation called Dr. Barnardo's Homes, which now takes on the completely different aura of a campaigning group. Again, it is against thepower for police to move on two or more young people from a locality or to return under 16's home after 9 pm".It says that that "is of great concern." It continues:Again we are concerned about the accountability of the 'relevant officer' and the omission of any requirement to consult with local people including the children and young people themselves.175 What nonsense, coming from an organisation that is meant to be responsible and involved in the welfare of children! If those are the people who will have to implement the Bill, there is no chance of its working.
§ Mr. Brazier
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his courage in making the points that he has just made, which highlight the wider point that, as Government money becomes a larger feature of voluntary organisations, more and more of them are turning from being providers of excellent services to being noisy campaign groups.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I agree. That is one of the reasons why the Bill cannot be effective. If the publicity is correct, teachers in the north-east of England have made it clear that they will not dish out fixed penalty tickets to parents. They say they do not want to take on that role and it is wrong that they should.
That is not to say that Conservative Members are not concerned about antisocial behaviour. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead that it is an evil in our society and destroys communities. It is a problem even in the constituency I represent, which is a country constituency with market towns. On council estates in my constituency, there are in most cases just two or three families who with their children and various offspring cause complete mayhem. They threaten people who complain about their behaviour and slowly instil a spiral of decay on the estate: only people who have no option but to move there do so and the whole place slowly goes down hill. We could take firm action with those people. Evict two or three families and we would very quickly bring back up the quality of the estate. In the old days, we had sin bins. When people were evicted from nice estates, they were put into a poor estate, but given a chance, if they behaved themselves, to come back. Although I have no doubt that that was extremely unpopular with Labour Members, it used to work.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, we believe that the real answer is to have a proper police force. In my constituency, we have had regular problems with gangs of youths gathering together in one particular location, curiously one of the most affluent parts of the north-east. Some of those gathering together were from some of the more affluent families in the area. It was the police who dispersed them. They went away and peace was restored to that area. Such an approach will work if one has enough police officers and if the police are given the right powers.
For goodness' sake, one of the ways to make policing more effective is to remove the ghastly aura of political correctness with which the police daily have to deal. They have too much bureaucracy to contend with, and more attention is paid to their being politically correct than to their getting on with the job of policing.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I do not have much time. Forgive me.
A police officer told me the other day that a new recruit had arrived in the police force who had been known as Paddy all his life. That was his Christian 176 name. He was told by senior officers that he had to be called Patrick and that calling him Paddy was an offence. That story came directly from police officers themselves. If we want to outlaw antisocial behaviour, we need a properly motivated police force. That is what Conservative Members will campaign for.
I mention two further points. The first has already been mentioned and here I declare an interest: I refer hon. Members to the Register of Members' Interests. It is to do with the new firearms provisions in the Bill. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made the point earlier. The proposals to restrict the use of air weapons by those aged between 14 and 17 will have a serious and unnecessary effect on law-abiding young people who wish to use air rifles properly. Many people who take part in shooting sports during their lives start with air weapons. The younger they start using an air weapon and are taught proper safety and responsibility—perhaps at the age of 14—the safer and more responsible they will be later in life. I hope that in Committee the Minister will consider amendments to allow responsible use of air weapons by those under the age of 17 and above the age of 14.
My final point concerns the issue of litter, which is dealt with in what is in effect a compendium Bill. The Bill gives local authorities additional powers to enter land and to remove litter, but the problem is that it is local authorities that a re responsible for the state of our streets and roads. If one drives down the A1, say, between Newcastle and London, or along the A1 western bypass near Newcastle, one sees that the main culprits for the littering of such roads, which are the worst in Europe, are the highways authorities and the local authorities. Giving them greater powers to enter private land is an absolute waste of time, because it is they who should be doing more to keep the countryside clean.
§ Liz Blackman (Erewash)
I contacted my local police and the housing director of the registered social landlord and ran the Bill's provisions past them. By and large, their response was extremely positive, although they did flag up one or two concerns.
Because this is such a broad Bill, I want to concentrate on just a few issues that I am particularly concerned about as an MP and a former teacher, such as the provisions on truancy and poor behaviour, and particularly those resulting in exclusion. Such behaviour constitutes one of the first opportunities that children have to flaunt conventions, the needs of their peers, the law and wider society. We know that there are well-established links between under-achievement and crime when children behave badly, truant or both. If such behaviour goes unchecked, it is difficult to prevent it from becoming entrenched and being displayed in adult life.
There are some reasons for truanting that I can understand, such as bullying and family trauma—things that require a slightly different approach—but much truancy and bad behaviour in schools is condoned by parents, or, as the chief inspector of schools has identified, responsibility for it is ignored. In many cases, that was my experience as a teacher in dealing with truants and their parents. The underlying problem was 177 that the parents themselves had lost control at home by failing to set the boundaries. They were condoning or ignoring such behaviour by implementing what I can only call an appeasement policy, or, at the very least, by taking the line of least resistance at home.
However, another recurring theme was that later on, those parents would return to seek support because their children were running amok at home, ruling the roost, affecting younger siblings and sometimes using violence. The parenting contracts with which clause 18 deals have the potential to get such parents to recognise their responsibilities and, above all, to seek support.
§ Chris Grayling
As a former teacher, the hon. Lady has experience to bring to bear on this aspect of the debate. However, does she believe that an ability in her professional life to issue a fixed penalty notice to a parent at a parent's evening would have helped or hindered her relationship with that parent? Would it have improved the situation that she describes?
§ Liz Blackman
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; if he will be patient I shall deal with that precise point in a minute.
Parenting contracts and the levering-in of support builds on the experience of parenting orders and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Youth Justice Board parenting programme ran 42 parenting projects in partnership with other local agencies. The feedback from the evaluation was extremely positive, and Members will doubtless agree that what matters is what works. The effectiveness of the support to be provided to parents who sign these contracts voluntarily will be key, and should be based on best practice learned from these parenting projects.
Parenting orders are already granted to parents for convictions for truancy, and this measure has been extended to include exclusion. That is a positive development, but unlike contracts, such orders oblige parents to meet certain conditions, and offer support. Of course, youth offending teams can also apply for such orders because of antisocial behaviour, and it would be helpful if data-sharing protocols were evolved for police youth offending teams, local education authorities and schools.
On fixed penalty notices—the issue mentioned by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—in principle I am very much in favour of firing a shot across the bow of a parent who is condoning truancy. I have no problem with that, but I have grave concerns about who issues those fixed penalty notices, as do many other Members. I believe and hope that putting the onus on teachers to issue such notices will be examined in greater detail in Committee. I am prepared to accept reasoned arguments in Committee that justify that initiative. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked all Members to flag up areas in which bureaucracy might, interfere with implementation, and I do think that that initiative will lead to some bureaucratic nightmares.
§ Simon Hughes
Does the hon. Lady also agree that all the teachers' unions have registered their unhappiness 178 with that proposal, saying that it would turn teachers into police officers, which is the last thing that they are asking to happen?
§ Liz Blackman
Given the implication of what I have just said to my right hon. Friend, yes, I understand that there are major concerns about this issue. I am therefore sure that it will be examined very carefully in Committee.
My local registered social landlord is extremely positive about the provisions in the Bill dealing with housing. So am I, because like many Members, I get regular complaints about antisocial behaviour in the context of housing. Transparency is a good thing not just for tenants, but for the broader public. It is important that such policies be clearly understood, so that appropriate demands can be made of the authorities to do something about the problem. The requirement for landlords to have regard to relevant guidance issued under the Secretary of State or the relevant authority should help to establish best practice across the sector. Barnardo's, to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) referred, believes that a requirement should be included in the policy to map out steps to be taken to resolve disputes, where they arise. That suggestion is worthy of consideration. Mapping out steps in order to resolve such problems is a good idea, given the principle of "a stitch in time", which I believe in.
The provision relating to injunctions is very welcome. I agree that we need a measure to catch those situations in which antisocial behaviour is known about but neighbours are too frightened to make a formal complaint. I am thinking of cases involving domestic violence, and racial and other forms of harassment. My local housing authority also regards as positive injunctions to assist landlords in dealing with antisocial behaviour occurring outside the vicinity. However, it points out that clarity is again needed in the sharing of information with the police, and the police themselves have suggested that these protocols need further development. I deliberately flagged up this issue with the Home Secretary, because information sharing and the development of protocols creates some of the infrastructure necessary to improving partnership working.
I am certainly in favour of the provision concerning demoted assured short-term tenancies. However, I am mindful that between 80 and 90 per cent. of problematic tenants have rent arrears. That is why the clause, suggested by Barnado's, that deals with intended support should be written into antisocial behaviour policy. Where appropriate, agencies should make early interventions and work with such tenants.
I recognise that there is great concern about children being caught by the poor behaviour of parents. However, parents cannot use their children as an excuse for carrying on behaving badly. Longer-term work with parents has to be undertaken; otherwise, the cycle will simply repeat itself. There does, however, come a point when removing a family is right and fair for the surrounding neighbours.
I have other issues that I should like to air, but I am sure that I will get an opportunity to do so later during the Bill's passage through the House. Let me finish my 179 contribution by saying that in general I very much welcome the provisions in the Bill, which will serve Erewash extremely well.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Antisocial behaviour is the social disease of our era. It feeds fear among victims, and it destroys communities. If it is left untreated, it allows the perpetrators to slide naturally into even more serious crimes.
At surgery after surgery in my constituency, I hear the most pitiful tales. A couple of months ago, two separate delegations—each unknown to the other—came to see me to talk about the absolutely hideous behaviour of one family. There is a child at risk involved in the case, so I cannot be too specific about it lest the child might be identified. However, such cases involve children bullying other children, and people threatening their neighbours and urinating through letter boxes. In more than one case, such incidents have built up to people firebombing their neighbours—a very serious crime that started from relatively small, but repetitive and ugly, beginnings. Other cases involve families unable to sleep at night because of the noise from next door.
The House should be in no doubt that I strongly support any measure seriously designed to tackle the problems of antisocial behaviour. I listened to the Home Secretary when he originally announced the Bill. My heart leaped: the Bill seemed to be full of good ideas but, once I came to examine the small print, I could not believe how little substance there was.
In the next four or five minutes, I want to look at a couple of the principles behind the Bill's aims that seem to me to be right, then at some examples that show how the Bill will not deliver anything. Finally, I shall make a suggestion of my own.
Two underlying principles ran through the Home Secretary's speech. If they were implemented they would be absolutely sound, and they have been enunciated repeatedly, at one time or another, by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). One principle is that we have to shift from a criminal approach to a civil approach in connection with behavioural patterns of the sort that have been described. The other is that we must adopt a multi-agency approach, and not simply leave the matter to the police, although my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, is right to say that we need more policemen.
Those two principles are sound, and they are fine. However, what is the Bill trying to achieve? One example is perhaps the most dramatic. People have pointed out already the flaw in the proposal regarding the closure of crack houses. I have several crack houses in my constituency, and they are known habitats of drug dealers. I thought that I was really going to be able to welcome the proposal to close crack houses. It struck me as an excellent way forward, using magistrates courts rather than Crown courts, the balance of probability, and the civil law. I believed that the police would be able to go and take action, and that the provision would make a big difference. However, several hon. Members have pointed out already that the problem is that the police do not merely have to establish, on the balance of probability, that illegal drugs are being handled on the 180 premises. They also have to establish that there is a public nuisance, which completely torpedoes the measure, as I shall spell out.
What makes dealing with such activity so difficult is that witnesses are frightened to come forward. The Bill would be a good measure if it were properly drafted and did not require witnesses. Police on their own can provide evidence of a physical nature that should be enough to support other evidence to the effect that, on the balance of probabilities, a property is being used for such purposes.
The Bill shifts the requirement on the police. Instead of merely having to prove that a property is being used for drugs, the Bill will require them to prove as well that it is causing a public nuisance. In that way, the Home Secretary is virtually guaranteeing that it will be necessary to produce witnesses. Proving a substantial public nuisance inevitably requires victims who are willing to speak out. The additional requirement therefore ensures that the Bill is almost completely torpedoed, and I suspect that very few closures will take place.
Several similar examples could be offered. There is not enough time to go into them all, but I want to talk about demotion of tenancies. No one supports more strongly than I the proposition that antisocial tenants must be got rid of. I have introduced two, or even three, ten-minute Bills that have looked at different elements of the problem, such as the eviction of violent husbands and partners. I strongly support such a measure, but what is the concept of demotion of tenancy trying to achieve? Surely, the same evidence will be required to achieve a demotion of tenancy as would be required to secure an eviction?
The evidence would have to be brought before the Crown court, as is the case at the moment. A demotion of tenancy is the stage that comes before an eviction, but a real change would involve more than simply changing the name and then having the same debate. A much better way would be to let magistrates courts handle such cases, as they involve local people who are aware of local conditions. Alternatively, the eviction decision could be taken away from the courts, and provision could be made to ensure that conviction for certain categories of crime would end a secure tenancy automatically. The tenant would automatically be served with a notice to the effect that he or she was in the hands of the local authority, which would then he able to make the decision itself. The matter could be handled in a variety of ways, but it is certain that the approach adopted by the Bill will make very little difference.
As I listened to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, I was struck again by the fact that the Government have failed—yet again—to act on a measure that he proposed. I and other Opposition Members welcomed it and, had it not been for the pathetic behaviour of the Liberal Democrats, it would have been accepted by the House. However, the Government have chosen not to take this opportunity to adopt the right hon. Gentleman's proposals.
In the final minute or so of my speech, I should like to offer one last thought to the House. It is something that would make a real difference. Why do we not cut down on the paperwork involved in arrests? That is what discourages the police from dealing with the smaller 181 offences that can do so much harm in society. The best way to do that would be to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 so as to give back to police the traditional habeas corpus power that they had until 19 years ago. The American police still have it, and holding people overnight is often the best way to deal with antisocial behaviour.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
I want the House to picture the following scene: a person walks out of her front door and sees, tossed over the garden wall, half-eaten kebabs, and chip wrappers.and bottles and cans. There is some graffiti on the wall and on the gate, and there is litter on the pavement where she has to swerve past the messages left by the neighbourhood dogs. When she walks across the street, she hears loud music blaring, and there are more bottles underfoot. That is what I had to put up with on a Saturday morning a few weeks back as I walked from my house five minutes down the street to do my advice surgery. It was unusual in that I do not always get graffiti on a Friday night. However, it happens not only to me, but to many of my constituents. I am sure that many hon. Members would echo that.
At the time, I was consulting my constituents about their attitudes to crime and antisocial behaviour, and trying to get to the root of their fear of crime. I do not know why the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) cannot go out and consult his local residents rather than just whinge in this House. I had plenty of time after the Queen's Speech to go out and find out exactly what my constituents thought about the matter. When I did so, they made the same comments regardless of whether they lived in the densely packed terraced streets of north Cleethorpes, the port of Immingham, the market town of Barton or the village of Waltham. Here are some of their comments: "gangs of youths"; "young ruffians, sometimes in groups at the shopping centre late at night—there ought to be curfews for young children and they should carry ID cards"; "drunken youths"; "gangs of antisocial youths"; "loutish behaviour"; "parents have to be shown that they cannot put the blame for their children on others—bad parenting needs to be addressed"; "why are youngsters allowed to have airguns anyway?"; "the misuse of fireworks is a year-round occurrence"; "it takes too long to take away dumped and burned-out cars". That is just a selection of the many comments that I received from my constituents about the antisocial behaviour that they felt was plaguing their lives.
One of my local authorities, North Lincolnshire council, also consulted people about the matter, and it revealed that 39 per cent. of people thought that teenagers hanging around on the streets was a fairly big 182 or a very big problem in their neighbourhood. We cannot overestimate the seriousness of what we are dealing with.
Should I give way to a Liberal Democrat? I am much nicer than the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, so I shall.
§ Mrs. Brooke
Will the hon. Lady clarify whether what was disturbed in the examples that she gave was the behaviour of the young people or people's perception of the young people?
If the hon. Lady will pay attention I shall go on to say what was concerning my constituents.
In my survey, 80 per cent. of respondents stated that although they were aware that crime figures had gone down, their fear of crime had gone up. That is a result of antisocial behaviour. The intimidatory factor that creates their fear is the destruction of the environment that results from graffiti, rubbish or young people hanging around on street corners. They do not lack faith in the police and what we are doing to try to tackle the problem of antisocial behaviour.
§ Chris Grayling
The hon. Lady mentioned crime figures. Does she accept that if, for example, a gang of troublemakers vandalises eight front gates in a street on a Friday night, eight different people feel that they are a victim of crime, but it almost certainly does not show up as eight different crimes in the crime figures?
§ Shona McIsaac
That depends on where the crime figures are being recorded. In some areas they are based on the number of incidents and in others they are based on the number of perpetrators. In my area, it is the latter. That gives more accurate figures than those produced in an area where the police take the view that if 25 cars are smashed up in one night by a lout, it is only one crime because only one lout has done it. It is not—it is 25 different crimes.
I took up my findings from my constituents with David Westwood, the chief constable of Humberside. In his reply, he wrote:In north-east Lincolnshire, levels of crime have fallen and there has been a constant increase in the numbers crimes solved each month.However, he continued:Another problem arising from questionnaires such as yours is what the public considers to be a crime is not necessarily a crime in law. For example, a group of youths congregating on a street may make people feel intimidated and uneasy and therefore their behaviour is construed to be criminal, when in fact they are not committing an offence in law.That gets to the heart of the debate. People perceive that such acts are wrong and think that we should be doing something about it. They do not want us to wait any longer—they have been putting up with it for years and want us to act now.
When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced his proposals for the Bill, I went back to the people I had consulted and said, "These are some of the things that we are proposing to do." Those people were 183 virtually 100 per cent. supportive of what the Government are trying to do. Time is short, but I will read a couple of responses that I received. Some of those responses were interesting because the opinions that they express differ from some of the opinions that we have heard today. For example, one Cleethorpes resident said:I don't think there is any need for begging at all and a penalty would help.However, she continued:You can't stop gangs of youths gathering in groups as they are not all troublemakers. I find if you are nice to them, they are nice to you.However, somebody from the same street wrote to say that he hates seeing gangs of youths on the street corner and that, every time he tells them to get a haircut or a decent job, they have a go at him. That made me feel rather sorry for that gang of youths.
An Immingham resident wrote to say:Thank you for your letter. I am delighted to read its content and about the proposed crackdown on antisocial behaviour. This should have a great impact on the lives of decent hard-working people.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, this is not just about enforcement, it is about attitude. The responsibility is not simply that of the Government, the police or the local authorities—although everybody says that the local authorities ought to be cleaning up after people. People have to take responsibility themselves. There should be zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour and I have no trouble saying that. There should be zero tolerance of fly tipping, graffiti, noise nuisance, nuisance neighbours, firework misuse, airguns or whatever. That will require a change of attitude in society—and clearly a change of attitude on the part of the Liberal Democrats, who do not know where they are on this issue. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is good at saying things from a sedentary position. He would not take my intervention so he is too scared to intervene on me.
One Waltham resident said:We must work together as decent honest citizens to make our streets a safer place to be.Everybody will have to work together. This Bill goes some way towards ensuring that that will happen and I will give it my wholehearted support.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
This Saturday afternoon, I was approached by an elderly gentleman who told me how his life was being made a misery by antisocial behaviour. He said that he was disturbed late at night, every Friday, by very unpleasant behaviour from young people, possibly on their way home from a local youth club. I am sure that people such as that constituent, on hearing of the existence of this Bill, will have very high expectations of it. The behaviour described by my constituent needs tackling—as, indeed, do any activities that result in criminal damage to property by people who are perhaps not so young. However, I do not think that this Bill provides any appropriate solutions for such incidents. In my constituency, we need more bobbies on the beat, and I hope that the Minister might consider funding 184 some neighbourhood wardens. We have none at all in Poole. A more visible, uniformed presence would be the greatest deterrent that we could have.
In many instances, it is appropriate to use a problem-solving approach at a local level and on a multi-agency basis. If young people are seen as part of the problem, they should be involved in finding solutions. The crime and disorder partnerships make such an approach possible. Some excellent work is being done, but there simply are not enough resources across a range of services to fund and implement enough suitable strategies. We should be funding the existing excellent initiatives.
My simple example highlighted just one type of antisocial behaviour; hut we all know that, in reality, the term is used to cover a wide variety of activities and issues, from minor nuisance to behaviour that can almost destroy people's lives. My example also highlighted the common perception that antisocial behaviour is entirely down to young people. We have to be very careful about that perception. As was made clear by an hon. Member earlier, we must remember that young people are also the victims of crime.
I support many aspects of the Bill, including its main aims, and it contains some helpful proposals, but it is also unhelpful in places, especially part 4, which almost demonises young people. Clause 29 allows for groups of two or more children to be dispersed if, by their mere presence, they are tin ought to be causing distress to others. I am concerned that children and young people will be judged not on their behaviour, but on the reaction of others to their behaviour. That is a dangerous path.
For many years I have been directly involved with groups of young people and sometimes extra policing has been necessary, but the problems have been solved by using existing powers. We need a well resourced multi-agency approach, which includes ensuring that young children are provided with the facilities that they want—shelters, skate parks, safe play areas or whatever—and that can only be sorted out at locally. The emphasis in part 4 risks alienating young people still further without involving them in the solutions.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)
That is a great aspiration. Unfortunately, it is not happening under Somerset county council, which is cutting funding and—guess what?—it is Liberal Democrat controlled. Does the hon. Lady realise that what she advocates is fine in Mid-Dorset and North Poole, but it is certainly not what her party is doing in Somerset—or Devon for that matter?
§ Mrs. Brooke
That enables me to highlight the fact that councils across the south-west have had an appalling funding settlement from the Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has been part of a delegation to a Minister fighting on behalf of his residents. We are aware that because of the funding situation in the south-west, there are cuts in much needed services. My argument is that we need resources for good initiatives.
Let me illustrate how a strong-armed approach can be counterproductive. Wooden benches in my constituency were grouped together in an open space. 185 Young people congregated there and were perceived to be a nuisance. It is not clear that there was any real problem and no damage was caused. However, the local authority was persuaded to move the benches. They were then spaced out and put in a long line along a path. Since then, every bench has been vandalised. It is clear that we need the right solution for a specific problem.
§ Mrs. Brooke
No, I want to continue.
It must surely be an aim to ensure that children and young people do not get into the criminal justice system, yet across the country we have a serious problem, especially in Somerset, with the underfunding of social services. Eligibility criteria have continually been tightened across social services provision for children, which prevents children from being identified and assisted at an earlier stage. If that were done, it would save police time, cost less and provide the child with a better chance of avoiding an antisocial behaviour order.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, I recently visited Sweden and was fascinated to note the lead role that social services play in dealing with behaviour that would have been judged criminal in this country. I was also picked up on using the word "preventive". It was suggested that I should use "encouragement" instead.
§ Mrs. Brooke
No, I want to make progress.
The idea of intensive fostering could be useful, especially if it reduces the number of young people in custody, but ideally work needs to be done with the child and the family together. There is also the issue of where additional well-trained foster carers will come from. Part 3 proposes to extend the use of parent contracts and parent orders. I am well aware that parent orders have been successful, but in the context of truancy and exclusions it would be desirable to proceed by voluntary agreement wherever possible. Although there will be some instances when such orders will be the right tool, there are sometimes complex reasons behind truancy and a child's behaviour at school and that problem will need to be treated differently. Those orders are not a panacea. They are one measure that will be appropriate in some circumstances. Although parents can be made to attend parenting classes, they cannot be made to participate. It is incredibly undesirable for head teachers and teachers to impose fines for truancy: a separation is needed between enforcers and those who are trying to work with children and their families.
The main problem with the Bill is that it is a hotchpotch: it contains a whole range of measures, and it is full of enforcement measures. It is the end of the line, yet the Government have so many good initiatives, such as sure start and the many youth initiatives. Why do they not concentrate on evaluating existing schemes and rolling out successful programmes more widely?
§ Mrs. Brooke
I have only one minute left.
186 My hon. Friends and I will not be voting against the Bill tonight. We support large sections of it, and we would like the opportunity to improve other sections. What we are really concerned about, however, is that no real consultation has taken place. I am waiting for an answer from the Home Secretary as to whether young people were consulted on the Bill, which would have been a good starting point. We will therefore vote against the programme motion tonight, as the Bill deserves detailed scrutiny and real consultation so that we can get a piece of worthwhile legislation.
§ Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)
The range of measures that the Government have introduced are making a real difference in terms of preventing and tackling antisocial behaviour.
When I was first elected in 1992, in response to complaints from residents about youths causing nuisance, I used to hold meetings with angry residents, to which I invited the police. The police would point out how limited their powers were, that they did not have enough officers to deal with the problem, and that, anyway, it was not a priority for policing. Residents complained, however, that their lives were being made a misery, it was a priority as far as they were concerned, and if the police were unwilling to act, that would only confirm to the young people involved that they were beyond the law. In practice, the meeting would result in the police paying particular attention to the area concerned, but, inevitably, when the police went away, the problem came back. Alternatively, I would find myself calling a similar meeting in another area in my constituency to which the youths causing nuisance had moved.
Now, when I have complaints from residents and hold meetings, I have not only the police present but also a representative from the youth offending team. That partnership approach enables young people causing nuisance to be identified and dealt with by the appropriate agency. I welcome the provision in the Bill for dispersal of groups and removal of persons under 16 to their place of residence, which will help with the more persistent and serious problems of groups of young people involved in antisocial behaviour. That would have helped, for example, with a particular situation that occurred recently on one of the council estates in my constituency, in which a group of young people systematically intimidated and harassed residents. If that power had been available to the police, that group of young people could have been disbanded more quickly while the individuals were dealt with. In the event, it was the residents who fled the estate.
The introduction of crime and disorder partnerships has made a real difference to the way that disorderly and antisocial behaviour can be dealt with. It means that agencies must work together to meet targets for community safety, and recognises that that is not solely the responsibility of the police. The introduction of antisocial behaviour orders has been very effective in Stockport in dealing with those young people who have histories of offending, burglary, taking and driving, combined with behaviour designed to terrify and intimidate anybody who might give witness to their behaviour. I would, however, like more attention to be given to making exclusion orders from shopping centres 187 part of the conditions of an ASBO when the offender has a history of shoplifting and intimidation of shop staff. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime, as countless shop workers will testify. The increasing level of intimidation, abuse and assault on shop workers is alarming and should not be tolerated.
I would like, however, to bring a problem to the Minister's attention and to that of the Lord Chancellor: the length of time that it takes to apply for and be granted an ASBO. In Stockport, an application is always based on previous offending history, relying on previous convictions. Those offences have already been proven to a higher standard than required by an ASBO, so it seems perverse that they can be the subject of a legal aid application to defend them a second time. What happens, of course, is that the case is strung out for months while defence solicitors extract large amounts of public funds, particularly in the case of appeals for which no grounds have to be given.
For an ASBO to be granted, the applicant has to show two things: first, that the defendant behaved in any antisocial manner and, secondly, that an order is necessary to protect the public. If an application relies on previous convictions and the court accepts that such behaviour is antisocial as well as criminal, legally aided argument should be reduced to whether an order is necessary to protect the public. I wonder whether the Minister will look at that point.
The measure of a crime and disorder partnership's success is not just the number of ASBOs applied for and granted, but the systematic application of the range of measures at its disposal to improve community safety. Critical is how well the agencies work together locally, and I wonder whether the Minister has any plan to publish the outcomes for crime and disorder partnerships, so that we can see the progress being made.
In Stockport, acceptable behaviour contracts are an effective mechanism for defining to young people the behaviour that needs improvement, while enabling the involvement of the necessary agencies. So a young person may be forbidden to leave his home after 8 o'clock at night, but he will also receive help for alcohol abuse problems and his parents will be asked to attend parenting classes.
The parenting contracts introduced by the Bill will be equally effective. Like ABCs, they will not be legal contracts, but, when I inquired last year, I was informed that only 3 out of 28 such contracts had been broken. Of course, those who break the contract know that the next step will be an ASBO. Similarly, the next step for those who break a parenting contract will be a parenting order, so those contracts will be viewed as having authority.
However, some of those young people's backgrounds include chaotic families, often known to a number of agencies, with histories of drug and alcohol problems, and their parents have poor parenting skills because they themselves were badly parented. When those children started primary school, they were unable to learn because of underdeveloped language and social skills, and they almost immediately began to fail. School can only do so much. The earlier we start to break that terrible cycle, the better.
188 Although ASBOs are very welcome in dealing with serious antisocial and persistent criminal behaviour, the problem is very deep-seated in young people by the time that they become subject to them, and changing that behaviour is all the m ore difficult to achieve. That is why the investment in the early years is very welcome. Using money from the standards fund, language development teams are going into nursery classes and making a real difference to language development. Sure start schemes are helping to improve parenting in the crucial early years, enabling children to take advantage of the education that they are offered and helping them to succeed in the education system. It is right that that kind of support is backed up with pressure on parents, particularly to send their children to school—a child who is not there cannot be educated.
When children are born into such chaotic families, agencies should intervene effectively to support that those children, as they are clearly at risk of developing into antisocial adults. Such investment would have a worthwhile return if it were to keep those children from failing at school, turning to criminality and costing the state thousands in secure accommodation, youth custody and years in and out of jail, not to mention the cost to victims and the wider community.
Prevention versus enforcement is an old argument. Of course, there must be both, but that combination is more likely if the resources of councils and other agencies are used, rather than simply asking social services departments to take responsibility for such families. Resources involve not simply cash, but innovative ways of looking at delivering services. One of the values of the sure start initiative is that it changes the way that existing services are delivered.
Part of the Bill is about dealing with graffiti, litter and dog fouling. Recently the children of Tame valley, as part of their citizenship curriculum, wrote to me about such problems near their school. When I visited them, they showed me, among other things, the bus stop that had been vandalised, the litter and the dog fouling. The council has responded very positively to their concerns. I am sure that the whole House would like to congratulate the children of Tame valley and their teachers on their successful efforts to improve their environment. I am sure that those children will welcome the increased powers in the Bill to deal with those problems. Through the citizenship curriculum, schools are teaching children 1.0 care for their community and to understand how to achieve what they want appropriately. That makes an important contribution to the wider agenda of preventing antisocial behaviour by encouraging children to be good citizens from an early age.
In conclusion, I very much welcome the Bill as a positive step towards enabling agencies to take effective action in combating antisocial behaviour.
§ Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)
I welcome much of what the Bill proposes, as will my constituents.
Bournemouth, as an urban conurbation that includes Poole, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), includes residential areas that experience many of the problems that the Bill is designed to tackle. Those areas include 189 housing estates where it takes only a few unruly ringleaders of gangs of young people to make the lives of everyone else a misery. They cock a snook at the entire neighbourhood, as the Home Secretary rightly pointed out in his opening speech.
Such behaviour can be discouraged by regular police patrols. The appointment of a community beat officer represents a valuable contribution in any such neighbourhood. However, the police cannot be everywhere. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 established community safety executives, under local authorities, which allowed elected members to highlight local experiences of antisocial behaviour and to respond by agreeing a strategy with the police and the local authority.
Under local government reorganisation, that procedure was replaced by local partnerships that have no direct accountability to the council. I look forward to assurances from the Minister who winds up the debate that the effectiveness of the Bill's new provisions to deliver safer communities will not be undermined by the new and remote partnerships that have replaced the local community safety executives.
I welcome the measures to tackle the misuse of air weapons. They include some of the proposals in the 10-minute rule Bill that I introduced last year—the Firearms (Replica Weapons) Bill—which would have banned the acquisition and use of airsoft weapons by anyone under the age of 17 unless supervised by an adult. I was extremely grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), for meeting me to discuss my Bill.
I introduced the Bill after the traumatic experience of two of my young constituents—sisters—who were targeted in a public place by a ball bearing gun. Such incidents involving BB guns occur regularly throughout the country, but that will no longer be the case if the Bill is effective. We must all welcome that.
My local Dorset police—like all forces—will welcome measures to tackle the availability of replica weapons. All too frequently, we read reports about the police reacting to the brandishing of guns in public, only to find that they are replicas. Apart from that being a costly waste of police resources, it can lead to tragic consequences. However, the Bill does not appear to respond to police requests for tougher controls on the sale of toy guns.
Last week, the Bournemouth Daily Echo reported that the cab window of a passenger train passing through Poole town centre had been fired at by a paintball gun, which could have obliterated the view of the driver. One can imagine the consequences for a car driver if his windscreen was sprayed with paint in that way. Like the use of airsoft guns, the use of paint guns without supervision should also be banned.
Finally, I am disappointed that the Bill does not strengthen police powers to deal with the antisocial behaviour of large groups of travellers who occupy public parks and open spaces with unauthorised encampments. When I introduced my Traveller Law Reform Bill on 10 July last year, I described the horrific experience in Bournemouth in Christmas 2001 and in 190 the new year of 2002, when 300 caravans and vehicles and 800 people occupied Kings park in my constituency. My Bill would define the rights and responsibilities of travellers.
As the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill does not refer to the antisocial problems posed by travellers, I look forward to proposing my own constructive solutions when I reintroduce my private Member's Bill on Wednesday 7 May. I look forward to the support of the Government for that measure.
§ Alan Howarth (Newport, East)
For me, too, it would be an unusual constituency surgery if no one came to me with a story about the distress that their household was experiencing due to antisocial behaviour. It is to the Government's credit that they have fully recognised the problem and have already responded in a range of ways, notably in the 1998 legislation that set up crime and disorder reduction partnerships. That was enthusiastically welcomed by the police and the local authority in Newport, who have themselves addressed the challenges to increasingly good effect.
The new White Paper and the Bill will add valuably to the panoply of interventions available to public authorities. In Newport, we especially welcome the powers to disperse intimidating groups in designated areas and to close down premises used for drug dealing; the powers on air guns, replicas and graffiti; and the scope to accredit neighbourhood wardens. Newport's estate rangers, now renamed the community safety warden service, have won the respect and confidence of local people.
Of course, there will be differences of view. I have found different reactions to fixed penalty notices for 16 and 17-year-olds and to the provision for faster eviction as between the police in Newport and the youth offending team. There are greater doubts still about the appropriateness of the proposals concerning housing benefit. However, the important point is that the added powers will be provided for use at the discretion of local agencies and partnerships. It is positively valuable that the merits and demerits of using them should be debated thoughtfully at local level. I shall make three points.
My first point is that prevention is better than cure. Indeed, that is the title of an excellent document on policy for young people produced by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Risk factors for children and young people are more likely to occur in low-income households where unemployment is endemic, where there are housing problems and where there is a culture of substance misuse. So, to resurrect a phrase, we must be tough on the causes of antisocial behaviour. The Government's commitment against poverty and in support of good public services is central to that strategy.
In 1997 and 1998, in the Department for Education and Employment, I had the privilege of working with my right hon. Friend who is now the Home Secretary on the new deal, the national child care strategy and sure start, all of which were early and essential building blocks in the strategy.
My observation of children and young people is that they need two things: love and success. Where they have both, they will thrive. Where one is missing, they may 191 get by. Where there is neither, they will almost certainly be in real difficulty. Love is not for the state to provide, but it can help. The Government are right to focus on parenting through Parenting Plus and support for home start, which does a wonderful job in Newport, as well as to introduce the new powers on parenting contracts and parenting orders. That so many parents who have been subject to parenting orders express enthusiasm and recommend them to others shows us, if we are in doubt, that inadequate parents do not want to be inadequate. Intensive fostering and intensive support schemes will enable children to receive care and attention that may make all the difference to them emotionally.
Without compromising standards, schools can find opportunities for all their pupils to achieve success in some area and the respect of their peers.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that where the love and support of parents is not available to children, the constant attention of a mentor throughout a child's development can be a crucial factor in developing that life in a positive direction?
§ Mr. Howarth
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is difficult to find mentors and mentoring is a difficult role to play, but I do not doubt that he is right that where they can be brought into play, they will play a valuable part.
We are doing much more to provide sufficient sporting facilities, but we must do still more to ensure that there are enough recreational facilities that are affordable and available for people in deprived communities. Those who are working on the ground in the more disadvantaged wards of Newport, East tell me that, while more funding is available for intervening when things have already gone wrong, not enough funding is available for preventive work. It is a struggle even to obtain a few thousand pounds to refurbish a youth club or to fund young people to make a video. Early intervention and preventive investment should have consistently higher priority.
That takes me to my next main point, which is about prioritisation and integration of effort. Antisocial behaviour covers a multitude of sins, from unkempt gardens to systematic persecution. Holistic approaches are needed, but vaporous terms such as "holistic" and "partnership" do not get us very far.
The partner agencies have other pressing duties. The police must deal with serious crime. The health service must deal with cancer and heart disease. On what basis are they and other partners to commit resources to antisocial behaviour? How then are they to prioritise between different varieties of antisocial behaviour?
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in the White Paper and the Bill, is giving a clear lead. Government, whether in Whitehall or Cardiff, needs consistently across all Departments to follow that lead. The police now know, with the national policing strategy that was published in November, that antisocial behaviour is to be a higher priority than in the past. I trust that the resources and the performance indicators emanating from across government will reflect that. However, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. The Government need to make it clear where in the plethora of priorities antisocial behaviour ranks.
192 We need consistent approaches between levels of government, between Departments, between different areas and over time. To ensure delivery, we need more than just identification of where lead responsibility lies among Departments and individuals, important though that has been. We need to overcome the problem of agencies and Departments operating as separate fiefdoms. All must be equally committed, because if we fail to deal with one part of a complex pathology, we will undermine the rest of what we do. Hitherto, in Newport, we have not, for example, had the commitment that we needed from the health service to our crime and disorder reduction partnership. Too little effort and resource have gone into the child and adolescent mental health service. Public service agreements, business plans, targets and performance indicators must all reiterate the same story. We need to pool budgets for antisocial behaviour to a greater extent. Multi-agency training must be developed further. Partnership must become integration.
We also need to improve our base of evidence. We need systematic recording of antisocial behaviour, the number and severity of instances, the profile of perpetrators, and the damage that is done, as well as progress on objectives. Cost-benefit analysis in this complex inter-agency arena is not easy, as the Newport community safety partnership has noted in a thoughtful and candid strategy document. We must disseminate what has been found to work to good effect—perhaps that will be a role for the Government's new antisocial behaviour unit.
My final point is about community confidence and resilience. Antisocial behaviour damages vulnerable communities the most, and hurts the most vulnerable people in them the worst. There are things, however, that can be done quickly to help to build confidence.
Neighbourhood agreements, as recommended in the social exclusion unit report of 2000, can establish ground rules whereby communities agree standards of acceptable behaviour and service providers set out the service that the community can expect. If people who have been frightened, confused and disillusioned know what they have a right to expect and what behaviour is within the pale and what is beyond, they will be better able to regroup and stand up for themselves.
§ Chris Grayling
The right hon. Gentleman has not mentioned something that is surely as important as any other factor. Would not it be a good idea if those who transgressed were simply punished, so that then they might not do it again?
§ Alan Howarth
Of course—I shall come to that. I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman.
There has been one consistent call from the public over the past 20 years which, until now, has been consistently rejected by the police—it has been for the return of the bobby on the beat. Experienced police officers in Newport regard it as highly desirable. The local policeman, known by all and knowing them, was a symbol of authority and the community's insistence on law and order, and was a very effective deterrent for young people minded to misbehave. I am pleased that in areas of Newport the local policeman, now called the crime and disorder reduction officer, is once again a 193 familiar figure, and a greatly appreciated one. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is increasing police numbers and introducing community support officers, but if he can provide further resources to fund regular uniformed foot patrols in the areas worst affected by antisocial behaviour, it would do much to create a sense of security and improve community morale.
When antisocial behaviour orders were introduced, they seemed to be just what was needed to deal directly and firmly with the troublemakers. They were so beset, however, with procedural restrictions and complications that they proved disappointing. Improvements were made in the 2002 legislation, and the Government's new proposals will improve ASBOs further. Newport welcomes the provision that local authorities will be able to prosecute for breaches of ASBOs, although the problem with prosecutions is to provide evidence that will hold good in court. We have had very few ASBOs in Newport. In one case, it is clear that the young person has routinely breached the ASBO and threatens in the most terrifying way people who might give evidence against him. They are certain that he would deliver on his promise. His only certainty seems to be that he will continue to get away with it. As the Government say in the White Paper, "effective enforcement is key". I therefore welcome their proposals to improve the protection of witnesses and the training of magistrates and judges, and to establish community justice centres where justice should be accessible and speedy.
We can further build community confidence if the rotten apples are taken out of the barrel quickly and decisively. When warnings and other less draconian interventions have failed, action is justified to remove individuals or families who are poisoning their neighbourhoods. Eviction must clearly be a last resort, but the Government are right to provide more powers for use when necessary.
§ 4.9 pm
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
As a number of right hon. and hon. Members have observed, the Bill includes worthwhile measures to address the phenomena of drugs, firearms, litter, noise and graffiti. I salute Ministers for advancing those policies, but there are weaknesses in the Bill, and it is my responsibility in this debate to highlight some of them.
Reference has been made on both sides of the House to the provisions for the reduction of security of tenure. It is possible, as the Government intend, to demote tenancies in certain instances. However, we must be careful to reflect not only on the motive behind the policy, but on its probable consequences. I readily concede that some people who are thoroughly antisocial and pestilential nuisances can cause their neighbours and local authorities to reach the end of their tether. In some circumstances, there may be no alternative but to evict a tenant—though the Bill does not readily provide for such an outcome—from a home owned by a local authority or where the person is a tenant of a housing action trust or a registered social landlord.
194 It behoves us to reflect, however, on the policy implications elsewhere of enforcing such a decision, which might prove necessary. What are we to do in respect of the provision of bed-and breakfast-accommodation? Have we factored in its likely cost? How many people will be affected by it? If it is judged that the circumstances justify breaking up the family, are we prepared to contemplate the reality of the consequences of that for which we are legislating—that some children will be forced into the alternative hell of serial fostering arrangements or of institutionalised care?
I am not saying categorically that it would be rash to do so and that no such outcome could ever be justified. It might be the lesser of two evils or the least worst outcome. However, simply to congratulate ourselves and give the impression of complacency to the outside world would be foolhardy in the extreme. If we legislate as the Government propose—without amendment, adequate back-up or safeguards—other policy implications will arise. If we act as clauses 14 and 15 provide, we will not necessarily deal with the problem, but simply move it on to another destination.
If the Under-Secretary were willing to acknowledge the point—I am not making it in a partisan sense, but in a constructive spirit—I would appreciate it. It would also be helpful if he could tell us more about the other aspects of Government policy between Departments that would require additional funding, integration and co-ordination. That would contribute towards the practical outcome of joined-up government, to which we all sign up in principle.
I have a second concern, shared by hon. Members in all parts of the House, which is about the provision in clause 22 for the imposition of fixed penalty notices on parents whose children have played truant. It is easy to provide for that, to wield the big stick, to seem tough and to indulge in a self-gratifying display of machismo by saying, "We are dealing with the matter", but are we really doing so? I salute the hon. Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) who, on the strength of her professional experience, expressed real concerns about empowering a head teacher or teacher to impose that penalty. I entirely agree with her.
Let us reflect on what that could mean for relations between the teacher and the parent; between the teacher and the pupil; and—last but by no means least—between the parent and the pupil. There is an argument for applying fixed penalties, which I readily concede. It avoids a more time-consuming and long-winded method of addressing the problem. However, I implore the Under-Secretary to reflect in sober and constructive fashion in Committee on whether there is a more effective way of dealing with the problem. I sometimes think that if a clause is very long, as clause 22 is—it consumes or absorbs three pages of the Bill—there is probably something wrong with it. I say to hon. Members that proposed new section 444B to the Education Act 1996 contains no fewer than 10 subsections, the first of which, appertaining to the provision for regulation or secondary legislation, itself contains no fewer than 11 paragraphs. There is something wrong here; the provision is vague, ill-defined and imprecise. The meat needs to be put on to the bone. That is not an application to be included in the Standing 195 Committee, although I shall obviously have to put up with the judgments that my hon. Friends in the Whips Office make on these important matters.
My third concern is the consideration of fixed penalties in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds. I am anxious about that as well. Of course, people who are undermining the quality of life of others have to be confronted, punished and shown a better way forward. However, if some of those people have next to nothing by way of financial resources, is it an intelligent policy option for this House to say "We shall fine you"? Even Ministers seem to recognise the potential lacuna in their provisions, as clause 38, which deals with this matter, refers to the capacity of the Secretary of State to specify different amounts for persons of different ages. That conjures up extraordinary ideas of a 13-year-old being subjected to one penalty while a 16-year-old is subjected to another and a 17-year-old to yet another. That seems extraordinary. I am not sure that there is a rationale behind that approach or whether it has been thought through.
The problem is that there is too much focus in the Bill on inputs and not enough attention directed to outputs. I do not want breast-beating from the Home Secretary and I do not want him to legislate simply to feel better or to appeal to the Daily Mail or other tabloid newspapers. I want him to legislate to improve the quality of life for people in my constituency and among the citizenry of this country. The Bill needs to be scrutinised rigorously, thoroughly and remorselessly, and that is what my hon. Friends will do.
§ Laura Moffatt (Crawley)
I am very interested to follow the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), particularly in the light of his comments about fixed penalty fines. I should like to develop an argument firmly in favour of fixed penalties and I hope that that will complement his contribution.
It is obvious from the number of hon. Members who wish to take part in this debate that we completely understand the corrosive and severely damaging psychological impacts of antisocial behaviour in our communities. Good people need to know that Members of this House are on their side. That is what I firmly believe the Bill is about—supporting people who for too long have had to put up with the sort of behaviour that we all know we are discussing.
All of us have been visited by people with such concerns. I live in a community in which we suffer from many of the problems that have been raised on the Floor of the House. It is interesting to note that some members of our community think that it is all right to throw out an old mattress into the street and that it is okay to have a party all night so that the children cannot get up for school in the morning. Such people cannot quite understand why others find their behaviour offensive. It is about time that we made a difference through partnership work with our local authorities and police.
Last week, I held an advice surgery in Crawley. I was pleased that when a family and other neighbours came to complain about severe disruption caused by another neighbour, the police came too. They held the surgery with me and were bigger advocates of Home Office policies under this Government than anybody I have 196 ever met. The police shared with residents the fact that new powers are in place, and extra powers are coming. I felt extremely heartened about that.
No doubt we will all choose to deal with particular aspects of the Bill, as we do not have time to mention everything on which we would like to comment. I pledge my support to most aspects of the Bill, which is a positive contribution to making our communities safer and, frankly, nicer to live in. The issue I want to consider in particular is fly tipping, which affects many people not only in towns but in the countryside. I recently attended an excellent seminar organised by Environmental Campaigns Ltd—ENCAMS—formerly the Tidy Britain Group. Those attending included representatives of local authorities, rail authorities and others who attempt to deal with the hideous problem of fly tipping. Not only do people who perpetrate fly tipping use large vehicles and believe that it is acceptable to dump tonnes of rubble outside somebody's gate or in a small area where children should play, but they take money for doing it. That goes beyond antisocial behaviour. It shows complete disrespect for our communities. The Bill should provide for extremely tough action to be taken against those who believe that they can charge money for that. Their vehicles should be confiscated so that they can no longer do their job and then take extra money for fly tipping. I hope that we can strengthen the provision on that.
I support the imposition of a statutory duty on authorities to work together. Fly tipping happens in all our constituencies and counties. We need co-operation to ensure that local authorities understand the way in which they work and how to reach out to each other to prevent it. The Bill gives them the ability to do that but I should like it to provide for a statutory duty on them to consult each other on creating partnerships in counties.
I chaired my local authority's environment committee for nine years, and I am pleased that my son recently qualified as an environmental health officer. He now lives and works in London and would argue that noise is one of the most difficult problems for neighbours, especially noise that happens through the night. It is often caused by people who do not work during the day and do not have the discipline to think, "It's midnight, perhaps I'd better go to bed." They play music and disrupt their neighbours' lives. I should like environmental health officers to be properly supported, and I want to consider fixed penalty notices in that context. Some people simply do not think about others, and it would be right to apply a fixed penalty notice to them. I also believe that the equipment should be taken away in cases of constant abuse. I am glad that my local authority has used that power effectively.
My authority and Sussex police were desperate to be chosen to pilot fixed penalty notices and were disappointed when they were not. They support their introduction because they have conducted a programme in Crawley called Operation Marble, which has reduced town centre disorder and crime by more than 35 per cent. through in-your-face policing. The police have a presence in the town centre and a video camera. They tell people, "If you don't go home now, you'll end up in court with us." Taking money from disruptive people and spoiling their night is perfect because it does not mean a criminal record. Young people who behave badly often regret it bitterly later. I hope that we can 197 make the maximum use of fixed term penalties to ensure that we tackle antisocial behaviour in our communities properly.
§ Laura Moffatt
I shall not give way because many more people want to speak.
I fully support the aspects of the Bill that will improve life in our communities, and I sincerely hope that we can say in the near future that the Government have truly tackled antisocial behaviour.
§ Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)
Like all the hon. Members who have spoken so far today, I very much welcome the focus of the Government's attention on the whole issue of antisocial behaviour. I have no doubt that this is the most serious issue facing our country today, and I do not say that lightly, given the other issues that we are tackling in all our public services. I believe that to be the case, and I base that statement on the experiences of the constituents I meet as I go round my constituency and of those who come to my advice surgeries, and on the findings of the surveys and questionnaires that I have undertaken since I was elected to Parliament. Time and again, antisocial behaviour and crime are put ahead of people's other concerns about health, education or transport.
The Government are absolutely right to focus on this issue. It is a huge issue; indeed, it is probably so big that we need something comparable, in our own time, to the reformation of manners that Wilberforce wanted to launch in his day. The scale of the problem before us really is of that nature. When we look at antisocial behaviour, we have to look at the long-term causes that have brought about the state of affairs today as well as at the short-term remedies that we are going to bring to bear on the problem. Looking at the long-term causes, I find myself in complete agreement with the White Paper. On page 21, it states:Healthy communities are built on strong families.It goes on to say thatParents…have to ensure their children understand the difference between right and wrong.How true those words are. If the people engaging in antisocial behaviour today had had the good fortune to be in homes in which right and wrong were clearly portrayed to them from an early age, the scale of the problem would be very much less today.
I welcome the Government's focus on trying to support family life. I welcome the measures in the Bill and the expenditure in the Lord Chancellor's Department and elsewhere to try to do something about the scale of the problem involved in putting family life back together in this country. I would say, however, that the amounts being so spent are minuscule compared with the cost to the Government of picking up the pieces. I wonder whether it is time for us all to have an honest debate in the House about whether we need to shift the balance a little more between prevention and cure in this area.
198 I will judge the success or failure of the Bill on whether it makes a real difference in cases such as those that have arisen in my constituency recently. To preserve the privacy of those concerned, I shall not go into them in detail. The first case concerned a young mother who was desperate to move from her council flat because of the behaviour of the tenants above her. The second involved a young man whose door had been kicked down twice and had paint spattered all over it. The third involved a mother whose daughter had received death threats from people further down the street. In the fourth case, a young couple suffered such continual noise and disruption in their first home that their only option was to move out of the area. Perhaps the most harrowing case of all, however, involved a gentleman who came to see me two weeks ago. He and his partner had been forced to put their two young children into voluntary care to get them out of the street and the immediate neighbourhood in which they lived.
These are unacceptable circumstances for any of our constituents to find themselves in, and the real test of the Bill will be whether it will make a meaningful difference to such people, and whether it will help us to move forward and to solve problems such as the five in my constituency that I have outlined.
To solve such problems, we need more police on the streets. There is no other way round the problem. To enforce the measures in the Bill, we need more police constables patrolling our constituencies. That is why I welcome unreservedly the measures proposed by my own Opposition Front Bench to put 40,000 more police on to our streets over the next eight years. The Government have talked about increased police numbers, and I welcome that, but there is a difference between the establishment that the Government figures describe and the number of officers on the ground. In one of my police stations the other day, there were supposed to be six officers and a sergeant out on patrol. The reality was that there were only two constables. All the others were either elsewhere doing training courses or attending magistrates courts. They were not there to do the job that they had been called to do.
We also need courts that will process cases much faster. One of my constituents had his front door kicked down in January and again in February. He tells me that the court case will be delayed until June by forensic laboratory tests. The spattering of his door with paint, also in February, is still being investigated. That gentleman will have had to suffer the results of extreme antisocial behaviour for five months—150 days—because of the slowness of our courts.
We must ensure that guidelines and regulations, as well as the laws passed here, are intelligible. I learned recently that a local authority felt that it must inform people who had been complained about of the intention to install noise-monitoring equipment. That impression was corrected only by a letter to me from the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, citing the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. I wonder how many local authorities and housing authorities are not using powers available to them because the guidance and regulations are not clear.
Finally, let me say something about litter, graffiti and fly tipping. I feel passionately about the problem of litter, which, as many Members have said, represents the first step in the descent into antisocial behaviour. We 199 cannot rely entirely on local authorities and others to clear up litter; we need to realise that we are all responsible for the litter outside our houses, outside shops and outside businesses. Until we understand that we are all involved, not just our local authority litter-pickers, we will not make things better. Schools can play a vital role in teaching children and young people about the importance of picking up litter and not dropping it themselves.
When I go for a walk with my family nowadays, we take plastic bags with us so that we can pick up litter. Such action can lead to a staggering change in attitude—a sense of ownership of the street or road in which one lives.
§ Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)
I welcome the Bill. I am glad that a Labour Government are finally getting tough on the menaces who plague decent, upstanding citizens. The Bill is about decency, and about tackling what I call the yob culture out there.
I want to comment on parts 3, 4, 5 and 6, and to link them with my constituency and with what my local authorities are doing. Clauses 29 and 38 will be warmly welcomed by my constituents in the Hemlington ward of south Middlesbrough, because they finally give the police and other authorities power to challenge antisocial youths and other groups on our streets. Their behaviour has been a particular problem in Hemlington, on estates and in the shopping precinct. Local shopkeepers tell me that the excessive numbers of youths congregating in the precinct frighten away their customers, many of whom are elderly. Not just the profitability but the very survival of many of those shopkeepers is threatened as a result, and ordinary men and women are forced to change their normal routines because of the behaviour patterns of a small minority.
I also welcome clause 32, which gives powers to community support officers, thus freeing police resources and enabling them to be targeted more efficiently. It also establishes a more flexible and consistent framework of crime prevention, as opposed to reaction to crime. Both the local authorities in my area, Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland borough councils, operate warden schemes. Thanks to mayor Ray Mallon's lead, Middlesbrough now has one of the biggest schemes in the country, tied to a comprehensive database that logs the shifting patterns of antisocial behaviour and can quickly identify emerging hotspots. The Redcar and Cleveland borough council scheme is similarly spread over a large area. The authority deserves praise for being the first in the country to achieve a warden presence in every community. Those measures in the Bill will provide support for the good work already being achieved by local authorities in my constituency. The task now is to align the work of those wardens with the new powers and duties that will be open to them under the Bill.
Cleveland police have reported that there are 2,110 fewer victims of crime on a year-on-year basis. In January to March this year, compared to January to March last year, individual incidents of crime fell by 200 2,470. With a record number of 1,600 officers and 40 police community support officers, that provides a good base on which to build the new legislation.
§ Mr. Bercow
The hon. Gentleman referred with enthusiasm to clause 38. What merit is there in imposing a financial penalty on 16 and 17-year-olds who have no money, who will get into debt in paying the penalty or who will simply fail to comply? Would it not be better to punish them in a more constructive way?
§ Matthew Green
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in the pilot areas that he cites penalty notices were not applied to 16 and 17-year-olds? They were applied to those aged 18 or over, so he is quoting something that does not meet the point that the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made.
§ Dr. Kumar
There is no evidence to suggest, as the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) claimed, that those people would not be able to pay. They are paying. In answer to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), we have no way of knowing that they will not pay.
Middlesbrough council told me that previous legislation has enabled it to become more proactive in relation to crime and antisocial behaviour. Legislation such as the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Local Government Act 2000 has given local authorities the ability to tackle antisocial behaviour head on and they are using those powers to help to win court orders excluding particular named individuals from areas where those people have terrorised whole communities of decent people.
I strongly welcome part 6, clauses 42 to 44. I see that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), is on the Front Bench. North-east MPs made strong representations to him on that aspect of the Bill, which deals with the possession of air weapons, especially by youngsters under the age of 17, and the potential outlawing of air weapons capable of being "re-engineered" so as to fire conventional ammunition.
The misuse of air weapons has been a big issue in my constituency and across Teesside and the north-east. It led to my local paper, the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette, running the brilliant "ban the young guns" campaign, and a petition carrying many thousands of signatures collected across Teesside being presented to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on a visit to that paper's offices.
There has been case after case of youngsters using air guns and rifles in open space around some of the more isolated villages in the east Cleveland area. It has escalated into people becoming the victims of air rifle sniping. A number of families in my constituency have been lucky not to lose a son or daughter, or at least see 201 them blinded. The banning of the sale of air weapons to children under 17 will remove at a stroke the conduit through which this behaviour occurs.
Similarly, I welcome the provision in clause 42 that bans the carrying of imitation firearms in a public place. As we know, such imitation weapons are not the cap-guns of our youth; they are carefully engineered replicas of real weapons such as those made by Smith and Wesson, Uzi and Heckler and Koch. We all know that these weapons have been used in robberies. A few months ago, a shop in the Tees Valley ran a quarter-page advert in a regional paper advertising such weapons. One possible amendment to clause 42 could involve banning any advertising of such weapons, except at the point of sale. I ask the Minister to consider such a provision. After all, we already ban the advertising of tobacco goods, and it could be argued that a similar case can be made in this regard.
I strongly welcome the Bill, and I wish it a happy passage through this House and elsewhere.
§ Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell)
I, too, welcome the Government's attempts in this area, although I have to say that this is a bits and pieces Bill. Some of it is good, some of it bad, and frankly, other bits of it are pointless. However, it is a step on the road, and I commend Ministers for that. There is an awful lot more to do in an area that undoubtedly affects every one of our constituents to some degree. Society as a whole has got to get to grips with this problem; otherwise, the decline in standards will lead to an increasing number of people feeling oppressed and under siege. Indeed, those of our elderly population who come into contact with antisocial behaviour will feel downright scared, and their entire quality of life could be affected. It is therefore extremely important that we get to grips with this issue.
I want to begin by confronting the Minister head-on with the Home Secretary's comments in his opening address about police numbers. My constituency is on the fringes of London, and like many other Members with such constituencies, I see the real problems that are caused by the way in which the Government are handling police funding and rewards, and by their entire approach to policing. I want to take the Minister to task on the problems that we face, and to encourage him to look more closely at them.
The truth immediately outside London is that, far from having more police, we have too few police and the numbers are reducing. We suffer from an overspill factor: a Metropolitan police area that has undoubtedly gained more officers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson), who is not in her place, said, even certain London areas do not have enough police on the streets. However, it is counties such as Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Kent and Essex that are suffering in particular from the drive to recruit officers into the Metropolitan police. We as a nation are rightly facing the huge challenges that have to be met, and the Government are right to attempt to bring more officers into the Met. We see them on the streets protecting the London Eye and this place against terrorism.
202 However, the reality is that a combination of the Met's aggressive outward recruitment policy in the past year or two and huge pay disparities across the London boundary—an officer in the Metropolitan police area earns £6,000 a year more than an officer in a station just two or three miles away, and receives free travel as well—has led to a huge flow of officers from just outside London into the Metropolitan police area. I see that happening day in, day out, week in, week out in my constituency. A few months ago, I stood talking to an officer in the yard of Epsom police station. He said, "I look around here and I see officers who I know are going to the Metropolitan police." The beat constable in Ashtead, the village where I live, has joined the Met. Senior officers from Epsom and Ewell have left to join the Met. I also recently visited some special constables at the local police station. The specials do excellent work in our area, across Surrey and throughout the country. They are a very under-praised resource.
§ Mr. Bob Ainsworth
In his tirade against the Metropolitan police, will not the hon. Gentleman accept that that force is training record numbers of recruits, and that it loses officers to other forces as well as gaining them from other forces? It is a two-way process, as the figures show.
§ Chris Grayling
I take issue with the Minister over that. When, as the local Member of Parliament, I visited my local police station, I discovered that the special constables are the longest serving officers in the area. They are the ones who retain knowledge of the area's particular problems, and who know who the troublemakers are. Part of the challenge of tackling antisocial behaviour is knowing who the troublemakers are, where to find them and where to watch over them. When the experience in a police area resides mostly with the volunteers, and when the regular officers are mainly raw recruits who stay around for a year or two before they cross the border for £6,000 a year more, the Minister must understand that that has an impact on policing, and on the force's ability to tackle antisocial behaviour.
§ Andrew Selous
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and my force in Bedfordshire suffers from exactly the problems that he has described. Does he agree that there is something unethical about offering officers London allowances for housing and so on—and free travel—when they live outside London? It is simply not fair on forces outside London, which suffer a terrible problem of retention. Many young people do not consider joining their local county forces, but instead go straight to the Met.
§ Chris Grayling
I very much echo the points made by my hon. Friend. We will be able to tackle antisocial behaviour in the areas outside London only if we move away from the present arbitrary allowance structure. We need an allowance structure that gradually dips as one moves further away from London, not one that simply falls off a cliff.
Moreover, the resourcing levels received by forces outside London following changes to the grant structure mean that it is impossible for neighbourhood officers to tackle antisocial behaviour in the way we want them to. 203 I have another example for the Minister. One of my local police stations is just across the border in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir P. Beresford), but it also serves parts of my constituency. A couple of weeks ago we discovered that its four neighbourhood officers did not have access to a police car. I hope that the lack is being rectified, but the example shows the problems that we face in the south-east, where the structure of police funding has moved resources away from the fringe forces. The resources have either gone into the Metropolitan police area, or to forces elsewhere in the country. Ministers need to understand that.
§ Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is wrong that outer London areas such as my constituency and his own—which is on London's outer rim, although not part of greater London—should be so badly affected by the fact that the Metropolitan police's resources are centred on inner London? As a result, we are disadvantaged, as all the resources are spent in the inner London areas. Does he also agree that we need to restore community beat officers? They understand communities and know their areas like the backs of their hands, and they know too who are the people who cause the antisocial behaviour that we want to tackle.
§ Chris Grayling
I agree totally with my hon. Friend. That is why it is so frustrating in constituencies such as mine to see an experienced neighbourhood beat officer—who knows the troublemakers and who has worked for months to tackle the problem—being tempted away to go and work a few miles up the road for £6,000 a year more. The Minister must understand the problems that that causes. I hope that the Home Office will be able to provide some solution in the months ahead.
I have a couple of final points to make. The first is in relation to graffiti. I welcome the proposals in the Bill to outlaw the sale of cans of spray paint to people under 18 years of age, but will the Minister look at the issue of internet sales? It appears that a number of suppliers of specialist spray paints specifically designed for graffiti make their products available via the internet. The methods outlined in the Bill to tackle graffiti may very well fail to deal with that problem. When he discusses the detail of the Bill in Standing Committee, will the Minister, with his officials and members of the Committee, give full consideration to the matter? I hope that he will be able to find ways to tighten the Bill to ensure that the trafficking that I have described cannot take place.
Finally, I want to turn to the principle that parents can be fined, and that teaching staff will carry out the process. That is nonsense. Teachers are already exposed to dealing with the practical difficulties of antisocial behaviour—in the classroom, and from parents who challenge their authority. Teaching is an extremely difficult job. All too often, our teachers find themselves up before the police or the courts facing spurious allegations from young people. That is not an isolated event: it happens all the time. Simply expecting our teachers to stand up in the face of troublesome parents and issue a fixed penalty notice is unrealistic and absurd, and the Government need to think again, because there 204 has to be a better way. The principle of tackling parents whose children cause trouble is a good one, but this is not the right way to do it.
I welcome the overall strategy of the Bill, but it goes only a fraction of the way towards dealing with the problem, and some of the ideas in it are frankly wrong. I hope that in Committee it can turn from an inadequate Bill into a much more effective Bill that will achieve the goals that hon. Members on both sides of the House want it to achieve.
§ Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)
I rise to support the Bill. We should regard it not as a stand-alone Bill, but as part of a package of measures that the Government are taking, which includes the Criminal Justice Bill, the Fireworks Bill and the forthcoming housing Bill. When that package is in place, we will be in a very good position to tackle crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour on the streets in our towns and cities.
We all know that antisocial behaviour, even at low levels, is a major problem on our streets—it certainly is in my constituency. It can and does damage our communities, our quality of life and our environment. There is an even more important reason to tackle antisocial behaviour: if we do not, we are in danger of allowing young people or, indeed, older people who engage in such behaviour to drift into more serious crime. It is of paramount importance to draw the line and to say, "Stop now, before you transgress further and possibly end up in prison."
I strongly welcome part 1 of the Bill, which gives the police powers to close down premises that are being used for the supply or use of class A drugs or are associated with disorder or nuisance to the public. Some hon. Members suggested that that part of the Bill should not be there. However, every time constituents have raised the issue with me it has been clear that nuisance and disorder are created just by the comings and goings, noise and so forth, and the police will not find it difficult to deal with. I very much welcome the speed with which action can be taken. When a closure notice is served, a court hearing will be held within 48 hours. I commend that, and I wish that other parts of our criminal justice system responded as quickly.
My attention has been drawn to clause 10, which deals with compensation. I was surprised by that, and I ask the Minister to clarify the circumstances in which compensation might be paid to an owner of closed premises. I cannot imagine that such an owner would not know what had been going on in his or her premises and must have gone on with his or her consent.
I generally welcome part 2, which deals with housing issues and associated antisocial behaviour. Clause 12 requires social landlords to publish antisocial behaviour policies and procedures. The Local Government Association contends that that is unnecessary and will lead to duplication, as those duties already exist under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I would welcome the Minister's comments on that criticism.
I support clause 14 and the power to allow a secure tenancy to be brought to an end by a demotion order. That clearly says to tenants who are engaged in antisocial behaviour that the writing is on the wall. If 205 they do not then change their behaviour, they have had their final public warning and must accept the consequences of continuing with it. I am happy that there is also a carrot: if the antisocial behaviour ceases, after a year the secure tenancy will be reinstated. That is perfectly right and fair.
§ Mr. Liddell-Grainger
I want to pick up on that point about a cooling-off period. The hon. Gentleman comes from an area that probably has more problems than my rural area, but does he feel that one year is long enough? Where antisocial behaviour is concerned, offenders tend to be repeat offenders.
§ Mr. Singh
I am not sure; we will have to suck it and see. Given my Government's willingness to see how legislation works in practice, I am confident that, if there is a problem, it will be dealt with.
I welcome part 4 of the Bill, which is headed "Dispersal of groups etc.". Groups of youths who congregate at various sites can cause tremendous distress and intimidation. Shopkeepers suffer, and elderly citizens in elderly people's homes suffer tremendously, from that kind of behaviour. However, I echo some concerns that hon. Members have raised. The procedure seems quite bureaucratic, and the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who is not in his place at the moment, went through them. In brief, there has to be consultation with the local authority and the publication of a notice. If I were in a gang of young people, as soon as that notice was published, I would move my gang's activities to another site. Would that mean that the whole procedure would have to be gone through again for the new site? I ask the Minister to reconsider the workings of these measures. It may be easier to give the police a direct power, if there is a problem in a particular area, to go and deal with it.
I welcome part 6 of the Bill, which deals with air weapons and imitation firearms. Part 6 will be widely welcomed—indeed, it has already been welcomed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and like-minded organisations. Last year, the RSPCA recorded 903 incidents of injury to animals by airguns. If this Bill can help to eradicate or reduce that cruel and wanton infliction of suffering on animals, it will have been worth while.
The Bill proposes to extend the use of fixed penalty notices. I have an open mind on this issue. I understand that pilot projects have proved successful, but will the Minister clarify what will happen if somebody riding a bike on a pavement or doing something else that warrants an FPN refuses to give his or her name and address? I presume that a police officer would have the power of arrest, but what power would a community support officer or a neighbourhood warden have?
It is hard to discuss antisocial behaviour without referring to the disgraceful scenes at England's international football fixture just a few days ago. That was the most awful antisocial behaviour of all. The Government should revisit their policies on this. It seems to me that the current sanctions have not had the desired effect. Is it not possible—in this Bill or in the Criminal Justice Bill—to introduce an offence of being 206 involved in, or causing, violence that takes place at, or is associated with, a sporting event at home or abroad; and can that offence not carry a minimum two-year sentence and a maximum five-year sentence?
§ Mr. Singh
That is an excellent suggestion. It is obvious that the trouble will be repeated in Istanbul. The FA can and should impose that sanction. I hope that the Minister will consider the points that I have raised in this regard.
When I listen to the Liberals on crime and disorder and the justice system, I despair. If ever they were in power—God forbid—we would have social workers enforcing our laws, not police officers. Conservative Members can smile, but when they say that they will fund a further 40,000 police officers, will they please tell us where the money will come from? The officers will be funded by tax rises or deep cuts. Will such deep cuts be made to spending on health and hospitals or education?
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
The funding to provide those extra police officers will come from savings that will result from our new asylum policy, which will use quotas.
§ 5 pm
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
I want to focus on the Bill's desperately negative overall view of young people. It contains nothing to suggest that the Government value young people. They have done many good things for young people such as setting up the splash initiative and the children and young people's unit, but there is nothing in the Bill for young people except draconian measures. It sends the message that young people are the problem—full stop. Centrepoint says that the Bill has a "prevailing negativity". The Bill is all about enforcement; there is nothing about prevention or rehabilitation.
There is confusion about the age at which provisions apply throughout the Bill. Part 4 addresses the removal of young people to their houses by police, and it will apply to people under 16. Part 5 of the Bill relates to penalty notices and if the Secretary of State were to pass a statutory instrument, the provisions could apply to children as young as 10. Part 6—"Firearms"—will set an age limit of 17, and provisions in part 7 will set an age limit for buying spray paint at 18. The Government are confused about the age at which young people are defined under the Bill. Will they make up their mind whether the age is 16, 10, 17 or 18, because it would be easier to find support for the Bill if they reached a satisfactory view?
There is a real oddity about the provisions on spray paint. People aged 17 may hold a driving licence and buy a car, but if their car gets scratched, they will not be allowed to buy spray paint to cover the scratch. If the 207 Government reduced the age limit from 18 to 16, many of us would find it easier to support the provision, but they insist on a limit at 18.
§ Matthew Green
I am suggesting that the Bill should adopt a more coherent approach on the ages of young people to which its provisions apply. If we are to have an age limit, I would prefer it to be 16. After all, I introduced a ten-minute Bill to reduce the voting age to 16, so I am being consistent.
Curfew orders, which were never used, will be abolished and part 4 will instead allow a police officer to exercise the power to take young people back to their homes. The curfews were a matter for a local authority, so the provisions effectively take the power to make decisions from a community's elected local politicians and put it into one person's hands.
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
What would the hon. Gentleman say to residents in the Grasmere area of my constituency who are consistently plagued by gangs of young people? The residents do not care who takes the decision as long as the young people are moved off the streets.
§ Matthew Green
If those young people are committing an offence, they should be brought to book. However, let me give the hon. Lady an example. Four or five pensioners go to collect their pensions at the post office—if they still have a post office—and gather outside to discuss something. Obviously, they will not be dispersed and sent home, although technically they could be. However, if a group of four or five young people gather outside the local shop to talk about things, that could be seen as intimidation.
§ Matthew Green
No, I have given way several times and we have an eight-minute limit on speeches. [Interruption.] Go on, then.
§ Shona McIsaac
Third time lucky in my attempts to intervene on a Liberal Democrat.
On consulting my residents, I discovered that it is not just elderly people who are terrorised by gangs of youths, but younger people themselves. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that? We are only talking about the young people who cause trouble, not those who do nothing wrong.
§ Matthew Green
I agree. I did not say that only elderly people were worried. However, article 11 of the convention on human rights, incorporated in the Human Rights Act 1998, grants a freedom of association. The Bill goes against that.
There are two ways to read clause 29(3). I do not think that anyone would have a problem if we took it to mean that a constable can use the power to disperse people when he has reasonable grounds for believing that the behaviour of a group of people has caused members of the public to be intimidated and harassed. However, it also states that that power may be used when 208a constable in uniform has reasonable grounds for believing that the presence…of a group…is likely to result, in any members of the public being…alarmed".A few young people standing on a street corner might alarm someone even though they are doing nothing wrong. If the policeman thinks that they are likely to cause alarm, he can disperse them. That clause is odd and it needs to be tightened up considerably in Committee.
On clause 29, the National Children's Bureau said:This measure will simply increase local tensions among the police and young people, and the community and its young people. The power to disperse a 'group' of 2 or more young people is based on a subjective perception that they are behaving inappropriately, and contravenes their right to free assembly (Article 15 of the UNCRC)"—the United Nations convention on the rights of the child—to engage in recreational activities (Article 31 of the UNCRC), and to freedom of association (Article 11 of the Human Rights Act).Additionally, there is a general recognition within Government that there is a shortage of suitable places for young people to socialise, and some evidence that both they and their parents prefer that they remain with a group of friends in order to feel—and be—safe.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
I appreciate that the National Children's Bureau and others have a voice that should be heard, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is our responsibility to have a balanced approach so that we provide opportunities for youngsters while coming down like a ton of bricks on the few extreme ones who do not accord with the rules?
§ Matthew Green
I do, but the key word is "balanced", and my point is that parts of the Bill are far from balanced. I hope that we will rectify that in Committee.
On spray paints, I cannot understand how anyone in their right mind can say that someone, aged 17, who wants to fix the car that he owns is not allowed to buy the paint for it. All we will do is stop the shopkeeper selling the paint to the young person. There is nothing to stop that young person walking around with it, asking an 18-year-old to buy it or buying it over the internet. There are huge loopholes that any young person who is determined to use spray paints for graffiti will discover. The Government again doing something that sounds good in headline terms—it gets them an extra line on their leaflets for the local elections—but, if we are to tackle the problem of graffiti, it is not a properly thought-out approach.
We need a more positive approach. The most successful examples of tackling antisocial behaviour by young people have come as a result of engaging those young people in finding the solutions themselves. There is nothing in the Bill about involving young people in doing that, but that is the way to achieve real progress, and that is what ought to be supported.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey), who is not present at the moment, spoke about a group of children who have been involved in helping to tackle problems of antisocial behaviour in their area. I am delighted that they have done so: that is exactly what ought to be happening. When those young people discuss the results of their activity, however, they had 209 better not do it in a group standing on the street corner, as they will not be allowed to do so. They better not go down to the shop to buy spray paints—
§ Matthew Green
I will not.
What is more, those young people had better not walk to their friend's house after 9 o'clock at night, if they are under 16, to discuss their success. The Home Office's schizophrenic attitude towards young people has caused severe problems, which it needs to address—
§ David Wright (Telford)
I know that Labour Members will be reassured to know that I have been polishing up my new Labour credentials: I have been reading the coffee table book of the No. 10 policy unit, "Leadership", by Rudolph Giuliani. It is an excellent read, and includes the phrase,Everyone's accountable, all of the tune".Of course, he is right. Everyone is accountable all of the time: we are all accountable for our actions. In my view, that applies from the police force chief constable down to every agency dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour, right down to individual citizens. We are all responsible to each other for our behaviour and accountable to each other for our actions.
One of the criticisms that I have heard this afternoon from many Opposition Members is that the Bill is just another set of proposals adding to what the Government have already done in relation to antisocial behaviour. Is that a bad thing? I do not think so. It strengthens and builds on our work and on the Government's good track record since 1997.
We need to place the Bill in the context of wider Government policy. We have already heard this afternoon how important the partnership agenda is in terms of delivering our policy approach in relation to reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. We have an excellent community safety partnership in Telford and Wrekin:it is one of the first that came into place. We also have an excellent police force that uses intelligence-led policing to tackle those who perpetrate crime and antisocial behaviour. I have been to the police station at Malinsgate, and have had a look at the way that that system operates, and it is having a tremendous impact on picking out those individuals who are making peoples' lives a misery across our estates and in our communities. It is working extremely well.
The Bill must be considered in the light of a raft of other Government policies, particularly those relating to neighbourhood renewal. It is incredibly important that we promote sustainable communities across our country, and that we address particular urban areas where crime and urban design are key issues, and where strategies pick up economic regeneration as part of a holistic approach to building sustainable communities. I have a number of wards in my constituency, such as 210 Brookside and Stirchley, where the local authority and other agencies are coming together in effective partnership to deal with crime and antisocial behaviour. Two councillors in that area, Councillor Jim Hicks and Councillor Dave Morgan, are doing an excellent job. What they are trying to do is close off underpasses, deal with graffiti and pick up on many of the issues that could be considered as low-level crime and disorder but that affect and impact on people living in those communities.
The Government's education agenda is also incredibly important. We have already heard this afternoon how important citizenship is. I am very proud of the Government's work to bring citizenship into the heart of the curriculum in this country. We need to promote parenting skills: there has been consensus across the House this afternoon that those skills are extremely important. We also need to build on excellent policy initiatives such as sure start. I have two superb sure start schemes in my constituency, which make a real impact in relation to improving parenting skills and ensuring that we lift the quality of what I would call the social infrastructure of our communities.
The Government have put a lot of effort into tackling social exclusion—the Bill sits alongside that effort—and looking at tax credits, the minimum wage and the poverty issues that underlie crime and antisocial behaviour in our communities. Contrary to what the Opposition have said, there has been a dramatic increase in police numbers. I was very concerned, however, that those in the local Conservative group on Telford and Wrekin council are not willing to back the neighbourhood warden scheme that the Labour council is proposing, if it gets re-elected in May. [Interruption]. That unwillingness is a symbol of the Conservatives' lack of commitment to such an approach towards dealing with antisocial behaviour.
We have also heard that alcohol abuse is a key issue, and I welcome the publication of the Government's alcohol harm reduction strategy.
§ Peter Bradley
My hon. Friend may not have heard one of only two Conservative Members now in the Chamber say, "We want proper coppers." Does my hon. Friend welcome the 42 extra proper coppers that we have in Telford and Wrekin and the 300 additional police officers that the West Mercia force is recruiting during this year?
§ David Wright
I absolutely support and endorse that; it is testament to what we have done as a Government in trying to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour in Telford and Wrekin. I find it amazing that Conservative Members—the Conservative Benches are almost empty—are unable to back some of the quality schemes that a Labour council is trying to put together.
§ Matthew Green
The hon. Gentleman's constituency neighbours mine, and I am pleased to support the fact that there will be 300 extra police officers in West Mercia. However, that recruitment is the result of a 33 per cent. council tax rise that West Mercia police authority introduced because it has given up waiting for extra funds from central Government. It took the decision into its 211 own hands and raised its proportion of the council tax by 33 per cent. last year—a move that I support, and I am sure other hon. Members support it, too.
§ David Wright
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports that move. but I cannot see what point he is making. I welcome new police officers in Telford and Wrekin, as does my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley).
I should like to turn now to some of the specifics in the Bill. The environmental powers in part 7 are particularly welcome, as they are linked with the need to ensure that we improve the urban environment for key communities. Dispersing groups of young people is very important, and we need to strengthen those powers. I know that people in Telford will welcome that because I receive a lot of letters from people complaining about groups of young people hanging around and causing extreme problems in my community.
The reforms on airguns are also particularly important. I hope that the Minister will take up earlier suggestions about a possible ban on advertising some of the more extreme airgun products. I saw some adverts in a recent Sunday newspaper in which airguns were designed to look like Uzi sub-machine-guns. That marketing was targeted largely at young people. We need to consider the advertising regime for airguns, as well as the need to strengthen the powers in relation to age limits.
Again, the housing powers, coupled with the new Housing Bill that will be introduced, are welcome. Tenancy demotion is a very good strategy in warning people that their behaviour as social housing tenants may not be acceptable, but it is important that we do not stigmatise social housing tenants, most of whom are extremely good tenants, and we should say that often. Social housing should not be the tenure of last resort in this country; it should be a positive choice for people, and we need to ensure that we do not tar all those who live in social housing with the same brush.
Most of the antisocial behaviour problems in my constituency often relate to owner-occupiers who act unreasonably, and we need to ensure that the powers in the Bill effectively deal with them. It is very frustrating when people come to see me about the antisocial behaviour of an owner-occupier, because there is little that I can do to support my constituents, except advise them to take legal advice about the terms on which their neighbours purchased their property.
Antisocial behaviour orders have been mentioned. We have used ASBOs in Telford and Wrekin, but one of the key measurements that we have considered is the fact that in 70 or 80 per cent. of cases where the ASBO process has begun, the ASBO has not had to be used. The initial process necessary to issue an ASBO has resolved the crime and antisocial behaviour. That is a triumph for the system. So we cannot look at the figures and criticise local agencies by saying that ASBOs have not been used effectively. However, local authorities can spray out ASBOs as much as they like, but without backing from other services and agencies they are worthless.
Much antisocial behaviour could be described as low level, but it is none the less draining of people's morale. It fosters the feeling that an area or an estate is out of 212 control and can trigger a spiral of decline. The Bill adds positively to the range of powers available to the police and other local agencies. It deserves the full support of every Member of the House. The Opposition, especially the Liberal Democrats, should remember the words of Rudolph Giuliani:Everyone's accountable, all of the time".
§ Helen Jones (Warrington, North)
Like many of my colleagues, I heartily welcome the Bill, which reflects the real concerns of my constituents—decent people who are fed up with having their lives made a misery by a few yobs. My constituents merely want to feel secure going about their daily business and to live unmolested in their own homes. That is not much to ask; in fact, it is the minimum that they should expect us to provide for them.
There are serious questions to be asked about the type of society that we have created, where antisocial behaviour takes place and people feel powerless to confront it. However, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) that we cannot wait for answers to those philosophical questions; we must do something immediately to protect our constituents. I make no apologies to anyone for coming down heavy on yobs who terrorise a whole neighbourhood and prevent people from living peacefully in their own homes.
That is why I especially welcome the provisions to deal with premises used for the sale and consumption of drugs. It will not be a problem to prove disorder associated with such premises. Every Member has heard the stories of people who live next door to such places. We have heard about people turning up at all hours of the night looking for their fix. We have heard about the fights that break out, about people knocking on the wrong door and about the drugs paraphernalia left scattered about the area, often where children play. Whether those premises are commercial or residential, the nightmare for their neighbours is the same.
The Bill's specific provisions, as well as clause 13, which allows social landlords to apply for injunctions when their premises are being used for immoral or illegal purposes, will help to tackle those problems. My constituents do not want a long debate on the subject. They want those dealers off their estates. It is as simple as that.
It is important that we encourage the courts to attach powers of arrest or exclusion to injunctions; otherwise they will be worthless. We must also encourage social landlords to be proactive in using such powers. Far too many of them still expect their tenants to provide the evidence, and are reluctant to go to court. Too many housing officers expect tenants to put up with conditions that they would not tolerate in a million years. They must tackle the antisocial behaviour, whether from drug dealers or anyone else, on our streets.
We have all seen such behaviour. In my constituency, there are flats and houses in the middle of decent, well-planned estates where people have moved in and turned the place into a midden. Their friends arrive at all hours of the day or night, blasting out loud music from car stereos and intimidating people who try to intervene. I have seen the neighbours of such people in my 213 constituency surgery, almost in tears due to fear and to lack of sleep. They are in despair because nobody is doing anything to help them. We have to tackle such problems, whether through injunctions or possession orders, so I am pleased that the Bill includes provisions to require courts, when considering possession on the grounds of nuisance, to look in to the actual or likely effect of the antisocial behaviour on other people in the neighbourhood.
We must also ask how we got into this state. I recall the area where I grew up. People were not well off, but the occasional problem family—and we all had them—was well contained. I am forced to the conclusion that that was because communities were more cohesive then. People knew one another. There was a sense that young people were a communal responsibility. We could go in and out of our neighbours' houses. Equally, if children were misbehaving, a passing adult would feel free to stop them. As adults usually knew our mum, our dad, our granny and everybody else, we usually stopped what we were doing fairly quickly.
We cannot recreate those communities. Society is not the same now. However, we can take the best out of those societies. We can learn the lesson of putting people into work, because work provides the discipline that goes with it. We can learn lessons about breaking down the barriers between generations, about encouraging people to take up voluntary and community services and also about encouraging people to take responsibility for their communities.
We can also start reclaiming our public spaces so that people feel safe. That is why I welcome the provisions about graffiti and fly posting. Of course, we can all read about crime. If people go out and find that the lights are out and the walls are covered in graffiti—perhaps a group of young people are gathered at the end of the street and are not doing any harm, but because of the way they are dressed they look intimidating, especially to an elderly person—they are fearful. We must reclaim public spaces by improving the environment and through far more community policing.
I have seen the effects of community policing in part of my constituency. We now have a community action team, which has set up bases in a school and a shopping precinct. The officers patrol on bikes and they get to know the community and the young people within it. We need to encourage more of that, but we also need to give those involved in community policing the powers to tackle real disorder when it occurs.
In several parts of my constituency we have seen the intimidation and fear that is caused by gangs of youths gathering. These are not ordinary young people who are out for a chat in the evening; they are setting out to intimidate an entire area. I welcome the powers that will be given to the police to designate an area and to disperse groups of young people. Residents in my constituency are not prepared to put up with that sort of behaviour anymore.
We need to tackle the manifestations of antisocial behaviour. In the long term, we need to examine its root causes. However, we must not tar all young people with the same brush. We must distinguish between real antisocial behaviour and the normal noise that young 214 people make. It is not a crime to be 14 and playing football with your mates. Our decent young people should not be denied the use of their own streets and mixing with their own age group because of our intolerance. We can make streets safer for them by tackling the bad apples, and I hope that we shall do so.
§ Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones), who has encapsulated what I think all of us feel about the horror of antisocial behaviour in our constituencies, which blights all our surgeries and everything that we do.
There is much that I agree with in the Bill. We need to consider it along with the raft of other measures that the Home Office has already introduced and will introduce. On that basis, there is much to support. My constituents, and most other constituents, if they were listening to the debate, would want to ask whether the measures set out in the Bill will speed up the way in which local authorities, the police and all the various services can act when there are particular problems. Those problems do not relate only to graffiti and noisy neighbours. There are many problems, particularly in inner city areas, that can make life miserable for many people, especially for elderly people.
Our constituents would also want to ask how the provisions of the Bill can be enforced. We have done well with policing numbers and I thank the Home Office—particularly my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—for taking seriously the need for extra police officers. However, I still think that we need more officers. In my constituency, for example, if we are to do some of the things that are set out in the Bill, and do them properly, we will not be able to manage with the present police resources, despite having 30 extra community police officers, most of whom are always dedicated to the northern part of my constituency where the most high-profile buildings are. I very much support the proposals on designated areas, but I could give the Minister at least half a dozen areas right now that should be designated, and the police would probably agree with me. However, there is no point doing so if police do not then come in, enforce the provisions, and deal with the problem. I want to make another plea for the increasing use of community police officers—the old bobby on the beat—as there is no doubt that seeing the same police officer time after time makes a huge difference to people. We can all put pressure on our own police commanders to make sure that they know that that is our priority.
I agree with Members who have talked about the raiding of drugs premises. There is no reason for needing that extra little bit in the Bill about having to show antisocial behaviour or causing a nuisance—that is nonsense. If hard drug dealing is going on, it has to be tackled immediately. On the question of noise, recently a group of people went to a rave party on a weekend at a huge squat in my constituency. Everybody in the neighbourhood got on to the police and local environment health officers. The police came along quickly and had a look, but they said, "Too many people are involved—we do not want to cause a problem." I said that if that building had been in Whitehall, they would have gone in to take those peoples 215 out and stop the noise. We cannot have double standards—if things are good enough for one part of the country, they are good enough elsewhere.
The Minister probably realises that I have concerns about one aspect of the Bill. I have no problem with clause 42, as long as the Home Secretary abides by his commitment, made when I intervened earlier, that law-abiding people taking their airgun, air pistol or air rifle to a place where they can shoot legally, are entitled not to be harassed or treated as if they are about to commit a crime. However, I have concerns about the changed age limit on the possession of airguns. Most participants in our incredibly successful shooting sports, whether clay pigeon shooting, pistol shooting or any other discipline, began by using air rifles or air pistols. At the moment, it is not legal to buy an airgun until the age of 17, which I accept, but people can own an airgun. Individuals who are shooting seriously in competitive shooting will probably be given a gun—they can even get a grant from Sport England to get an airgun. How are those people, if they are serious about competing, going to meet the requirement to train under the supervision of an adult over 21? In some scout groups and other youth clubs where shooting takes place legally, the instructors are not 21, so there is a genuine problem. I hope that the Minister will look at that, as we cannot afford to discriminate against law-abiding shooters. Many junior members of our Great Britain teams travel abroad, but they will not be able to get a permit to travel to some countries unless they own their own gun. However, as they will not be able to do so, they cannot travel. The handgun ban utterly destroyed the opportunity for legitimate shooters to shoot in this country, leading them to have to travel abroad, and we could do similar damage to other gun sports.
§ Mr. Bob Ainsworth
I would be more than happy to look at that if it is a problem, but I cannot see how travel abroad will be affected by the fact that a parent must own the gun rather than the person participating in the sport. We are not trying to prevent people from learning about and getting involved in gun sports under properly organised and supervised conditions. We are seeking to clamp down on the abuse and misuse that take place in my hon. Friend's constituency and many other places the length and breadth of the country.
§ Kate Hoey
I accept that, but the Minister needs to look carefully at the provisions on travel abroad. If he talks to various sporting organisations, they will point out those anomalies. I am merely asking that in Committee the issue be treated carefully. The people who most dislike the misuse of guns are the legitimate shooters in the clubs, who do a great deal to educate young people. More education would make a big difference.
I wonder why the Home Office has changed its mind since the Home Affairs Committee said two years ago:We believe that a proportion of air weapons abuse committed by juveniles may derive from wider social problems which will not be properly addressed simply by tightening firearms controls".The Government accepted that view at the time and it was reflected in their own evidence to the Select Committee. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will explain the sudden change of mind.
216 I should like to conclude by referring to the 15-year-old twins, Jennifer and Shian Corrish, who live in Shropshire. They first competed in the European air rifle championships at the age of 14 and they recently competed in the world championships. They are truly talented and have a great chance of making it to the Olympics. Like all athletes, they train a lot, but if the Bill is passed, one of their parents will have to sit with them all the time, as they do much of their training at home. That is nonsensical and it will be a disincentive to many other potential young shooters.
I know that the provision seems to be an easy solution to the problem of the misuse of air guns, but let us not always go for the legitimate people in order to catch bad, antisocial behaviour. Let us do something about the yobbish behaviour in football, for example, rather than use the Bill to prevent legitimate shooters from operating. I urge the Minister to look again at the problem, and to meet a delegation from the National Rifle Association, the National Small-Bore Rifle Association and the British Olympic Association. Those bodies want to work with the Government and do not oppose many of their proposals, but they want to avoid a knee-jerk response that is not properly thought through. I hope that the Minister will listen to them. I have some minor difficulties with parts of the Bill, but they can be dealt with in Committee. I hope that the Committee will be given plenty of time to do its job.
§ Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)
I apologise for not being present throughout the debate. Unfortunately, I was called away to do some Select Committee business. realise that many of my hon. Friends want to speak, so I shall concentrate on the provisions on graffiti and suggest some helpful additional measures to deal with it.
I believe that the Bill has much to do with future participation in our democracy. Many people who speak to in my constituency—I am sure this applies to every constituency—cannot believe that politicians at local or national level are unable to remove the low-level antisocial behaviour that they experience. Why can we not resolve the problem of graffiti, stop fly tippers and prevent gangs of young children from being out late at night? To the average person, it is incomprehensible that groups of 10 and 11-year-olds can be out on a school night, or any other night, as late as 9, 10 or 11 pm.
We can try to pigeonhole the problem by viewing it as something that happens only on the harder social housing estates, but in fact it occurs in every part of our constituencies—certainly in my own—from the hardest estates to the most suburban areas. I am concerned that, unless we sort those problems out, fewer people will vote because they will feel that we—and this applies to politicians of all parties—cannot resolve their most fundamental problems. Another danger is that people may drift to parties of the extreme right, which produce simplified solutions to problems that we have been unable to address. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill.
§ Mr. John Horam (Orpington)
I agree strongly with what the hon. Lady is saying about antisocial behaviour being just as much a problem in the leafy suburbs as in 217 the inner city and the tougher estates. She is a London MP, as am I, as was the previous speaker. The problem has spread around all areas rather than just the inner cities, and that is the issue today.
§ Siobhain McDonagh
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the problem affects everyone in most parts of our constituencies, although it affects the poor and badly housed most. If people who are committed to their area can move away, they will do so in order to get away from those problems. That is how areas enter a cycle of decline.
I welcome the Government's intention to ban the sale of spray paints to under-18s. All the voluntary schemes that we tried in my constituency have been undone by one supplier's refusal to take part, and I should like to suggest some other measures. On the storage of spray paints, I would suggest—although I cannot prove it—that most graffiti is created with spray paint that has been stolen from stores. There is some question about the responsibility of those stores to ensure that the cans are not vulnerable to thieves. I suggest that the rules that apply to fireworks, requiring them to be stored in glass cabinets, should be extended to spray paints.
I also suggest that the Minister might consider giving local authorities power to remove graffiti from street furniture owned by the privatised utilities, such as electricity, gas and water. However much the local authority does in relation to its furniture or in helping residents, it still has a problem with other street equipment. In my constituency, the cable company Telewest is one of the worst offenders in doing next to nothing to remove graffiti and in blighting a local area. Clearly, London Transport and the Strategic Rail Authority also have a responsibility in these matters.
More controversially, has the Minister considered the measure currently being considered in the Lords suggesting that where shopkeepers refuse over a period to remove graffiti from their shutters at night, the local authority should have power to remove that graffiti and charge the owner of the shop in the last instance?
Finally, I wish to raise an issue that I know is difficult. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) was a Minister of State at the Home Office, I spoke to him about the possibility of extending the PACE—Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—regulations to cover weapons of graffiti. Clearly, graffiti is a relatively recent problem and when that legislation was introduced, hon. Members were not mindful of spray paints, glass cutters and the other things that do so much damage to people's environment and cost so much I would welcome the Minister's comments on whether consideration has been given to introducing stop-and-search powers in relation to the weapons of graffiti.
§ Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a strong case for a complete ban on the sale of spray cans to anybody, given that the removal of spray paint costs £1 million in Croydon alone and that people can use brushes or proper sprays to paint their cars?
§ Siobhain McDonagh
That is a radical suggestion, but I would be sympathetic to it. Nobody wants to 218 introduce any of these measures, but in response to our constituents and their concerns, we have to take action to ensure that we all have the peaceful enjoyment of our homes and make an impact on the problems that some of the most vulnerable people in our constituencies experience.
§ Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)
I am sorry that I have had to come in and out of the Chamber during this debate. Unfortunately, the new hours mean that we all have to attend other meetings.
Without detaining the House, I want to speak about rural areas. I represent a very large rural area—Exmoor. If we have a problem with antisocial behaviour in a village, our difficulties may be minute in comparison with those faced in urban areas, but we still face problems, because we do not have enough police. If one rings for a policeman in a rural area, the chances are that, by the time he arrives, the problem has either gone away or things have deteriorated to such an extent that he needs back-up. Whatever happens, by the time he reaches Exmoor, his radio will not be working, because police radios do not work in most of my constituency.
If we continue as we are, more and more people will come into areas such as ours. There are cases in some of our more deprived areas—I acknowledge that they are nothing compared with some urban areas—of people being brought in from Manchester and Birmingham. They have caused severe problems and the police cannot cope.
Our police force is lumped together with that of Bristol, in the Avon and Somerset force. A rural conurbation in Somerset bears no relation to Bristol. The chief constable has to put resources into Bristol to achieve public service agreement targets. Whatever the increase in his budget or police numbers, the resources go to Bristol to fight urban crime. The Under-Secretary claimed that there were more police, but my area is to get half a policeman. I await his arrival with bated breath. In my area, half a policeman is useless—[Interruption.] I appreciate that that applies everywhere.
How do we put half a policeman into areas where we cannot get police now? That is a fascinating example of a formula that does not work. Things get worse. The largest Butlins in the United Kingdom is based in my constituency. It has 2,500 employees and 9,000 people a week visit it. It does a tremendous job and the police are rarely called in to sort out a problem. However, the position outside Butlins is different. People who visit Butlins tend eventually to leave and they cause trouble and behave antisocially in Minehead, a small rural town with a population of only 10,000, which is doubled when Butlins is fully operational.
On a bad Butlins night, the local police have no chance of coping. Taunton is more than 20 miles away and Bridgwater is slightly further. If the police want reinforcements, they do not get them. They have to sort the problem out. Things have reached the stage where it is inconceivable to local people that they can get help from the police. Antisocial behaviour happens not only in urban conurbations but in rural areas.
If a problem cannot be tackled, it is simply moved down the road. People from all over the United Kingdom come to enjoy themselves in my constituency. 219 If things go wrong and an antisocial behaviour order is served on them, they return to their homes. The order goes with them, but that does not help us. Butlins can ban them but we cannot stop them returning later. We have experienced that problem for years.
One of our courts has now shut and the second is under threat. If it closed, my constituency, which is nearly 60 miles long, would have no court representation. We have a probation officer at one end of the constituency and half a probation officer—I keep speaking about halves—at the other. The latter does two and a half days a week. Someone in west Somerset who has to go to court because of an antisocial behaviour order must go to Taunton, to which there is no bus service. What do people who have no cars do—steal them? The police spend much time on rearresting and issuing warrants to get people to court. We do not have the infrastructure because the court has gone. Surely a Bill on antisocial behaviour should provide for local justice for local people.
Our court in Bridgwater, which covers 30,000 people, is under threat. If it closes, again, people will have to go to Taunton. Somerset could end up with only three courts. The problem of antisocial behaviour in most of our large towns cannot be solved. Yet the sums do not add up.
Let us consider firearms. In Exmoor and Somerset there are apparently 22,000 registered firearms holders—12,000 shotgun holders and 10,000 rifle holders. Most people in Somerset know how to shoot. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) made a poignant point and she was right to say that people start with air rifles. People learn to shoot with them. I accept that 17 is the right age, but most people in my area can shoot well before they are 17 because dad has a gun. Few people on Exmoor and in the levels have no idea how to use a weapon. That does not mean that they are dangerous or unsafe but they have the ability to use it with supervision.
Measures that are too draconian mean that people will go down the pub to buy a weapon. A policeman in my area said that it is cheaper to buy a gun in a pub than in a shop. I do not know whether that is true, but even if it is partly true, it is frightening. We must be very careful about putting firearms out of people's reach, because, in my area, they will use traps or poison or whatever they have to use to deal with vermin—animals that they have dealt with for generations—and there are many more unpleasant ways of doing that than using a rifle or an air rifle.
Another problem that we have in rural areas is the dumping of cars. A lot of people come out from Bristol and other places to dump cars because it is very easy to do so. We have the smallest district council in the United Kingdom. Its total budget is only just over £4 million; it does not have the resources to remove dumped cars. I agree that dumping cars is antisocial behaviour, but if someone dumps a car on the top of Exmoor, how on earth do we get it off? We do not have the time or resources. The cost to the council is ridiculous. Of course, by the time someone gets there to remove it, it is still the same car as it was when it was dumped there. It still has its tyres and windscreens, because people do not tend to vandalise cars there. It is almost driveable, but, of course, we cannot do that.
220 There is undoubtedly a lot to commend the Bill, but will the Minister please remember the rural areas? They are part of a very large hinterland, and they do not have the resources of the conurbations. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House represent large towns. We have Bristol near us, and we know the problems that we face as a result. We get all its drugs and a lot of its problems, and we do not like it. An antisocial behaviour Bill should be inclusive, not exclusive. If this Bill were drafted properly, it could be a very good Bill in terms of exclusion orders. If not, places such as west Somerset and Bridgwater will suffer out of all proportion because we do not have the resources to put into the problem in the first place.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I apologise to the House for having been absent for a good deal of the debate, but I have been chairing the Culture, Media and Sport Committee over at Portcullis House.
The Bill can be of great assistance to my constituents, particularly in relation to dealing with premises from which drugs are sold. As I said in an intervention on the Home Secretary earlier, we have a whole area around Chapman street in Gorton that has been blighted by the sale and trading of drugs at a local Texaco filling station. After great pressure, Texaco has taken action to stop that happening, but we never know when it will come back again. I therefore hope that the definition of "premises" in the Bill will include such premises as filling stations, so that they can be closed down in such circumstances if need be. A local wine store is also alleged, by my constituents who watch and monitor it, to be used for the sale of drugs as well as alcohol to underage people. Again, I hope that the definitions in the Bill will enable the police to close that place down, if need be.
These problems do not only affect commercial premises, however. They affect private premises, too. The Bill rightly deals with issues relating to social housing, but the problem does not only affect social housing. There are areas in my constituency in which private landlord accommodation is used for the very purposes referred to in the Bill in relation to social housing, namely for drug trading and as brothels. It is utterly intolerable that housing benefit should be used to fund those activities, which ruin the environment for the large numbers of people who live around those private landlords' houses.
The Bill introduces a power for social housing providers to demote tenancies. Fine; we welcome that in the Gorton constituency of Manchester. I very much hope, however, that when we come to discuss the housing Bill—a Bill parallel to this one—the powers of demotion will be extended to private tenancies and that provision will be made for action to be taken against private landlords who make money, often by collusion with tenants, not only out of drugs trading or brothels, but out of the housing benefit scams that go with such activities.
I hope that the Government will bring in the housing Bill as quickly as possible so that we can be one of the areas in which licensing takes place, and these appalling landlords—who never reply to representations from Members of Parliament—can have their properties removed. Private landlord abuse of that kind did not 221 take place for a long time, but we are now back to a version of Rachmanism: reverse Rachmanism. I hope that the Government will move speedily. My constituents look to the Government, because they have observed the positive impact of much of what has been done under the crime and disorder legislation—legislation that I supported.
In a sense, my constituency pioneered antisocial behaviour orders. Some of the most powerful have been imposed there, and my constituents welcomed them. What they do not welcome is the weakness of the courts when orders are violated. I have already told the House about a 14-year-old girl on whom an order was imposed. The police circulated leaflets so that everyone would know about it. The girl violated the order 10 times, and was arrested 10 times. The courts did absolutely nothing about it. Only after I raised the case in the House was the girl taken into custody after violating the order again. It was very good for her to be taken into an ordered environment for a number of months, because a parenting order concerning her was also violated.
In my constituency, we do not just seek powerful legislation of this kind, although we welcome it. We want that legislation not to be sabotaged by weak courts that do not enforce the will of Parliament.
§ Mr. Dawson
Surely a child of that age, apparently with a huge number of problems, should be dealt with in the care system rather than the justice system.
§ Mr. Kaufman
My hon. Friend may be right, but the fact remains that the child was not dealt with. We had a way of dealing with her, but it took prolonged violations and havoc in the area where she marauded for that to happen. She will probably lead a much more constructive and happy life than she would have if action had not been taken.
Relations with the police are extremely good in my constituency, and the police are very active. I thank Superintendent John Brinnand, who deals with a large part of my constituency, for his continuing responsiveness to the problems brought to him. The White Paper mentions the work of Manchester city council and its neighbourhood nuisance teams. I thank the council for the work it is doing, but both the council and the police will say that they need a framework.
I wish that people would speak about these matters with an honest, open and clear voice. Liberal Democrat councillors turned up at the opening of a neighbourhood wardens project in one part of my constituency, which I attended, and participated. They said, however, that a neighbourhood wardens scheme in another part of the constituency was useless and a waste of time. Let us have a bit of consistency when it comes to streets, as well as entire wards and constituencies.
I thank the Government for the Bill. It is a good Bill. But, as I said when the Crime and Disorder Bill was introduced, the test will lie not in the excellent words but in the enactment, and it is my constituents to whose verdict I will listen.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He listed some of the difficulties he had encountered in his constituency, and throughout the debate others have described the problems they have encountered in theirs. I could do the same, but what my constituents are asking is how we reached this point. Why have the horrific episodes encountered by Members occurred, and what are we going to do about the situation?
All of us welcome the Bill because it is a further attempt by the Government to tackle the problems that we have heard about. It is important that we give voice to what our constituents are saying to us. That underpins the reasons for the Bill and for tackling the problems.
We need to draw a line in the sand. We need to make a stand on these issues. My constituents are saying to me that the tail is wagging the dog and that the rights of the individual are riding roughshod over the rights of the community. We cannot have a situation where people are saying that to us, because it brings Members of Parliament and the Government into disrepute and it undermines the authority of the police, the community support officers and those whose job it is to assert legitimate authority in our constituencies. It is important for the House to reflect the concerns that our constituents have, because they are sick of it. Many lives are blighted by the problem and they want something done about it.
Many of my constituents have moved on from anger almost to despair in some respects—almost to a feeling of helplessness and frustration. As the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said, it is not just an urban problem or a rural problem. It may be worse in some areas than others but it is a problem in every area of the country. If we do not tackle it and give a voice in this Parliament and this Chamber to the people who are telling us that, others who try to give them a voice will take our place. A tremendously serious issue confronts us. I think that all of us welcome many of the proposals in the Bill, which will help us to tackle it.
Many hon. Members have said that the Bill will be law but law needs to be enacted and enforced. That presents us with some problems. We need to ensure that the measures are enforced. I give one example from my constituency. I take the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton and others have made, that private landlords need to be included in the housing Bill or other measures. We have a situation in my constituency, both with the housing association and the local authority, where single families are causing mayhem in a community or in a street. They are warned. People work with them. The police visit them God knows how many times. Everyone talks to them. Everything happens but nothing changes and they continue to cause mayhem in that community.
People just turn round and say, "Why doesn't anyone do anything? Why can't we do anything?" I turn to the local authority, which says that it does not have the power but I think that it does. I think that the Bill extends the power that it has, but what we cannot have in three or six months' time when the Bill becomes law is those families in my constituency or other constituencies 223 saying exactly the same thing—that they have got individual families whose children are playing out until God knows what time, that they are attracting drug dealers, prostitutes and goodness knows what else and nothing happens. That is the way the law is brought into disrepute. That is what our communities are having to put up with.
This cannot go on. I do not understand why nothing can be done. If it comes to eviction, we have to evict those families, whether they have children or not. To protect communities. we need to consider what we are to do with the problem families that we evict. At the moment, we are imposing problem families on communities that are already struggling to cope, because we cannot come up with a social policy to deal with the consequences of eviction. Be it through supported housing or some other measure, we need to ensure that housing associations and local authorities can evict problem families in such a way that communities are protected and sustained in a decent way, and that we can properly protect the interests of the children of such families. If we do not do so, we will simply abandon those families and those communities.
We all know of examples of an area being completely transformed as a result of one or two families being moved out. I should tell the Minister that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). I am pleased that we have got more police and that we have record numbers in Nottinghamshire, but we need more. If we do not deal with problems in our communities such as individual problem families, we will never have enough police. The police are being asked to deal with social problems and issues that it must be very difficult to for them to deal with.
It is time for me to finish, but I am glad that I have raised the issue of individual problem families, because it has caused particular difficulties in parts of my constituency. There are many other measures in the Bill that I welcome. In general it is a good Bill, although the Committee will undoubtedly improve it. The fundamental point is that we have to use it as the opportunity to draw a line in the sand and say to our communities that we have had enough as well, and that the full force of Parliament will be used to protect their rights.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)
I am very pleased to speak in this debate, and I should like to begin by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright), who painted a very rounded picture of how the Bill fits into the overall scheme not only of tackling antisocial behaviour, but of providing the opportunities for youngsters that the Liberal Democrats have talked about so much.
This Bill does not stand on its own—if it did, it would be very unstable, like a one-legged stool. What we need to do is to provide opportunities for youngsters through partnerships with voluntary sector groups, and to recognise that the vast majority of youngsters want to contribute to society and to behave according to the old Greek ideal of good citizens. My warning to Liberal Democrat Members in the light of their contributions is that they fail to recognise that to make that stool perfectly balanced, we must have the power to tackle 224 those who choose to put themselves outside the norms of behaviour. Community safety partnerships, the extension of the policing family to include community support officers and neighbourhood wardens, and the involvement of the voluntary sector, form part of that approach. We should also recognise the role of community councils—it has not been dealt with properly today—in conjunction with local authorities in improving the environment and bringing local people on board through community initiatives. Parents, children and grandparents have a role to play, but for those in our most deprived communities who are not in that fortunate situation, schemes such as sure start should be provided.
The Liberal Democrats have tended to paint Labour into a corner as the party of Herod—the party that is trying to do away with youngsters and children—but it is not. Policies to deliver the extension of opportunities and the provision of family-centred values are already in place. The Bill is one more aspect of that; it does not stand alone.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) pointed out, we are trying to reverse a situation that has got out of hand in terms of low-level nuisance behaviour. It is not necessarily a question of a lack of policing. Although we should try to increase police numbers, as the Government have successfully done, and to extend the police family, the more fundamental need is to challenge the very acceptance of such behaviour in our communities. That is not a question simply of giving the police more resources. We must tell communities to take ownership of the problem themselves, and to challenge what is happening on people's own doorsteps.
That would turn around the approach that we have adopted for a generation. People have said, "We will sit back and wait for something to be done, for us and to us." The community safety partnerships challenge that approach. People are now saying, "We will put in place the laws and resources. Now we must get up and act together."
I shall not speak for too long, to make up for my earlier interventions and to ensure that other hon. Members have enough time. I turn to the importance of enforcing the measures in the Bill. Community support officers are very important. I have long been a strong advocate, in debates on what became the Police Reform Act 2000 and elsewhere, of extending the police family, and of the use of CSOs. I remain so today, especially after my experience of going out early with Metropolitan police officers in the pilot study areas. I am very pleased that the South Wales police force, after failing to apply in the first tranche of funding for CSOs, has seen how those officers work very effectively elsewhere. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister is listening, as that force has applied for resources in the second tranche of funding. I hope that my hon. Friend will smile favourably on that application.
Six of the most deprived areas in Wales are in my constituency. The first money to be allocated there went to the crime reduction partnership, which is now the community safety partnership. It is now recognised that that money may now be used for additional CSOs, because that would extend the eyes and ears of the police family. Many hon. Members have spoken today about the old-style bobby who knows people locally, who can 225 walk up the street and deal with low-level nuisances as and when they happen. That is exactly what my divisional commander is now talking about using CSOs for. South Wales police officers are highly trained and effective, but we need more eyes and ears on the ground.
The powers of CSOs have caused comment, especially their powers to disperse groups, and to remove to home people aged under 16. That is exactly what my constituents talk about. They want to know about the police presence on the ground, which can get involved when there is a real problem. Discretion and common sense are required, but Opposition Members have spoken about localism, and the presence of CSOs is an example of just the sort of localism that we need. Local people who know the problems on their streets also know who the youngsters and troublemakers are. They can see when there is a problem, and they can say to a young person, "I'm taking you back. I'm getting you out of here, because the neighbours are worried and annoyed by your presence. They will not go out of doors because of your activities."
I should welcome my hon. Friend the Minister's comments about fixed-penalty notices and CSOs' ability to use them. When such notices are used, is it possible that the resources arising could be recycled back into communities? That would be a winner with communities, as it would convince people that being effective in implementing the law would tackle nuisance behaviour and also put money back into the pot. That money could then be used for the further tackling of antisocial behaviour in a community's streets.
I shall digress slightly to talk about a hobbyhorse of mine. I want to deal with a matter that I have encountered in my family and in my neighbourhood, and which I brought to the House's attention two or three weeks ago, after an incident in Cynon valley. A two-year old youngster was killed in a tragic accident when an off-road motorbike was ridden down a pavement.
I hope that powers can be included in this Bill, or somewhere else, to fine petrol retailers who knowingly sell to off-road bikers who are unlicensed, untaxed and under age. Those riders come off the public highway to fill their tanks on petrol retailers' forecourts, and then scoot off down cycle paths, causing mayhem and worry. Could such powers be included in this Bill, or would another vehicle for them be more appropriate?
Furthermore, powers to confiscate vehicles are required. There are many responsible and well-behaved off-road motorbikers in south Wales, including those in the club organisation, but there is a big illicit market that enables people to pick up bikes from free ads one day, then use them next day without any training and experience—not only that, but drive them on public highways. That is worrying. Where are the powers to confiscate those vehicles when they are abused in that way?
§ Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) mentioned yet another example of antisocial behaviour that he 226 would like banned. Hon. Members on the Benches next to me have been coming up with a whole host of such examples this afternoon. The best one that emerged was mine—that one needs a permit to come out of one's house. In the end, I thought, "Why not ban everything?" I make that point because, without wanting to sound too much like a killjoy, part of the function of our being here is to ban things. That is precisely what people want us to do. They say, "Why can't you stop it? Why can't you ban it?"
Listening to the debate, it is fascinating to discover that, although hon. Members have quibbles about the Bill, there is enormous agreement across the Floor of the House about the need to deal with antisocial behaviour. I do not want to acid a discordant note to an otherwise constructive and friendly debate, but I have to say that if I asked my constituents what concerned them most, antisocial behaviour in the east end or weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I know what they would say, because they are under more threat from the violence of thugs and hoodlums in my part of the east end than they are from the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein is alleged to possess.
There is no doubt that the Bill is absolutely to be welcomed. That unites all hon. Members, because every one of us can point to examples in our constituencies of people coming to us to complain about antisocial behaviour, and we share our constituents' anger and frustration, and fear for them. Perhaps we should call this a "letting off steam" Bill as far as Members of Parliament are concerned. Many hon. Members have given examples from their constituencies. Yesterday, during one of my advice sessions a constituent, whose name I will not mention, came to see me. She is a respectable, decent, hardworking woman who has lived in her council property for 30 years and has brought up two daughters to the same standards that she has tried to follow. For two years, her life has been made a complete misery by a gang of youths. Incidentally—owing to the ethnic nature of my constituency, the problem crosses all classes, all areas and all ethnic groups—she is Afro-Caribbean and the gang is largely Asian. They have been destroying her nice garden and ripping the covers off the various containers in it, and incessantly kicking a ball up against her bedroom wall. She was crying and saying, "No one should be forced to live like this." I shared her frustration. To be perfectly honest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is why I wanted to speak today. I told her, "Every one of us is aware of how you feel, and we share that anger and desire for something to be done." I hope that the Bill will begin to address her problems.
I accept that some aspects of the Bill need re-examination and tidying up—the age aspect is certainly one of them. However, if we do not get it right first time we will have to return to it. There is nothing wrong with saying that we will carry on responding as situations change. That is the right way to do it. There is no such thing as perfect legislation, so we should not feel worried, ashamed or embarrassed if we have to return to the matter, and I hope that if the Government have to introduce further legislation they will not hesitate to do so.
I have my own long list of antisocial acts that I would like dealt with. I am particularly concerned about the use of airguns because of evidence that we hear from the RSPCA and the League Against Cruel Sports. Who are 227 these sick perverts who actually fire air pellets at animals? I heard of one case in which a cat was held up and persistently shot at. Who are the people who could do that?
I understand that we have to deal with the causes of the social breakdown in a number of our communities. That breakdown is caused by a minority of people, but, as we have heard, one family can ruin things for everybody else in their street. We have to examine the causes but we also have to deal with the symptoms. It is no good saying to people, "Come the socialist millennium, everyone will live in peace and harmony." That is not good enough. People want to know what we are going to do now—today. We should be prepared to do things now and, of course, then be prepared to examine the causes of antisocial behaviour in greater detail in an effort to eliminate it.
In this place, we talk a lot about our community. However, the spirit of community in this country seems to have been breaking down over many years. That cannot be put down to one particular Government or another; it has been happening over a long period. People used to say in the east end of London that they would sit out in the streets and leave their doors open. They would be mad to sit out in the streets and leave their doors open now, if they thought that their property would be left intact. We can never recreate that wonderful spirit that the older Members among us in the House may remember. I grew up in Brixton in the 1950s and I do not remember having to worry about street crime or the sort of antisocial behaviour problems that now infest this country.
We have to make a greater effort to instil in our young people a sense of community, because it is as much in their interests as it is in ours. Obviously, we have to start at the youngest possible age in the schools. I am fearful that we are losing generations of our young people. One can see the despair that the activities of some individuals and groups cause in our areas.
I have a proposal to make. It is perhaps one of my more extreme proposals—and I have made a few in this House. It is that we should have compulsory national community service for all people between the ages of 16 and 17. We have to consider something along those lines and I intend to make the proposal in a ten-minute rule Bill later this month.
I hope that we will toughen this Bill up. For example, people who go round spraying paint should be forced to clean it up, and people who dump litter should be forced to clear it and other people's litter up, rather than just receiving a penalty notice. However, I welcome this Bill, hope that it will be amended, and commend the Government for introducing it.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
I too commend the Government for the concern that they have rightly shown about antisocial behaviour. There is nothing more corrosive to people's quality of life, to the confidence of communities or to the well-being and happiness of individuals than some of the scenes that we all witness daily. This afternoon, we have heard about many examples of rude, ill-mannered and inconsiderate behaviour—public drunkenness; foul language; graffiti that is often obscene and invariably ugly; litter and 228 rubbish that no one takes responsibility for cleaning up; the unsightly and hazardous mess of abandoned and burned-out cars; noise; the sheer lack of thought and respect for others; and filthy needles dropped where children can pick them up.
I am delighted with the new investment that the Government have made and with the thousands of extra police officers and community support officers. The establishment of crime reduction partnerships is of great significance. Like others, I am pleased with some measures in this Bill. I am pleased with the closure orders although, like others, I feel that they could go further; and I am pleased with the fixed penalty notices for graffiti. There are measures to control noisy premises and a strategic role for local authorities in relation to fly tipping.
I am concerned about the sense of despair throughout the Chamber. We could do a great deal more and take a more radical approach to these issues. I am not simply saying that the Bill leaves out a series of measures that I should like the Government to address—although, for example, a small proportion of people in the travelling community cause many problems in my constituency. We frankly need a massive cultural change in this country if we are to get to grips with the issues that face us.
We need not throw up our hands in despair or cast around for immediate solutions, although some of the solutions are in our hands. We have heard comments about social workers, and the Government are missing the potential of social workers and the long-standing provisions in the Children Act 1989. The Government and much of our society have lost confidence in social services and social workers, and that must be regained.
The Green Paper on children at risk that is promised in the summer will give us an enormous opportunity. It will be significant and I hope that it will bring together universal and specific measures to utilise the strengths of the community, the voluntary, public and private sectors and the family. I hope that it will allow us to break down institutionalised barriers among organisations and professions and to train people in a new pedagogy for the joined-up, wrapped-around future of dedicated children's services in this country. We should not start to deal with problems through schools, but by promoting positive parenting. We must use the Green Paper to take the opportunity to bridge the historic destructive divide between welfare and justice, and troubled children and children in trouble.
My great difficulty with what has been said and with some of the Bill's provisions is that we are in danger of reproducing the authoritarianism and punishment mentality that have failed to deal with serious problems and have caused us to have the highest figures for young people in custody of any country in western Europe. Custody does not help to reform people, but replicates problems by creating an appallingly destructive circle in which people leave prison and reoffend. Fifteen children have died in prison since 1997, so we must try to address the issues. No matter how difficult the situations caused by young people in our communities, we must try to get away from putting them in custody.
I have several concerns about some of the Bill's provisions, such as those to give education officials the power to issue fixed penalty notices. That is not a role 229 for any body other than an enforcement agency. Local education officers should not go to a court to secure a parenting order before the court has the chance to examine information about a pupil's family circumstances. We need a more holistic approach than that. We need a new approach to the Children Act 1989. In considering the massive problems caused by tenants, we need to utilise the resources pioneered by NCH in its Dundee project. We need, again, to have confidence in what social workers can do. I have real qualms about the new foster parent requirement, which is apparently intended to be an alternative to custody, unless those concerned are aged under 12 when it could be used anyway. That new foster parent requirement is equivalent to a time-limited care order, without the need to pursue care proceedings, and it means a spell in foster care without the representation implied in the Children Act 1989, and without access to the benefits of the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. It replicates problems that we experienced in the past with the Children and Young Persons Act 1969.
My biggest problem, however, is with clause—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. The hon. Gentleman's biggest problem is that his time is up.
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
I am almost sorry to interrupt, as the hon. Gentleman was making a remarkably rebellious speech, to which I enjoyed listening. I agreed with much that he said, if I may spoil his reputation completely.
The debate has featured a large number of speeches from Members on both sides of the House. To listen to many Labour Members, however, one would think that this was the first crime Bill of a new Labour Government, instead of being something like the 16th in six years. I suspect that many of them have not read much of the Bill or studied what came previously. All Members have rightly emphasised the importance and seriousness of antisocial behaviour, and the way in which it starts a spiral of decline, which can—although not always—lead to more serious criminal lifestyles. The Home Secretary was right when he said that the issue cannot be resolved overnight, and I want to make it clear that there is no difference between us in terms of the objective: we all want to feel able to walk around and to live our lives without fear of abuse, harassment, intimidation or attack. Regardless of our race, age or gender, that is a basic entitlement that all should expect.
The debate is not about the issue, however, but about the Government's repeated attempts to address it. Many Members have said that the Bill addresses the real problems of constituents. The long title of the Bill and the headings of some of the clauses certainly address the real problems of constituents, but a study of the contents of the Bill shows that a great deal is lacking.
A few months ago, just before the state opening of Parliament, the Prime Minister stated his belief in the importance of dealing with crime and antisocial behaviour: 230Low-level aggression, vandalism, fights in town centres on Friday and Saturday nights, anti-social neighbours, fly tipping, abandoned cars, graffiti, truancy. They are crimes that don't hit the headlines every day, but they do hit the daily quality of life of many in our communities, often the elderly and the most vulnerable—
and so say all of us. Having said those wise words, however, the Prime Minister, as is so often the case, had to fly around and about finding something to do to justify what he had said. That effort has ended up with the Government promoting this Bill, which merely gives the illusion that it will impact seriously on antisocial behaviour. Those few parts of it that are sensible—of course, there are a few—would be better in their own specific departmental Bills, but they have clearly been excised and extracted, bit by bit, from a multitude of other Departments, to be included in this Bill to justify the Government's claim to be doing something about antisocial behaviour.
Most cynically, despite the high importance given to the Bill in the Queen's Speech as one of the centrepieces of this year's legislative Session, we find that it has been delayed until the outset of the local government elections. So the Bill appears as a glorified press release. It is all very well for the Minister to laugh, but we have seen Labour's campaign documents and we know that that is the strategy that the Labour Government have been following.
As so many of my hon. Friends have rightly said, the real need is for more police officers—a number of Labour Members said that, too—because there is ample evidence that an enhanced police presence significantly decreases antisocial behaviour, even without any of the measures proposed in the Bill. Despite what the Home Secretary would have us believe, the Government's record so far on police numbers is not so good as he would wish.
The reality is that, during each of the past six years, the average increase in this country's police forces has been at a much lower rate than was achieved on average during all the previous Government's 18 years. [Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but those are Government figures. We often laugh at Government figures, but they should not seek to ridicule their own Government.
My hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) and for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) all referred to the importance of police numbers and, indeed, to the reduction of police paperwork. As I have said before in the House, I have a file of what is required for a single arrest and 26 different forms have to be filled in by a police officer. Nothing that the Government have done has reduced that burden.
Yes, we need an extra 40,000 police officers, and we will pay for them by reforming the asylum system, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) has said. [Interruption.] I purposely pause to allow the Home Secretary to laugh, because the Government could make that change themselves. The Chancellor could announce that tomorrow, because the Prime Minister has said already that he will halve the number of asylum seekers by September. If he does so, he will have the saving, using the Government's own 231 figures, to make a very significant step towards our own targets. That is the reality using the Government's own figures.
Let me turn now to one or two issues in the Bill. In 1998, the Government pledged to cut truancy by a third. In 2002, they cut the pledge because they had achieved nothing. They then pledged to reduce truancy by just 10 per cent. between 2002 and 2004. There have been parenting orders for nearly three years, but only 538 of the 3,000-odd orders that have been issued already have related to truancy; the rest were issued for other reasons and were nothing whatsoever to do with truancy.
As many hon. Members, including the Government's supporters, have said, a very worrying precedent would be set if teachers were to hand out fixed penalties. The Government will almost certainly be forced to withdraw that idea—if not by us, then by their own supporters and teachers' organisations.
Clearly, all Opposition Members support closing crack houses, as proposed in the clauses on housing. There may be marginal differences about whether antisocial behaviour must be proved, but I return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset: the Government passed legislation to enable that to happen two years ago, in the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, but they have never implemented it. Even if they can persuade us that this method is better, they still cannot justify having done nothing whatsoever about closing crack houses for two years.
Much has been said about antisocial tenants of registered social housing owners. None of what is proposed is fundamentally wrong. There are big questions about whether the proposal will make the difference that the Government believe that it will make, but, again, it is a clear example of the Government hiving something off to get it into the Bill. As a number of hon. Members have said, the proposal leaves untouched the privately owned rented sector and, indeed, as has been said, the owner-occupied sector. We are told that at least some of those issues will be addressed in the Housing Bill. Why split them? Why not deal with them all in the Housing Bill, as ought to be the case?
As my right hon. Friend said in his opening speech, community support officers have been deployed only for a few months, so even the most enthusiastic among us must admit that the jury is still out. Although there cannot yet be any possibility of an objective assessment of their effectiveness, the Government are proposing a huge increase in their powers. Surely, the Home Secretary must realise that the more powers he gives CSOs, the more they will begin to look like substitute police.
In addition, the Bill gives many powers to accredited community safety officers that currently attach only to community support officers. Such proposals were rejected by Parliament only nine months ago, yet the Government want to renege on that decision. The current proposals include the fascinating possibility that an accredited community safety officer could charge someone with wasting police time. As such an officer would be neither a policeman nor a police employee, that provision is astonishing. It will be interesting to see how that works.
232 My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and others referred to penalties. The measure would extend fixed penalties to 16-year-olds and, more seriously, the Home Secretary would be empowered to reduce that age to as low as 10 merely by affirmative order. That is a major step and it will need to be examined in Committee. The Home Secretary should not take to himself the power to impose fixed penalties on someone as young as 10 without full primary legislation that has been debated on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. Paice
I am sorry, I cannot give way.
Graffiti is already a crime, as my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said. It is criminal damage and, as the Government themselves point out, it is always prosecuted as such—although of course the offenders have to be caught. The explanatory notes make it clear that the imposition of fixed penalties could lead to an overall relaxation of penalties for such offences. According to the notes, the Government intend to use fixed penalties for less serious graffiti and fly posting offences.
A report published by the Greater London Authority noted that the majority of graffiti writers are over 18, yet the Bill includes proposals to ban the sales of aerosol paint to those aged under 18. That is taking a ridiculously large hammer to crack the nut. A 14-year-old can have a drink with a meal and at 15 they can have a shotgun. At 16, they can get married; they can join the Army and decide their sexual orientation. At 17, they can buy a car but they cannot buy a tin of spray paint until they are 18. A 17-year-old can buy an old banger but not the aerosol to spray the wing that they have just tapped out after denting it. That is madness.
Several hon. Members have spoken about the provisions on firearms. We shall challenge the Government on that in Committee. As we would expect of her, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), whom we all respect, set out the reasons why the Government's proposals will do more harm than good. They will hit the law-abiding airgun user more than they will affect the criminal use of airguns. Some hon. Members failed to understand the existing legislation as they referred to the need to ban the sale of airguns to young people, something that has been illegal for the past 35 years. There are severe penalties for doing so.
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) referred to fostering. I think that he was the only Member to raise that issue. He is right to do so, as it will need much consideration. As well as the difficulties of foster families, there is also the problem of dealing with young people when they leave young offenders institutions and secure training centres. For many of them, accommodation is the greatest problem. When talking to youth workers, I find that over and over again they say that if those young people go back to their old, familiar haunts, they will rapidly fall back into their old, familiar and criminal ways.
A remarkable feature of the debate has been the utter contempt with which most Labour Members seem to view Liberal Democrat Members. They have made critical statements over and over again. Far be it for me 233 to suggest that they may be wrong in their contempt of the Liberal Democrat party, but their criticism clearly represents a final rupturing of any semblance of unity between the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. It is a pity that that contempt does not extend to Scotland and Wales, where they joined together in government.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset said, we shall not oppose the Bill. There are parts of the detail with which we agree, but there are many parts with which we disagree, and we shall return to them in Committee. To oppose the Bill would be like voting against a ghost. The Bill gives an apparition of activity—an apparition floating through parliamentary history—and it will leave only press releases as evidence of its passage. All those who forecast that the appearance of this ghostly Bill would make a dramatic change to society are mistaken. Those who witness it this evening and in the coming months will he in this place afterwards. Then they will know that, as with all ghosts, it will be a Bill without substance.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth)
It is clear that the importance of the measures proposed in the Bill is well understood by my right hon. and hon. Friends. There have been 19 Labour Back-Bench speeches. I am aware that some of my hon. Friends were not able to participate in the debate because we ran out of time. By contrast, we have had a token presence of Liberal Democrat Members throughout our proceedings. They have made it clear that they do not consider the Bill to be of any importance. They do not plan to vote against it, but they intend to use their friends in another place to sabotage various provisions within it. [Interruption.] That is exactly what was said. Issues that are important to many people in constituencies throughout the country are not, it seems, of great importance to Liberal Democrat Members.
The Back Benches of the official Opposition have been empty for large parts of the debate, which shows a lack of concern about the issues that are raised by the Bill. The contributions that we have heard from Conservative Members have tended to fall between two stools. First, there has been the counsel of despair. That has come through again and again from those on the Opposition Front Bench and from Conservative Back Benchers. In effect, they have been saying, "There is not a lot that we can do about this." Secondly, there has been the idea that we can solve the problem by creating huge numbers of police officers. How will we pay for those officers? We have been presented with the apparition of some magic pot of money that can be made available to pay for substantial numbers of new police officers. Where were the police officers—
§ Mr. Ainsworth
No, not yet.
Where were the police officers when the Conservative, Government were in power? We do not need to gaze into the crystal ball to see what the Conservatives would do, when we can examine the record. We have record 234 numbers of police officers now. Since the last Labour Government, in 1976, we have recruited, over the 12 months up to September 2002, 4,300 additional police officers. That is in addition to the more than 1,200 community support officers who are now in the force, who are disparaged by Opposition Members. I accept that those community support officers are new and have not been deployed for long, but before the Opposition continue with their policy, they ought to get out into the areas where those officers are being deployed, and talk to the police officers who are working alongside them, as well as the individuals who are doing the job and the commanders who are tasking them. When they do so, they will see the level of support in the police force for that facility.
It is not be possible for me to refer to every single speech that was made this afternoon as there were far too many. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) talked about problems in her constituency regarding drugs and crack houses, as well as current good practice in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) talked about the same subject. They are quite right—good policing has been effective in shutting crack houses—but they know, as I do, that current measures take too long in many circumstances. Problems that can arise during the period in which effective action is being put together can be extremely disturbing for people who live in or next door to the premises where dealing is taking place. Measures in the Bill are additional to the measures that police officers can take now, and will provide a quick, clear solution where nuisance is created by the peddling, selling and use of class A drugs. It will not be necessary to get witnesses to give evidence in those circumstances—evidence can be presented to the court by police officers and local authority officers to achieve the quick closure of the premises and relief for people living nearby.
My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman) expressed concern about the use of fixed penalty notices by the education service. Concern was also expressed by Members of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. It is not as if the use of fixed penalty notices by anyone other than police officers is anything new. The right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that fixed penalty notices must only be issued by police officers, but they are issued by traffic wardens and local authority employees. If we have to use the court system and get a constable involved every time we try to deal with the truancy problem that exists in some schools, we will not have effective measures—
§ Mr. Ainsworth
I shall give way in a moment.
If we have to use those means, we will not have the effective measures against truancy that we badly need.
I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash that we do not intend to give every teacher the ability to use fixed penalty notices, but what on earth is the matter with education welfare officers being able to issue fixed penalty notices? What is the matter with 235 organising truancy sweeps to get people back into school where they belong, and education welfare services providing those sweeps? What is the matter, in some circumstances, with head teachers and governing bodies approving specific members of staff to issue fixed penalty notices to deal with the problem of truancy? We will deal with the detail in Committee, and are prepared to deal with Members' concerns, but the measure will cut bureaucracy and enable us to take effective action.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ms Coffey) wanted us to deal with the problem of antisocial behaviour orders so that they are more easily obtained. She also wanted us to remove the costs involved in their application so that they are used far more often. We have made a number of changes that ought to streamline the ASBO system and make the orders more usable, as they can be attached to other court proceedings. We continue to look at the costs involved, and will keep the relevant measure under review to ensure that ASBOs are used as widely as they should be, so that we can deal with a problem that is of concern in our communities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) asked that there be powers to seize vehicles that are used and are likely to continue to be used for fly tipping. That is the intention in the Bill. Under its provisions, if the case can be made that vehicles are being used for fly tipping and are likely to continue to be used for that purpose, they can be seized.
My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) said that the Bill was about decency and tackling yobbish behaviour. We heard from the Liberal Democrats that there needs to be balance in that regard. Yes, there does need to be balance. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said when he opened the debate, we should see the measures in the Bill not in isolation, but as part of a broad range of measures. If Liberal Democrat Members do not realise that victims have rights and communities have rights, and that those rights ought to be equally as important as the rights of perpetrators, and possibly of greater importance, the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) may be representing the lobby, but he is not representing his constituency as he ought to.
§ Simon Hughes
In that case, why have the Government not introduced the promised victims and witnesses Bill, for which we have been pressing?
§ Mr. Ainsworth
It is noticeable that the hon. Gentleman is ready to speak about anything other than the issues that he raised about this Bill. Does he not recognise that the problems of communities and of victims of antisocial behaviour, and not just the rights of perpetrators, are important?
The comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Singh) echoed those of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary when he said that the measure should not be seen as a stand-alone Bill. He had some concerns about paying compensation to the owners of properties that we propose to close down as part of the measures to deal with crack houses. We will have to examine the compensation issue carefully. It is not our intention that compensation be paid to people who have been part of the problem and who have failed 236 to deal with it in their communities, but sometimes innocent people are caught by those measures, and we need to be prepared to consider compensation in those circumstances.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) argued so well that we should not expect others to live with conditions and behaviour that would not be tolerated by some in society who set the priorities and who are responsible for enforcing the law. That exposes the myth about antisocial behaviour. Dealing with it is not a matter of measures that will disproportionately affect the poor. The poor are disproportionately affected by antisocial behaviour. The rest of us can move away. We can buy the means to protect ourselves. There are many communities in all our constituencies that cannot do so. We must be prepared to make sure that they enjoy the kind of protection and the life that we so often take for granted.
My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) had some concerns about the gun measures. I believe that we will be able to satisfy those during the passage of the Bill.
The Bill contains practical solutions that relate to real problems faced by many people. Those solutions arise from discussions with frontline service providers, such as the police. We will give them the tools that they need to do the job that they want to do. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ accordingly read a Second time.