§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
With permission, I should like to make a statement on tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour.
In recent years, we have made significant progress in tackling crime and disorder. In the past six years, crime has fallen by just over a quarter and street crime has been reduced dramatically. The chance of being a victim of crime is the lowest for more than 20 years, yet the fear of crime remains high. No one will believe that crime has fallen unless they experience it in their own lives and those of family and friends. More than one in three people consider that antisocial behaviour is still affecting their quality of life. Over 30 per cent. are intimidated by gangs hanging around their neighbourhood. Too many lives are affected by the irresponsibility, disrespect and loutishness of others.
Antisocial behaviour can affect people physically and emotionally, undermining health and destroying family life. It can also hold back the regeneration of our most disadvantaged areas, creating the environment in which crime can take hold. Where enforcement is poor and antisocial behaviour goes unpunished, criminals learn that they can get away with lawlessness. That is why we are now leading a new drive to work with individuals, families and communities to build effective action against antisocial behaviour.
Rights and responsibilities must go hand in hand. The White Paper and the legislation to follow aim to put in place support and help for those who are prepared to accept it, and clear, speedy, and effective enforcement when they are not. Our public spaces should be open and free for everyone to use. Our streets should be free of loutishness, gangs and drunken hooligans, or drug dealers capturing the lives of young people. Neighbours creating noise and nuisance and those intimidating others are a blight on our society. Those who do not suffer should not get in the way of protecting those who do.
That is why we will crack down on noise and nuisance. Fixed penalty notices of £100 will be available to environmental health officers. Persistent abuse will lead to a reversion to probationary tenancies. Court action and fast-track eviction will follow. Automatic rehousing is no longer an option. Children of persistently antisocial and dysfunctional families will be offered new intensive fostering. Tenants and landlords must share responsibility. Antisocial tenants will lose their right to buy.
We intend to go further. Tenants must not be allowed to make the lives of others a misery. We will empower local authorities to license designated private sector landlords so that they no longer automatically receive direct benefit payments. We will also consult on the appropriateness of measures to withdraw from individual tenants the automatic right to be granted housing benefit. Where the problem is caused by pubs or clubs, environmental health officers will have the power to close them. Unscrupulous drug dealers can exploit weak tenants and owners of property. New fast-track closure powers will be put in place so that crack houses can be closed and decisive action taken to seal those properties.
292 Gangs of youths can often be the catalyst for further crime, as well as intimidation. We will enable the police to designate areas experiencing high levels of antisocial behaviour, within which new powers to disperse groups causing problems will be available. We will merge these powers with those of child curfews to enable unaccompanied children out late at night to be removed and returned to their homes.
We are all aware of other forms of behaviour threatening our neighbourhoods. We have already announced measures to tackle the misuse of air weapons and the availability of replica guns. We will make carrying an air weapon, or an imitation one, in a public place an arrestable offence. We will support wholeheartedly the new proposals to restrict the sale and misuse of fireworks.
However, we recognise that family problems, poor educational attainment, unemployment and alcohol and drug misuse can all contribute to unacceptable behaviour. Those do not constitute an excuse, but we must act to enable people to rebuild their lives. We will take cross-government action to provide support, while upholding the principle of "something for something". No longer should an individual child disrupt a school, nor should inaction by parents disable that child for the future through non-attendance at school. Parents have a duty to ensure that their children are in school and behaving. Persistent failure will result in parenting orders, fines or fast-track court action. We will support families in overcoming their problems, through parenting classes and new fast-track parenting orders. We will examine residential provision as a compulsory part of education and rehabilitation.
At the heart of antisocial behaviour is a lack of respect for others—the simple belief that one can get away with whatever one can get away with. We need the help of the community as a whole in changing the culture. We need parents to instil a sense of responsibility and respect; communities to build the confidence to provide witnesses and to stand up to the thugs; and businesses to help in overcoming unacceptable and irresponsible behaviour.
Record police numbers, the historic reform of police pay and regulations, the new extended police family, including community support officers, specials and street and neighbourhood wardens, all have their part to play. We have an effective armoury of measures: fast-tracked, slimmed-down antisocial behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and parenting orders. Since August, almost 2,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued in the four pilot areas. We are clear that breaches of orders must be treated decisively. We must slim down bureaucracy, free up the police and enforcement agencies to do their job and engage the public, businesses and landlords in creating a safer and saner world.
I should like to thank all those who have contributed to the White Paper and also give my thanks for the co-operation of ministerial colleagues in this cross-government drive to rebuild civic society. I know that every Member of this House believes that families should teach respect, that bad behaviour must be dealt with decisively and that there is a need to restore pride in our communities. That is the challenge that we face in 293 the decade ahead. I ask the House to support the measures that I have outlined today as a contribution to that endeavour.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing us with early sight of his statement.
For the past 18 months or so, I have been talking about re-establishing the neighbourly society and recapturing the streets for the honest citizen. The Home Secretary's admirable catchphrase "respect and responsibility" is remarkably similar. That similarity of phrasing is no coincidence; it arises from the fact that he and I share the same diagnosis of the same problem. We both recognise that there has been, and is in too many parts of Britain, a retreat from civilisation. We both recognise the truth behind the broken windows thesis that has guided American cities in their successful efforts to reduce low-level disorder and crime. We both recognise that, if our children are to grow up into the people whom we want them to be, they need to grow up in a society that is orderly and respectful and not on streets that are controlled by gangs, hoodlums, drug dealers and pimps.
The difference between the Government and the Conservative party consists not in a difference of diagnosis, but in a difference of views about the cure. Since the Government came to power, we have seen the introduction of some 15 Bills and Acts dealing with crime and disorder. Legislation is seeping out of every pore of the Home Office, and now we are to have another Bill. I doubt, alas, that this next accretion of the Home Secretary's prodigious legislative energy will do any more to cure the problems that we both diagnose than have his and his predecessors' previous endeavours.
The fact is that the boys in the gangs on the streets are strangely unaware of the Home Secretary's laws, because they are so little enforced. I snail not go quite so far as one of my right hon. Friends, who described the Home Secretary as fostering a police state without the police, but on a day when the snoopers charter is reintroduced and the Home Secretary publicly derides my commitment to providing 40,000 additional police officers, the House could be forgiven for wondering whether that right hon. Friend is rather too close to the mark for comfort.
In the absence of police on the streets, I wonder who will really enforce all those new measures. Or will they go the way of the child curfew orders that have never been issued? Will they go the way of the night-time courts, which now appear to have been abandoned after costing £6,000 an hour and £7,000 a case? Will they go the way of the mandatory sentences that have never been handed down? Will the new spot fines be enforced? Alas, the record of enforcement on existing fines, which is terrible, gives no grounds for optimism on that score. Will parenting contracts be any less bureaucratic than the antisocial behaviour orders, which have made strong men weep with frustration? Will the new crackdown on crack really have any impact if the police are overstretched and no effective, intensive abstinence-based treatment is available for young crack addicts? Will the new measures against begging, of which the 294 Home Secretary has made so much today on the airwaves, actually do any more to diminish aggressive begging than could already be done under existing vagrancy laws if they were effectively enforced?
We are told in the press, from which, I regret to say, we nowadays learn more about the Government's intentions than we are ever vouchsafed in this House, that Downing street now wants to "under-promise and over-deliver" by concentrating on "specific, achievable policies" rather than targets.
The Home Secretary has put forward a plethora of specific policy intentions, but I fear that in the absence of police on our streets, and in the absence of coherent long-term programmes to lift young people off the conveyor belt to crime, the Home Secretary will find that the vast new range of powers that he announced will do no more than mask his failure to enforce effectively the laws that already exist.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's commitment to having similar policies and his acknowledgement that we agree that the broken windows theory is correct—that is, that if one does not start by dealing with the activity taking place in the immediate neighbourhood, it grows into unacceptable crime. I had better make it clear, however, that I have not read ex-Mayor Giuliani's book, in case anyone thinks that I have plagiarized him in the same way that the right hon. Gentleman plagiarises me. [Interruption.] It is the Opposition's job to poke me with a stick rather than the other way round, so I thought that I would have a go.
The right hon. Gentleman was doing fine until he got to the word that he had done his best to avoid—"but". I want to take the "but" out of the way that things are done. I want to stop the police saying, "We'd like to do something, but we don't have the power." I should like housing authorities to stop saying, "We'd like to deal with your unacceptable neighbour, but we don't have the power." To those who see mayhem on their streets and say, "We want something doing, but nobody's going to do anything", I should like to say that from now on, they are going to do something.
The issue of legislation is an interesting one. Is it a fault, given that legislation may have failed in the past, to legislate in future for things that we want to do, that we know will work, and that we know that people out there want us to put in place? Is it wrong, because there has been a failure to enforce in the past, to put measures in place to ensure that enforcement—through fixed penalty notices, eviction, closure of premises or dispersal—is at the very cutting edge of what we do? I cannot guarantee that the police, the housing offices or the environmental health service will always use their powers. The Daily Telegraph, never mind the Opposition, would certainly take me to task if I had the power to determine the powers of every single official in every single housing office or police station. But I can give them the powers and I can ask them to use them alongside the community.
Yes, we do need more police, but who cut the police service when they were in office? The Opposition were responsible for a fall in numbers in the police service, which we inherited. We are building on that, and we now have record numbers. I have no intention of wiping out 295 the entirety of our immigration and border controls to switch the money into policing. I am, however, intent on making sure, with the Chancellor, that we have the money in future—as we do now—to ensure that year on year there will be increases not only in the trained uniformed police service, but in community support officers, street wardens and all those who are prepared to work alongside the police in doing their job.
I am asked whether these orders will go the same way as the others. Will they be like, for example, the drug treatment and testing orders, of which there have been 11,000 so far? Will they be like the parenting orders, of which there have been almost 4,000? What about the reparation orders, of which there have been more than 18,000? What about the fixed penalty notices that I mentioned? There have been 2,000 in just the few months of the pilot in four areas. What about acceptable behaviour contracts, of which there have been more than 1,800? What about the young people? There have been more than 3,500 intensive supervision and surveillance orders. So, yes, I do intend the new measures to go the same way as those orders, which represent thousands of measures saving thousands of incidents of antisocial behaviour. They ensure that our streets are free and clean, that our homes are quiet and protected and that people know that this House is determined to work on their behalf, and alongside them, to create a Civilised society.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
The Home Secretary will know that Liberal Democrat Members support the aims and objectives that he has set out. We want a less violent society and a more civil and respectful society. He knows, too, that we shall judge each proposal on its merits, which is why proposals for dealing with crack houses and unscrupulous landlords will be welcome, but why further criminalising beggars, most of whom are on drugs, drunk, homeless, mentally ill or all of those, seems to us a wholly misguided way of tackling a problem that requires people to be brought back into society rather than being given a longer criminal record.
Will the Home Secretary tell us why he has not followed the advice of the Government's social exclusion unit, which made clear, in its most recent report, that we need effective use of existing powers? We need to allow them to settle down and to work across the country rather than to introduce new legislation. Why do not the Government heed the advice that I certainly receive, and which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman receives? There is a panoply of legislation. What we need is not more legislation but more people: more police, more community wardens, more special constables and more youth and community workers. We need more people in the community to help to manage the community and to follow successful examples.
Before the Home Secretary makes more proposals for more laws that are less likely to be enforced, will he look at the projects in my borough—in his city—that work but need more resources? Those projects have been shown to be successful; they are local answers, devised in the community with the support of the community, and are far more effective than legislation passed by Parliament, which, to be honest, goes over the heads of most people in urban Britain.
296 Finally, will the Home Secretary tell us how we can hold realistic consultation on a White Paper produced in the second week of March when he proposes to introduce a Bill in the first week of April? Is not the reality that this is more about dressing the window for a local election in May and to cover up the Government's six years of inadequate law and order policy, rather than the long-term solutions that the right hon. Gentleman knows work better—as does everybody else?
§ Mr. Blunkett
God forbid that I should spoil the campaign of the Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor of London, but if the hon. Gentleman's campaign is that we do not need those measures, that we should not take action and that nothing more needs to be done or could be done, he will not get very far.
I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's questions. The honest truth is that he is entirely right to say that we need to take measures to help people on the streets who suffer from drug misuse or alcohol abuse. That is right and proper; it is what we should do. However, if giving people money and leaving them in the subways had been the cure and had put them in appropriate residential facilities and got them off drugs, we should not have the problem on our streets at present. A combination of actions will be needed, including offering people refuge, as we do already, and also drug and alcohol treatment, as we shall do. We must ensure that children who are used by beggars as a means of getting people to give money are treated and supported properly rather than being kept in cold subways as a means of raising cash.
Let me deal with the perfectly reasonable issue raised by the hon. Gentleman—that we need more of everything that he listed. Yes, we do. Why is there more? Why do we have new initiatives, such as those in his constituency to which he referred? Why are diversionary programmes being set up between my Department, that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is present this afternoon, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Health? Why do we have all those new programmes? I t is because the Labour Government have funded them and put them in place. Why do we need more? Because many of them are working.
However, that is no reason not to match what we are doing positively with the enforcement that was mentioned a few moments ago and which will help those who constantly complain to us that they would do something about the problems if only they had an easy-to-implement power. I am determined to give it to them.
§ Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)
I give today's announcement a hearty welcome. If we are to make a difference to the lives of our constituents, especially those who live in the less leafy areas of the country, we must defeat the vast yob culture that is, I often think, our greatest inheritance from the Thatcher decade.
I especially welcome measures to deal with air weapons, fireworks and spray paints. Far from thinking such things irrelevant, our constituents are more likely to wish that we had implemented them years ago.
I especially look forward to measures to cut off the flow of housing benefit to rogue landlords—probably the most important aspect of my right hon. Friend's announcement. It is extraordinary that for years 297 housing benefit has been used to destroy our inner cities, and we have to put a stop to that. What is the timetable for the housing benefit measures?
I agree with my right hon. Friend that enforcement is the key. There is no shortage of policemen, but sometimes there is a shortage of policemen on the streets. We need to ensure, as he is doing, that there will be more policemen on the streets—on bicycles, perhaps, but not in helicopters.
If more children are to be excluded from school, it is important that alternative arrangements are made for their education. Although big improvements have been made, there is still a gap between children being excluded from school and the alternative arrangements for them. Will my right hon. Friend bear that in mind?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend and I am grateful for his support, which he gives sparingly and only when he agrees, so I particularly welcome it.
I am in favour of policemen on bikes—even on tandems, although we are trying to break up the two-by-two regime. I am strongly in favour of ensuring that children have alternatives when they are excluded from school. There is universal coverage for children who are permanently excluded, but we do not yet have that for those excluded only for a few days. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills is working hard to ensure that we achieve that later this year.
I agree entirely that the measure to deal with the very small number of rogue landlords, which will be targeted on designated areas, will make a real difference. It will get the message across that people cannot freeload on the state—what Aneurin Bevan once described as sucking at the teats of the state. If w: can get that right, everyone will be playing their part in overcoming that scourge.
§ Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton)
Given the low rate of payment of fines, with only 63 per cent. of fines levied by magistrates actually being paid, how will the Home Secretary ensure that the fixed penalty notices are paid by their recipients? The right hon. Gentleman referred to the 2,000 fixed penalty notices that have been issued since August: how many of those have been paid?
§ Mr. Blunkett
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that enforcement of enforcement must be the order of the day. That is why the Courts Bill, currently with the House of Lords, actually ensures that deduction from pay or benefits will be an automatic option rather than a long—term struggle.
On the pilot for fixed penalty notices, 60 per cent. were paid within 21 days and a further 38 per cent. were either paid or withdrawn, leaving only 2 per cent. That defaulted. That is a tremendous record and if we can build on it we shall have a success on our hands.
§ Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)
One of my constituents, an alcoholic, received detoxification treatment in hospital but could not get rehabilitation 298 services on discharge. He subsequently died. Other constituents, drug addicts, have to wait inappropriately long periods before receiving rehabilitation services. Although the Government have given additional resources, parliamentary answers suggest that the number of people receiving rehabilitation treatment is not growing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential to put adequate services in place and that, in order to do so, we must assess the need for such services? Will he ensure that an assessment of that need is undertaken so that adequate services can be set up?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, I will. The establishment of the national treatment agency, the co-ordinated approach that we spelled out in the autumn, the £500 million extra that we are putting into resourcing the services, and the targeted approach—including the £30 million that we have put into the basic command units and police divisions most affected by the relationship between crime and drugs will make a difference. My hon. Friend is entirely right to speak of the speed with which not only treatment but rehabilitation needs to be made available. We have a mountain to climb, and I ask not for patience but for support in going forward to ensure that that happens much more quickly and effectively than it does at present.
§ Mr. John Horam (Orpington)
Is the Secretary of State aware that antisocial behaviour is a big problem in the leafy suburbs as well as in the inner cities and rural towns? I received an e-mail only an hour ago from a constituent in St. Mary Cray who was complaining about a neighbour who had been forced out of their house as a result of constant harassment. Half the problem is that, when people go to the police to complain about this sort of behaviour, the constant refrain that they hear is, "We don't have the resources to do anything about it."
In Bromley, for example, the number of police has gone down in the last five years, and the number of police stations in my constituency—one of which was in St. Mary Cray, where that incident occurred—has been reduced from three to one under this Government's regime. Does the Home Secretary not see that, unless the Government tackle the number of police on the level that my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) outlined only a day ago, and encourage them to go down the path of zero tolerance, this statement will be just another litany of feeble and inadequate responses?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I would be happy to look at the number of police in Bromley and raise the matter with the Met commissioner. Secondly, we now have a national policing plan, which includes antisocial behaviour. We have also given a clear direction from the centre that we want police out on the streets. But let me take the hon. Gentleman head on. Is he suggesting that I should determine the number of police stations in each division? Is he saying that I should determine how the chief constable and superintendents in charge of the police in each police force area should direct them? If so, he is contradicting everything that his Front Benchers said when the minimal powers that we chose to take in the Police Reform Act 2002 were being debated. I was told time and again by the Conservative party that it was 299 none of my business to interfere with how the police deployed their resources locally. I believe that it is my business, on behalf of the people we represent. I believe it a lot more than his party does.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
May I assure the Home Secretary that there will be quiet pleasure in many Birkenhead homes this afternoon at the announcement that he has made today? May I ask him a further question about taking away housing benefit from absentee landlords and neighbours from hell? I welcome his intention to consult on these proposals, but will he consult more widely than the normal list of suspects, who usually advance a defence for people whose behaviour is indefensible? May I suggest that one or two panels of ordinary citizens might give him different views from those of the people whose first cry is about the violation of civil liberties? If he asked for volunteers in Birkenhead, his only problem would be one of crowd control as decent citizens came forward to volunteer to support his policies.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the enormous amount of work that he has done and the campaigns that he has been running. I was pleased, some time ago, to be in his constituency to experience the quiet enthusiasm of the people there—quiet only so that we did not have to issue fixed penalty notices for noise nuisance-for sorting out the mayhem around them. As he would expect, I entirely agree with his final remarks, and I have invited the head of Liberty to join me in my constituency in representing just such people.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)
The right hon. Gentleman asked for support for his proposals, but that will of course depend on their detail. He outlined a battery of new sanctions and penalties, many of which will depend on the discretion of officials. Does he understand that, unless his proposals provide for proper safeguarding of civil and political rights, they will he strongly resisted? Consequently, before he publishes his Bill, will he consult widely and genuinely on the incorporation of proper legal and civil safeguards into his statutory proposals?
§ Mr. Blunkett
There will always be proper rights in our society to protect the interests of those who are accused, so that we can avoid wrongful accusation and wrongful conviction. Those rights will exist, whether in relation to fixed penalty notices, the measures that I have outlined that will be consulted on in relation to housing, the powers relating to individual tenants—I did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) properly: those powers will be consulted on alongside the draft housing Bill which will be published in the summer—or the powers that we shall take in relation to rogue landlords, having consulted on the detail of how best to apply them. Of course we will ensure that those rights are incorporated in the legislation, as they always will be. The whole thrust of the proposals is to ensure that the rights of the decent, law-abiding community are safeguarded, not at the expense of the right to avoid wrongful conviction but at the expense of those who make a mockery of our existing laws.
§ Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd)
I thank my right hon. Friend for an answer to a written question that his 300 Department gave me last week on the number of antisocial behaviour orders issued by police authorities in England and Wales. The top number was 95; the bottom number was nought. My own authority, the North Wales police authority, had issued one, which placed it second to bottom. What help, encouragement and—dare I say—pressure can my right hon. Friend apply to ensure proper take-up of the slimmed-down, fast-track ASBOs that he has announced today?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Progress has already been made. I have made it clear all along, over the last 18 months, that I thought that the number of orders being taken out was unacceptable. The slimmed-down orders that we already have in place, namely the interim orders, are beginning to bite. We have figures only through to November, and they are disappointing, but since the new interim orders came in in November there has been a dramatic change. We want to ensure that there is immediate access to the existing courts and, in future, to the criminal justice centres, so that immediate action cart be taken. We want the police, housing officials and social landlords to be able to use those orders quickly and, above all, we want to ensure that people know about them.
One thing that has struck me over recent months is how little those who have the power to implement these policies know of what they have at their disposal. Even last Friday night, in my own constituency—in a most deprived and difficult part of the city in terms of crime—I found that people were not aware of what was already on the statute book. We have a major task to inform people simply and clearly about how the police and housing and environmental health officials can do their job.
§ Annabelle Ewing (Perth)
Will the Home Secretary clarify what plans he has to consult the Scottish Executive on the matters that might impact on Scotland, and when any such consultation is planned to take place?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, I certainly will. Obviously, the issues around housing and housing benefit are most relevant to the question of reserved powers and to the relationship with the Parliament in Edinburgh. We will begin those consultations immediately.
§ Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)
I welcome the confirmation that the Home Secretary is to introduce new laws to restrict the use of air weapons, which maim thousands of people every year and, in extreme cases, can kill. People are simply too young to use them at the age of 14. I also welcome the other measures that he has announced today. People experiencing antisocial behaviour in some areas feel that nothing can be done, and that they have to endure it week in, week out.
Lordswood in my constituency was having particular difficulty with antisocial behaviour. The Kent police responded, and the local community has seen a difference. That is giving the community the confidence to work with the police in the way that my right hon, Friend has described today. It is essential, however, that 301 we have the necessary powers to stop the antisocial behaviour that so many of our communities have to endure.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on that since entering the House, and I welcome his support. I am pleased that the Kent police have responded in the way that he described and I hope that the new powers will help them to do so even more effectively in future.
§ Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
In order to have a system of on-the-spot fines, the Home Secretary knows that on-the-spot policemen are needed. In Sussex, we still have fewer policemen than we did six years ago despite all his assurances. What assurances can he give that this will not just be another way of further stretching police officers and distracting them from other duties? He also mentioned the culture of getting away with it. Does he acknowledge that we still have the same number of youth offenders in custody as we did five or six years ago, and that last year 77,700 people failed to turn up to court—that is, 13 per cent. of magistrates court cases? What is he doing to make sure that penalties stick when they are issued?
§ Mr. Blunkett
The Criminal Justice Bill and the Courts Bill are designed to incorporate measures to deal with cracked and failed trials, defendants' failure to attend court and the prolonging of court cases. On policing, the run-down in Sussex was part of a policy of the last but one chief constable. Within weeks of taking office, I had the pleasure of ensuring that he found other pastures in which to exercise his liberal views.
§ Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)
I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which will also be warmly welcomed by my constituents. He mentioned dysfunctional families whose children are beyond control. I am sure that he is aware that some of them are as young as six or seven, and that their behaviour terrorises whole communities. That is a particular problem in council estates in my constituency, and I am sure that he agrees that social housing tenants, who often have no choice about where they live, should not have to put up with antisocial behaviour as part of their tenancy. How does he propose to increase the effectiveness of local agencies in dealing with those families because, as he will appreciate, it is not a matter for the police alone?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, it is important that we take every possible step to remedy the problem and not just enforce the law, which is a last resort. We therefore want to experiment with new ways of intervening, such as with the co-operation of social services. We want to build on the Family Welfare Association and home start examples in which people move into the home so that they can assist families. When I was leader of Sheffield city council, home makers were liter ally undermined by professional bodies that did not like the idea of a practical scheme that did not involve counselling services but involved people going to the family, supporting and helping them to change their behaviour. If we cannot get through that way, we should ensure 302 that, as part of parenting orders, residential provision is made available. In the end, people have to live in a civilised society. If we cannot do that by persuasion we will have do it through enforcement.
§ Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)
In Hertfordshire, tackling antisocial behaviour is a question not of not enough police powers but not enough police officers. Given the £5 million shortfall between what Hertfordshire police need simply to stand still and what the Home Office has just given us, can the Home Secretary tell the House and my constituents how his new powers will be enforced, because we are short of more than 200 officers?
§ Mr. Blunkett
By continuing with record recruitment, we achieved a 40 per cent. increase in recruitment last year—the largest ever increase in recruitment in this country. What do we get when we recruit? Either we are accused of not recruiting enough, or the Opposition say that there are too many probationers in relation to experienced police officers. The Opposition cannot have it both ways—how can somebody become a policeman if they do not first become a probationer? That is an absurd argument and an example of doublethink. We are recruiting at record levels; we are putting the money in; there will be more police in the coming year than has ever been the case in our history; and we will carry on.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
My right hon. Friend is right to maintain a focus on the spectrum of criminal and antisocial behaviour that blights the lives of residents in neighbourhoods in my constituency. I particularly welcome his commitment to speeding up proposals on the closure of crack houses. I commend the excellent enforcement work in my own boroughs, including the neighbourhood warden scheme in Westminster and the rapid reaction crack protocol developed by police and housing providers in Kensington and Chelsea.
On crack houses and many other forms of antisocial behaviour, one of the biggest problems is encouraging people to come forward and give evidence. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that more is being done to encourage and support people who give evidence against individuals guilty of operating crack houses and other antisocial behaviour?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend is right about the excellence of those schemes, and I commend them. She is also right that, unless we can provide protection for witnesses, particularly in London, where people sometimes have to be moved away from the situation that puts them at risk, provide professional support for witnesses, ensure that we use technology more effectively and, above all, give people the confidence to be able to come forward knowing that they will not suffer retribution, we will fail. That must be a priority, and we all need to work together to ensure that that is the case.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
I assure the Home Secretary that the Ulster Unionist party supports much of his statement, so much so that I seek confirmation that the measures will extend to Northern Ireland. As he knows, criminal justice is not a devolved issue, and was 303 not devolved before the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would therefore welcome clarification.
Will the Home Secretary also look at something that has worked well in Northern Ireland—restorative justice schemes? Disappointingly, there was not a single mention of them in the statement. There is a good lesson to be learned from Northern Ireland, and I urge the Home Secretary to extend the measures to our Province.
§ Mr. Blunkett
As ever, the hon. Lady is right. Restorative justice is critical and is covered in the White Paper. We have had more than 11,000 restorative justice orders so far on the mainland, which is welcome. She always charms me into agreeing that excellent schemes that she welcomes should be extended to Northern Ireland. I will obviously consult colleagues on making sure that we get that message across.
§ Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)
Thanks to Government funding, we now have street wardens and community support officers out on the streets of both Morecambe and Lancaster. Does my right hon. Friend agree that seaside towns such as Morecambe have particular problems with antisocial behaviour, usually caused by large amounts of privately rented accommodation and absentee landlords who do not care what sort of tenants live in their properties and have no commitment to the towns. Can he assure my constituents that the measures that he is introducing will help to deal with rogue landlords in Morecambe who cause so much misery to my constituents?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes I can. My hon. Friend is right—the local authority will be able to designate the areas that she described and can take action by providing proper licensing, by insisting that there are proper terms, conditions and contractual arrangements for those tenants, and by ensuring that action is forthcoming if tenancy agreements are breached.
§ Mr. David Cameron (Witney)
In his response to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the Home Secretary said that to get 40,000 extra police officers, we would have to abolish the immigration service altogether. Is it not the case that in 1993, when there were 20,000 asylum seekers coming to this country instead of the 100,000 that we have now, the immigration service cost £230 million, or £1.5 billion less than it costs today? Does that not prove that if we had a sensible asylum policy we could have thousands more police officers? Is it not time that the Home Secretary started to look at some imaginative schemes instead of things that are failing?
§ Clive Efford (Eltham)
I welcome the statement. Last month I chaired a public meeting with 200 angry residents of the Middle Park estate in my constituency, who called for just the sort of powers that my right hon. Friend has described.
The problems that undermine ASBOs also undermined earlier laws against antisocial behaviour that did not work, chiefly because those who commit 304 acts of violence and vandalism in our communities are prepared to intimidate and threaten victims to a point at which they will not come forward to give evidence. That applies even to the new powers. We must become more proactive in gathering evidence, so that we can tackle those individuals.
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend is right. That is why professional witnesses matter. It is also why—this has been raised with me on my own patch—the ability to provide signed and affirmed written statements, commonly but wrongly known as hearsay, will be important, preventing people from being faced down in court or intimidated or beaten up on the way out.
As for enforcement, the more criminals we have the more police we need on the streets, and the more clandestines we have the more immigration and security we need on our borders, which of course costs us more. That answers the earlier question that I was not able to answer.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
Will the Home Secretary join me in congratulating our new area commander in West Norfolk, Chief Superintendent Alan Hayes? He has introduced a policy of zero tolerance on, for instance, graffiti and minor criminal damage. That is already rebuilding public confidence in the police, but we have a serious problem with abandoned and burnt-out cars and fly-tipped fridges, which encourages the production of more rubbish. Time and again, no one takes responsibility. Those problems were not mentioned in the statement; what is the Home Secretary going to do about them?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We have tightened the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency regulations and the automatic number plate recognition scheme. We have given community support officers powers to deal with abandoned cars, and the White Paper refers to new powers on fly tipping and graffiti. I am sure that the chief superintendent's excellent work in his division will be supported, and that he will welcome the extra powers in the White Paper.
§ Colin Burgon (Elmet)
As a Member who believes that our main task is to build stronger communities, I welcome the Home Secretary's statement. I was particularly pleased with his comments about education, because I think that we should give teachers 100 per cent. support, and with what he said about parenting orders and fines. I am interested in the idea of residential provision; will he expand on that and on the need for parents to admit their responsibility for the kids they have brought into the world?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Not one of us who has been a parent does not sometimes say "There but for the grace of God go I." Let me say, with some temerity, that we want to tell parents, "If you want help, ask for it, and we will ensure that you get it. If we can support you, in both parenting and dealing with family situations, we will do so. But if you refuse to accept help and continue to cause havoc to your own children and the lives of others, we will intervene."
The idea of residential provision stems from the view that it is sometimes necessary to take families away from one situation and into another in which they can receive 305 instruction, direction and education if they are to cope with even the most basic tenets of civilised behaviour. There are not many in such situations, but the very few cause havoc to the very many.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
Many environmental health departments struggle to provide a full out-of-hours service with their existing resources. Clearly the proposals will raise expectations in relation to, for instance, noise control. Has the Home Secretary discussed the funding of environmental health departments with the Deputy Prime Minister? Will they be expected to divert resources, or will they be given more resources to finance their new powers?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I continue to have discussions with the Deputy Prime Minister, and with the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, about how resources raised from, for example, fixed penalty notices can be used for reinforcement and reinvestment. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady about environmental health, which is close to my heart and, indeed, my family. My family includes an environmental health officer, who tells me of all the things that he needs to do and that I hope to be able to help him to do.
§ Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
The people of Don Valley will welcome the White Paper. I pay tribute to them, for without their agitation and support we would not have had the antisocial behaviour unit in Doncaster that is serving us so well. We have issued antisocial behaviour orders there, but our police officers say that the threat of such orders has contained behaviour in many cases.
I welcome what the White Paper nays about private landlords, parenting orders and much more; but legislation, past, present and future, will work when the agencies concerned listen to the people and respond to their demands. Can we ensure, even more than we do now, that information about what works well elsewhere is passed to those on the ground so that they can meet the expectations of those whom they serve?
§ Mr. Blunkett
That was excellently put. At yesterday's conference for the new local criminal justice boards and the national board, I said—I think t he message is now getting across—that there can be no excuses. It is no good saying that others should have acted; it is up to those at local level to work together to ensure that the system is effective in practice.
§ Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)
I recently accompanied special constables in my constituency on a night patrol in support of a Home Office campaign for recruitment of more special constables. From my discussions with them, I gleaned the information that if they arrest a young man for urinating against a wall it takes five hours to process the paperwork back at the station. Does the Home Secretary agree with me, with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—the shadow Home Secretary—and with the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, who raised the issue today, that if we are to have more effective 306 policing the Home Office must play its part by radically reducing bureaucracy to give our coppers a chance to do their job?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am pleased to be able to agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he went on a night patrol during the specials weekend that we organised. As for his example of—I am choosing my words carefully—urination in the street, which is both an affront and a criminal offence, I am delighted to tell him that we shall be able to cut out all those hours of bureaucracy when the offender is taken to the station. Rather than spending a penny, he will have to pay £80 for a fixed penalty notice.
§ Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has said about air weapons in particular. Over the past three or four years, tenants' and residents' groups in Blackpool have told me that they did not know about the powers and that they have not been working quickly enough. They now tell me that they are working quickly enough.
In a letter to me, Blackpool's chief superintendent writes:It appears that the recent changes in legislation have allowed for a much less bureaucratic approach to be adopted … We have maximised the opportunities available to us under this legislation and in recent weeks have seen the courts granting 5 interim orders and 1 full order.Is my right hon. Friend confident that the current legislation and the proposed new initiatives will be sufficient to deal with the specific issue of antisocial behaviour of transient groups, which has caused difficulties in the past, especially in coastal towns?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Excellent work is being done in Blackpool. The Tower project, for instance, has been very effective.
It will be possible to attach ASBOs to an individual rather than a locality—to follow the person. That will, I think, make a difference to enforcement.
On a lighter note, I take the point that was made at the beginning of the debate by the shadow Home Secretary. I am learning all the time how best to amend and to re-legislate Home Office legislation, so that whatever was intended in the first place happens in practice.
§ Matthew Green (Ludlow)
I listened very carefully to the Home Secretary, but I heard nothing about extra resources for what the Home Office calls "diversionary activities" for young people. It is a shame that the Government cannot fund activities for young people on the basis that they are good for them, rather than regarding them as a means of cutting crime. Can he reassure me that he respects young people as individuals, rather than simply regarding them as criminal statistics?
§ Mr. Blunkett
They are victims as much as they are people involved in crime. We are devoting £370 million that did not exist before 1997 to the Youth Justice Board and to the youth inclusion programmes. Through the Department for Education and Skills, some £420 million—again, that money did not previously exist—is being spent on the massive expansion of the Connexions 307 programme. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working with the DES, the Department of Health and ourselves to develop summer and holiday programmes. All those measures, along with the New Opportunities Fund and after-school activities, are the beginning of a process of getting our act together, so that there is an alternative. People are expected to take that alternative, rather than creating mayhem for others.
§ Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)
One manifestation of antisocial behaviour is car crime. Does the Home Secretary agree that in the wrong hands, a car can be as lethal a weapon as a gun, and that death or injury caused by the illegal or reckless use of either ought to carry the same, very heavy penalty?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend and his parliamentary colleagues from the north-east have been running a very effective campaign on this issue. I am deeply sympathetic to ensuring that we get the penalties and the signals right, and individual cases have highlighted the fact that, at the moment, they are not right.