HC Deb 17 November 2003 vol 413 cc523-8

Lords amendment: No. 9.

Ms Blears

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 10 to 22.

Ms Blears

Amendment No. 9 removes clause 24(2), which was made redundant by Government amendments moved on Report. Amendment No. 10 corrects an earlier drafting error.

Amendment No. 11 specifies that the term "guardian" in clauses 25 to 29 has the same meaning as in the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. That makes the law consistent, because that meaning is already applied to parenting orders for criminal conduct or antisocial behaviour under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

The Government listened carefully to the points that were made in the other place about the importance of the work of local authorities in tackling antisocial behaviour in their areas, particularly through local crime and disorder partnerships. That is the context in which we agree with amendment No. 12, which ensures that the agreement of the local authority is given before powers to disperse groups can be used. Local authorities and the police already work closely together in a whole range of partnerships to tackle crime and disorder in local communities, and are implementing strategies for dealing with many of the issues addressed in the Bill. It is right that we should expect there to be agreement on the authorisation of the powers that are used as part of that process. The amendment will strengthen the Bill and lead to even greater partnership working between local authorities and the police.

The provisions of part 4 extend to the British Transport police. Amendment No. 13 merely updates a cross-reference to the Railways and Transport Safety Act 2003.

The aim of amendments Nos. 14. 15 and 16 is to give to county councils the power to apply for antisocial behaviour orders that is currently available to the police, district councils and registered social landlords. It was requested for county councils by the County Councils Network. We recognise that county councils have responsibilities that encompass tackling antisocial behaviour because in many cases they are responsible for youth services, the provision of education, and social services. The amendments therefore extend to county councils the power to apply for ASBOs on the same basis as registered social landlords, the British Transport police and, under the Bill, housing action trusts. Moreover, sometimes the main legal department for an area rests within the county council. It is important that county councils be played into the provisions, because they can often provide essential legal and technical support to district councils in terms of exercising those powers.

Amendments Nos. 17 to 22 are largely technical. They move all the clauses in part 5 to the end of the Bill, in accordance with the drafting convention that dictates that parts of Bills entitled "Miscellaneous powers" should be placed at the end. The important matters of substance relate mainly to the necessity for the police to have the agreement of the local authority in exercising the dispersal powers and to the need to include county councils to ensure that they can play an effective part in the essential partnerships with the police in tackling such matters.

Mr. Paice

I am grateful to the Minister for explaining that many of the amendments are entirely non-controversial and what I have always described as "technical", probably because I do not understand them.

I am, however, concerned about the amendment that deals with authorising the use of the dispersal powers that the Bill creates. The Minister clearly foresaw that, because it was the only one that she concentrated on. There is no difference between Conservative Members and the Government about the importance of the involvement of local government in dealing with crime, particularly low-level crime. We welcome the setting up of crime and disorder reduction partnerships and, as the Minister knows, have our own proposals on how to enhance local involvement in those matters. Equally, unlike Members of some parties, the official Opposition welcome the measures on dispersal powers. We believe that it is right that the Government should give the police powers to disperse groups of people in such circumstances. In Committee—the Minister will not remember this, because she was not the Minister responsible at the time—we discussed why the power needed to be restricted to a particular authorised area. We said that if the police saw that there was a problem, they should be able to deal with it there and then, rather than having to go through the panoply of procedures involved in authorising a specific area.

Nevertheless, I still do not understand why the Minister wants effectively to give local authorities the veto over an area. If, as the Government intend, the power is to be restricted so that it does not—as we contend that it should—apply across the country, the local authority should of course be consulted. But there is a great difference between consulting an authority and saying to it, "You must make the decision: yes or no. If you say that the police should not have dispersal powers in this particular neighbourhood area, that will be the final say on the matter." In all honesty, the Minister knows as well as I do that there is a huge variety of local authorities. One or two—thankfully, it is only a minority—are not always as helpful to the police as we would like. The amendment creates the risk that however much local communities and the police want to be able to use dispersal powers in a particular authorised area, the local authority may say, "No, we don't agree. We don't want the police riding roughshod over our community"—or whatever kind of language it chooses to use.

I do not wish to comment on any of the other amendments, but I stress to the Minister that I am worried that her attempt to involve local authorities through consultation, which is a worthy objective, may backfire. I fear that by saying, in the words of the amendment, that authorisation may not be given without the consent of the local authority", she will add to a concern that many local people express when they tell us, as they often do: "Local authorities do not really care about us." I want local authorities to be involved, but I am very concerned about giving them a complete veto.

Mrs. Brooke

I am pleased to see the amendment, because we are talking about serious measures to disperse young people for their mere presence. I contend that legislation is already in place to move young people on when serious problems arise. Given the way in which the dispersal orders are to be enacted, involving the local authority means increased democratic accountability and shared responsibility for decisions. That is welcome. In some areas, there could be great sensitivities in relation to different ethnic minorities. The amendment provides a protection when the local authority needs to work so closely with the police in those circumstances.

As members of the Committee will verify, I maintained throughout our deliberations that we should refer all the measures to the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships. It is not enough simply to move people on; one has to know where they will go and what they will do once they have been moved.

6 pm

The amendment, by including the local authority, offers a genuine opportunity to consider what other measures we should introduce to support the dispersal order. The amendment is therefore a positive, not a stopping provision. It could encourage the inclusion of all the supportive measures about which I spoke at such great length.

The Local Government Association suggests the inclusion of county, district and unitary authorities in the Bill. It is interesting that county councils are being allowed to issue ASBOs. It makes sense to ensure that consultation takes place with the county council because in areas where there is a county council plus a district council, the former provides the youth and education services. Although I would not like the veto to be extended, the consultation element should be made clear. The amendment should be welcomed and we shall wait to ascertain the outcome: whether the new curfew orders will be used more than the previous orders and whether the dispersal orders will be greatly used.

Ms Blears

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) have shown how providing a balance is genuinely a matter of fine judgment when deciding whether there should be consultation or agreement between local authorities on the appropriate steps to take. It is my judgment that there should be a strong relationship between the police and local government in implementing the powers. I was disappointed when the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and the Liberal Democrats took such great exception to the powers when they were originally introduced in the Bill. They could be useful in specific circumstances when antisocial behaviour occurs and local people are intimidated by others gathering in an area and causing harassment and distress.

The local authority is an essential partner in tackling crime, disorder and antisocial behaviour and it should therefore be engaged in a joint enterprise with the police in dealing with it. I stress to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that I do not like to view the amendment as a veto because if we implement section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 properly, we should not be in a position whereby one partner pulls against the other. The partnership should be strong and influence matters on the ground. From my experience, crime and antisocial behaviour are tackled effectively in places where the police, the local authority, businesses, voluntary groups and the local community are engaged together, bringing added value to the partnership and making it work. If the local authority and the police pull against each other, that is evidence of a poor partnership, which we would want to investigate further.

We do not want a veto, but if the dispersal powers are exercised in the case of very young children on the streets and they need to be taken to their home or, if they are likely to suffer significant harm, a place of safety, social services and possibly the education authorities need to be involved to ensure that the needs of the young people are taken into account.

The dispersal provisions have been controversial. I recently met members of the Youth Parliament and we had a couple of hours of useful debate during which the young people asked me some searching questions. To some extent, they put me on the spot and I thoroughly enjoyed discussing the provisions with them. I want to put on record the fact that the provisions are as much about protecting young people in the community so that they feel free to go about their lawful business without being intimidated by others as they are about tackling antisocial behaviour.

Our attempt to involve local authorities through the amendment is evidence of our twin-track approach, which is apparent throughout the Bill. That means support for those who want to change their behaviour, for parenting and for young people, coupled with tough and effective enforcement. That twin-track approach will help to tackle antisocial behaviour in our communities. I am pleased that we have come down on the side of involving local authorities and ensuring that local councils, with their elected members, play a genuine role.

I am sure that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire knows that local authorities and the police increasingly use the national intelligence model together, share information and are involved in joint tasking and co-ordination. That is another big step change in the partnerships' successful operation.

Mrs. Brooke

I welcome the Minister's comments on twin tracking. When we held our discussions in Committee, there was great emphasis on enforcement and not enough emphasis on support. It has therefore been pleasing to hear her comments today.

Ms Blears

I am delighted that the hon. Lady is delighted because it is important that we constantly consider the issue with the two points in mind. Our aim is to try to divert young people especially—I accept that antisocial behaviour is not confined to them—from crime and disorder. As a former public health Minister, I believe that prevention is better than cure and that if we can act to reduce crime, we should do that. I am equally convinced of the merits of tough and effective enforcement and sanctions. Any responsible policy should encompass both.

Mr. Paice

The Minister may be delighted that I was not delighted. I re-emphasise that I agree with her about the importance of local authorities, the police and other agencies working together. I passionately believe in that. She is also right that the better they work together, the more effectively they operate. I am worried that she effectively said that if that ideal relationship is not in place, the local authority will call the tune and that whatever other agencies, community organisations and the police may say, unless the local authority consents to making an area authorised, it cannot happen. That is my only point of concern. I support encouraging bodies to work together, consultation and the rest of the panoply of relevant measures, but I am worried that the Minister claims that whatever the police or the community says, the local authority has the final word.

Ms Blears

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that we have a wide range of tools not only to encourage good partnerships but to take positive steps to ensure that they are in place. It is occasionally necessary to put our money where our mouth is. If we talk about involving local government in what we do, it is occasionally right to put that at the heart of our policy making. We have agreed to the amendment and are prepared to say that the local authority's agreement is an integral part of our ability to get the most out of the powers that we have put on the statute book. That is not only a symbolic indication of the importance of local government but something more fundamental. It stresses that the crime and disorder partnerships must have equal buy-in from every partner if we are genuinely to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour.

The hon. Gentleman also knows that we, like his party, have proposals for the future direction of the police services and community safety. At the heart of the proposals is a genuine commitment to more local involvement from the community, local authorities, businesses, the voluntary sector and all of us as citizens in taking responsibility for tackling crime and antisocial behaviour. It is occasionally right that the commitment is reflected in the words of legislation. In this instance, there should be a joint enterprise for using the dispersal powers.

I hope that I have given sufficient reassurance about the reasons for the decision that the Government have made. I believe that we have made the right judgment. I am sure that I have not convinced the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but I am delighted to have convinced the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 10 to 22 agreed to [one with Special Entry].

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