HC Deb 26 April 2004 vol 420 cc637-44

'The Secretary of State shall, within 6 months of the commencement of the Act, present to Parliament a report setting out legislative proposals to implement anti-social behaviour orders, child curfew orders, parenting orders and provisions for dealing with racially aggravated offences in Northern Ireland.'.—[Mr. Swayne.]

Brought up, and read the First time. 3.30 pm

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 26, in title, line 12, after 'services', insert 'to require the Secretary of State to present to Parliament a report setting out certain legislative proposals relating to criminal justice in Northern Ireland.'.

Mr. Swayne

I am sure that all Members are familiar with the depressing complaints of constituents about, for example, fireworks being thrown, hoax 999 calls, abusive behaviour on our housing estates, vandalism and low-level disorder. Such behaviour is one of the depressing features of our modern age. With respect to my discussions with members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, they say that they want to augment their armoury, as we have ours, with antisocial behaviour orders, local curfew orders, the power to remove truants to a designated place and specific provisions on racially aggravated crime, which, incidentally, is up some 30 per cent over the last year—so much so that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has decided to launch an inquiry on hate crime.

Those preoccupations of the police force have an echo in questions that have been tabled over the last year by Northern Ireland Members. Equally, they have an echo in the reports of the Northern Ireland press, which can be easily scrutinised on the internet through that wonderful vehicle, Newshound. Over and above the requirements of the mainland for those orders, there is an added dimension in Northern Ireland in that such provisions would remove the excuse—the sickening veneer of respectability—that some fools attach to so-called punishment beatings, as if that grotesque paramilitary vigilantism is somehow performing a socially useful function.

I have reservations about the implementation of antisocial behaviour orders, although there are a number of reasons for having the debate. First, we must give voice to the frustration of some Northern Ireland Members, not least the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who serve on Standing Committees of the House and scrutinise in detail legislation to provide for the implementation of those orders here on the mainland, in the knowledge that they are not doing that work for the benefit of their own constituencies, or at least not yet. That has given rise to considerable frustration.

Secondly, there is already a consultation under way. Indeed, I have the Minister's consultation document with me, which requires responses by 1 April. It is a reasonable document in terms of the questions that it sets out. I think, however, that the implementation of antisocial behaviour orders will be controversial for two reasons. The first is our experience of them on the mainland. I am familiar with a number of complaints that they are rather complex and bureaucratic and that, despite being civil orders, they require a standard of proof that could almost apply in a criminal case. They also require lengthy case conferences and the collection of huge amounts of evidence. So, the expectation that implementation of such orders would be a quick and easy process has been dashed.

On average, it takes 13 weeks to secure an order, but six months is not untypical. Detectives can spend more time on an ASBO application than on a serious criminal investigation. A study conducted by NACRO—the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders—stated that 56 per cent. of ASBOs required more than three hearings. It is therefore understandable that their take-up has been well short of the Government's original estimate of some 5,000 a year. Any legislation will therefore be controversial, as Members seek to avoid such pitfalls in the implementation of those orders in Northern Ireland. That will require considerable scrutiny, for which there will be a desire in the House.

Secondly, implementation will be controversial for another reason: the situation in Northern Ireland differs significantly from that on the mainland. The local government structure is very different, and that seems to be the main thrust of the Minister's consultation document, which explores how the orders will be implemented without the same partners that exist for that purpose on the mainland. Again, that will require considerable scrutiny, for which Members will have an appetite.

I understand that the Government already have statutory powers that would enable them to implement ASBOs and the related regulations by order—by administrative law. That would be a highly inappropriate way of proceeding, given the amount of scrutiny that will be necessary and the opinions that will be a consequence, first, of the experience on the mainland, and secondly, of the difference in the local government structure in Northern Ireland. It would be monstrous to bring such regulations before the House on a take-it-or-leave it, unamendable basis. Clearly, therefore, primary legislation is required. Of course, there are not many opportunities for primary legislation—this Bill was such an opportunity, and the Government have missed it. It therefore seems proper to include a provision such as new clause 4, which requires the Government to report to the House on their deliberations on the progress of the consultation, to ginger up their response and to make sure that they do not miss another such opportunity.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con)

I do not intend to delay the House for long, but I want to support my hon. Friend's new clause.

My only quibble with my hon. Friend's new clause is the length of time that he is prepared to allow the Government to prepare their report. It seems to me that six months is far too long. This is not a new issue—we discussed it in the House in relation to England and Wales in the previous Parliament, and it seems to me that the Government should be fully familiar with the issues that lie behind my hon. Friend's remarks and his new clause. I know that the Minister of State is now well in tune with the social and political climate of Northern Ireland, and he must be only too well aware of the issues in the Province, which to a large extent replicate those in England and Wales, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

I am only too well aware of the difficulties of low-level misconduct on our streets. I plan to have a conference in my constituency, which I am chairing, on 21 May, to which I am inviting local police leaders, church leaders, school heads, governors and representatives of the relevant local authorities, to discuss once again—it is the second time that I have held such a conference in the past four or five years—low-level misconduct on our streets in a particular area, South Wigston, which is the least well-off part of my constituency.

As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) kindly mentioned about 12 Queen's Speeches ago, I went to school in Northern Ireland. He once even sent me a copy of the record of my entry to Friends' school, Lisburn. In those days, it was in the constituency of Lord Molyneaux, as he now is. I know from my experience of Northern Ireland at that time, and from subsequent visits, that some urban parts are demographically very similar to South Wigston. If antisocial behaviour orders are relevant to my part of suburban Leicester, they must be hugely relevant to Northern Ireland. I urge the Government to treat the subject seriously, and to get on with it rather than waiting for the six months with which the new clause over-generously provides them. The people of Northern Ireland are as entitled to civilised behaviour' on their streets as those in any other part of the United Kingdom.

Let me make a constitutional point, which was touched on by my hon. Friend. The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) is indeed an assiduous attender of Standing Committees on Bills and statutory instruments. It is also true that it is rather extraordinary that Northern Ireland legislation is always introduced by second-hand means. There are few opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland to see their legislation discussed on the Floor of the House. It is a pity that the Government did not think this up for themselves, and a pity that they did not introduce ASBOs and the other orders mentioned by my hon. Friend at the time of the legislation applying to England and Wales. I am afraid that all too frequently Northern Ireland gets fag-end legislation, which gives the people the impression that they are in a second-class part of the United Kingdom. They are not, and they should not be treated as if they were. In some respects they are given first-class representation in the House, and I think that they are entitled to receive primary legislation far more often.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in trying to amend the Bill's long title, and on hanging the new clause on amendment No. 26. Such action is overdue. I hope that the equivalent of local authorities in Northern Ireland will not experience the problems of expense and delay that ASBOs incur so frequently here.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

I too congratulate the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on his new clause. I agree with much of its intention, as opposed to its detail. It is fair to say that we have our differences with the Government on the details of some of their antisocial behaviour legislation—as has the hon. Gentleman's party, judging by some of our discussions on substantive legislation in the House. In any event, the hon. Gentleman is entirely right to say that what applies on the mainland also has its place in Northern Ireland. The issues are the same in all parts of the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Spellar)

What is the hon. Gentleman's objection to ASBOs?

Mr. Heath

The Minister, typically, has immediately elided what I said into a statement that I was against ASBOs. What I said was that I was against some aspects of antisocial behaviour legislation. Some parts I still believe to be unworkable, having seen them theoretically in operation but not actually applied since they were first debated in the House. I hope the Minister will not continue to misrepresent what I said. I think that there is a place for ASBOs, and we have made that view plain here and elsewhere. We see a strong case for applying them in Northern Ireland as well—with the safeguards that we have debated at such length.

3.45 pm

We believe other parts of the Government's programme to be entirely redundant and based more on a wish to attract headlines than to deal substantively with the problems, but that is not a matter that we need to discuss today. The crucial issue is whether criminal behaviour in Northern Ireland that is not related to any specific issues associated with the specific problems in Northern Ireland is to be dealt with effectively by the Government. My argument—I share the view of the hon. Member for New Forest, West—is that it should be. I agree with his comment that it must have been very irksome to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), who spent many hours in Committee dealing with such matters in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 as it now is, to find that they did not apply to the constituency that she represents so ably.

I had an interesting time in Northern Ireland over Easter with the Royal Marines in Dungannon and along the border. I do not claim that that makes me an expert on the difficulties of policing the Province but I hope that it has given me at least a superficial insight into some of the problems.

Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh) (SDLP)

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that there is an overlay in terms of antisocial behaviour and the type of behaviour that pertains in some areas of the north of Ireland. Can he say who would implement these orders in certain areas and by what mechanism?

Mr. Heath

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a complicated system within United Kingdom legislation on these matters that involves an interplay between local authorities, the police and other agencies. One of the criticisms levelled by the hon. Member for New Forest, West is that that system is over- complicated. I do not agree. I think that the orders have a specific effect, because, in many ways, they are almost a suspended sentence. I do not agree that we should tinker with the standard of proof required, or the inter-relationship between the agencies, but those agencies should be more ready to use the measures that are on the statute book when the occasion is right. I am glad to note that I have seen them used effectively by my own authority.

I do not want to detain the House. I simply say that there is a need to ensure that authorities in Northern Ireland, particularly the police, have available to them the same tools as those available to authorities on the mainland of Great Britain. We are not discussing matters that are specific to Northern Ireland and therefore one would hope that the Government made quick progress, as has been advocated by many parties in Northern Ireland, at least to implement analogous orders to those in operation on thin. side of the Irish sea.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP)

I join others in congratulating the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) on tabling the new clause. I welcome the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who said that all too often Northern Ireland legislation is dealt with other than by primary legislation. It is welcome that these matters are being dealt with on the Floor of the House by way of primary legislation.

It is important that the Government get a clear message—they should have got it already in this brief debate, which I will not extend any longer than is absolutely necessary. It is clear that, throughout the community in Northern Ireland, there is much concern and fear about the low-level activity that other hon. Members have referred to, and that is characterised as antisocial behaviour. People in Northern Ireland cannot understand why there are provisions such as antisocial behaviour orders for the rest of the country but they are not yet available in Northern Ireland.

That issue was raised on Second Reading, when a number of hon. Members pointed out that the Bill implemented some of the recommendations of the criminal justice review and contained other tidying-up provisions, as recommended by the Chief Constable and others, and that its passage was an opportunity to introduce antisocial behaviour orders. That is an opportunity that the Government have missed, and we should urge them to do as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to introduce antisocial behaviour legislation in Northern Ireland.

I understand that the Minister has undertaken a process of consultation on such a proposal, and I am sure that he will not have received many objections, or heard people say that it is a bad idea. He will no doubt have heard the remarks of the chairman of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. When I held the position of Minister for Social Development—a responsibility now held by this Minister—I was urged by the chairman of the Housing Executive to consider introducing antisocial behaviour orders as part of legislation under the housing order. However, we were advised that, as antisocial behaviour is a criminal justice issue, it could not be the subject of such an order and was not a matter for the devolved legislature. Our disappointment that such a provision has not been included in the Bill is therefore all the greater—especially given the scarcity of parliamentary time.

Like others, I urge the Minister and the Government to move quickly on this matter to give the police and the authorities the necessary powers to deal with it. One issue that is constantly brought before me as the Member for Belfast, North—an area that has suffered, and continues to suffer, more than its fair share of antisocial behaviour—is that the police are not only under-resourced in manpower but feel that they do not have the necessary powers to tackle the problem. They are very much in favour of the speedy introduction of antisocial behaviour orders.

The Government should act speedily, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann) (UUP)

I feel that I should speak, because a number of hon. Members have referred to my hon. Friend the Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and the points that she has repeatedly made on this issue. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to the long time spent debating it under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, during which my hon. Friend repeatedly called for the legislation to be extended to Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman will also remember that my hon. Friend received assurances from Ministers that Northern Ireland would be included in that legislation. Those assurances were repeated to her and to me by the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, so hon. Members will understand our chagrin when those assurances were not honoured or acted on.

This Minister might preen himself because he is finally taking some action, but his Department has been extremely dilatory—and not only that. I can go further back on the issue—back to 1997, when the then Home Secretary gave me an assurance that the legislation that he was about to introduce on antisocial behaviour would extend to Northern Ireland. Reasons for that not being possible were given—or at least emerged later. The different local government structures have been referred to today. However, the Minister might recall the Adjournment debate on the subject in January, when he said: Although there can be no direct read-across, our suggestion is to involve local councils and the Housing Executive in the first instance."—[Official Report, Northern Ireland Grand Committee, 15 January 2004; c. 45.] That is obvious. It was obvious in 1997, and it did not require any great wisdom to see that that was the appropriate way of proceeding, but no action was taken.

The other excuse offered was the criminal justice review referred to in the Belfast agreement, which commenced in 1998. As published, that review contains no provisions relating to antisocial behaviour, and nor was it ever likely to do so. It was used simply as an excuse for inaction. I hope that the Minister will actually do something about the issue and do it rapidly. When he does, will he bear in mind that he is seven years late? It is a reproach to this Government that they have dragged their feet. They have been very quick on this side of the water because they know how serious the problem is, but they have not bothered with what is an equally serious problem in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate the Opposition on tabling the new clause, which gives us another opportunity to remind the Government of the way in which they have failed the people of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Spellar

The new clause seemed to me somewhat like a Liberal Democrat "Focus" leaflet. We know the idea: find out when the pavements are going to be repaired, put out a leaflet demanding that they be repaired, then put out another one saying, "Thanks to the sterling efforts of your local Liberal Democrat 'Focus' team, the pavements have been repaired."

The Opposition and others will be aware from the wide range of exchanges in the House that I announced the consultation on antisocial behaviour orders, and that I compressed the consultation period in an effort to meet the target of introducing them before the summer. My difficulty in dealing with the issue in the way suggested—by incorporating it into the Bill—is that even the compressed timetable, which finished on 1 April, would have given us considerable problems. We wanted to introduce the measure at a fairly early stage in the Lords, which, as Members know, is where the legislation started.

As the hon. Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Dodds) rightly pointed out, although the submissions were not unanimous, the great majority of them were in favour of our suggestion. In that regard, the response was fairly positive. It is true that we could not introduce a straight read-across from legislation for England and Wales because of the different structure of local government. As I have said several times at the Dispatch Box, I accept that we could have acted more expeditiously, but I can reasonably argue that we have now moved matters along fairly rapidly.

The suggested course of action of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—bidding for an additional slot in primary legislation—would cause considerable delay compared with dealing with such matters through an Order in Council. The situation on the streets of Northern Ireland demands that early action be taken, so I intend to proceed in the manner described. I hope that we have support for the provision.

Mention was also made of racially aggravated offences. I recently concluded a consultation on a draft Order in Council under the Northern Ireland Act 2000. It will make provision for such matters in Northern Ireland, and I intend, subject to parliamentary procedures and timetables, to have the legislation in place by the summer.

So we do recognise the problem, and we are taking action and moving matters along. In the light of that explanation and reassurance, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the motion.

Mr. Swayne

Antisocial behaviour is not crime and it is a mistake to treat it as such. It requires a swift remedy; it cannot await the lengthy proceedings of a conviction. We all abide by certain rules in society, and if I may I shall draw a simple analogy. Those who travel to my constituency along the M27 often encounter an obstruction in the outside lane. We are directed to move our cars into two lanes, so at an early stage we begin to do so and to form an orderly queue—but someone always whizzes past on the outside, jumping the queue to get to the front.

We wait and put up with it, and they continue to whizz past. Then someone immediately behind who is unable to stand it any longer pulls out of the orderly queue and drives past. The driver faces a dilemma: to sit there and abide by the rules, or behave like everyone else and be antisocial. Antisocial behaviour is a cancer; it leads to the complete breakdown of orderly society and causes misery for so many people on estates throughout the country. It is an urgent matter, requiring attention.

I congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) on the initiative that he has taken in his constituency. I will reflect on it and perhaps do the same in mine. On reflection, he is right; I have been far too patient in providing in the new clause for a further six-month period. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, the Government's decision is seven years too late. The Minister may well congratulate himself on introducing the measure swiftly, but it is inappropriate to deal with such complex law through a statutory instrument.

The Bill was the proper vehicle for such a measure: it should have contained provision for antisocial behaviour orders. There is nothing urgent in the Bill—nothing that could not have waited. The only urgent matters are the antisocial behaviour orders and other measures—and they are not in the Bill. The point has been well made. The Minister has missed an opportunity. He could have delayed the passage of the Bill and done the job properly. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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