§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]7.19 pm
§ Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab)
It is a rare surgery in Redcar that does not bring to me people who are full of anxiety about nuisance neighbours. Last weekend, into the Saturday calm of Redcar library came a couple with a horror story about their community. About a year ago, my constituents' car was taken from outside their flat; they got a replacement and parked it in the only place they could—outside their flat. Two days later, the windows had been smashed with a brick.
Around that time, a couple of the flats on the estate started to be occupied by a pair or a group of 17 and 18-year-old lads, who seemed to congregate around them much larger groups of similar lads. A couple of them got into the habit of riding motorbikes—rather noisy and dilapidated ones—at night without lights and at speed, in and out of the alleys between the blocks of flats.
One day, the couple came home to find furniture from an unoccupied flat all over the green between the buildings. Since the new year, the female has clearly seen a knife in the hands of a young man in a gang, who were being followed around by a group of six or seven-year-old children. The next week, there was no knife, but there was an air rifle in similar hands and the female told me that if she looked at those people on the street, they poured abuse on her. She said that they all felt under threat and that she went home with her eyes cast down. One day in January a couple of them chewed a cake half up, spat it into their hands and threw the lumps at a middle-aged woman's windows, and when she came out to protest what must have sounded like an army of feet ran across the roof of the block of flats, pulling up the aerials like weeds as they went.
The police come. There are no complaints. The police talk to the lads and disperse them. "Yes, of course, officer, we will go", say the lads. The police go, the lads come back and the same happens again. No one in the community wants to be a witness for a prosecution, an antisocial behaviour order or an eviction. Not even the people who came to see me wanted that. They wanted to know how to move, but it is not easy to move.
Later that week, a 20-year-old with a baby girl who was housed on an estate at the other end of the constituency called me because she wanted to move. Next door to her lives a family that is noisy, rowdy and drinks a lot, often slamming doors late at night so that neither the woman nor the baby can sleep. She is worried about her baby's welfare. Across the road lives another family whose comings and goings, with streams of visitors at all times of the day and night, heavily suggest drug dealing. She is very scared.
The police came, as they should, about the noise. When she told them about the drugs, they asked her whether she was prepared to be a witness. Of course she was not prepared to be a witness: she is 20 and lives on her own. She has to be there when the police are not: she cannot be a witness.
Those are random examples of hundreds and I guess that every MP could list similar cases. Apart from the misery, fear and stress that people trapped in those 1386 situations experience, it seems to me that both the police and the people are trapped in a nuisance neighbours conundrum: the police cannot take action without witnesses and the people are too afraid to be witnesses.
There are some methods in force. Cleveland police have an acceptable behaviour contract campaign, which they now use for adults as well as children. They talk to people, keeping it as anonymous as possible. They take graded steps; they send graded letters, and it is pretty successful. There is a group of local authority wardens, and people can be seen talking to them, because they could be talking about grass cutting or a hole in the ground. Information can be given to the police on a reasonably anonymous basis.
I cannot praise the Government highly enough for their recent focus on antisocial behaviour. The Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 allows the police to disperse gangs and provides for more parenting orders; and the Housing Bill will at last require landlords to co-operate in attempts to control antisocial tenants. There have also been witness protection measures since the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 allowed people to give evidence from behind a screen without having their names revealed. I have even seen a piece of equipment designed to distort people's voices.
It is not easy, however, to have much faith in witness protection measures when the culprit lives only two doors away. The culprits will see someone going to court, check the time someone leaves home and recognise that the "plain clothes" police car outside is indeed a police car. They will recognise an incident when it is related in court, thereby recognising the person giving evidence. Someone might have a police alarm on the house, but how could the police get there in time when the neighbours live just up the street? I do not believe that the police could, in all conscience, guarantee to protect people who live so hugger-mugger with their tormentors.
Some of the methods work, and more ASBOs are being secured, but the conundrum continues to prevail. Policing methods must be upgraded to the levels of those used historically against serious crime. The police must take the primary responsibility for gathering evidence. They must launch antisocial behaviour surveillance operations, with cameras hidden in cars, empty houses and on the roofs of public buildings. They must be able to call on professional witnesses, such as other police officers, wardens, and community support officers. They must be able to move into empty houses, or wait outside in a series of different vehicles. In that way, they can make tape recordings and observations and notes of events, and recognise the people involved. In the end, officers can testify about what they have seen done and who they have seen doing it.
That sounds melodramatic, like cops and robbers. I am sure that the Government will think that it sounds very expensive for a response to what is antisocial behaviour and not armed robbery. However, it has become clear that antisocial neighbours can force ordinary families into real misery. The methods that I have outlined, and their costs, are justified.
I am aware that there are some green shoots by way of developments in this matter. A series of ASBOs was obtained in Leeds on the strength of professional evidence, and I know that Sunderland council, some 40 1387 miles north of Redcar, is a trailblazer for the "Together" antisocial behaviour campaign. It has been tasked with looking at ways to collect evidence.
I am also aware that ASBOs are issued under civil proceedings. Hearsay is acceptable, so it is possible for one officer to collect 10 accounts and deliver them to the court. Also, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 allows hearsay to be admitted in criminal proceedings. As long ago as 1988, a power was given to admit statements rather than oral evidence from people who were being kept away from court by fear. However, those tools are not being used. In addition to them, we need the other tools that I have described. We cannot leave people to act against antisocial behaviour on their own.
The methods that I have outlined may allow us to win some more prosecutions and ASBOs. More culprits will be evicted, and there will be great relief as people start again to want to live where they live, but what happens to the culprits then? They have to have somewhere to live. If they have children, they will need to be rehoused, often in an area of low housing demand that may not be far away from where they used to live. In such areas, there will be plenty of voids, and plenty of other people who, for similar reasons, will have been moved in from elsewhere. The neighbourhood will be in decline already.
It is well known that decent people can get trapped in such areas. For instance, owner-occupiers are unable to sell their properties because no one wants to buy them; even if they did sell them, they would not get enough money to buy another house. Other people to be affected would be the tenants of registered social landlords with no points to move or exchange. All that puts a new meaning on the much-used phrase, "Hello, I'm your new neighbour." Even in my surgery in Redcar—a very small microcosm of the area—we have dealt with a family that caused trouble at location A. It was moved away from there, to the relief of neighbours, and is now causing trouble again at location B.
It was not all that long ago—in 1996, in fact—that Dundee council realised that it was moving nuisance families and antisocial behaviour around the city at the same time. It set up the Dundee families project, with the aim of changing the behaviour of problem families so that they could live unobjectionably in mainstream housing.
An assessment by Glasgow university in 2001 said that the project was "a rare example" of an "intensive intervention" targeted at the sort of behaviour that I have described. Such projects remain rare even today, and that is the problem. The charity NCH joined the Dundee council project, because it understood how necessary it was. It knew that the children of problem families were likely to be the biggest casualties of eviction and of its aftermath—bed-and-breakfast accommodation, going into care, poor school attendance and the break-up of families.
The Dundee project had worked with 83 families by 2001, when the Glasgow university study stated that most of them had made real progress. Their decline had been stopped.
It is not my main point. but I want to tell the House that the project also saved money. The cost of even intensive rehabilitation is less than the cost of repeated 1388 evictions and of taking children into care. In addition, it obviously makes a strong contribution to maintaining the stability of the community. The point is that behaviour can be changed.
The Dundee project works in three ways. For the worst people, there are three flats in a block where there is 24-hour supervision and intervention; the average stay is nine months. Flats dispersed through town but owned by the project offer support at the next stage down, when people have moved on. An outreach arm tries to make early interventions before either of those two courses is required.
Behaviour is addressed by intensive work on a family group basis, with anger management, parenting and budgeting skills, alcohol and drug counselling or whatever is needed. The project is a success, although probably not with everybody; but for many families who realise that they are in the last chance saloon, it has been a success. Indeed, the project is so successful that it has been shortlisted for a national housing award. It must be good because it won a local government award for innovation in Scotland, presented by the Labour party.
Although such schemes are rare, there are similar projects in Manchester and Rochdale—the latter in partnership with Shelter. In its first year, the Rochdale scheme reported a high number of mental health issues among problem families and that, where children were part of the problem, 35 of the 50 heads of families were single mothers. Provisionally, Rochdale, like Dundee, reports that incidents of ASB among many of those households have been reduced or have stopped.
There is a scheme in Bolton, and Dundee has received inquiries from as far away as Devon and Middlesbrough—the next town to Redcar, where I started and where I briefly return, to finish my speech. Redcar is a little place, on the edge of the Teesside conurbation, and there are many extended families. That aggravates both elements of antisocial behaviour to which I have referred. It is doubly hard for a witness to have confidence when not only do they live in the same street as their adversary, but they know that his relations know where their relations live. Furthermore, moving problem families around a small place brings them more quickly back to where they started.
On behalf of the Redcar people who come to me so frequently with those problems, I ask the Government to consider the two policy developments that I have proposed. First, they need to understand more fully the burden of being an intimidated victim, and ease it by putting the primary responsibility for collecting and presenting evidence on to the public authorities. Secondly, there should be more local intervention schemes to change the behaviour of nuisance families, so that they are not evicted from next door to brother on one day only to move next door to sister on the next.
§ The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)
I genuinely thank my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) for securing the debate. Although attendance is sparse, the topic is probably the top issue in the surgeries and postbags of most Members and 1389 councillors throughout the country. When I visit local communities, antisocial behaviour and quality of life issues are at the heart of people's concerns.
Dealing with antisocial behaviour is hugely important. In our recent assessment, under the British crime survey, one in three people nationally—a huge number—said that antisocial behaviour affected their quality of life. It is wholly unacceptable that people have to tolerate the kind of behaviour that my hon. and learned Friend has detailed. Disgusting and despicable acts are committed against very vulnerable people, some of whom have to live with such behaviour day in, day out, week in, week out. That incessant pressure on people's lives really has to be experienced to be understood.
The problems that many communities face cannot be tackled in isolation; they cannot simply be dealt with either by the police or the local authority and certainly not by communities on their own. It is vital that all the agencies work together—the police, local authority workers, neighbourhood wardens and social workers. Our schools are a vital element in tackling antisocial behaviour. Other officers, such as environmental health officers, are much undervalued in terms of the powers and analysis that they can bring to bear on some of the problems, especially in relation to housing.
I have heard of some devastating experiences over the past few weeks and months as I have visited areas to talk to local people. Recently, I visited the Little London area of Leeds where 66 antisocial behaviour orders were obtained by the local authority at the end of the summer in a period of only a few weeks. In that community, all control had been lost. Children as young as nine or 10 were running amok; many of them were acting as runners for drug dealers and the whole community was at a complete loss about what to do.
The fact that the authorities have now obtained the antisocial behaviour orders—35 of them are full orders and 30 are, at present, interim orders—has sent out a huge message to that local community. People have told me that for the first time in years they have been able to use the local play area and their children have been able to play out in peace and quiet. They have not been able to do something as simple as that, which most of us would take for granted, because of the behaviour of the minority who have made their lives an absolute misery.
Yesterday, I was in Nottingham, visiting a local community in the Stonebridge and St. Ann's area of the city. It suffers the problems of antisocial behaviour, vandalism and young people gathering in intimidating groups, much of it fuelled by drug addiction. The authorities in the area are beginning to get a grip on the antisocial behaviour, but they have some way to go before local communities will feel fully safe and protected.
For those reasons, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary and I launched the antisocial behaviour action plan and campaign in November last year. We have backed the plan with £75 million of new money, to be distributed across the country with funding for every area. There will be an antisocial behaviour co-ordinator for every crime and disorder reduction partnership. Crucially, help and support will be provided for front-line practitioners.
1390 My hon. and learned Friend is right: although the powers are on the statute book, tackling antisocial behaviour is a fairly new discipline and people have yet to come to terms with which powers they can use, how they can use the courts and how they can drive forward action at a local level. That is why we have set up the "Together" academy, which brings together a range of practitioners from the police, local government and the court system, and provides free training, delivered by expert practitioners who have already pushed forward the boundaries in the use of such powers. They have come across the problems before and solved them for themselves, and they are ready to share their expertise and good practice with others. The academy has now organised an event for every region of the country and, in the next six to eight weeks, it will train 3,000 people. There will be an academy event in my hon. and learned Friend's region and I urge her to get local people to take advantage of that training, so that they can be skilled up to use the new powers that the Government have put on the statute book.
Along with the "Together" academy will go the "Together" action line. Again, that is a practical way to try to help local communities. The action line will be staffed by expert practitioners, who will be at the end of a telephone line so that people can get in touch with them and say, "I've got a problem. I do not know how to get the evidence to obtain an order. The witnesses feel intimidated—what should I do to help them?" The expert practitioners stand ready to help at every opportunity. The action line, the website and the academy are practical ways to help people deal with these issues.
My hon. and learned Friend is right to say that antisocial behaviour spans a range of issues, including graffiti and fly-tipping, but the impact of nuisance neighbours can be enormous. We have examples from across the country of ordinary people's lives being ripped apart by the intimidation, harassment and criminal damage carried out by a small minority of families, who make life a misery for the majority. Such behaviour, as evidenced by my hon. and learned Friend, cannot go unchecked. It needs to be challenged and put under pressure, to the point where people want to change their behaviour. If they do want to change, we will be there to support them in doing so.
My hon. and learned Friend makes the important point that obtaining orders and moving the problem around does not resolve the underlying issues for some nuisance neighbours. It is key to our strategy to develop ways in which we can prevent the antisocial behaviour in the first place, rather than transferring it when we disperse those subject to an order.
We have set up 10 trailblazers across the country to deal with a range of antisocial behaviour, including nuisance families, but we have also set up a nuisance neighbour expert panel, which brings together people from social services, education, the police and various other agencies, to look at the hard cases with multiple problems. Those could include substance misuse, mental health problems and children with problems. The panel analyses the cases and determines exactly what support needs to be provided, alongside enforcement, to change the situation around. The first meeting of the nuisance neighbour expert panel was 1391 extremely interesting and if my hon. and learned Friend's local practitioners wish to key in to that panel, we would be delighted to provide that support.
My hon. and learned Friend cited some examples of good practice—the shelter inclusion project and the Dundee families project—where support is offered in various parts of the country to families who have been threatened with repossession, threatened with eviction, or against whom there are ASBOs. The projects are long term. The Dundee project has a residential element, with support offered 24 hours a day. Clearly, that is very intensive help for the families concerned. The projects are being evaluated, and so far the news is very encouraging, in that behaviour can be turned around.
It is vital that we have twin tracks to our strategy: support for those who are prepared to take it, but also very tough and swift enforcement, because the majority of people in this country have to know that we are on their side in dealing with the kind of horrific behaviour that my hon. and learned Friend has identified.
My hon. and learned Friend also raised the very important issue of witness intimidation, one of the most difficult and intractable matters with which we have to deal. As she rightly says, very often the victims of nuisance neighbours and antisocial behaviour will live in the same street, in the same community, and will have to face those who are perpetrating this behaviour day after day.
We are doing a great deal of work around witness support. It is vital that we support people, not just from when the matters get to court, but from when they first occur, and that we take them right through the process, supporting them at every point. My hon. and learned Friend is right that the ASBOs are civil orders, and therefore we can use hearsay evidence and professional witnesses. In many cases, police forces have been prepared to do surveillance and to put in different kinds of evidence. Where authorities have got used to using the powers, they have also adopted new ways of gathering evidence. We can share that best practice, concerning ways in which evidence can be gathered, through the academy.
At the end of the day the very best evidence is from the victims—those who have witnessed the behaviour themselves. Therefore, a key part of our strategy is to try to encourage them to come forward and to support them at every step. One of the key things that we have done is to launch "Taking a Stand" awards. Here in Parliament just a couple of months ago, we had people from all around the country who had been nominated by their local communities for their courage in taking a stand against antisocial behaviour. They were prepared to stand up and give evidence, with support. The message that that has sent to the rest of their communities is that if one stands up and is prepared to give evidence and get the ASBO, one really can transform the community in which one lives.
The overall winners of the awards were some extremely brave women from Failsworth who had suffered antisocial behaviour for three years. They had petrol poured through their letterboxes. Their children were bullied and harassed on the way to school. Their lives were an absolute misery. They finally decided that 1392 enough was enough. They came together, co-operated with the police, and obtained ASBOs. Now their community is a much better place to live in. They have recently obtained an empty house on their estate and turned it into a community drop-in centre. They have done something extremely positive with the anger, distress and hurt that they were feeling, and have been able to make a tremendous contribution to the local community.
It can be done. I do not underestimate the difficulties that people experience in tackling antisocial behaviour, but there are examples now, beacons up and down the country, of people having been able to make a difference by standing up in this way.
I commend to my hon. and learned Friend the "Together" campaign pack, produced to go with the academy and the action line. It contains details of all the powers available, when they come in and how they can be used. There is also a guide to running a local "Together" campaign. Perhaps we could have "Together Redcar", which would be a very good way of bringing people together.
There is thought of running local "Taking a Stand" awards. Again, my hon. and learned Friend might like to think about organising, perhaps with her local authority, nominations of local people who have made this kind of contribution, giving them a small reward for a community project and publicising the fact that people can come forward and make a difference in their communities.
My hon. and learned Friend has mentioned using housing powers, as well as the powers under the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, and I also remind her that a series of powers is being introduced in respect of housing. Demoted tenancies will be introduced from June this year. Where nuisance and antisocial behaviour occurs, demotion will remove the tenant's right to buy and security of tenure for a year, so it is a powerful weapon.
The Housing Bill, currently before Parliament, includes the prospect of introducing selective licensing and interim management orders for houses in the private sector. A big problem has been to try to ensure that unscrupulous private landlords do not simply let their properties to people without any vetting or supervision, allowing them to indulge in antisocial behaviour without any remedy. The prospect of being able to license private sector landlords will come as an enormous relief to those in many areas of the country that have been blighted by irresponsible private landlords. Of course, many good landlords are part of voluntary accreditation and licensing schemes and manage their properties properly, but far too often irresponsible landlords allow their tenants to make other people's lives an absolutely misery.
We will also introduce new powers in relation to noise nuisance, which, I understand, is a particular problem in my hon. and learned Friend's constituency. From 31 March, all local authorities will have the power to investigate complaints of excessive noise at night, to give warning notices in respect of that noise and, where it remains excessive after the issue of the notice, either prosecute or issue a fixed-penalty notice for £100, which is far more likely and should bring some people up pretty sharp, making them realise what their 1393 irresponsible behaviour is doing to their neighbours. Noise pollution and noise nuisance are some of the most difficult things to deal with, and they cause people a huge amount of anguish in their own homes. So we now have a range of powers—from housing and managing noise to dealing with ASBOs—that are beginning to come on stream.
I also want to highlight to my hon. and learned Friend the fact that we will also introduce powers to deal with the some of the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour. That is as important as enforcement. We will introduce individual support orders to juveniles with ASBOs. When an ASBO is made on a young person, an individual support order will be directed to the causes of the antisocial behaviour, such as substance misuse, mental health problems and anger management, so that we can try to change that person's behaviour for the future. The real success—the real prize—for us is to try to ensure that we prevent the antisocial behaviour from getting any worse and causing more concern in the community.
Antisocial behaviour powers have been on the statute book for some years now, and we have recently tried to streamline them, to make them easier for people to use and to give them the tools to make a difference. I am delighted that there are now more than 1,600 ASBOs throughout the country. There are many more 1394 acceptable behaviour contracts, and they are now being used with adults, as well as juveniles. There are nearly 4,000 parenting orders. Again, they are a key part of our strategy to try to involve the whole family in dealing with such issues. There are about 18,000 drug treatment and testing orders. Many of these problems are driven by drug abuse and addiction.
On enforcement, we now have record numbers of police officers and community support officers, who are out there in communities, giving people some visible reassurance. For far too long, people have been crying out for that reassurance. My hon. and learned Friend will know that record numbers of police officers and community support officers are helping the community in her constituency.
I am delighted that my hon. and learned Friend has raised this extremely important issue. I hope that she is reassured that the Government have an intense focus on the issue and that we are absolutely determined to tackle antisocial behaviour wherever it may be and to support the decent majority against the actions of the loutish minority who have made some people's lives far too difficult for far too long.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Eight o'clock.