HC Deb 01 February 2000 vol 343 cc137-57WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Touhig.]

10 am

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on a problem that we all recognise as one of the most serious facing many of our constituents—anti-social behaviour. Constituents come to my surgeries and those of many hon. Members with all sorts of problems involving anti-social behaviour.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 provided a range of new orders for tackling anti-social behaviour. One is the anti-social behaviour order, the purpose of which is to allow the police and local authorities to deal effectively with people who persistently seriously harass, alarm and cause distress to others. The local authority or the police may now apply to a magistrates court for an order to protect people from those who persistently make their lives a misery. The police and local authorities asked for that power because there was a gap in the legislation and they wanted it filled. They needed a quick and effective measure to tackle such behaviour, so the Government responded and provided the new laws.

We have all had constituents coming to our surgeries with horrific stories. What do they ask for when they come to see us? They want the opportunity for themselves and others to live peaceful and law-abiding lives. The anti-social behaviour order has teeth, so ordinary people do not need to take the action that they may feel too intimidated to take. It can be taken on their behalf, so they can remain anonymous and avoid further intimidation. One of the most appalling aspects of anti-social behaviour is that many people feel intimidated and unable to seek redress through the law. I have had people in my surgeries saying that they hoped no one saw them come in. The purpose of the orders is to remove the fear of intimidation by providing an opportunity for professional witnesses to be involved.

I am sure that most hon. Members could list a catalogue of experiences, and I shall give one or two examples of unacceptable behaviour that must be dealt with. I emphasise at the outset that, although I shall refer to experiences from my constituency, the vast majority of my constituents in Gedling in Nottingham are peaceful and law-abiding and want action to be taken against what is a very small minority. If I were to name any constituents who had experienced such behaviour, they would worry about being identified in a local newspaper report. Therefore, I must speak in general terms to demonstrate the scale of the problem. One constituent was persistently harassed, threatened and physically abused by a neighbour. Indeed, at one point the neighbour seemed to be taking pot shots at my constituent with an air rifle. It is difficult to believe that such things happen, but unfortunately they are all too common.

In my constituency, groups of youths gather every evening in a children's playground that is surrounded by houses. They drink, urinate on the swings and fornicate on the slide. Anyone who tries to reason with them is verbally and physically intimidated. Why should those who are going about their everyday business or watching television in the evening have to deal with such problems, only to be mooned at by young people? We seem to underestimate the extent to which people are intimidated by such behaviour. Youths have also been riding bikes around the corridors of an old people's complex in my constituency with bats in their hands. One can imagine the terror that that provokes. They stand in the streets and drink, throw stones at windows and act in a threatening and intimidating manner. Moreover, there are numerous examples of neighbour nuisance. People carry on unlawful activities without planning permission and carry out all manner of repairs in their garages at all times of the day.

Of course, I complain to the police and local authorities about such behaviour. They take action, and the behaviour stops—for a few days or a week. However, as far as ordinary people are concerned, an end point is never reached because no one is ever held accountable and punished. They also feel that parents are failing to accept responsibility for the behaviour of their children. Most of such offenders are young, and we must ensure that they do not get away with their crimes and that their parents are also held responsible. We are talking about not petty or trivial crimes, but the sort of crimes and anti-social behaviour that people experience in their communities and about which they want something done. My constituents express fears not about major crime—important though that issue is—but about the behaviour to which I have referred.

People often feel that, in trying to deal with such problems, they are coming up against a brick wall. The local authority tells them that it is a matter for the police, and the police say that it is a matter for the local authority. As a result, people feel that nothing can be done and nobody is responsible.

Anti-social behaviour must be dealt with quickly and firmly. I have urged Gedling borough council, in conjunction with the police, to use anti-social behaviour orders to deal with the many cases that have been brought to my attention. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has encouraged local authorities, the police and housing departments and agencies to work together. It has changed the culture, which is a major plus.

Gedling borough council has had a crime reduction strategy during the past two or three years, and has set itself high targets in priority areas such as domestic burglary and working with young people. It has tried to provide additional facilities such as shelters and basketball courts, and has carried out liaison work with the Guinness Trust—a local partner—to try to discourage vandalism. In addition, council officers have spent a considerable time in liaison meetings with the police, as part of their work against anti-social behaviour. There is a community safety partnership that encompasses Gedling borough council, Nottinghamshire county council and the Nottinghamshire police, assisted by the health authority and the probation service. Gedling borough council and Nottinghamshire police do good work together—the encouragement of such collaboration is one of the most positive aspects of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Despite the appalling behaviour that I have outlined—and the appalling behaviour described by other hon. Members in their constituencies—not one anti-social behaviour order has been implemented in my constituency, even though great consideration has been given to the idea.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Has the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity to study the Hansard report of the Committee stage of the Crime and Disorder Bill, when the complexity of the anti-social behaviour order provisions was discussed at length? Opposition Members were worried that that complexity would lead to great difficulty in using those orders in practice. Does he agree that the Opposition were right on that point?

Mr. Coaker

This is an important debate, and we need to try to build a consensus and a way forward. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has written to local authorities and chief constables to ask them what practical problems exist in relation to the implementation of anti-social behaviour orders. Later in my remarks, I shall refer to one or two of the problems that local police and authorities have drawn to my attention. It is important that anti-social behaviour orders are implemented. They are good things, and any difficulties or problems with their implementation should be brought to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister so that a way forward can be found. That is the point of today's debate. It is in all our interests to tackle the kinds of behaviour that I have mentioned. No doubt the hon. Gentleman's constituents have told him about such behaviour.

As I said, not one anti-social behaviour order has been implemented in my constituency. The latest figures show that only 10 have been implemented nationally. That is of concern to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and my hon. Friend the Minister will probably want to comment on it.

In Nottingham, the city council has made a 14-year-old boy the subject of an anti-social behaviour order. One order has therefore been implemented in the greater Nottingham area. It is amazing to think that that young man had been convicted 55 times in the past two years on charges including theft, taking vehicles, robbery, burglary, handling stolen goods and motoring offences. Many people have asked me why it has taken two years for an anti-social behaviour order to be applied, or for the law to deal with somebody who is clearly terrorising a neighbourhood. People are staggered by it, and, in all honesty, I find it difficult to provide an answer. One would have thought that at some stage, even if an anti-social behaviour order were not appropriate, another care provision—or criminal provision—should have been appropriate. However, the use of the order sent a powerful message to that local community and to many others across the greater Nottingham conurbation. I hope that it is the first of many such orders.

The important factor is that the young man's breaking of the order meant that he had committed a criminal offence and was put into secure accommodation. Consequently, the people who had been terrorised began to experience some peace in their communities. People continually complain to me that we appear to be more concerned about the human rights of those who commit offences than those of the victims who are being terrorised. A better balance is needed.

I want more use of these powers by local authorities and the police, because people all over the country want an end point to the problems that they face through tougher, quicker action and zero tolerance.

To refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the lack of use of anti-social behaviour orders has been a matter of concern for my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. Many hon. Members will have seen the Home Secretary's letter to all chief executives of local authorities, which was copied to chief constables, asking them to detail their problems in implementing the legislation and encouraging them to start to use the orders to deal with anti-social behaviour.

The letter makes the important point to which I referred at the beginning of my remarks, asking those concerned to tell the Home Secretary if there are problems in implementing the orders. It also states that the Government will consider the possibility of amending the legislation. In the spirit of trying to draw a consensus, we need the orders and partnerships to work, because they are for the benefit of our constituents.

I draw to my hon. Friend the Minister's attention a couple of matters that the police have raised with me about the anti-social behaviour order. They sometimes find its requirements to be too bureaucratic and complex—more complex, in some circumstances, than those of previous public order legislation. A case conference and other consultations have to take place before the application for the order, and a great burden of evidence is required. In the interests of a quick and efficient process, we had all hoped that would not happen. The weight of evidence that is required is often so off-putting that the police and local authorities decide that they cannot obtain it, and therefore cannot pursue an order because it would be thrown out of court. Another problem that has been relayed to me is that it is necessary for witnesses to attend court at the application stage, which is conducted under civil law. The police in my constituency tell me that the courts require that evidence be given at the application stage in the presence of the suspect. One of the greatest problems in tackling anti-social behaviour is the intimidation that people often feel, and one of the intentions of the legislation was to help to overcome that problem.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister use this occasion to remind the police and local authorities that anti-social behaviour orders are not a measure of last resort and that they are fully consistent with human rights legislation? If used quickly and effectively, they can nip problems in the bud. They can prevent serious offending and lawlessness arising from minor matters, if those matters are dealt with strongly and sternly, straight away.

I often seem to be in a minority with some of my opinions, but I believe that we ought to be very hard on people the first time that they do something wrong, rather than wait for them to commit a lot of offences and then be hard on them. If they then continue to offend, they really do need help, because the vast majority of people will learn from being punished at the outset.

Will the Minister comment on the effectiveness of parenting orders? Many people feel that parents should have a greater sense of responsibility. It could be very effective if the police sometimes took people home in the back of a patrol car and said to their parents, "Do you realise what your son or daughter has just been doing?" I have been horrified at some of the things that my son and daughter have done, but I have tried to deal with it. All parents know that teenagers are not easy to deal with. However, some parents abrogate all responsibility for their children's behaviour.

I believe that 10 is too young for child curfews, which are part of the consultation process. Will the Minister consider extending the provisions to encompass older children? I would prefer a minimum age of 16.

As the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) will no doubt point out, not all young people are involved in anti-social behaviour. I do not want to give the impression that they are. Many young people belong to uniformed organisations such as the Scouts and the Guides, and they are great. Many also take part in charity work. The problems that we are discussing do not affect the vast majority of young people. I recently spoke to sixth form students at Christ the King school in my constituency as part of UNICEF's "Put it to your MP" day. They were as concerned as anyone else about anti-social behaviour in their area, because the vandals have often vandalised the facilities that they want to use, such as youth clubs. Those students asked me what could be done about such anti-social behaviour, because they were worried about it and wanted it to be dealt with.

The Government have laid the foundations for crime reduction. They have established numerous crime reduction partnerships across the country, made huge investments in closed circuit television, made available crime-fighting funds to boost police recruitment and improved police communications. Alongside the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders, there are provisions for a radical overhaul of the youth justice system, fast-track punishment for persistent offenders, final cautions and referral orders with youth offender panels—the last of which is being piloted in Gedling.

In addition, there are measures to tackle the causes of crime—including the new deal for communities and the new deal for the unemployed—and measures to tackle social exclusion and truancy in schools. The Government have provided a framework for crime reduction within which we can start to tackle the problem of anti-social behaviour. That problem affects all of us. The police, local authorities, housing and health authorities, the Government and councils need to work together at local level to tackle the problem. We need to encourage a society that recognises and respects the rights and responsibilities of individuals and promotes a sense of community.

Anti-social behaviour orders are a highly effective approach that could make a huge difference to the victims of anti-social behaviour or harassment by neighbours. This important issue affects the lives of many of our constituents. An appropriate framework exists, but we should consider whether improvements could be made to it. Our constituents deserve a better deal from the anti-social behaviour orders, which should be used more frequently. The Government have given local authorities and the police significant powers, and they should use them to protect our communities from a small anti-social minority.

10.25 am
Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on raising this important subject. The examples that he gave from his constituency are, sadly, repeated in virtually every constituency in the country.

I stress a point that the hon. Gentleman made near the end of his speech: that the vast majority of young people are not guilty of anti-social behaviour—it is a tiny minority who give the rest a bad name. The examples that the hon. Gentleman gave—we shall doubtless hear more examples from others—show that the Government's anti-social behaviour orders are not working, although they were contained in flagship legislation. It is not clear whether six or 10 orders have been served nationwide, but either way the total is minute. The expectation was that the Government would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, but they have not been.

The Liberal Democrats do not oppose the anti-social behaviour orders in principle and we did not vote against the legislation, but we and the Conservatives raised several concerns when it was passing through the House. For example, we were concerned that the standard of evidence was too weak. The Home Secretary has written letters to local authorities and police chiefs urging—indeed, begging—them to implement this flagship legislation, but the fact that only 10 orders have been served confirms that the legislation is too weak. The fact that the associated criminal sanctions are severe may explain why there is reluctance to impose more orders. Some civil liberty groups have claimed that mixing civil and criminal standards means that the anti-social behaviour orders may breach the European convention on human rights.

Liberal Democrats have raised concerns about the wide definition of anti-social behaviour, which includes harassment, alarm and distress. A letter that was published in yesterday's East Anglian Daily Times appeared to some to incite the pro-hunting lobby in East Anglia to descend on and protest outside my home. Would not that letter cause harassment, alarm or distress to my family and my neighbours? It was written not by an ordinary member of the public, but by the chairman of the Colchester Conservative association, who is involved in our democratic process.

Liberal Democrats and Conservatives raised the possibility that merely eccentric activities that are peculiar to individual minority ethnic communities could be perceived by some as involving anti-social behaviour, although there would be no public interest in taking legal action. The Government argued that proper guidance would be available and that there was no danger that eccentric behaviour would be targeted—so morris dancers are safe. Furthermore, ASBOs were designed partly to respond to people who were causing harassment, alarm or distress to ethnic minorities.

We did not believe that ASBOs should be the first port of call for the police and local councils, as the hon. Member for Gedling emphasised. The orders are serious and should be a last resort. The Government gave those assurances in Committee. We also wanted assurances about the use of the orders in cases involving young people.

Since ASBOs were introduced, some people have tried to highlight the Home Secretary's embarrassment that they have not been widely used. Whether the numbers involved are six or 10, either way they are not large. ASBOs were a high-profile plank of the Home Secretary's law and order agenda to crack down on anti-social behaviour, and were presented as part of the Government's zero tolerance approach. According to the Home Office, the threat of an ASBO is a good deterrent. That is difficult to measure or prove, although it is bound to be true to some extent. However, we continue to face the midnight do-it-yourself building workers and ghetto blasters into the early hours of the morning.

The hon. Member for Gedling referred to anti-social behaviour in children's playgrounds. A tiny minority cause a lot of distress to a lot of people and unfairly tar all young people with the same brush. One response from the Home Secretary was to blame wealthy liberal lawyers with no experience of what it is like to live in areas with anti-social behaviour for undermining and criticising the measures.

My party does not oppose the orders in principle. We warned that they might raise unrealistic expectations, and what we have heard today, as well as evidence from the Home Secretary, confirms that. Local councils and the police may be reluctant to request such strong orders, and the courts may be reluctant to issue them. The Home Office should revisit the legislation and consider what improvements might be made. Furthermore, it is entirely inappropriate to blame lawyers for expressing their anxieties about the human rights implications. The Government should have been more careful in drafting the orders.

We must also take into account what has happened in the past two years. We face a scene of police cuts throughout the country and particularly in my county of Essex. On the plus side, we have heard good stories about local authorities such as Gedling district council, to which I would add Colchester borough council, which installed closed circuit television security cameras with minimal support from the previous Government, the funds having been largely raised locally.

The involvement of young people is vital. If the Government want their joined-up thinking to be taken seriously, it is not good enough constantly to harp on about raising academic standards and about school league tables, because that gives the message that young people who are not academically gifted are of less worth to society. That message is being sent out, albeit unintentionally, and all three political parties are to blame.

A further problem is the playing down of sport and activities for young people. I invite the Minister to conduct a three-month experiment. Every young person entering a young offenders institution should fill out a simple questionnaire on whether they have ever been a member of a recognised, but not necessarily uniformed, youth organisation, and if so, which ones and for how long. We could then ascertain whether a pattern can be discerned of young offenders coming from a background in which youth organisations have played no part. Investing in our young people at an early stage will result in there being less anti-social behaviour as they hit their teens—or, indeed, even younger.

Finally, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we should not put anti-social behaviour orders in a compartment on their own. There is a lot more to the matter, including education, youth movements, and sport and leisure activities. The problems highlighted by the hon. Member for Gedling apply throughout the country. If we can achieve the consensus that he called for, the Government will be able to deliver on the expectations that they raised two or three years ago.

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

Order. Members will wish to know that the House has ordered that a non-regular occupant of the Chair in Westminster Hall should be addressed by name and not as Deputy Speaker. My name is Mr. Jones.

I now call Mr. St. Aubyn.

10.35 am
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Thank you, Mr. Jones. May I be the first Conservative Member to congratulate the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on his display of new Labour machismo on the fight against crime. However, I am sure that he, like me, is sometimes disappointed in the Government's response.

I wondered this morning whether the hon. Gentleman was applying for a job in the Whips Office, to help deal with a delinquent element in the Labour party. He spoke eleoquently about the crime on some estates in his part of the country—a problem that is shared by other areas, even Surrey. I represent the people of Guildford, and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and I both know that our county does not suffer problems on the same scale as other parts of the country, but we certainly have a problem. Also as a former London councillor I know how difficult such problems can be for neighbours and others who suffer as a result.

The Government talk about crime with a forked tongue. At the same time as talking tough about anti-social behaviour orders, they allowed into the country last week one of the most anti-social people in the world. Mr. Tyson was convicted and sent to prison for a terrible crime and his record in the boxing ring is little short of disgraceful—so much so that many people thought that he should have been banned from boxing for life, as he nearly was. Allowing such a person into the country was a retrograde step. Banning him from entering the country would have done as much good as 100 anti-social behaviour orders and would have sent out a clear message to those who might otherwise be tempted to regard him as a role model.

I wish to concentrate on the orders as they were originally intended to be applied to disaffected youth. The Home Office guidance stated: Applications may routinely be made for the middle and older age groups of juveniles and young people (e.g. 12–27 year olds) as experience has shown that such individuals may commit serious acts of anti-social behaviour without adult encouragement or involvement. That group was to be targeted by the ASBO, and we heard that curfews would be imposed on teenagers who caused disruption in a neighbourhood. According to a survey undertaken by the BBC last September, not only have no curfew orders been imposed under ASBOs, but, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, we are aware of only 10 orders having been made at all. The strategy has failed.

The Government have also been reluctant to implement provisions introduced by the previous Government that might be more effective against anti-social behaviour. For example, the Government have been asked several times to introduce the remand provisions of sections 152 and 158 of the Housing Act 1996. In July, Ministers told the House that they were in discussion on the matter with the Lord Chancellor's Department and that they would inform hon. Members when they had reached a decision. So far as I can tell, no decision has yet been reached. I hope that the Minister will tell us when those provisions will come into force.

The previous Government made a great deal of progress in giving local authorities powers to deal with anti-social behaviour on council estates. The Housing Act 1985 strengthened powers of eviction and gave local authorities the powers to bring in byelaws that might control anti-social behaviour. I have already mentioned the 1996 Act, which introduced powers to bring injunctions against anti-social behaviour. It also introduced introductory tenancies, whereby tenants are in a sense under review for the first year of tenancy. They have been used by up to half our local authorities.

In that context, what do ASBOs add to the fight against anti-social behaviour? Before any such measure is judged, we must ask what the sanction is if the order is ignored. It is severe. The Home Office guidance on ASBOs states: Breach of an order … is a criminal offence triable either way with a maximum penalty on indictment of 5 years in prison. Even for the language of new Labour machismo, that sounds over the top, and that is the problem. The sanction is far too strong to use against teenagers who display anti-social behaviour. It is not credible to threaten children of 15 or 16 with being sent to prison for five years. The sanction is not workable. Therefore, local authorities are put in the invidious position of invoking an order that may then be ignored and are left in a quandary as to what to do if the process is discredited. Sometimes they hold the order like a sword of Damocles over the youths, while knowing at the back of their minds that using it is a high-risk strategy with that group.

Mr. Coaker

The hon. Gentleman is making a point about the deterrent involved in someone breaking an ASBO. The example that I gave about a youth in Nottingham—I appreciate the fact that there are not many such examples—was that the ASBO was broken and, as that was a criminal offence, the youth was sent to a secure unit. I cannot remember how long he was there, but it was a huge relief to local people. It showed the effectiveness of the sanction, and in my view acted as quite an effective deterrent in and beyond the local community.

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

I remind hon. Members that interventions must be brief.

Mr. St. Aubyn

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I was about to say that, in extreme cases, there may be a justification for removing someone behaving anti-socially from a locality. That is surely a feature of the powers given to local government in recent years.

If the hon. Gentleman will let me, I shall draw a parallel between the use of ASBOs on estates and exclusion orders in schools—an issue that the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and I considered in detail when we served on the Select Committee on Education and Employment. We examined the subject of disaffected children, the group that our debate on ASBOs is about. We made some interesting findings. The fifth report of the Committee from 1997–28 says that they are predominantly male …; they are drawn disproportionately from African-Caribbean backgrounds; children looked after by local authorities are disproportionately represented; they include a high proportion of young offenders; many are likely to come from difficult and disrupted family backgrounds; they frequently lack self-confidence and self-esteem; they tend to have few 'basic skills; many have emotional and behavioural difficulties; there is a high prevalence of risk-taking behaviour, for instance in relation to smoking, substance abuse and early sexual activity. That group is also more likely to be among those who behave in an anti-social manner on the estates where they live.

We felt that to exclude this type of child from school was not necessarily the right response. Clearly it is necessary, particularly when a school is failing and must be turned around, to make dramatic changes, among which may be a need to exclude the most disruptive pupils. That is very much in the school's interests, and we must keep the interests of the majority of children in mind in such cases. However, unless we are, in parallel terms, talking about a failing estate, one wonders whether excluding a child from an estate is the right response. We know that taking children out of the normal family environment can be harmful, and that children in care have low educational attainments, as the report has identified. That places them on a cycle of low achievement and dismal prospects, which may be with them for the rest of their lives.

We must look at alternative strategies for the council and housing estates where this problem is prevalent. Like many local authorities, Guildford borough council has not used ASBOs. However, in the last 18 months it has appointed a nuisance investigation officer to deal with these cases, who typically deals with one case a day. That is the type of mediation role often needed, not just for juveniles, but for other disputes on estates. Mediation provided by a specified officer of the local council or an outside mediation service may be more effective in bringing home to those concerned their responsibilities, although we must always accept and require that other sanctions are necessary and should be available.

The sanctions of the introductory tenancy and the ability to evict a perpetrator are powerful and should not be ignored. Nor should the sanctions of the injunction or the use of byelaws, but we need a more imaginative response to disaffected children that involves other Departments. What discussions has the Minister had with his former colleagues in the Department for Education and Employment? Many disaffected children find that the academic rigour of a GCSE course is simply not for them; in many cases they may not have attained the basic skills necessary to achieve a result on such a course. Alternative strategies for them must be developed, particularly for those aged 14 and over.

There is good evidence that children over 14 who are put into a more adult environment—for instance, at their local further education college—may strive much harder when given the responsibility that such an environment requires of them. Indeed, if they are given work places, they may get to know role models, the slightly older people in that workplace, whom they can see have money in their pockets and a future—something to which they can aspire if they can attain basic skills and put them to good use. It is about setting the right example, which goes back to my earlier point about the incident last week. The ASBO's scope is therefore extremely limited.

We could also look at the overall design of estates. When I was a councillor in Paddington, I sat on a housing committee that visited some of the failed estates built in the 1960s and 1970s, which had often failed partly because of the way in which they had been designed. The belief was that long corridors of communication at every level of the flats would engender social cohesion, but, unfortunately, they simply provided the criminal element on the estates with a ready escape route. When we visited the Mozart estate, we decided to do some basic redesign. Many long walkways were bricked up, creating smaller clusters of accommodation and, therefore, a greater sense of identity among council tenants. That went some way towards improving behaviour on the estate.

I would welcome the Minister's comments on how ASBOs and other powers can be brought to bear on those who have exercised the right to buy on council estates. Some tenants in my constituency are complaining about a neighbouring family that has exercised the right to buy and is exhibiting anti-social behaviour towards those around it. The council has found that its powers are more constrained than if the family were still a tenant of the council.

We need a clear view from the Minister of what other action he will take on remand orders and on making agents of the law-enforcement process more aware of ASBOs. In July, the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) suggested a training programme for magistrates on the implementation of ASBOs, and a national demonstration project was proposed, which the Home Secretary described as an excellent idea, which I shall pursue."—[Official Report, 12 July 1999, Vol. 335, c. 16.] Will the Minister tell the Committee today, six months later, what the Home Secretary has done about a national demonstration project to highlight the advantages of using ASBOs?

As I said at the outset, it is difficult to know what is happening behind the machismo and new Labour spin. How serious are the Government about tackling the real problems? The evidence from the hon. Member for Gedling is that not enough is happening. That, ultimately, is the fault of the Government.


Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on securing the debate. I had not intended to speak, but I was moved to do so by the contributions from my former colleague on the Select Committee on Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn), and from the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell). The charge that the Government are not addressing the needs of young people and those who are disaffected with the activities of the majority of young people, whether sport, youth activities or attending school, is astonishing. The Government have put more money into education, starting with the early years, to assist such children. There is a sure start programme in my constituency, which is aimed at families with children under four. We know that disaffection, unfortunately, can start as early as that. In the past few days, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has stated that opportunities should be examined for vocational education with a less academic strand for 14 to 19-year-olds. The hon. Member for Guidlford and I discussed that in the Select Committee, which recommended that the Government should consider such opportunities.

Exclusion has been considered. My authority has one of the highest exclusion rates in the country, and that is in a predominantly white area where less than 1 per cent. of the community comes from ethinic minorities. In the Doncaster area we are considering the introduction of learning mentors, different ways in which to keep young people in school, even if they are not in the same classroom as everyone else for part of the day, and how we can tackle disaffection among young people. There are real problems in some of our communities and not just on council estates. In some mixed tenancy communities, harassment and intimidation occur daily and do not arise only from young people. Anti-social behaviour orders apply not only to young people, but to grown-ups who make people's lives a misery day in and day out.

I am worried that individuals and departments in the local community may thwart the purpose of the orders and the way in which they can be coupled with other opportunities to tackle issues relating to intimidation and harassment. There is evidence of non-compliance, even if it is well intentioned. Everyone must abide by certain laws and certain ways of treating each other, whether in the family, the community or the country. Most of the population, for most of the time, abide by the rules that we, as a community, decide that we should have. Jean-Jacques Rousseau said that people could do whatever they wanted as long as it did not harm anyone else, which, in some sense, is a philosophy by which we tend to try to run our lives.

Some people in our community, however, have not been brought up to obey any rules about how they should live. Children are brought up with no parameters of what is right or wrong, against the law, legal, or of the right way to behave towards an elderly lady walking down the street, an Asian family living in isolation, or their fellow human beings. That is a sad reflection on our time. We need to establish parameters, whether in school, where there is a set of rules about how pupils should behave, in the wider community in terms of policing, or in quality of life and how we live with our neighbours. We need to say, "There is a line over which we do not accept you can go." Anti-social behaviour orders have a role to play in that.

Despite all the good intentions of the Government, the direction that they want to give, and the opportunities that they want to provide—for goodness sake—to people at the sharp end who have to pick up the pieces for victims of behaviour that threatens so many people's lives, the orders are not being used. I have had separate discussions with my local authority and the police about that. Some crime and disorder partnerships spend a long time talking about and creating bureaucratic protocols, but, when push comes to shove, and something needs to be done, no one wants to take responsibility. Alternatively, one part of the partnership might not want to take responsibility. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to give closer consideration to what is blocking the achievement of our aim of creating a safer and friendlier community.

I am interested by the comments about the design of estates, and the environment in which we live. There is no doubt that some estates almost invite crime. Motor bikes can zoom across them, and people can carry drugs from one estate to another to escape the police; they can move around at will. There is also no doubt that an environment in which everything is falling down is not a pleasant place to live. I read in my local paper this week that the Government have released further money from the sale of council houses to help to improve estates. With that regeneration money, there is no doubt that the Government aim to tackle that aspect of people's quality of life. However, it would be a crying shame and a waste of funds if we were to spend good taxpayer's money on rebuilding and refurbishing estates that the minority of people who cause mayhem tore down again. In 10 years' time, we would have to inject more money to refurbish estates and redecorate houses, and to make those communities look nice. Looking nice is not enough; there must be a community pact about the way in which people behave and treat each other. That is part of the jigsaw in which anti-social behaviour orders are meant to work.

It saddens me that councils often claim that they have no powers over private tenants. In my constituency, there are a number of communities in which mixed tenure is common. People own their council houses, and have private landlords. Getting private or absentee landlords to take responsibility for tenants has been a special problem. If these orders should have been applied anywhere, it is in that area. I am sad to say that that is yet to happen in Don Valley.

I have spoken with passion on this matter, because I care about young people and I care about disaffection. A multi-strand approach is necessary, but, at the same time, children and adults need to know that there is a proper way to treat people in the community. Creating such parameters may be our last chance to tell young people what is right and wrong before they move on to crime. I speak as an hon. Member who has in my constituency three prisons and one of the best young offenders establishments in the country.

10.59 am
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Croaker) on securing this debate on a subject that concerns us all and on the persistence with which he has pursued this issue. This is not the first time that he has discussed this matter—he asked questions about the orders last year, on 11 June, on 16 June at column 161, on 12 July at column 15 and on 1 November at column 57. He has constantly held the Government to account and he has a record to be proud of. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) said that he suspected that the hon. Member for Gedling might be auditioning for entry to the Whip's Office. However, the hon. Gentleman said that when he advances the views that he expressed today he normally finds himself in a minority of one. If he talked to Conservative Members more often, he would find that his views were widely shared, and he might discover that he had found his political friends.

Under this Labour Government, Oppositon Members often feel like Cassandra crying in the wilderness—we predict the effect of Government legislation, but Ministers do not listen to us. It is rare for Opposition Members' comments in Committee to be found to be accurate so quickly after the introduction of an Act, but that has happened in this case. The concerns that we raised in Committee about workability have been echoed by Labour Members, including the hon. Members for Gedling and for Don Valley (Caroline Flint).

I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Crime and Disorder Bill, and it is interesting to revisit that debate. The concerns that were raised this morning by the hon. Members for Gedling, for Don Valley and for Colchester (Mr. Russell) were raised in Committee by Opposition Members. Labour Members might be shocked to re-read that debate, especially in view of the Pepper v. Hart decision, which means that Ministers' observations in Committee can be cited as an indication of the intended purpose of an Act.

The then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who now spends his time in the Welsh Assembly, made it abundantly clear—this may come as a shock to the Labour Members who have spoken today—that the legislation was not intended to deal with young or juvenile criminals. He said: First, in respect of juveniles, I must make it clear that they are not the main targets of these orders. Their use against juveniles … would be exceptional. They may be used because the juvenile is one of several members of a family involved in a pattern of behaviour.… An order would not be issued in isolation, but as part of an attempt to tackle the general problem."—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 30 April 1998; c. 51.] My hon. Friends the Members for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), for Woking (Mr. MalMs) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I pointed out in an extensive debate that the proposal was completely at odds with announcements that were made by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) before the general election, when he said that such orders would tackle youth crime. After the general election, when he had become Home Secretary, he foreshadowed what became the Crime and Disorder Bill in many speeches that he gave about tackling youth crime. My hon. Friends and I said in Committee that the legislation was an over-bureaucratic response that would not deal with the problem. A mere 18 months later, Labour Members are now saying that there have been only 10 such orders in the country. The hon. Member for Don Valley spoke in evocative terms of there being too much bureaucracy and talk—

Caroline Flint

Perhaps I should clarify my remarks. I said that, on the ground, the Government's policy is being thwarted by a tendency towards over-bureaucracy, not by a lack of willingness to enforce such orders. The problem lies not with the Government, but with the way in which the policy is being implemented.

Mr. Hawkins

I understood what the hon. Lady said. The underlying point of her speech, which she has ignored, is that the legislation created the bureaucracy. It was the Government who introduced an overly complex way in which to bring forward such orders. Hon. Members need not take my word for it. Sir Jeremy Beecham, who is not a known Conservative supporter, has written in Criminal Justice Management about the small number of orders. He said: There are two main reasons for this—the highly complex nature of getting one in place", combined with the belief that an order should be seen very much as a last resort. In that article, Sir Jeremy, who is chairman of the Local Government Association and a well-known Labour figure in local government circles, talks about the difficulty of getting clearance from a council department: there are all the problems of court procedures. Councils are rightly concerned about protection for witnesses in these cases … with the Orders being carried through the Magistrates courts there is no protection for them"— and no protection for witnesses— once the hearing is started. Sir Jeremy, who, as I said, is a leading Labour figure in local government, and who is talking about his own Government's orders, continues: What we now have is a situation where the law does not solve the problems it was supposed to. There has been criticism that it hasn't been thought out on a practitioner's level. Indeed. There was criticism from the Opposition Front Bench when the orders were debated in Committee.

Yet again, the Government's proposals are based on good intentions. We all know that anti-social behaviour is a huge problem, as this debate has demonstrated. Since being called to the Bar some 20 years ago, I have had extensive experience of prosecuting such cases in the courts. The Opposition pointed out during the passage of the Crime and Disorder Bill that it introduced a procedure so complex that it would not work. No less a figure than Sir Jeremy Beecham now says that it has not worked—a point repeated by Labour Members today. We have been proved right in only 18 months.

As we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The Government have failed to understand that we must listen to those at the sharp end. For a procedure to work in the criminal courts, it must have one cardinal virtue: it must be simple and straightforward, and must ensure that decisions can be taken quickly and simply. Instead, the legislation has imposed a requirement for long and complex discussions between local authority departments and the police. As the hon. Members for Colchester and for Gedling pointed out, all the agencies that must implement the provision have good intentions, and we are not criticising them. However, the provison is not working—and I am not alone in saying that. As chairman of the Local Government Association, Sir Jeremy Beecham talks to local authorities across the country and he, too, is saying that it is not working. The Government must revisit the problem and think again.

The hon. Member for Colchester is right to say that we are talking about only a minority of young people and problem families. If my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford and I have the opportunity to revisit the problem after the next general election, when I hope that a Conservative Government will be elected, we will ensure that a simple procedure is put in place. When this over-complex and over-bureaucratic legislation is replaced, decisions about such prosecutions should be put purely and simply in the hands of the police, because the bobby on the beat on the problem estate knows the nature of the difficulties.

I do not for a moment suggest that employees of local authorities should not also be involved—they can give the police evidence about the difficulties that a problem family is causing to local authority staff. Usually one finds that such a family causes problems for every agency with which it comes into contact. However, if the decision to prosecute simply rested with the police—after all, that is the way in which the courts have traditionally worked—it would not be necessary to have umpteen meetings involving representatives from all the relevant departments of the local authority. There should be a straightforward decision to prosecute so that the matter can be brought to court.

The legislation should be amended so that it is targeted at the areas where many of the problems arise, especially in respect of young hooligans. As the hon. Member for Gedling pointed out, such cases often involve gangs of youths—yet the Minister says that the orders were not intended to deal with juveniles. Quelle surprise, therefore, that they have not been used to deal with the kinds of abuse the hon. Gentleman described.

This valuable debate has revealed, beyond peradventure, the need for the 1998 Act to be amended to deal properly with the problem. It is not only the anti-social behaviour orders, but the child curfew orders, that have not been used.

The hon. Member for Gedling referred to a case that occurred near his constituency in Nottingham, about which I have some press coverage. The newspaper states that Councillor Colin Chapman, the leader of Nottingham city council—

Mr. Coaker


Mr. Hawkins

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I am merely reading from the article.

Mr. Coaker

We cannot believe everything we read in the papers.

Mr. Hawkins

That is true. The newspaper has failed to get the hon. Gentleman's local council leader's name correct, which is extraordinary. Perhaps he is not even a household name in his own city.

Councillor Chapman said: People are fed up with children like these getting away time and again". I congratulate people in cities such as Nottingham on the hard work that they have done in trying to find a way through the bureaucratic maze. They have not found it easy. If the article is to be believed—I should point out that it is from The Guardian, so perhaps it is not surprising that it got the name wrong—the council leader said that three similar cases were being prepared. That would mean that only four cases were in progress. Sadly, I am sure that there are far more problem cases than that in a city the size of Nottingham, and simpler legislation must be introduced to deal with them.

I have a cutting from the Glasgow Herald about a case in Edinburgh that involved a complaint relating to full volume blasts from Celine Dion, Shania Twain, The Beautiful South and Aerosmith. Although it may be enormously enjoyable to listen to those groups at normal volume, when they issue from a ghetto blaster at full volume, repeatedly disrupting neighbours' lives, that is bound to cause a major problem. I know from my practice at the Bar and from dealing with surgery cases that the broadcasting of very loud music late at night by problem families causes enormous upset and distress, especially to the elderly and families with young children.

The case in Liverpool that involved one of the first anti-social behaviour orders received a great deal of publicity, and was met with a rather hysterical reaction on the part of the Home Secretary. He blamed the fact that so few orders were being imposed on trendy civil rights lawyers who, having defended such people, jumped into their BMWs and went back to leafy suburbs where they did not have to suffer from anti-social behaviour. That caused a huge row in the legal and civil liberties press. The director of Liberty, Mr. Wadham, who was involved in defending the lads from Liverpool, pointed out that he was not at all prosperous and did not live in a leafy suburb.

Mr. Coaker

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a genuine feeling that the human rights of people who have perpetrated crimes are sometimes given more importance than those of the victims, who are the majority?

Mr. Hawkins

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the situation is extraordinary when the director of Liberty can write to The Guardian attacking the Home Secretary. The fact that the Government are being attacked from the right and left and by their own Back Benchers shows what a mess they have got themselves into. In summary, they have got it all wrong. The legislation is not working. It must be torn up. The Government must start again or, preferably, a Conservative Government will have to come to the rescue and sort out the mess.

11.15 am
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I commend the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) on his most entertaining contribution to the debate but, more important, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gelding (Mr. Coaker) on his outstanding speech and on introducing such an important debate. I wish to highlight four of the points that he made. They are powerful and should dominate our thoughts. First, he said that we are talking not about all young people, but about the small minority of those who are anti-social in character. Our discussion should not be thought to cast doubt on the behaviour of young people in general, a statement echoed by the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell).

Secondly, my hon. Friend rightly put at the centre of his speech the issue of intimidation. Violent, physical and mental intimidation is the core of anti-social behaviour. An entire neighbourhood can be oppressed by the activities of a small group of people. We must change the balance between the intimidator and the intimidated, and the 1998 Act was designed to achieve that aim.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend drew attention, as did Opposition Members, to the need for tougher and quicker action—a point that reverberated around the Chamber this morning. Fourthly, he referred to the vicious circle of "Not me, guy". In the past, various agencies, whether local authority housing, social services or the police, have said, "It is not my problem to sort out, it is the other one's problem." The core objective of the legislation under which ASBOs were established was to end that culture and to say that it is the responsibility of us all to work together and deal with such problems, whether strategically in the sense of crime reduction partnerships or through specific relationships with particular agencies. That is one of the reasons why I reject the suggestion of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. Returning to a culture of zero partnership in such situations and simply leaving such matters to the police would be a retrograde step. After consideration, the hon. Gentleman may agree that such a move would be ill advised.

I commend the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), especially her emphasis on the need to establish a culture that addresses such issues more effectively. By that, she meant a culture among people in which personal relationships are based on respect and trust rather than on intimidation and fear. There must also be a culture in all the agencies of the state, whether local government or the police, that says that they are about solving such problems rather than thinking that they will go away by some means that does not involve actively addressing them.

I really have only one response to make to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. He said that the problem was very difficult. He was right. We are talking about changing culture and behaviour patterns. We face the choice of whether to address that difficulty and try to solve it or just to sit back, say that it is too hard to deal with and leave it alone. The order filled a gap that had been left in the legisation by the previous Government. We accept that the problem is difficult, but we want to have a go at cracking it, rather than simply say that it is too hard a problem to solve.

Although it is entertaining to revisit the Committee debate—it helps parliamentarians to understand the broader context, as the hon. Gentleman intended—the Conservatives must answer a central political question. They must choose between having a go at solving the problem and deciding that it is too hard and that they cannot deal with it. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has chosen the latter course.

Mr. St. Aubyn

The Housing Acts 1985 and 1996 contain powerful provisions to deal with the problems described by the Minister. Why have the Government not yet implemented the remand provisions of the 1996 Act?

Mr. Clarke

I shall come to that in a moment. It was a legitimate point, and I intended to commend the hon. Gentleman for raising it in his speech—but not for the other points that he made.

At the moment, we do not collect figures for the number of ASBOs in force nationally. The order was implemented on 1 April 1999, and we estimate that between 20 and 25 orders are now in force, rather than the six or 10 that were mentioned earlier. The figures are moving forward and we want to encourage that. They operate in areas as diverse as Somerset, Liverpool, Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Blackburn, Coventry, London, Suffolk, Newcastle, York, Huddersfield and Nottingham. Expertise in those areas is building up.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Colchester that his town does not feature in that list. The hon. Gentleman said that he was not against the legislation in principle. I suggest that he ought in principle to be for it, and that he should encourage his friends on Colchester council to operate it. I know that he has great influence on the council, and I hope that he will consider urging his friends to put Colchester on the list. A shift in stance from not being against the legislation to being for it might be beneficial to his constituents and to everyone in that area. It might even help the Liberal Domocrat party's electoral chances, although I have no desire for that.

To our knowledge, only two of the 20 to 25 orders have been breached. In Newcastle, a defendant was imprisoned for 28 days and breached the order again on the day of his release. He was sentenced to two months imprisonment on 27 January for that second breach. The sanction bites when ASBOs are breached. In Nottingham, not far from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, an order was granted in December against a juvenile aged 14. The order has allegedly been breached, and the defendant is now on remand awaiting trial for that breach. I understand that the trial will take place in March.

Derbyshire was included in my list. It is worth quoting from an article published in Police Review by the officer in charge of the case in Derbyshire, Chief Inspector Royston Smith. He wrote: The neighbours have stated that it was a triumph of the community working together to fight off the bullies who destroyed their quality of life … as a result we were able to protect the civil liberties of the peaceful, law abiding majority who were at risk". That is the view of the police officer in Derbyshire who dealt with the problem; it is a testament to the impact that the legislation can have when it is effectively applied. I congratulate the Derbyshire police force and the local authorities.

It is not only a question of successful legal action being taken. The metropolitan borough of Liverpool successfully applied for the first two orders. Over the past year, Liverpool has dealt successfully with more than 100 cases of anti-social behaviour, but only two have resulted in orders. I emphasise that although we need tough sanctions, our aim is to stop the anti-social behaviour. That is the purpose of ASBOs, so Liverpool's experience is encouraging.

Mr. Hawkins

The Minister has given us quite a lot of detail about how many orders have been imposed and where. I am slightly puzzled, because, in answer to the written questions that I cited, he said that information on the number of ASBOs granted or in progress was not held centrally. Do his answers today mean that such information is now held centrally and that we can ask further questions? If not, will be consider whether it should be?

Mr. Clarke

I think that I said—I believe that the record will sustain this—that we still do not collect evidence centrally. We do, however, collect the details as far as we can.

The hon. Gentleman has a valid point. As part of the process, which I shall explain in a moment, I am prepared to consider whether data should be collected centrally, assisting not only the House but the rolling out of the whole programme.

Several red herrings have arisen on what ASBOs might cover. The hon. Member for Colchester mentioned Conservatives, hunters and morris dancers. It is not currently our intention that ASBOs, which deal essentially with anti-social behaviour on estates, should apply to those areas. The hon. Member for Guildford mentioned Mike Tyson; as far as I know, the Home Secretary, who considered many issues to do with Mike Tyson, did not consider whether an ASBO was an effective technique for dealing with him. There has even been a suggestion that the problem of Leylandii hedges be dealt with by ASBOs—an eventuality that the Home Office was able to prevent. We are talking about the sort of intimidation and anti-social behaviour that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling raised; that is the key aspect of the whole programme.

Several hon. Members correctly said that a wide range of measures are available. The hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) mentioned introductory tenancies, for example, which is an excellent idea that is being actively considered. The hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley also raised the question of school exclusion orders, and parenting orders were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. The range of options available to address the issues are under active consideration. We have not yet come to a view on the specific measures that the hon. Member for Guildford mentioned but are still discussing the best way to proceed. However, this point was legitimate and we are actively considering whether specific measures should be brought forward from the armoury of available measures. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned mediation. As a result of ASBOs, mediation has been able to work in several other specific ways.

It is critically important to develop a better use of ASBOs. That is why we have planned a series of meetings over the coming months to discuss the experience of those at the sharp end, to use the words of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is right: we want to learn the weaknesses in the structure in order to improve it and ensure that it moves forward. We also want to develop standard protocols, so that the wheel is not continually being reinvented, and to develop proper training and guidelines. We need to do better in those regards and are committed to doing so.

I shall deal with the several specific points that were raised. First, lawyers have raised several concerns about human rights. Apart from the rhetorical point on whose human rights are really at risk—on which I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling—the Government strongly believe that there is no human rights implication in the use of ASBOs that should in any way inhibit their use. That is the legal advice we have received, and it is our considered opinion. Those who argue that there is a serious human rights issue that should inhibit the use of ASBOs are, in my view and that of the Government, wrong.

The charge that the ASBO is too complex and bureaucratic was well made. However, apart from the fact that it is a two-stage process, we do not believe that it is unduly complex. It is in two stages because that enables us to address the issue at the first stage and does not immediately criminalise people. A civil remedy is provided at the first level. However, we are prepared to look at the precise way in which it operates to consider whether it can be made more effective. On the requirement, raised by my hon. Friend, for witnesses to attend court, the ASBO is a civil order and hearsay evidence can therefore be used, under section 1(2)(a) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which deals with someone who is "likely to cause" harassment. It is for the courts to decide whether to accept such hearsay evidence, but the Home Office view is that such evidence is acceptable, thereby circumventing the need for physical attendance at court.

It has been suggested that the burden of evidence may be too heavy. Obviously, the amount of evidence required will ultimately depend on the court and the circumstances of the case. The police are aware that evidence needs to be proved only on a balance of probabilities. That is an important consideration. It is clearly in the interests of victims of anti-social behaviour for good quality evidence—

Mr. Barry Jones (in the Chair)

Order. We must now move to the next debate.

Back to