§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Stringer.]9.30 am
§ Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)
When I applied for the debate, I wrote on the paper "antisocial behaviour" without the "orders". I do not know whether those in your office, Mr. Deputy Speaker, decided that it was too close to the bone for a member of the Opposition Whips Office to speak about antisocial behaviour, but they decided to qualify the title by adding "orders", which is probably what I should have done in the first place. I am grateful to those who ensured that my debate was in order.
Every day, constituents telephone us in a desperate state to tell us about the antisocial behaviour that they, their neighbours or friends are experiencing. Antisocial behaviour affects us all in many ways. The term "antisocial behaviour" covers a multitude of sins, from underage drinking to quite serious offences—not that underage drinking is not a serious offence: I shall show how serious it is later. We do not always come across typical antisocial behaviour.
I cite two different examples from West Drayton, a small area of my constituency. One is a more typical example, to which we are more used. There is a park in an area called "The Closes", which various residential areas surround. Youths who frequent that park have caused a lot of misery by committing a variety of offences, including driving cars on to the park and setting fire to them, sniffing lighter fuel, being abusive to people walking past and generally creating an unpleasant atmosphere for all concerned. Those offences are associated with problem families, which is an issue to which I shall return.
The other example concerns something that occurs only a mile and half away and is caused by a slightly older age group. Bikers have discovered a good piece of road on which to race—the Stockley bypass. They are not local, but come from far and wide. They are not from a deprived background, as they have expensive machines. The season is about to start as the evenings are getting longer and the weather is becoming more clement. Throughout the week, but especially at weekends, they make the neighbours' lives hell by racing and revving up their engines through the night. That has led to another problem. Local kids come out to watch and decide to do their own thing later, with cars that they have probably taken without the owners' consent. It has become such a spectator sport that a burger van attends. Although the police and the local authority have tried to deal with all these offences, they have not had as much success as local residents would like, and demand.
I mentioned that second example because, if we are not careful, we may fabricate a stereotype of antisocial behaviour being committed in certain areas. 2WH Deprivation certainly has an effect, but antisocial behaviour is also a result of problems in families, which is an important factor.
The male age group that is most likely to commit crime is 18 to 20, followed by 15 to 17 and 12 to 14. The statistics are slightly different for females. The female age group most likely to commit crime is 15 to 17, followed by 18 to 20 and 12 to 14. It is generally agreed that once a child has committed his first offence, the barrier against crime is breached, the behaviour seems to become more acceptable to the child, and he is more likely to slip into a pattern of reoffending. That is frightening. It is most disturbing for us to find children as young as eight, or even younger, committing minor offences. We all have a suspicion, based on our everyday experience, that if the offending is not dealt with appropriately it will simply continue. The cost of juvenile delinquency to society and our communities is huge. It is also having a severe effect on us financially.
As a result of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Government introduced antisocial behaviour orders on 1 April 1999, with good intentions. I have a range of statistics to hand, but I fight shy of presenting them, as we are probably well enough aware of them. The orders have been criticised as being too bureaucratic and complex. They require the police to hold case conferences and consultations, and to collect a huge body of evidence before applying for an order.
Although the antisocial behaviour orders were intended to be cheap, quick and easy to obtain, the reality has become the reverse. That is why so few orders have been issued. There is also the issue of cost. I have seen estimates of more than £100,000 for obtaining just one order. The orders appear to have been ineffective and not what the Government had hoped.
On 2 July 2001, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) said:Three years ago, when considering the proposals in Committee, I warned the Government that antisocial behaviour orders would be unworkable and over-bureaucratic. Ministers responded that more than 5,000 would probably be made every year."—[Official Report, 2 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 8.]The truth is a long way off that number.
I have picked up several suggestions from residents and the police, and it is fair to point out that eviction orders are not always seen as the answer. In July 2000, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that serving eviction orders against families for antisocial behaviour was failing to address the real issue and the underlying causes of problems such as mental illness, or drug or alcohol addiction. Many families that are evicted from council housing often end up in the private sector, perhaps only streets away. People who are suffering from that antisocial behaviour would say, "I don't care where they go as long as they are not round here," and I understand their sentiments, but we in Parliament must consider where those people can go and how we can rectify their behaviour. In my limited experience of four or five years in the House but also as a lifelong resident in that area, it seems to me that the problem is increasing. It gives rise too much worry and anger among the public.
In December 2001 a White Paper dealing with the issue was published, to which I am sure that the Minister will refer; I welcome some of its proposals. 3WH It acknowledged that take-up of the orders in many areas was limited because they were perceived as expensive, labour-intensive, slow, ineffective and litigious. The Home Office plans to streamline the procedures. The proposed interim order to enable immediate action to be taken prior to the full process would help. It would also help to have an order that travels with the person on whom it is served so that, if he moves, the order goes with him. There is certainly a case for extending the scope of the orders by allowing registered social landlords and the British Transport police to apply. Some people criticise the idea of social landlords' having that power but, because antisocial behaviour covers such a wide variety of crime, it is difficult to resolve in all cases.
As we would all agree, prevention is better than cure. There are two angles to the issue of prevention. The first is to try to sort out the causes of the problem in terms of the social issues—dysfunctional families, mental illnesses and so on—about which we have heard. However, I hear constantly about the other side: that many people would probably be deterred by a stronger police presence on the streets. I mean by that community police officers, perhaps still on bicycles—I do not know whether the police would back me on that, but there is a demand for it. Policing works well where police officers are local and know the area.
We await the results of the trial of acceptable behaviour contracts, which I mentioned earlier. If it is successful, I hope that it will be taken up. When I have been out and about with the police on patrol, looking at how to curb underage antisocial behaviour, I have been struck by the lack of respect shown by youngsters to the police and authority. I am deeply concerned about the proposal in the new Police Reform Bill about auxiliaries because if those young people have no respect for the police, they will have even less for auxiliaries. Believing that it will be effective merely to issue tickets, as it were, is living in cloud cuckoo land. However, we must tackle the issue and I will support anything that will be a genuine aid in doing so because it causes so much misery to so many people.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is important throughout my constituency. I know from the letters and telephone calls that I receive, from the people who come to my surgery and from my visits to residents associations that the issues of whether people feel safe in their communities and of what can be done to deal with crime and the fear of crime are virtually top of the list of issues that people want to raise. Surveys conducted by Stoke-on-Trent city council confirm those concerns. I wish to participate briefly in the debate to convey the fact that much is being done and those we are determined to tackle antisocial behaviour. We look to the Government for greater resources and more backing to ensure that, where there is resolute determination to deal with antisocial behaviour, the means exist to do so.
I wish to outline some of the problems that we have had with antisocial behaviour orders. We are fortunate in Stoke-on-Trent city council in having an antisocial behaviour officer who links closely with the community 4WH safety partnership and local housing departments across the city. Concerns about antisocial behaviour are fed quickly into the city council and action is taken. However, there is a feeling that antisocial behaviour orders are bureaucratic, too slow and take up resources. As the Government has said, now is the time to consider how they can be modified so that people can have confidence that the issues that they raise will be dealt with speedily.
In a case in my constituency involving a prostitute, it took one police officer and one police sergeant six weeks each to gather the information to take the case to court; 27 written statements were needed. As a result of those delays, the police officers gathering the evidence eventually had to go back to each of the 27 witnesses. The process is very time-consuming and bureaucratic. We must be aware of human rights, but we also need to streamline and fast-track the procedure. It is vital for those who complain about antisocial behaviour to have faith in the authorities to deliver. Such delays in getting results through the court can undermine people's faith in the authorities and their belief in civil society, at a time when we should be fostering that. I should be interested to hear what the Minister says in her winding-up speech about how we can modify the procedure.
A further example from my constituency involved a case that reached the courts. The courts awarded an antisocial behaviour order, which was then breached. When the case returned to the courts they did not, in the view of many people involved in gathering evidence in the first instance, take that breach seriously enough. I ask the Minister to consider the ways in which guidance given to courts is reviewed so that where a great deal of effort, time, trouble and raised expectations is involved in securing an antisocial behaviour order, the courts do not then destroy that order. The issue is important.
I also stress the importance of antisocial behaviour orders in the wider context. They are just one piece of the jigsaw of ways in which we tackle antisocial behaviour. Young people who stand around on street corners may not create problems but they may be perceived to do so by local people. Far more time and effort should be directed to providing youth and community services that are acceptable to young people in those areas, so that the wider community can nurture future generations in civil society, instead of believing that they are a problem. That will have huge implications for the Connexions services and for youth and adult education and community services and we must consider the money going to finance and fund those resources. In my constituency, established groups and organisations do not always want to make buildings and premises available for young people because they perceive them to be a problem; they do not understand that making facilities available will empower them to be the first citizens of the next generation.
People often do not know where to go to find a solution to antisocial behaviour. It is very easy for a "pass the parcel" syndrome to develop in which a complaint passes from housing officers, to youth workers, to the police and so on, round the houses and there is a sense that no one has the responsibility for dealing with the issue. That is why I welcome the Government's new initiative on neighbourhood renewal and the use of neighbourhood support funds to bring all 5WH the agencies together in a one-stop shop to deal in a concerted, resolute way with antisocial behaviour, however it is manifested.
The current spending round is high on everyone's agenda, and I urge the Minr to ensure that sufficient money will be available to do everything necessary to reduce crime and the fear of crime. When the Chancellor makes his announcement there should be no cuts that would further undermine the ability to deal with these issues.
Housing was mentioned briefly. Much antisocial behaviour, especially in my constituency, occurs when people move out of certain streets and drug addicts and prostitutes move in. That is an enormous problem for the remaining residents of those streets, which are being destroyed. People have to put up with noisy neighbours, with taxis and young people coming and going at all times of the day and night. People who suffer from that type of antisocial behaviour find it difficult to get up to go to work, especially if they work shifts, and it has a huge effect on their life.
The time has come for the Government to encourage Departments, including the Home Office, to work in conjunction to consider matters such as social registered landlords and housing benefit, and the way in which private landlords are able to rent out properties and allow antisocial behaviour to undermine the whole community. It is important to cut across different Departments, and encourage private landlords and socially responsible landlords to get together with the local police to see what can be done.
§ Mr. Randall
Does the hon. Lady accept that in my constituency it is not just private landlords who are involved? The local authority has a statutory requirement to house people. If those people then cause problems it takes a long time for them to be moved out.
§ Ms Walley
I recognise that problem; that is the dilemma and the challenge at the heart of the debate. It is a matter for council housing authorities, for private landlords and for social landlords, many of whom have taken over council housing stock, although fortunately not in my constituency. The most important thing would be to make it absolutely clear as a condition of a tenancy that failure to comply with the tenancy agreement would result in eviction. It is simply not fair that residents of certain streets and communities should have to tolerate antisocial behaviour.
However, people have rights to housing; therefore, we must implement measures firmly to ensure that people comply with housing and rental conditions and we must do what we can to ensure that people understand that some behaviour will not be tolerated, and prevent such behaviour in the first place. It is a vicious circle, but life is intolerable for those who live next door to the neighbours from hell.
We must go beyond considering landlords, whether of council or other housing, and look at the system of social security and housing benefit; the Government must send a firm message that we expect people to comply with basic tenancy agreements. It is a matter of redefining the problem and re-educating people, which is not easily done; there are no short-cut answers but there should be a process of education.
6WH I want to flag up one final issue for the Minister to consider: I am pleased that there are two pilot areas for antisocial behaviour contracts in my constituency. When the extra resources of police and local organisations work with active residents associations in areas such as the Norton ward, where local councillors are doing a wonderful job, there is an excellent opportunity for all the authorities involved to link up and work in partnership. Any hint of antisocial behaviour may thus be prevented early on, to make it unnecessary to use complicated procedures to obtain antisocial behaviour orders.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about my concerns. I have received many letters begging the Government to consider these issues; I ask for speedier antisocial behaviour orders and for the Government to think about people's tenancy and housing rights when considering measures to tackle wrong behaviour as quickly as possible.
§ Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)
I shall follow what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said and pick up a point that she raised about prostitution.
There has been a problem with prostitution in central Swindon for a long time, but in the past few years the antisocial behaviour associated with the problem has become noticeably worse. I pay tribute to the residents of the area, who have had to put up with so much; they have rightly spoken up for their community and brought pressure to bear on the council, the police and the courts to take further action. It is extremely unpleasant to find that local residents have been faced with threats from prostitutes and pimps that used condoms are disposed of in their gardens and in back alleyways, and that telephones are ripped out when people report those complaints. The community is obviously keen for more action to be taken.
Local groups are working together to tackle the problem and I have met the police and the council together to discuss how to pursue the matter further. We are pleased that the Government has introduced antisocial behaviour orders, and now that kerb crawling has become an arrestable offence, the police have many more powers to tackle the problem. I appreciate that Ministers and the Home Secretary are committed to tackling the matter.
§ Ms Drown
I agree with my hon. Friend. Such fines serve only to send the prostitutes back on the street to earn the money. More important, members of the community rightly respond with steam coming out of their ears, because they do so much to raise the issue but feel that they re being laughed at. We must find a different way of tackling the problem.
I wish to thank the police for their action. They have diverted resources to the area and kept them there to allay fears and tackle the problem. However, we have 7WH had particular problems in Swindon with the use of antisocial behaviour orders. A great deal of work was done to take some prostitutes to magistrate's court using such orders; unfortunately, the cases failed. It would be difficult for us to determine the exact causes of the failure, but we in Swindon feel strongly that the cases would have been successful if they had gone to the county court. The magistrates decided that detailed cases against individual prostitutes had to be made and proven. The proof that the prostitutes had caused or were likely to cause antisocial behaviour was not strong enough.
We believe that the experience of county court judges tends to be different from that of magistrates; it is more relevant, and antisocial behaviour orders fit more appropriately into the areas that they cover. We would like the Government to consider and address the issue, because effective action must be taken. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North described the huge amount of work that goes into producing antisocial behaviour orders, particularly against prostitutes. We must ensure that such work gets results for the community.
A system could be set up whereby the cases went to the county court but magistrates continued to deal with cases in which antisocial behaviour orders were broken. In that way, we could bring some balance to the system. If the Government do not transfer such cases to the county court, we must seriously consider the training of magistrates, to ensure that they acquire relevant experience and are able to make antisocial behaviour orders effective.
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
The hon. Lady advanced the idea that part of the process could be transferred to the county court. Has she considered the delays in the civil court process, as a result of which she might simply introduce an extra complication that would not help her constituents or those of other hon. Members?
§ Ms Drown
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was about to address delays, which lead to extra frustration. As legislators, we must always be aware of the bubble of feeling in the community and the danger that people will take the law into their own hands. We must ensure that the courts can take action quickly enough. The Government is considering the creation of a fast-track system for antisocial behaviour orders. That must happen. We need a system whereby interim orders take effect to stop offending behaviour before the full court case comes up. I urge the Government to support that.
The results of a recent survey in the area were frightening. There was a huge response: most of the women had been propositioned, and most of the men and women felt threatened by activities in the area. It is not only individuals' social life that is affected, but also businesses, people who work from home, and child minders, who have to deal with people at the door. Such levels of antisocial behaviour are not acceptable.
Ministers are aware of the problem, and I hope that the powers to deal with it can be strengthened, particularly by taking cases to judges in the county 8WH courts. Antisocial behaviour associated with prostitution in the neighbourhood is a real concern. It stops people going about their daily lives in peace, and it stops businesses working as effectively as they might. I urge the Government to take further action to support the community, the police, the council and the courts so that, together, we may effectively tackle a problem that has existed for too long.
§ 10.5 am
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate and thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me an opportunity to speak. Without a doubt, antisocial behaviour is increasing, if not at an exponential rate, to such an extent that it threatens virtually every home at some time during the year, so this is an important debate for each of us.
I have been closely involved with the police, the social services and the local authority in my community in reviewing the way in which antisocial behaviour and, particularly, antisocial behaviour orders are handled. In Stockton, three ASBOs are in place and seven are waiting for a court hearing. There is a clear and determined approach by a multi-agency group to establish effective measures for correcting the behaviour of many of our youngsters on the street.
Before I discuss suggestions for dealing with the problems and ways to secure improvements to the way in which ASBOs are handled, it is important that I mention the general belief within the police service and the local authority that this is an innovative approach. It has serious teething problems, but it is a multi-agency approach that is of value because parents are involved in a crucial and central way in achieving contracts of behaviour that should effectively control young people's behaviour. As I said, there is a sense that the scheme is innovative.
I acknowledge that there are difficulties; collecting evidence is certainly one of them. Serious caution inevitably influences the way in which people take evidence. They want to be sure that the evidence is in order and correct, and that when it is presented it will not be challenged. Thus there is a concern—a sweat—about collecting appropriate evidence. I will deal further with that shortly.
However, there is a belief that ASBOs will give people in the community an opportunity, for the first time, to give private evidence. They provide anonymity for those who previously would back off and say, "No, I won't come forward. I don't wish to make a statement about the youngsters, because they will throw bricks at my windows or intimidate me in other ways." People are now starting to see the positive side of ASBOs. A benefit is that they are no longer afraid of giving evidence to the court; a policeman can show the magistrates a signed statement from individuals in the community of the evidence that they wish to be included.
ASBOs clearly define when young people are out of control. I stress that we are often talking about a small percentage of a large group of people who get incensed when we generalise about them. I therefore resist the temptation to generalise, but that small group of people is inevitably the victims of peer pressure. Many of them find themselves acting up "having a bit of fun." 9WH However, that bit of fun is at someone else's expense. Too many letters and visits to constituents have shown us what that bit of fun has achieved.
During the run up to 5 November, I heard of many episodes of youngsters throwing explosive fireworks into people's homes, or putting them on window-sills or through letter-boxes. In their terms, they were having a bit of fun. That was not a bit of fun but a nightmare for the people who live in those homes. The elderly reacted by blocking up their letter-boxes, turning off their lights, drawing their curtains and hoping that no one would think that they were at home. I do not underestimate for a minute what that behaviour is all about and how destructive it is. However, a child of eight or 10 does not have a sophisticated or well-rounded ability to make effective judgments about what their actions mean. Peer pressure has an inordinate influence on them. Through ASBOs, police officers or social services can become involved with such a family and talk to those youngsters, and may achieve an understanding of what is going on. That could be an effective early warning system; I hope that it will be.
If I say anything positive about ASBOs this morning, it is not because that is my direct experience. Frankly, it cannot be. However, the multi-agency group regards the behaviour contract of ASBOs as an effective system in which the behaviour that was being perpetuated is scrutinised by parents, social services and the police and is treated clinically and carefully. The contract may involve a curfew or preventing that young person from going to various parts of the locality. Whatever its form, the multi-agency group sees it as an effective mechanism for stopping offending behaviour and persuading youngsters that there is no end in sight other than an ASBO or, at an appropriate age, a custodial sentence. The police have told me that an ASBO is a frightening experience and has a salutary effect. An ASBO, in all its various stages, is one of the most effective measures when, and if, it can be brought together in an appropriate way. It is valuable for us all to see.
Most of us find it astounding when parents say that they did not know what their child was getting up to, or where they were. I had such a serious control over my own family—before I entered this place as a Member of Parliament, at least—that I always knew where they were and what they were doing. I had a sure understanding.
§ Mr. Randall
I acknowledge that there are many single-parent families, but in several cases the trouble started after the death of one of the parents. It is almost as if the remaining parent cannot cope with the children, and they need help at that early stage.
§ Ms Taylor
I agree with that important point. It is not just death that brings on the problem, but divorce, or the choice to be a single parent. The strain is monumental. I am part of a marriage partnership that is stable and supportive, but even in that situation it is difficult and can be problematic. Increasingly often, the police are becoming the other parent. The social services are providing the type of support that a parent would give. Perhaps we should not be relying on that, but if they are giving parents the support that is required and that stops antisocial behaviour, it is valuable.
10WH We all know of far too many examples of antisocial behaviour. Although it is still early days and there are serious teething problems, it is worth while to persist with solutions. What is the alternative if it is not an ASBO or a behaviour contract? We want to make the orders part of a legalistic structure and we want others to see the efficacy of such action. What else would we put in their place that would give us the same support? From my experience of working in a remand home and a detention centre, I know that they are not places in which the behaviour of youths can be rebuilt. They are often places to which children are sent who have gone off the rails for a short time, but once in a detention centre, it is extraordinarily difficult to get them back into society because they have learned too much about being off the rails. The sheer impossibility of their returning to social behaviour becomes a fact.
There must be serious requirements within the mechanism of ASBOs and behaviour contracts if they are to become the valued instruments that I should like to see. Will the Minister reassure us that the way in which evidence is collected will be examined? The matter must be approached cautiously. The method by which evidence is collected is seriously bureaucratic and takes a long time, which inhibits the speedy reaction that we had hoped would be achieved from ASBOs. I want effective guidance to be given to the police force, social services and social housing bodies to persuade them to provide evidence more speedily.
I reiterate that gaining court time is seriously undermined. People are waiting for months before they can present their case to the magistrate. That situation must be examined if we are to have an appropriate rapid reaction. A crucial adjunct to that is what happens when a breach of order has taken place and the ASBO returns to the magistrate's court to be re-examined. The order is often considered by different magistrates, who do not have a full understanding of the original case. Those proceedings inevitably result in a supervision order, at which the police just throw up their hands. They feel distraught because, after they have put so much work and time into the case, the magistrates merely grant a supervision order. The Minister has two options: either she must require the magistrates who considered the first case to consider the breach of order, or she must allow a comprehensive, detailed report of the first case to be given to the second set of magistrates, so that they have a full understanding of why the order was made in the first place.
We are witnessing more proactive local authority involvement in some of our communities. Community strategy plans and neighbourhood renewal plans have been set up. Is the Minister persuaded that councils should involve ASBOs in those plans? If we are to use renewal and strategy plans, whereby communities will have a future, those will be achieved only in a stable and safe environment in which ASBOs are included.
I do not think that good practice is being networked throughout the country. Such action is long overdue. We need people to know why West Mercia police manages to get ASBOs put in place in a month. How does it manage to do so when my police force takes much longer? Good practice gives people courage; it gives them the support and knowledge that they require to use ASBOs more effectively.
11WH Will the Minister consider an offshoot? Parts of Stockton have an on-street warden scheme. It is a support to the police services. The wardens walk about. They are well known. They are uniformed and are recognised as a valuable source of security support to the neighbourhood. I accept that the White Paper suggested extending the involvement of different groups such as providers of social housing to ASBOs, but has the inclusion of warden schemes been considered?
Antisocial behaviour inevitably requires a seriously challenging, robust approach to be taken by us all. Our mailbags are full of letters. The chief constable of Cleveland has walked with me around my patch and has seen the intimidating behaviour and the threats posed by youngsters. It is a colossal problem. We are seeking resolutions. A more flexibly handled ASBO, with the appropriate finances, that includes others in a multi-agency approach will give a more speedy delivery. Will the Minister consider such a valuable add-on, which will reduce young people's antisocial behaviour, certainly in my constituency?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)
Order. It is appropriate to offer an admonishment to the Chamber. It is common practice in a 90-minute debate for the two Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople and the Minister to start their winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the debate is to conclude and that the timing is equitably disposed of in three 10-minute speeches. As we have a little more time than that before 11 o'clock, I appeal to the three hon. Members who wish to speak to bear in mind such practice.
§ Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)
I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. I agree that it is most timely. As a new Member of Parliament, I have to concur with more experienced hon. Members that antisocial behaviour is the main issue that faces us. That is despite the fact that I represent a constituency in the south, which, according to some stereotypes, does not have a high deprivation factor. It straddles urban and rural areas. In fact, one third of it is rural. There are just as many antisocial behaviour problems in the villages as there are in the built-up areas. The diversity in antisocial behaviour is striking; that is important to bear in mind when considering how to deal with it.
I preface my comments by saying that I am absolutely determined to tackle antisocial behaviour. I sympathise greatly with elderly people and others who are frightened and suffer enormous stress because of what is happening around them. We must get to grips with the problem. It is diverse and it is difficult to assess its severity; what one person might describe as outrageous behaviour, another might regard as high spirits. Perceptions vary among areas. Those huge variations in perception, locality and manifestation highlight the importance of the Government's initiative for crime and disorder strategies and partnerships, which are important because of their local focus.
12WH Today's focus is on antisocial behaviour orders nationally. I agree with the principle of antisocial behaviour orders, but I find it difficult to make sweeping statements about them that apply to the entire country. Are they a measure of last resort? How early should they be introduced? Parliamentary questions sometimes seem to contain a presumption that an increased use of ASBOs is good. Is that true statistically? Last year, the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs cited Wrexham, where only one order had been made, but the real success was the 1,500 incidents that had been resolved through partnership working, before the red card was used. The threat of the sanction was probably an effective deterrent. In a moment I shall discuss Islington and acceptable behaviour contracts—another example where good practice is taking place and few orders are being made. Equally, an increase in ASBOs may mean simply that there is more antisocial behaviour, not that we are tackling it more effectively. I urge caution in taking an approach that results in a record number of such orders.
I am aware from my local experience of the bureaucracy and expense involved and of the fact that we need a weapon in our armoury. I welcome examination of how such orders are implemented. An excellent suggestion was to examine good practice and whether orders might be secured more quickly under existing provision.
The Liberal Democrats would like to examine the proposals carefully, using evidence on the effectiveness of ASBOs. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us on the full study that I believe was due to be published. I am slightly worried about our extending something if no robust evaluation is available. Perhaps there is such an evaluation. If so, I should be pleased to hear about it.
I do not know the breakdown of the number of ASBOs as regards those that applied to young people and those that applied to adults. Different circumstances have been described today, and I am worried that a single instrument is not the best approach. I would welcome a review, which the Liberal Democrats would consider extremely carefully.
We are impressed with acceptable behaviour contracts, which are flexible, cheaper than ASBOs and can be used earlier. The practice in Islington seems to have been excellent and is now spreading, including, indeed, to the authority in my constituency. Both the council and the police find them helpful because, if nothing else, they help gather the evidence for ASBOs, and thus have an interim use, if not a final one. I like the fact that the approach is incremental and that the contracts make children and families take responsibility. A strong link has been made with housing. Fear of losing a house has, I believe, made the contracts work and has made parents wake up. Young people should take responsibility for and ownership of their actions. The use of such contracts has been extended.
The approach is not so much like the armoury that I mentioned earlier; I view it as a toolkit. We have several tools, all of which need to be used in the right sequence. Hon. Members have discussed the importance of community and individual initiatives. I confess that I have bombarded my local police with issues relating to antisocial behaviour to such an extent that they have looked around the country, which is good.
13WH I had passed to me details of a junior referral scheme that operates in Lancashire. We now have the Poole Operation Guardian. The scheme has incremental stages, which involve, first, going out and talking to young people; secondly, taking their name and address; thirdly, sending parents a letter, and so on. That incremental approach is important, but it needs to be resourced.
Auditing, trailing and monitoring antisocial behaviour are equally important.
§ Mr. Randall
I am very interested in what the hon. Lady is saying. Does she agree that one problem seems to be lack of knowledge on the part of the various agencies involved about what avenues are available to them? Guidelines on increments, especially in the case of, for example, housing associations, whose staff are not trained to deal with such problems, would be useful.
§ Mrs. Brooke
That is absolutely right. We are dealing with multi-agency shared practice. Many of the jigsaw pieces are available. I congratulate the Government on those pieces, but they are not all clicking in to make an entire picture.
We must not limit our discussions to antisocial behaviour orders, which are a single instrument. I accept that that instrument may have to be used, but we must take more positive action, too. Although ASBOs tackle behaviour, we should consider lower levels of intervention before we reach that stage.
I agree that we need neighbourhood renewal. Along with all positive measures, I am interested in neighbourhood warden schemes, a trial of which is being introduced in my constituency. The package involves school, integrated pastoral care, exclusion policies, family support and community facilities. The range is enormous. I hate to say it, but the approach ultimately relates to resources, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) said. One of our police superintendents told us what a difference small sums would make in implementing a crime and disorder strategy, such as £250 handed to a local group that raises money itself for its own purposes. People do not feel that they have those small sums. Will the Minister consider that point?
I recently spoke to representatives of the youth offending team, and some brilliant work has been initiated in providing parenting courses, of which there are many in my constituency. The Youth Justice Board has provided additional funds for a pilot scheme involving the introduction of parenting schemes at the point of changing schools—age 11 in that area. Such early intervention makes a lot of sense. Strains on local councils have resulted in their cutting back the amount that they put into parenting courses, so instead of additionality we have had replacement. I am sure that there are many such stories. That is a big issue, which needs to be resourced. We must consider all such issues and bring them together.
I mentioned making the jigsaw whole. I am excited about the principles behind Connexions, but much more needs to be done to pull the scheme together. Some of the schemes cover different age bands, and I am worried that there may be gaps. The age band for Connexions is, I believe, 13 to 19, and for YOT, 10 to 18. We need to pull that together.
14WH As we have seen, an awful lot can be done for the community and families. However, we must not forget the individual, and sadly the issue is one of resources. We hear much about attention deficit disorder. That may be a small part of the cause of antisocial behaviour by individuals, but we need resources to follow through the research.
The hon. Member for Uxbridge mentioned mental illness. There is a tremendous shortage of resources to help deal with mental illness in young people. The Liberal Democrats believe that all the issues that I have mentioned are important. We see the matter as a whole toolkit and would like to emphasise that exciting and important initiatives should be resourced properly. I would like my toolkit to follow a positive intervention model, not one of blaming and enforcement. I am realistic and accept that we need this measure, but we must proceed with caution and get it right.
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
I have had the opportunity to speak about antisocial behaviour orders on several occasions. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this debate, which has been similar to many others in that it has contained interesting contributions based on personal constituency experience and the individual ideas of both Back and Front Benchers—as was the case with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats on home affairs.
Today's debate is different in one way. The Government's most severe critic from their own Back Benches, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), is absent—no doubt he has other duties. In every other debate on the subject, he made it clear that the Government had got the scheme wrong and that it was far too complex.
We said—more in sorrow than in anger—from the first moment that the Government announced the scheme that it would be a bureaucratic nightmare. It is not that we do not share the Government's ambition to deal with antisocial behaviour, as we agree with all those who have spoken that it is the scourge of our law-abiding constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge spoke of the problems in parts of his constituency such as West Drayton and we are all aware of similar areas that have difficulties with such behaviour.
My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge rightly referred to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) who is, like me, an Opposition spokesman for home affairs. In a previous debate, he pointed out some of the things that had gone wrong. However, it has taken a long time—a comment from not only Government Back Benchers but hon. Members of all parties—for the Government to concede that all the warnings that we issued at the start have turned out to be right.
I do not blame the Minister. The hon. Lady brings to her responsibilities professional expertise that she gained prior to entering Parliament. I know that she takes her responsibilities seriously from my experience of dealing with the case of one of my constituents, with which she assisted me and other hon. Members recently. 15WH She inherited both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that her predecessors in office got it spectacularly wrong by erecting a bureaucratic nightmare. Everyone who has spoken has mentioned the problems that the police and local authorities face and I will touch on some of the most appalling experiences that senior police officers and local authority officers have recently found in my constituency.
The opportunity is that the Minister has joined the Home Office at a time when the penny has finally dropped that the Government can get rid of a lot of the bureaucracy. I hope that this time they will get it right. I wish 1 had confidence that they would cut through all of the nonsenses, but I fear that we shall see tinkering rather than genuine action. I am sure that the Minister will tell us that she has every confidence that the Government will get it right. As always, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.
I want to talk briefly about what is happening at the sharp end, as other hon. Members have done. I have huge respect for the views held on a range of subjects by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). She spoke powerfully about the difficulties in her constituency, as did the hon. Members for South Swindon (Ms Drown) and for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor).
In my constituency, I have obtained detailed briefing from two people that I know extremely well—Mick Day, the chief inspector of North West Surrey police and Barry Catchpole, the chief executive of Surrey Heath borough council, one of the two councils in my constituency. In all our regular meetings, they have told me about their frustration in efforts to deal with antisocial behaviour. When I heard that this issue had been selected for debate, I asked them to give me detailed briefing on a recent case about which, only 10 days ago, I was receiving calls from national media and having discussions with other police officers.
Chief Inspector Day says:I refer to your request for an opinion from the police perspective on the ASBO process.Recent experience at Surrey Heath in relation to two young men aged 15 & 16 years was a frustrating encounter with the ASBO process. In brief the two young men were committing acts of nuisance and terrorising their local community as well as causing problems in Camberley Town Centre as part of a larger group. Normal policing methods and the justice system had not been effective so a multi agency group decided in February 2001"—
the Minister and hon. Members should note the date—to gather evidence for an ASBO application. It took two months to collate the evidence and the complaint was laid in April 2001. The case was listed for hearing in August 2001",which was already six months later. It was thenadjourned on two occasions at the request of thedefendants. The case wasfinally heard in late January 2002",which is effectively a year later—I know exactly when it was because I started fielding calls from the media a week last Friday, the day after the case was heard.
16WH Chief Inspector Day says:It was therefore almost a full 12 months to get this application through the judicial process. There are a number of points I would wish to make on this…The collation of evidence was an extremely bureaucratic process involving applications to other agencies for little return…Once the complaint had been laid the length of time to hearing was unbelievably long and frustrated the desire to provide relief to the local community who were the victims of these young men…It is worthy of note that in the interim one of the young men received a custodial sentence, perhaps this could have been avoided had the ASBO process been slicker and more effective…Partner agencies are reluctant to support the process because of the bureaucracy and time involved.Who can blame them?What is needed is a process which is responsive to address anti social behaviour quickly and effectively. ASBO in the current climate do not provide that response and the public feel that agencies are not being responsive to local problems…In summary the whole process is a frustrating bureaucratic nightmare.Those strong words are used by one of the most effective senior police officers that it has been my pleasure to work with and I have been working with senior police officers all my professional life—I qualified as a barrister in the late 1970s and have been a Member of Parliament for nearly 10 years. I have worked with police officers in all parts of the country. I have been a shadow Minister with responsibility for home affairs for nearly three years.
Chief Inspector Day is not someone whose words can be dismissed. He does not use them lightly. He is respected throughout north-west Surrey, not only in my constituency, as an old-style traditional police officer who is nevertheless receptive to new ideas and thinking. He was born and brought up in my constituency and is a real, seat-of-the-pants police officer, respected in all the jobs that he has done from ordinary police constable to chief inspector. I have regular meetings with him and know that his strong words should be taken seriously.
The chief executive of my local authority states that there is adisproportionate need for huge resources from many different public bodies over several months during which time the offender is still disruptive.Ordinary members of the community often decline to provide evidence as their identity cannot be kept confidential and they are fearful of reprisals. Such fears are well-founded given the nature of the people against whom the Orders are sought.As always the offenders are very informed as to the processes and abuse this knowledge to the detriment of the community.That sentence is relevant to the correct comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge about lack of respect for police officers.
The chief executive continues:At Surrey Heath Borough Council our first case was due for hearing in September but was deferred for two months as one of the "defendants" had been arrested the day before the hearing. During the two month delay the offenders continued to terrorise their communities and no quicker option was available. Later hearings were deferred as the offender was in Feltham Young Offenders Institute.The chief executive also refers to the cost of the process:This hardly matches the aim of a quick simple system and is very costly to the taxpayer. This is seen as excessive by the communities against whom the anti-social behaviour is aimed.17WH The chief executive also draws attention to how long the process took and expresses concern that the court did not allow the names of the defendants to be publicised. One is always concerned about publicity with regard to juveniles, but that issue should be debated and I ask the Minister to comment on it.
Representatives of the media applied for reporting restrictions to be lifted. Although the police inspector who dealt with the case supported the application, it was not granted. I am not challenging the principle that the courts should decide such matters but, as the Government are reconsidering these provisions, the publicity issue should be addressed.
Finally, on the important issue of the involvement, or lack of it, of parents, which my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge also raised, the chief executive of my local authority, Barry Catchpole, states:Throughout the 4 day hearing neither parents attended court in support of their children, and the court did not act on that position.He also rightly comments thatparental responsibilities are paramount in making this process effective and where not voluntary the court should be looking to issue Parenting Orders to assist in keeping young people to the ASBO conditions.Local courts are not comfortable with the process, make life unnecessarily difficult for the agencies to even get to court and then the judges are reluctant to make Orders and are overtly critical of the agencies.That is the case even in the extreme circumstances that we are discussing.
I wish the Minister to respond to what happened in the example that I have described. I state, more in sorrow than in anger, that we warned the Government when they set up this process that that would happen and it has. The system is not working properly and we want the Government to ensure that their replacement for it is a huge improvement.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for securing the debate, and to all hon. Members who have spoken for their constructive contributions. They have described their experiences, and it is clear that they have been motivated to speak by a desire to make the system work, because they recognise that antisocial behaviour orders are an important part of what the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) referred to as a toolkit of measures. I was going to describe it as a package of measures, but toolkit is a good word, because it conveys what we have tried to achieve, which is to offer a menu of options to tackle antisocial behaviour, of which antisocial behaviour orders are one.
There are many types of antisocial behaviour, such as graffiti, intimidation, verbal abuse and prostitution. As hon. Friends have mentioned, there is also antisocial behaviour that is related to drug abuse. All hon. Members deal with such behaviour in their constituencies, so they are aware that it reduces people's 18WH quality of life and creates fear and intimidation. The Home Office is heavily engaged in the battle against serious crime, but I assure hon. Members that the Government are equally committed to tackling antisocial behaviour and the problems that it causes for communities.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced antisocial behaviour orders, as well as child curfews and a range of other changes, to the youth justice system. It also established the crime and disorder partnerships, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole for mentioning that initiative because, although it is important that the Government should provide the tools that enable such partnerships to tackle the problems in their areas, it is also important that the partnerships should be allowed to identify the issues to be prioritised in their areas, and to apply the measures to tackle them in the most effective way.
Partnerships must focus on antisocial behaviour. They are now required to audit that as well as crime, and to develop a strategy to deal with it. It is important that partnerships focus on antisocial behaviour not only because of the quality of life issues to which I and many hon. Members have referred, but because such behaviour is a potential risk factor with regard to crime. Recent research confirms that there is frequently a link between antisocial behaviour in childhood and more serious criminal offending at an older age.
The antisocial behaviour order is a civil order made by a court. It is designed to address persistent antisocial behaviour. Individual incidents of such behaviour might not reach the required threshold of seriousness, but they will if they are taken together over a period. Such persistent behaviour has a corrosive effect on victims and communities. However, although antisocial behaviour orders are civil proceedings that require a civil standard to be met with regard to proof and rules of evidence, breach of an antisocial behaviour order is a criminal offence that must, therefore, be proved to that standard of evidence.
Between April 1999 and September 2001, 466 antisocial behaviour orders were granted. However, as several hon. Members have mentioned, we should not address the issue as if it were simply a numbers game. Although we want antisocial behaviour orders to be used—and to be used more often where they are applicable—the fact that they are available, and that they have been used, has had a deterrent effect. Important points have been raised about the use of measures such as acceptable behaviour contracts to prevent young people—and some adults—from reaching the threshold where they could be given an antisocial behaviour order.
Of those 466 orders, 84 per cent. were given to men, 74 per cent. to people under the age of 21, and 58 per cent. to juveniles. About 36 per cent. of antisocial behaviour orders have been breached, and 46 per cent. of breaches have resulted in custodial sentences. Only 4 per cent of applications have been refused, and the fact that so few refusals of applications reach court is of relevance to the case that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown).
19WH I am aware of the breach case that was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), because the leader of her local council raised it with me.
I turn to cost. Although the hon. Member for Uxbridge mentioned a figure, these are early days, and I do not wish to be held to any of the sums that I will mention. The results of the review that we have been undertaking suggest that the typical cost of an antisocial behaviour order is £4,800. That includes the cost of the internal solicitor's time, legal work and so on. If breaches and appeals are involved, the average cost of an order is about £5,350. Those figures are based on the experience of authorities.
Agencies that have used antisocial behaviour orders—and some agencies have really got to grips with them—report to us that they are very cost-effective. That is particularly the case when one considers the cost of not dealing with antisocial behaviour.
§ Beverley Hughes
I take my hon. Friend's point. Several of the costs that I cited would be incurred in such cases, although, clearly, not in all of them. The question of witnesses is an important ingredient in ensuring that we make greater use of ASBOs.
Several hon. Members referred to legislative changes that the Home Secretary announced recently. Those include extending the power of those who may apply for ASBOs to the British Transport police and registered social landlords, which are important developments. The British Transport police want to be able to deal with ticket touting and similar problems more effectively.
Interim ASBOs will help to overcome some of the problems of delay that were mentioned, especially for witnesses. If an interim ASBO is awarded quickly, that will give protection to witnesses.
County courts will be empowered to make an ASBO when dealing with cases such as evictions or injunctions in which the reason for the application was antisocial behaviour. The court will be able to link the eviction or injunction to the simultaneous award of an ASBO, rather than having to apply again for an ASBO
We want to encourage the use of travelling ASBOs that will cover a wider area so that a person who moves will continue to be covered by the order.
§ Ms Drown
I am pleased to hear that the Government are considering using the county court when there is a link between benefit and eviction. Will the Government consider using the county court for cases such as prostitution? I do not know whether such cases 20WH experience a higher failure rate than other types of ASBO, but if that is the case, will the Government examine that route?
§ Beverley Hughes
That is outside the scope that the Secretary of State has announced so far. However, I shall take my hon. Friend's comments back to the Department and feed them into the review process.
Hon. Members mentioned the review. We want to see whether we can help bodies to overcome problems by examining the experience of local authorities and police services. I hope that we will produce the review very soon. Issues that should be addressed include guidance and the dissemination of good practice, which were mentioned by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) gave a detailed account of a case that he said was at the sharp end of what is happening. However, I tell him that there are other versions of what is occurring at the sharp end, and there are examples of excellent practice in which agencies—especially the local authorities and the police—have put in resources and worked together.
Manchester established a nuisance strategy group to allow the maximum use of ASBOs. It demonstrated that several factors contributed to the success of ASBOs. The publicising of ASBOs was important. Media coverage and leaflets produced by the local authority helped local people to understand an ASBO. Such communication helps to enforce the order because the community understands the behaviour that constitutes a breach.
The support of witnesses is also important to the success of ASBOs—a point that was touched on several times. Successful partnership working is a further important factor, as is cost-effectiveness, which the authority achieves by ensuring that front-line officers play a central role, rather than always bringing in outside assistance. That ensures that a knowledge base and the ability to work efficiently are bred inside the local authority.
I accept that many areas have found the process bureaucratic, but I do not think that that was inevitable. Agencies that use good practice and cut through bureaucracy have taken a more realistic view of the evidence that is required. Agencies that work quickly together to make a case have shown that bureaucracy need not occur. None the less, the Government want to ensure that when lessons have been learned in one area, they can be learned elsewhere. Hon. Members asked about delay at the court stage, and made suggestions. I will take those points to the Department.
We are planning to help local partnerships to use ASBOs more effectively. Acceptable behaviour contracts, which were mentioned by several hon. Members, are a further important part of the toolkit, and they have been implemented successfully in Islington.
I thank hon. Members for their contributions, which I shall feed into the review. We are determined to make ASBOs work, and to help agencies with responsibilities for ASBOs to cut through the problems that were identified today and allow them to use the orders more effectively—