HC Deb 16 July 2003 vol 409 cc67-89WH

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

9.30 am
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

Would it be in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for us to remove our jackets?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It would not be in order to remove jackets in this Chamber.

Mr. Allen

At my surgery last Saturday, I was visited by a middle-aged man whom I shall call Mr. Smith. He told me about his elderly parents, both of whom suffer ill health. They have a family living next door to them. The father of that family is in prison, the mother is a drug dealer and the teenage children live by the motto, "No one tells us what to do." The elderly couple suffer music, sometimes until dawn. They have had their fence burned and demolished, they are attacked by their neighbours' dog, they have been personally abused and assaulted and they have six crime numbers arising from police visits next door. They have endured that for two years without relief, despite the efforts of local services to help them. I dedicate this debate to them and to the many others who need our Government to take action on their behalf.

We must start from a position of honesty and say that we are still a long way from defeating antisocial behaviour. It is not foremost a question of lawyers or even Ministers, although we need both. It is a question of normal law-abiding people—our constituents—who are being driven crazy by bad neighbours, kids with no values, verbal and mental intimidation and a daily degraded quality of life. We must do something about that. Technical and legal reasons for standing back and letting people suffer are no longer acceptable.

To their great credit, the Labour Government in 1998 showed their awareness of that serious problem and decided on urgent action. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 provided for local authorities or the police to apply to a magistrates court for an antisocial behaviour order if someone over 10 years of age had acted in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household", if deemed necessary to protect other individuals from further such behaviour in a local authority area. ASBOs may prohibit any form of activity for a specific period or indefinitely until discharged by the court. The Government and, no doubt, previous Governments have treated the issue seriously, but the problem is massive and our attempts to pin it down must be constant and permanent.

ASBOs are just one part of the armoury, not a panacea. That said, after six years in government, we should be doing better than the several hundred ASBOs that are imposed each year. ASBOs should be running into thousands per year and should be a permanent part of the armoury of local authorities and police against that small minority who make everyone else's life a misery.

ASBOs are a sophisticated and effective tool for tackling antisocial behaviour, but they have had teething problems and need further work. They are still dependent on witnesses, who are easily intimidated. In white, working class areas and tough outer-city estates of the sort that I am familiar with, as are the Minister and other hon. Members, witnesses are easily intimated, particularly when the antisocial behaviour is perpetrated by younger people, often against older and more established residents.

Bringing a case to court requires immense resources and time from local authority, police, probation and housing officers. They do incredible work, but must set aside a vast amount of time to make an ASBO stick. Often, bail is all too easily granted to ASBO offenders, not least because of the lack of secure places.

Many of the problems might have been avoided had there been proper pre-legislative scrutiny of the whole concept. We could have asked those whom we are now asking to operate ASBOs how ASBOs might work best. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will consider taking the quite imaginative step of having post-legislative scrutiny of ASBOs and of commissioning a parliamentary forum, including colleagues who are present this morning, to take evidence from practitioners on how to make ASBOs better.

The Minister may not agree with my main contention about the confusion surrounding the definition of civil and criminal burdens of proof, but many people may be confused, even if the Minister and the judges are clear about the matter. Perhaps one way to resolve the confusion and to make ASBOs work even better is to have a dialogue in a parliamentary forum or in another forum that the Minister considers appropriate.

I make my comments entirely from a constructive position. I hope that they do not come over as destructive in any sense. My comments follow a long line of efforts by Nottingham to improve ASBOs. I pay tribute to the police in the city and to local councillors and officers of Nottingham city council for their great efforts over many years to promote changes in ASBOs. Many of those changes have been accepted and implemented.

In that context, I also thank a number of Ministers: primarily, Lord Irvine, the former Lord Chancellor; my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who used to occupy the position that the Minister now occupies; and our former, lamented colleague David Lock. All those people worked as a team with me and other colleagues from Nottingham to improve ASBOs.

The widespread teamwork that we have brought to bear on the matter was summed up for me when one of our local police inspectors, Jeff Whitmore, whom I will quote later, cornered my right hon. Friend the then Home Secretary, now the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. I will never forget the picture of Jeff talking and my right hon. Friend writing. The outcome, to my right hon. Friend's great credit, was a considerable tightening of the guidance on ASBOs. We have a good, strong, positive record when it comes to improving ASBOs. I hope that the Minister will take my remarks in that context.

Nottingham has not given up and today I want to focus on one key ASBO problem. The potential strength, but also one of the weaknesses, of ASBOs stems from their unusual legal status. They draw on both civil and criminal law. ASBOs are regarded as civil proceedings, but there are two problems. First, to obtain an ASBO can require more than a civil level of proof. Secondly, if the order is breached, proving the breach requires a criminal level of proof, which is "beyond all reasonable doubt". A civil level of proof refers to "the balance of probability".

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that the criminal level of proof is right, given that a young person could face a five-year prison sentence, or another strong sentence?

Mr. Allen

If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will tackle some of those points later. I will make a couple of points that might help her to understand where I am coming from.

In October 2002, the House of Lords, in the McCann case, determined the standard of proof. Much as I hate to do this, for the record I will quote certain parts of that judgment. It was stated that given the seriousness of matters involved, at least some reference to the heightened civil standard would usually be necessary. For essentially practical reasons, the judge in the McCann case decided to apply the criminal standard. The Court of Appeal said that would usually be the right course to adopt. Lord Bingham of Cornhill had observed that the heightened civil standard and the criminal standard were virtually indistinguishable. Pragmatism dictated that the task of magistrates should be made more straightforward by ruling that they must, in all cases under section 1 of the 1998 Act apply the criminal standard. There are other quotes. There is, in my opinion, a degree of confusion among practitioners that it would be helpful to have resolved one way or another.

No local council will risk public money and days of officers' time gambling on further interpretation of such guidelines. If in doubt, it will have to let those suffering antisocial behaviour stew. When I say "stew", I do not mean for a day or two, or a couple of weeks. The case to which I referred earlier has been going on for months and years. I am not making a straightforward crossover and saying that, if we changed the law today, that case would be dealt with. It is not as simple as that, but people are in such positions for months, and possibly years, suffering and often unable to move.

One problem for the Law Lords is that they have cases but not constituents. That is one of the problems with their lordships in general, and perhaps with the Law Lords in particular. I suggest to the Minister that, as we establish a new supreme court, the senior judiciary must address that problem through training and outreach. As an interim measure, I intend to copy this speech to their lordships the Law Lords and invite them to meet Mr. and Mrs. Smith and many other families desperate for relief. I think that that sort of grounding would be no bad thing for their lordships when they make decisions on matters that appear to be legal technicalities, but make ordinary people's lives unbearable.

There are times when it is difficult to prove harassment, alarm and distress to that high standard to which I referred. The public may not come forward to give evidence, or harassment may have to be interpreted from the actions of a class of people, such as in the case of begging—a big problem in Nottingham—where the public complain about the actions of a class but not individuals. Beggars cause distress, but it is difficult to prove the standard required for an ASBO.

In a recent case in Preston, the police attempted to impose an ASBO on a prostitute, who had prostitution convictions. The magistrates court refused to grant that on the ground that it could not be proved beyond all reasonable doubt that she had caused harassment, alarm or distress. Meanwhile, the problems of used condoms and syringes being left lying around, sex acts in doorways and women being afraid to walk the streets in the area continue, as they do in my city.

All the immense local effort to bolster witnesses, undertake surveillance, produce reports and initiate the case is often wasted, with all the resulting demoralisation that that entails, and glee for the offenders. To prevent that, to enhance the reputation of ASBOs and to increase their usage, the standard of proof required to obtain an order must be clarified, either by the Minister's remarks and getting those across to all who wish to use ASBOs more effectively, or by cleaning up the statute so that we are clear that it is a civil offence requiring a civil level of proof.

I tabled an amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill in Committee, although I was not on the Committee, hoping at the very least that that matter could be openly debated with the then Minister, but it was blocked by the Government. Will the current Minister take a fresh look at it and, if convinced, introduce a similar amendment while the Bill is in the Lords? That is still possible. As I am sure hon. Members will point out, rafts of new amendments have been introduced to the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and the Criminal Justice Bill. I am sure that, if the Minister wishes to look at the matter seriously, as I know she will, it will be possible to table a simple amendment to ensure that the civil burden of proof is the level required, and to make that absolutely clear to everyone.

I would now like to call witnesses. The deputy chief constable of Nottinghamshire police, Peter Ditchett, remarks: We feel that great progress has been made with ASBOs but that more can be done, particularly on the burden of proof. Another witness is Christine Oliver, the solicitor for Nottingham city council who has responsibility for moving cases forward: We would welcome further changes to allow ASBOs to be granted on evidence proved on the balance of probability rather than beyond reasonable doubt. We believe this would allow more applications to be made in both the magistrate's court and county court with broader use of anti-social behaviour orders. It is not that orders are refused by the courts, but that a vast reservoir of potential orders are never sought because people think that some hurdles are too high. I referred earlier to my next witness, Inspector Jeff Whitmore, who stated: We do need the entire burden of proof to be at the civil level to enable all forms of evidence to be submitted and the decision to be made on the balance of probabilities. This as you are aware, will make it far easier for us and the Council to make full use of the legislation. According to Inspector Whitmore, it is necessary to apply the intention that the Home Secretary has stated in various Second Reading debates and to use antisocial behaviour orders in a way that will help our constituents.

My last witness is the former leader of Nottingham city council, Councillor Graham Chapman, who stated: We owe it to the vast majority of law abiding good neighbours to keep the pressure up on the tiny minority of anti-social people by making the burden of proof such that we can actively and speedily take action against them. My case is not that ASBOs are never granted, but that we need to make them more readily available to the people I have quoted. None is a Rachman. None is trying to kick someone out of a house so that it can be sold. They are all dedicated public servants who wish to use the law as we intended it to be used.

I have been speaking about granting an ASBO, but I shall now deal with the question raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) about breaching an ASBO. I acknowledge openly and honestly to everyone in the Chamber and outside that I am on thin ice. The balance that we are always desperate to achieve in a free society is maintaining good order and decent living conditions for the vast majority of people while in no way compromising individual liberties.

I concur with remarks by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that the balance is tilted in favour of the antisocial person who may hide behind his rights and against the vast majority of law-abiding people in our constituencies. I know that this is a very delicate matter, but, having said that, I shall put on my big clogs and stamp all over it to see what happens and whether there is any room to move forward. I hope that my colleagues will forgive me if I speak bluntly on these matters.

Mrs. Brooke

Is it ever right to risk convicting an innocent young person, or any innocent person? In these circumstances, the risk is so high. Such a conviction would certainly destroy that person's life.

Mr. Allen

There is no intention to convict innocent people, although I admit that innocent people are sometimes convicted under any legal system or system of justice. We should take every possible precaution to prevent that from happening. However, I am equally concerned about the 99 out of 100 innocent people who suffer in their homes because we are unable to find a remedy that will allow them to enjoy their life, privacy and home without being subjected to the antisocial behaviour of young people, bad neighbours or others. It is a question not of innocence or guilt, but of getting the balance right. I am suggesting that perhaps we should tilt the balance a little more in favour of the people who suffer, year after year. Rather than for ever considering the issue in the context of clients who may be represented in court, perhaps we should think of the citizens who have a right to enjoy free association and social life in the way we would all want to enjoy them.

Breaching of many types of orders is a criminal offence. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole rightly said that someone can go to prison for five years in certain circumstances. To digress slightly, however, we must explore, if only to reject, the concept of what I call automaticity. Where an order is breached, might it, under carefully defined circumstances, involve an automatic penalty? At present, we need two trials before a penalty is imposed. We need a trial to establish the order and another if it has been breached. We must consider that carefully, as police, probation and housing officers must go through the time-consuming process of preparing and supporting witnesses for court appearances. Automaticity should apply, especially when the original granting of the order required a criminal or quasi-criminal level of proof, although it may not apply in other circumstances. I will leave that thought with the Minister, and I hope that colleagues will take it seriously rather than merely being outraged, saying that we are going to lock up thousands of innocent people. It deserves to be explored, if only for us to reject it collectively around the table.

There is less confusion over ASBOs. We certainly require a criminal level of proof to determine whether they have been breached. To convict someone who has broken their antisocial behaviour order by reappearing in an area from which they were barred, or intimidating families whom they were banned from approaching, the same level of proof is required—as I understand it, although I am not a lawyer—as for murder, rape or any of the most serious offences. That proof must be beyond a shadow of a doubt, beyond all reasonable possibilities. It may well be the law, but we are here not merely to create or to rubber-stamp the law, but to try to support those suffering in our constituencies. I ask hon. Members to think about the issue not as lawyers, but as Members of Parliament whose constituents need action and alternatives to the existing policy. We should not find more reasons to say, "No, we are going to make it difficult for you. We will allow a process to take place that makes it difficult for you to get those necessary orders."

I say to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that, normally, by the time we reach that stage, the people are not first-time offenders. They have a track record locally and are at the end of the line. When police, probation and housing resources of that magnitude are committed, it is because the offenders are not casual people whom we are picking up in the streets, but long-term, repeat offenders, many of whom we know through the experiences of our constituents. We are not randomly picking up people off the street and locking them up because we do not like them. Those people have come a long way down the road of antisocial behaviour.

Those are the points that I would like the Minister to clarify. I have been specific, but there is a lot more we can do about antisocial behaviour orders. The Minister will rightly point out the vast amount that the Government have done over recent years, and that effort is genuinely appreciated on the estates in my constituency. The recent developments with the Anti-social Behaviour Bill are welcome. I applaud and pay tribute to those efforts, but they must continue. There are concerns, but whether they are justified is almost beside the point. We need to resolve them whether or not they have any basis. I hope that, in their third and fourth terms, the Labour Government will introduce not only a tax on antisocial behaviour, but a serious and solid campaign to promote social behaviour among young people. I have had discussions on the matter with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. I have had conversations on an all-party basis—Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members must be part of getting the process moving—on ensuring that the national curriculum from the age of five reflects social behaviour.

The concepts of emotional intelligence, personal development and self-discipline must be included to give those young people values. That may sound like the nanny state, which may offend middle class people, but there are many kids in my constituency who do not get it at home. It is vital that youngsters learn how to respect each other and how to operate socially. That concept of social behaviour is probably more valuable than any academic or paper qualification that one can obtain after 11 years of schooling and university. To be a decent human being able to interact with one's peers is the greatest gift our education system could give to young people, particularly if they are from a background where they are not getting that encouragement.

Without being prescriptive, I hope that colleagues from all parties will join us and help the Secretary of State for Education and Skills understand how that is an important basis for education. I would also include things such as parenting skills for people who are not yet parents. Children will one day become parents and need to understand what it is like to be a parent and what the responsibilities are. As someone who became a father at a late age, I can say that it is one of the most daunting things that has ever happened to me. I do not have a clue how I would cope if I were a single mum living with a little child in one of the tough estates in my constituency.

Building in an understanding of how to do those things at school level would be a great gift to our fellow citizens. It is also a matter of engaging young people in opportunities for worthwhile activities and setting personal standards that allow them to make something better of their lives. That means proper support for youth clubs, sporting associations, libraries, centres for training and education, leisure, drama and the arts. It means ending the sale of school playing fields, not having children rotating around parks, and allowing caretakers back on sites so that they can look after them. It means more support for local schools that have to cope with damaged and disturbed children to give them the discipline and social skills that they do not have in their home lives.

I hope that our Government will continue the great work that has been started. I hope that they will enjoy the support and the encouragement of other parties in the House. I hope that the Government will continue their twin-track approach of swift penalties for antisocial behaviour and helping those people in our communities who are tackling such problems by cleaving away much of the legal verbiage that surrounds such matters and allowing dedicated public service professionals such as councillors, Members of Parliament and others to make life better for their constituents. As well as swift penalties for antisocial behaviour, there is a raft of things we need to do, leading to swift rewards for improvement. I look forward to the Minister's response.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is advisable for me to remind hon. Members, in case they have not realised, that it is customary in these 90-minute Adjournment debates to commence the first of the three-winding up speeches 30 minutes before termination, which means that we have 31 minutes left for those hon. Members who want to contribute. I ask them to keep that in mind when they make their contributions, or accept and respond to interventions.

9.59 am
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate. The antisocial behaviour of a few people has a disproportionate impact on the lives of many of our constituents, and I welcome the opportunity once again to raise their concerns with Ministers.

I recently carried out a detailed survey of my constituents' views on antisocial behaviour, because I was on the Committee that considered the Anti-social Behaviour Bill and wanted their help in getting it right. I promised them that I would use the findings to help with my campaigning, and that I would try my best to make the Government bear them in mind. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister does not think that I am deliberately stalking her, but as she knows after meeting some of my constituents in the House last week, the issue clearly touches a nerve in Mitcham and Morden, and that is borne out by the response to my survey.

Out of about 1,000 questionnaires that I sent out, more than 600 were posted back, an almost unprecedented return rate for a postal survey. I could not get into my office one morning because of the amount of post piled up behind the door, and the results were almost as astonishing. On almost every question, more than 90 per cent. of respondents supported the toughest measures, which include banning the sale of spray paints to under-18s, giving the police powers to move on intimidating gangs of young people and imposing fixed-penalty fines for graffiti on the over-10s. They also want antisocial behaviour notices to apply to troublemakers aged 16 and 17, and possibly to those who are even younger.

My constituents support what the Government are doing, but when one reads their comments one senses their frustration and need for reassurance. They think that we mean well and do not think that we are doing things wrong, but they need reassurance that new laws will be firmly policed, and that there will be a strong chance of the perpetrators being punished. One couple told me: Unfortunately, the reported number of prosecutions for any of these offences is extremely low and, in some cases, non-existent. I believe it is pointless to introduce further legislation which will not be enforced. Another constituent said: Although I believe that the measures contained in your proposed Bill will help, the most effective deterrent is the probability of being caught and punished". Whether it is fair or not, my survey revealed that although people believe that the Government are sincere in their intentions and support our proposals, they are sceptical about our ability to deliver.

Even though crime is falling and many of our measures are having an impact, people hear stories about criminals basically getting away with it, and that erodes their trust and belief in the system. They hear stories about the only antisocial behaviour order imposed in Merton—it cost £20,000—on which the courts were extremely lenient when it was breached. No wonder our constituents think that the criminals are taking the mickey out of us.

In contrast, acceptable behaviour contracts cost about £20 each and have an 85 per cent. success rate. It is no wonder that Merton council's partnership against crime prefers to use acceptable behaviour contracts rather than the flagship ASBOs, which are 1,000 times more expensive and have a track record of, "Tried it once, it didn't work."

Sergeant Reeves, the community sergeant at Mitcham police station, and the ASBO and ABC co-ordinator for Merton, has admitted to me that his work has been hampered because until recently there were no standardised procedures for obtaining ASBOs. He said that he was "making it up as he went along". Fortunately, he is now following the guidelines from Coventry police force that were sent to him by the Met, but it is astonishing that good practice in one area takes so long to filter through to others.

Sergeant Reeves is frustrated because the system seems so bureaucratic and inflexible. He told me that it was an "interminable set of meetings". He has to deal with witnesses, housing officers, council staff, registered social landlords and—this often happens last—the victims. Even then, there is no guarantee that the courts will fulfil their side of the bargain. Steve Brennan of Merton partnership against crime has urged me to use this opportunity to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to tell magistrates in the strongest possible terms that ASBOs are not punitive in themselves. MPAC is about to try to obtain its second ASBO, and it does not want a dispiriting experience. It is not applying for an ASBO on a whim, but at the same time ASBOs are not punishments; they are pieces of paper that do no more than commit individuals to behave themselves. Nevertheless, MPAC still felt that for its first ASBO it would need counsel's advice, and a raft of police, housing officers, witnesses and others in the court. What a lot of hassle for a piece of paper—particularly as it is virtually impossible to get people to attend court to tell on their neighbours, especially if they are the neighbours from hell.

As Steve Brennan told me: When people dominate an area through fear, not many people are going to testify against them. The rules of evidence may be a nuisance but, says Sergeant Reeves, so is the lack of flexibility. He believes that the two-year minimum for ASBOs is sometimes too long. That makes magistrates less inclined to grant them, and the authorities less inclined to seek them. A shorter, more focused period might work better.

Then there is the difficulty of what to do if one manages to serve an ASBO, and it is breached. To be fair, neither MPAC nor the local police blame magistrates alone for the failure to take strong action when Merton's only ASBO was breached. They certainly want magistrates to treat breaches more seriously, and to remember that it is possible to impose heavy fines or a five-year prison term, but they also blame other parts of the system. The need to work to a criminal level of proof—beyond reasonable doubt—rather than the balance of probabilities is a disincentive. Merton's first ASBO breach ended frustratingly because social services persuaded magistrates not to take tough action.

I sympathise with constituents who feel that some authorities believe that the perpetrators, rather than the communities that they terrorise, are the victims. We must send out a strong message that that is not so.

It is not all bad news. The introduction of antisocial behaviour orders and parenting orders in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was a tremendous step forward. It has encouraged local authorities such as Merton to deliver a joined-up response to antisocial behaviour. There have also been outstanding successes such as the neighbourhood warden scheme in my constituency, which on one estate led to a 47 per cent. decrease in the number of call-outs about disorder.

If we are serious, we need to demonstrate to our constituents that, at all levels of criminality, our policies have an impact. That includes improving the framework of antisocial behaviour orders, which not only serve as a deterrent, but, just as importantly, help to reassure people that something is being done. We have to listen to our constituents, one of whom wrote to me: I have spoken to various people about this survey who have expressed strong views about the police being asked to enforce measures in the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill … Basically there are a few people in this borough who make life miserable for the rest of us by their behaviour. I feel the only answer is a strong punitive course of action. ASBOs are an important and useful additional tool for the police and local authorities. Our constituents want the reassurance that they can and will be used, and that they will be effective. On behalf of my constituents, I ask for that reassurance.

10.8 am

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on having secured the debate. We have worked closely, along with the Nottingham press, on legislation concerning fireworks. They, too, are used by yobs to terrify communities. I hope that, with the help of those in another place, progress will be made towards ending that problem.

Antisocial behaviour is a major problem in every constituency. I have not run a survey, but the evidence of my surgeries is that the problem is serious and growing. I have heard it suggested that people act in such a fashion for a number of reasons, including poor housing conditions, lack of facilities for young people, peer pressure and under-age drinking. The community should address under-age drinking, as unscrupulous retailers and off-licences allow young people to buy alcoholic beverages. That contributes greatly to the problem.

We also have gang wars—people from either side of a community deciding to have a good dust-up. The police must deal with that more effectively. The drug culture is a major problem. A feeling of belonging, of being part of a team or group, sometimes provides impetus for becoming involved in antisocial behaviour. Parents are often completely helpless and unable to deal with their children's problems.

We must examine how we deal with such problems, their causes and the reasons why people of all ages are often frustrated and angry at what they see as the inactivity of the police, the councils and us politicians. It has been said that aggressive neighbours, loud music, drug dealing and rowdy children all contribute to the hell that people suffer in such communities. The elderly especially feel trapped in their homes; they are frightened to open the blinds or to look out of their windows. However, the problem is not confined to them, and many people tell us of their experiences.

Damage to property is another major issue, but challenges to such behaviour often rebound on the individuals who make them. A constituent of mine heard a noise at 3 o'clock in the morning, went to his window and saw two youths breaking into a neighbour's car. He went to the front door and chased them off, but within half an hour of getting back into bed, a brick was thrown through his front window. That behaviour is totally unacceptable but very difficult to deal with.

The problem is nationwide, and it is important that we examine how we are dealing with it. I hope to signal briefly how that might be done. Antisocial behaviour orders are a powerful weapon, and I trust that all hon. Members recognise their value. If they are not working as effectively as they should, the Minister will need to see whether we can learn from the experience of others, and make the changes necessary to ensure that they are effective.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North highlighted the standard of proof necessary to obtain an antisocial behaviour order. I understand his concerns, but I suggest that changes could be made that would strengthen such orders. Criminal justice in Scotland is devolved. I want to consider the tackling of antisocial behaviour in my constituency. Section 83 of the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 requires Scottish local authorities to have an antisocial behaviour strategy. I am proud to say that, over the past two years, South Lanarkshire council has worked effectively to deal with the problems experienced by its constituents. It created an antisocial behaviour unit, staffed by four ex-policemen and led by John McKenzie.

Whenever I come across a major problem in my surgery, I contact John. The unit visits the locality, and talks to the individuals. The fact that the unit is in the area often quietens the problems that residents are experiencing. If it does not, the unit gets everyone in the neighbourhood to fill in a diary of the events that are causing the problem. The unit then visits the individuals who are causing the problem. I have found that approach to be very effective.

If no notice is taken of the unit's visit, the council will evict people. South Lanarkshire council employs three solicitors to ensure that its case for eviction is strong, that it is taken through the courts as quickly as possible and that it is dealt with effectively. Hon. Members cannot imagine how the community responds to such action. When successful, it sends out the signal to those who are causing the disruption that their behaviour is unacceptable.

Mr. Allen

When my hon. Friend speaks on these matters, we all listen, not least because of his great experience in promoting the Fireworks Bill. I thank him for his tribute to the local newspaper campaign in Nottingham.

I am very interested in the Scottish dimension. I am one of those MPs who believe that the presence here of our Scottish and Welsh colleagues, unlike other colleagues whom we could talk about, adds to the richness of our British Parliament. Will my hon. Friend tell us about the tenancy agreement that he mentioned in relation to antisocial behaviour? He may not know the answer off the top of his head, but is the council empowered to evict people using a slightly faster-track process than the one that many English councils have? The process used by English councils is almost as protracted as the antisocial behaviour order process itself. Some of us would view such a capacity, if Scottish councils have it, with great envy and jealousy.

Mr. Tynan

We obviously do not have a perfect system either, but I believe that we have the correct way of ensuring that we are dealing seriously with the problem. The council cannot evict: eviction requires a court order. We do, however, have a dedicated unit that can examine the problems, identify the culprits and the antisocial behaviour, and pass that information to the council. The council then examines it to see whether there is a strong enough case. I should add that members of the antisocial behaviour unit will be the witnesses in the case, not the individual neighbours who feel threatened. That has been successful in several cases, and it sends a very strong signal. I will be delighted to talk in depth to my hon. Friend about that, as I am sure will the council.

Problems with the system remain, and I suspect that England and Wales, not just Scotland, experience many of them. Consideration needs to be given to the legal process and fast-tracking, because the major problem with antisocial behaviour is that people become frustrated if it is not dealt with quickly enough. They feel let down after having been through the whole process, which is why the antisocial behaviour unit has been so successful.

A weakness remains in other areas, which the Minister could address if we changed the system slightly. Interim orders give provision for tackling the problem, but current delays of up to a year are unacceptable. An application that takes that long to pass through the court sends completely the wrong signals. The other problem is that an application is usually made with the help of legal aid, which makes it very expensive for the council to pursue the case.

The Scottish Executive recently proposed how to strengthen the system in Scotland. We can learn from each other. I am a United Kingdom MP and I will vote on UK matters, which I hope people will recognise is important. I also hope, however, that the Minister is closely following the Scottish experience and considering whether it can be applied in England and Wales. I also hope that the Executive will closely follow our discussion today. Many of our problems are the same as Scotland's, and I hope that the ideas that may be piloted, such as fast-tracking antisocial behaviour orders through the courts in less than a month, could be applied widely.

Antisocial behaviour orders are a useful tool for tackling the nuisance behaviour that blights so many of our communities. As such, I believe that the Government can have notable success with them. Weaknesses and teething troubles remain, but I hope that in response to the debate the Minister will commit herself to considering a package of measures that might make the orders more effective in confronting people who engage in antisocial behaviour. I hope that best practice can be examined and implemented. If it is, I believe that it will make a major difference to the people we represent.

10.18 am
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I might not agree with everything that he said, but it would be helpful if the Minister provided the clarification that the hon. Gentleman is seeking. It is worth establishing where the confusion that undoubtedly exists lies, and how it arose.

I very much welcomed the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. As hon. Members will know, I am committed to the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships. I sincerely believe that we need local solutions for local problems. I will not bore the Chamber with my many views on that, but I am passionate about a problem-solving approach.

Interestingly, The Guardian published a large article on Saturday, as it did on three other days last week, about the war on crime. The article discussed some of the Government's policies. It concluded that there was a shift from preventative measures towards punishment. The Guardian was complimentary about the measures that were first introduced, and specifically mentioned the Crime and Disorder Act. It is important to remember that local initiatives need funding, and local priorities need to be determined locally. That is fair. Although I am in favour of certain targets, it is important that all targets mean something to the people who implement them. That sets the background for what I would like to say.

I want to put it firmly on the record that I am committed to tackling antisocial behaviour. I have been involved in a great deal of work with young people and I am committed to the idea that we must all have respect for and value one another. However, as I have said many times, we need to intervene early enough. One of my greatest fears is that young people will get on to the conveyer belt of crime, and we must try to prevent that. That does not mean that I am not protective of other people, but prevention must be high among our priorities.

I can rattle off a number of excellent Government initiatives, which I praise. I meet many people at my surgeries, and my concern is that people in my part of the world want direct draconian measures to be put in place for relatively minor situations. For example, one of my constituents is continually having his fence damaged. That is an enormous problem for him, but going straight to issuing an ASBO is not the solution. It is a difficult situation.

I want to highlight particular problems in my constituency. In the borough of Poole, there are no street wardens or neighbourhood wardens. In the eastern half of the Dorset county council area, there are no community support officers. Whatever measures are put in place, it is difficult to implement them without people on the ground or a deterrent. Dorset is probably the safest part of the country, so it is not surprising that we do not see police around in large numbers. Many people can go weeks without seeing a police officer. In areas such as my constituency, we need civilian support, particularly as a lot of disorder—if I can call it that—is lower-level antisocial behaviour.

I always think that we have to appreciate that ASBOs are just one weapon in the armoury, not an end in themselves. I always get distressed when I see authorities almost competing with each other to see who has the greatest number of ASBOs. That does not mean that an authority is more efficient and effective at controlling antisocial behaviour. I know that I have quoted the following example before, but it was quoted in the White Paper that preceded the Police Reform Bill: In Wrexham, for example, just one order has been made, but the real measure of success is the 1,500 or so incidents that have been resolved through partnership working before an ASBO had to be used. We must put the issue into perspective. I am in favour of a staged approach with early intervention and warnings. I am exceedingly pleased that it was the Liberal Democrat council in Islington that came up with the idea of acceptable behaviour contracts. They were, of course, a by-product of ASBOs, so everybody can take some credit.

An ASBO must be accompanied by measures to change behaviour. It seems pointless to say, "Stop, stop, stop," particularly with young people. All measures must be monitored and evaluated to see what works in a particular area.

We sometimes ask what on earth antisocial behaviour is because it is such a diverse, catch-all term. Many hon. Members have given examples related to housing, but we also face quite different issues. I am sure that my area does not have as many problems as inner-city areas represented by other hon. Members, but what I see still makes me angry. My local crime and disorder reduction partnership should he in there sorting things out and at least imposing acceptable behaviour contracts, because many neighbours are experiencing great distress, as we have heard.

In my area, there are problems with alcohol. It is a fairly affluent area. Fireworks are a huge problem, because there is plenty of money to buy them. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on introducing his private Member's Bill. It is always a huge success for an hon. Member to introduce such a Bill, but that is particularly true when the Bill is wanted so much throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman deserves the greatest credit for introducing the Fireworks Bill, which I supported every inch of the way. In that respect, I would not like to think that I was described as being soft on antisocial behaviour.

We need effective measures, and I favour antisocial behaviour orders as a weapon of last resort. Of course, they must sometimes be used earlier, and that seems to happen more and more in cases of really bad behaviour. I favour ASBOs over dispersal orders, which I oppose in their current form. ASBOs are targeted at an individual, and specific misbehaviour must be proved. A dispersal order applies to a group, and its use can be triggered by people's mere presence in an area rather than by their behaviour. Leaving aside the human rights issues, such orders can have perverse consequences. Moving young people on makes them think, "No one wants us round here." As a result, they may go off and do even worse things in another area. I therefore have sound reasons for opposing dispersal orders. I would prefer us to use a range of other supportive, positive and diversionary measures as part of a package to tackle antisocial behaviour.

It is interesting that the Government undertook a complete evaluation of ASBOs. I read their report when it came out in January 2002, and it contained many lessons. The conclusion states: The overall opinion in the areas visited was generally positive. When used effectively, ASBOs have been successful in curbing unruly behaviour, have helped rebuild the quality of life in communities and cemented good relationships both between partner agencies and between these agencies and the community. Of course, there were reservations about delays, excessive bureaucracy and, sometimes, the fact that partnership working was not too good. However, we can work on all those things.

Many changes were made after the evaluation, as the Government responded to earlier difficulties with ASBOs, and we now have interim ASBOs. We also have post-conviction orders, although I was rather wary of them, because it seemed that we were giving people two punishments for the same offence. However, my local police have greatly welcomed them. ASBOs have been extended to housing associations and the British Transport police, and other extensions are included in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, which is coming on stream. I repeat that I would be much happier if all the agencies that could apply for ASBOs were tied into the local partnership, because the wider picture—the quality of the local environment—will not be considered unless everyone works together.

I want to give a quote from the White Paper that preceded the Police Reform Bill to highlight the important point about the debate: In the light of these findings, the Home Office will streamline the procedures involved in obtaining an ASBO and develop a national procedure for obtaining, deploying and targeting ASBOs, backed up by the most suitable step by step warning system". We want to know how good practice is being spread. What plans are in place to evaluate the effects of the changes introduced by what is now the Police Reform Act 2002? We need to consider such issues all the time, because it is not worth having a weapon that is not working particularly well.

To conduct an evaluation, I got my researcher to ring a few councils to see how they were getting on with the new measures. I shall be brief and refer to the councils by their initials, so that I do not embarrass them, but their comments were interesting. Council I has so far issued two ASBOs using the new powers in the 2002 Act; one was post-conviction, the other an interim ASBO. That council welcomes the new powers, which have greatly facilitated the use of ASBOs. The multi-agency approach is important, but the main reason that council I has not used many is because of the success of acceptable behaviour contracts and the successful work with multiple agencies.

Council H was rather interesting—it was referred to in one of our debates on the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. For various reasons, it has to date not issued any ASBOs, notably because it does not have a dedicated antisocial behaviour unit co-ordinator. I thought that councils had to have one; at least I recall reading that in some guidance. However, that council did not have its own housing stock, so there was a less pressing need locally. Again, it is deceptive to quote only the numbers. When, or indeed if, that council establishes a dedicated antisocial behaviour co-ordinator post, it will definitely use ASBOs more extensively.

Mr. Allen

Did the hon. Lady telephone Nottingham city council? After the Liberal Democrats' vote in Parliament against the Anti-social Behaviour Bill, the Liberal group on Nottingham city council split, and half of them became independent. Did she speak to them?

Mrs. Brooke

I certainly would have done so, had they contacted me. They would undoubtedly have understood why we voted against that Bill at that stage in the process. We are opposed to the dispersal orders, but we have never opposed ASBOs.

Briefly, council S is an interesting case. It has implemented 22 ASBOs, plus five interim ASBOs, and used acceptable behaviour contracts extensively—it had 136 in 2002–03. It has a strong multi-agency group that meets to discuss each ASBO and has not lost one yet. Each application is a rock solid case, and that sends an important message. I apologise for taking time on that, but those were quite interesting comments.

Hon. Members have referred to witnesses, and in the evaluation there is a lot of advice about witness protection and alternative ways of getting the evidence presented. What is the Minister doing to spread best practice on supporting witnesses?

This debate is about the level of proof, and I thought that I had got my head around that, but then I listened to the Minister's reply during questions on Monday. There is one issue on which I am not clear, so I would be grateful if she clarified matters. As I see the matter, there are two tests—that the individual concerned has acted in a certain manner, and that the ASBO is necessary to protect persons in that local government area from further antisocial acts. It has been suggested that the burden of proof on the first test should be to the higher civil or criminal standard, whereas the second aspect is an evaluation. However, the Minister said to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North that the orders are civil orders, and that the civil standard of evidence is therefore admissible."—[Official Report, 14 July 2003; Vol. 409, c. 12.] As a non-lawyer, I am now confused and would be grateful for clarification on that point.

As for a breach, I am clear what the burden of proof should be, and I would not favour an automatic penalty—young people often go off the rails for all sorts of family reasons—because the worst scenario horrifies me. I welcome much that the Government are doing to tackle antisocial behaviour, but we need to get the right balance between prevention and punishment. We should involve young people in solutions in the community. For example, when there is a breach, a community sentence is much better than a prison sentence, especially for a younger person. Why not let other young people determine that community sentence and what it should involve?

10.34 am
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

I will deal first with the points that have arisen this morning. It is clear that great concern remains. Several MPs have made powerful contributions to the debate about the level of antisocial behaviour.

I disagree with the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) that the judiciary is unaware of antisocial behaviour or is cocooned away from it. Antisocial behaviour takes place in the area where I live. I suspect that it also takes place in the areas where judges live, around London or outside it, and affects them in the same way as it affects people elsewhere, although not necessarily to the same degree as it affects the hon. Gentleman's constituents. In many areas of the law, most judges' or barristers' professional careers are spent listening day after day to examples of antisocial behaviour that would make one's hair stand on end. Therefore, I do not think that the problem is that the judiciary is out of touch.

The hon. Gentleman raised a specific and highly pertinent issue. As he knows, the Conservative party was prepared to welcome ASBOs, although we had some grave reservations about how they would work in practice. Is the problem with ASBOs that the test for obtaining them in court is too high? That is the specific matter that he raised, and I will deal with it before making general comments.

I must say bluntly to the hon. Gentleman that I do not think that the Government have any leeway on the matter. They incorporated the European convention on human rights into our law. I do not see how the nature of ASBOs can be reconciled with their being obtained, either initially or for their breach, on anything other than an elevated standard of proof. I do not blame the Human Rights Act 1998 for that elevated standard, but even before it, it had long been the practice that a standard of proof other than the balance of probabilities had to be used in civil court proceedings where the judge made decisions of grave importance to a person's reputation, or made findings against a person that were tantamount to a criminal offence. The hon. Gentleman understands that. He cited the McCann case, in which Lord Steyn made it clear in the House of Lords that, in cases relating to whether an ASBO should be imposed, there had to be a heightened civil standard because of the seriousness of the matters involved. Picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke), as I understand it, the heightened civil standard relates to the acts committed by the person concerned, which give rise to the ASBO being granted.

The House of Lords said in the McCann case that the heightened civil standard and the criminal standard of proof are virtually indistinguishable, which is true and was stated previously by Lord Bingham. In those circumstances, therefore, it would be sensible for magistrates to apply the criminal standard of proof, which would be simpler than engaging in a convoluted exercise and would be the best way to proceed.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

Surely there is nothing in article 6 to oblige the British courts to adopt the criminal standard of proof in civil proceedings.

Mr. Grieve

I entirely agree, but I am bound to say that it would be contrary to evolving civil practice to deal with a matter of such seriousness on the balance of probabilities irrespective of the Human Rights Act. I think that, although there is nothing to specify it, it would be left open to a challenge because of its nature.

That picks up on the point made by the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh). She said that the ASBO is only a piece of paper. The trouble is that it is not only a piece of paper. If it were only a piece of paper, matters might be rather different. The piece of paper frequently has written on it requirements for observance that are a curtailment of individual liberties. I think of the first ASBO granted in my own constituency after quite a lot of pressure from me, apart from anyone else.

The ASBO was issued to a tearaway 16-year-old girl who terrorised the local inhabitants of Burnham in my constituency. She moved in on an 80-year old and lived in his flat, milking his bank account of some £10,000 in circumstances that gave rise to possible duress. Her misbehaviour and violence were such that when she was arrested by the police they hardly ever took her to the police station: they tended to take her to the casualty department of the local hospital because of the damage she did inside police vans. The ASBO provided for restrictions on where she could go within the locality. That is not just a piece of paper. It may be proportionate, and civil injunctions may be granted in such a way, but it imposed a number of clear and important conditions.

Vera Baird

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman has only a short time, so he is being generous in giving way. He has got to the crux of the issue. The civil standard of proof is applied in cases where no quasi-criminal act is alleged and the penalties for such a breach can follow. Applying the civil standard of proof, one can make injunctions and restrictions on freedom just as hard as one would if one adopted voluntarily the criminal standard of proof. What on earth is the point of making it harder for people to get antisocial behaviour orders? My point applies to issues such as access to children where allegations of domestic violence have been made. Those cases have to be judged on the criminal standard and make a just outcome much more difficult to achieve.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. and learned Lady makes a good point. It is also right that one cannot get a civil injunction on the balance of probabilities against someone under 18. That is part of the difficulty and one of the problems that ASBOs were designed to address.

Protection of the rights of minors is important. The hon. and learned Lady may be right, but I do not share her confidence about the Human Rights Act compatibility.

Mr. Allen

The hon. Gentleman is saying that we are bound by the evolution of civil law. I believe that statute law and parliamentary sovereignty—if one believes in that myth—would allow this place to make its view clear and influence the direction of law. People will not be impressed to hear someone citing the evolution of civil law. If the European convention can overturn the provisions, let us put that to the test. The Government should be on the right side of the argument by not allowing Europe to do that.

Mr. Grieve

The hon. Gentleman makes another interesting point. Parliament could decide that such orders should be granted on the balance of probabilities. My next question is whether that would make such a difference. We need to consider that important matter. The principal difficulty in obtaining ASBOs is that one is collating a large number of acts, often using hearsay evidence—it is worth bearing it in mind that hearsay evidence can be used—to present a picture to the court of the unpleasant activities of a person, which may not be enough evidence to prosecute them for those acts. Even if that picture were being painted only on the balance of probabilities, it would still require bringing the witnesses to court to support those assertions.

My impression of ASBOs—we warned the Government about this—is that the difficulty being experienced is that they involve a labour-intensive and bureaucratic process that can go wrong because witnesses do not turn up because they feel intimidated, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North said. However, they will feel just as intimidated whether they are coming to give evidence to satisfy a court on the balance of probabilities, or whether they are coming to give evidence to satisfy the court, so that it is sure that someone has done something. I see the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) grimace and I appreciate the point that she is silently trying to communicate to me. There are grey areas in cases, where the court may feel that there has been sufficient evidence to be satisfied on the balance of probabilities but not to make it sure. That might include cases where some key witnesses fail to turn up, but others are present. I should be very interested in a little survey of how ASBOs are failing in reality, because I am by no means persuaded that they are failing once they get to court with witnesses. I shall be interested to hear from the Minister on that. I think that the problem has simply been that they have turned out to be far more bureaucratic and cumbersome to obtain than the Government envisaged. I do not think that changing the test of the standard of proof would make a difference.

if I had more time, I would tell the Chamber about another point that has clearly emerged: it is all very well having ASBOs, but unless we have the means of enforcement, we will not go far. I believe that the principal problem is a lack of adequate policing. Various examples have been cited of huge improvements brought to areas by neighbourhood initiatives. I am sure that that is right, involving people out on the street. We need to concentrate on that, as well as on obtaining orders against individuals. Without that, the orders are nothing but bits of paper that turn out in practice to do little for the local community.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke up and went outside to find that the front door area of my house had been graffitied. That was extremely irritating. I have no idea who did it and have not the slightest means of apprehending them. I did not even complain to the police. It was clear that it had taken place fairly liberally down my street. That is the sort of event that puts people in fear and makes them feel that an area is deteriorating. Unless there is some way of seeing a police officer out on the streets, which in my part of London does not happen frequently, we will not be able to start to make an impact on such problems.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister's comments and, specifically, I should like an update from her on how many ASBOs have been granted or obtained. However, I hope that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North understands that, although I am deeply sympathetic to his points and his wish for something to he done, I have a question mark over whether changing the standard of proof would deliver what he wants.

10.48 am
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

In the fairly short time available, I shall try to deal with the points that hon. Members have made. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on securing the debate on an issue that resonates throughout the country in every constituency. We all know the depth of misery and anguish that many of our constituents have experienced. Hearing the tale of his constituents, to whom he has dedicated the debate, sets the scene for all of us.

My hon. Friend made interesting suggestions on how he feels about the position. I shall respond to the particular issues that he raised. He suggested that we could have post-legislative scrutiny of how well the powers are working. Although I am not necessarily attracted to that specific idea, as to how the powers have evolved, there is constant scrutiny of where they are working and where there are difficulties—hurdles and barriers—as we try to build knowledge about how to make the orders even more effective in practice.

Hon. Members may know that we have recently established the antisocial behaviour unit in the Home Office, which is a new development. It will receive £75 million in funding over the next three years, ensure that the powers are implemented in local areas and provide a central resource for practitioners, who may be experiencing some difficulties in relation to evidence, proof or practice. It will draw together the good guidelines mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and ensure that people are not reinventing the wheel when they use the powers in their communities. The unit will provide us with a system of measuring and evaluating how well the powers are working.

I certainly do not feel that my hon. Friend, who has a tremendous track record in this area, is putting me under undue pressure and I was delighted to meet her constituents in the House last week. They reaffirmed just how right the Government are to make tackling antisocial behaviour a top political priority, because it is clearly a priority for people in her community. I am concerned that Mitcham and Morden has found it difficult to obtain ASBOs. We now have a support group of experienced practitioners and we can put those people in touch with Mitcham and Morden to provide advice, support and the means of tackling some of the hurdles.

On the cost of ASBOs, it is fair to say that, initially, they were expensive, because people did not really have a full grasp of the range of evidence that it was necessary to collect. I understand that the average cost of obtaining an order is now about £1,000, which makes an order a fairly cost-effective remedy. When people seek more orders, they have standardised documentation and are not starting from scratch. The cost gets cheaper the more orders are used.

I understand that the latest figure for the number of ASBOs granted is 1,112. More than 200 orders were granted between the judgment in the House of Lords case last October and this March. Clearly, there is no evidence that that judgment has had a practical impact and is preventing orders from being granted. Although I have listened to what hon. Members have said about the burden of proof, and although it is a fascinating discussion, the fact that the law is now clear and that magistrates are clear about what they need to find in such cases is not militating against the granting of orders.

There is a case for saying that the messages need to be clearer, that information for magistrates needs to be strengthened, that magistrates need more training from the Judicial Studies Board and that we need proper sentencing guidelines, so that magistrates know how seriously such matters are taken in their communities and what burden of proof they need to look for. However, at this stage, I have no evidence to indicate that orders are not being sought or granted because of the heightened burden of proof that is necessary.

Vera Baird

The Minister says that that is not causing a problem with ASBOs. I cannot comment on that, but the matter causes enormous problems in domestic violence cases.

The Government decided that ASBO proceedings should be civil. How do they feel about the judges disagreeing and deciding that proceedings should be criminal?

Ms Blears

I take issue with my hon. and learned Friend. The judges did not decide that the matter is criminal. The judgment makes it clear that we are talking about civil orders and civil proceedings. That brings me to one of the points made by the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke). What I sought to say in my answer at Home Office questions was that the orders are civil. The burden of proof for the first limb of the application—whether there has been antisocial behaviour—is of a heightened civil level, equivalent to the criminal burden of proof. The second limb of the application is whether the order should be granted. Throughout the proceedings, because they are civil, hearsay evidence and professional witnesses are admissible. That enables us to do the very thing that the orders were designed to do—ensure that local people are not necessarily put in the firing line in those difficult circumstances. We can continue to use civil evidence, such as hearsay, which has proved so vital in ensuring that orders are granted.

Mr. Allen

I think that the Minister is saying that there is not an issue of substance, but there is perhaps an issue of communication. Practitioners are undoubtedly not seeking orders. Once they seek them, they get them, but they do not seek them to the extent that I or perhaps the Minister would like It is a matter of clarity. Will she undertake to ensure that not only magistrates, but all practitioners receive her clear advice about judges' decisions in those cases? Then, they will seek and take out more antisocial behaviour orders.

Ms Blears

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that undertaking. It is important that there is more communication on issues that apply to practitioners to give them the self-confidence to say, "We have a situation of antisocial behaviour, we have a whole range of tools at our disposal." The tools range from acceptable behaviour contracts to diversionary work. Where an antisocial behaviour order is the appropriate remedy, practitioners should feel confident in making the application and supporting the victim and witnesses throughout the process. That will ensure that they obtain the order and that it is enforced if it is subsequently breached. I accept that we must communicate more, and the antisocial behaviour unit will help us to do that.

I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) on fireworks. He has done a sterling job with tenacity and determination, and I hope that the Fireworks Bill gets a fair wind in the other place. He mentioned the idea of having a dedicated antisocial behaviour unit at a local level. I have one in my constituency and there is an excellent one at Manchester city council. In those areas, the gaining of orders has continued apace. In my constituency, about 16 have been attached to convictions. That is one of the new powers brought in by the Police Reform Act 2002. Increasingly, orders on conviction are proving extremely attractive because there has been a trial. Witnesses do not have to go through the ordeal of a trial again to obtain an order. It can be attached to the conviction based on the evidence heard. That is proving an extremely useful weapon.

We now have the idea of interim orders so, when a situation arises, people can go to court straight away and secure urgent action. My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South said that it takes up to a year to obtain orders. That concerns me, and the powers to obtain an interim order are therefore important. The powers to obtain orders in the county court and attach them to housing proceedings will also make them more effective. All those powers exemplify how the Government have learned from practical experience and recognised the difficulties that communities have had. We have responded by introducing those extra powers.

Despite the undoubted enthusiasm for tackling antisocial behaviour of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, I am disappointed that she and her party were unable to support the proposals in the Anti-social Behaviour Bill. She will live to regret that decision, and I think that her constituents would have wanted her to support its powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. I hope that she and her party will have a rethink as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.

The hon. Lady asked about evaluation. At the moment, the new powers are being used well. A quarter of the 200 orders made in the past year have been made on conviction. The geographical extension of orders across England and Wales has been granted to prevent people from crossing borders to escape the strictures of their order. County court ASBOs were introduced only in April and some have already been granted. Practitioners are taking up the new powers extremely enthusiastically. We are not in a position where the House of Lords' legal judgment has militated against the granting of orders. Improving communication, spreading good practice, ensuring that we do not reinvent the wheel in every community and trying to get orders through quickly are all important.

ASBOs are one of the tools introduced by the Government. The decision to tackle those matters in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was bold and courageous. In response to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who said that we need adequate policing, we now have 132,268 police officers, which is a record. We have nearly 1,400 community support officers and 5,000 more police officers than when we came to power in 1997. That is the Government's record on policing.

We have taken bold and courageous steps to tackle antisocial behaviour. We believe that it is at the top of communities' priorities. We will continue to ensure that people are able to live free from fear in safe communities and to go about their lawful business without the prospect of being attacked and harassed in the way that far too many of our fellow citizens are today.

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