§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 76, in clause 14, page 12, line 13, after 'considers', insert'that there are exceptional circumstances which make'.No. 12, in clause 16, page 14, line 3, at end insert—'(3A) Where a constable has removed a child or young person under subsection (3) above, he may confiscate any article which he has reason to suppose that the child or young person was using in the course of offering any services (whether solicited or otherwise) to any person during the time he was absent from school without lawful authority.(3B) An article confiscated under subsection (3A) above may be disposed of in a prescribed manner.'.
§ Mr. Beith
We have opposed the introduction of child curfews on both practical grounds and in principle, and we divided the Committee on clause stand part on that issue. As a matter of principle, it is inappropriate to deny basic freedom of movement to general sections of the public on the basis of the possible behaviour of a few individuals—one thinks of the present arguments about whether all English attendance at world cup matches should be stopped because of the behaviour of a few. It is a difficult principle once one starts to apply it; most of us have had experience of it from schooldays, when the whole class was kept in for the behaviour of one individual.
The terminology "curfew" had its origins in the locking of city gates at night, and its more recent use is borrowed from the practices of much more authoritarian regimes, which deny freedom of movement to many of their citizens for all sorts of reasons. Even for the apparently commendable reason of preventing or discouraging the bad behaviour of a few, it is not a desirable principle that large numbers of people should be penalised.
Furthermore, if curfews became widely used for this age group, it would be a substantial change in our society and in the relationship between the state and individuals, particularly in view of the signal it would give to young people. The more that young people are told that their behaviour is against the law merely because they are out and about, the more we shall sow in them the idea that the authorities, the police and the mechanisms of law and order are against anything that they do, rather than being there to punish wrongdoing and protect the innocent, which is the signal that we ought to be giving them. We want them to support the police, and to recognise that law and order is their protection as well as that of other generations. To penalise them merely for being out of doors is unreasonable if they are not at fault in any way.
The Government care very much about establishing who is responsible for things, and they seem to be throwing responsibility in all directions at once. During the passage of the Bill and in their consultation papers, they have rightly stated that they want parents and children as young as 10 to take more responsibility. Now, they are saying that the state should take responsibility for deciding what time children should go to bed. The desire to place responsibility where it belongs has gone slightly askew in giving the state that power.
I wondered whether the decision to proceed in this way had a sound basis in research, so I asked a parliamentary question, but the answer did not refer to any specific 882 research. How many young people under 10 are not being protected because of the absence of a curfew? If they are not being protected, could an existing power be more successfully enforced? How many young people are causing problems on the streets at night and what is the peak time for young offending? Is it late at night, when the curfew might be applied, or straight after school, when it would be impossible to apply? What has been the effect of curfews in other countries? Apart from the Hamilton experiment, which the Minister did not cite in his reply, we have no research evidence.
From the discussion, it has emerged that the proposal for local child curfews, however it started out, is now seen by Ministers to be more of an experiment than a substantial addition to policy. We are concerned that demands for extension of the use of curfews will increase. During our debates, hon. Members have pleaded that the age at which curfews apply should be raised and raised again, and that the period for which they apply should be longer and longer. Because of the pressures from the public to do something—not necessarily the right thing—about the problems that they face, we may be on a slippery slope in which curfews become more and more a part of our system.
Another concern is that curfews will be the first port of call in response to a problem in an area, and that if a few young people are causing trouble, we shall introduce a curfew rather than directing attention to them and using the resources of the various agencies, on a partnership basis, to deal with them and the problems that they cause. I appreciate that the Secretary of State will have to approve schemes, but he may be under growing political pressure to do so on a fairly widespread basis.
Given the decision in principle taken in Committee, we have tabled amendments to make it a requirement that the behaviour of those under the age of criminal responsibility in an area is considered when formulating crime and disorder strategies, so that thorough and appropriate responses can be developed. Recognising that that strategy would be developed, we could then allow child curfews only under truly exceptional circumstances—that would be the combined effect of the two amendments. More emphasis would be put on formulating plans to deal with criminal behaviour by groups of young people—children—and recognising that a curfew should be introduced only in genuinely exceptional circumstances.
Of course, a curfew is meaningless unless the police can enforce it and, if one has sufficient police officers to impose a curfew on every child over a certain age who is out at night in the area, one has available sufficient officers to target the people who are committing the crimes in the first place; that would be a better use of those officers. Much of our effort is dedicated to trying to ensure that if the powers are used at all, it will be in only the most exceptional circumstances and that resources will be targeted at young people who are committing, or are likely to commit, offences, and not at innocent young people, who will consequently feel that the police and the authorities are against them even when their behaviour is in no way illegal, and is no more unreasonable than being out at night after a time when some people think that their parents should have sent them to bed.
§ Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)
I tabled amendment No.12 as a probing amendment and, within its confines, I must refer to the problem of squeegee 883 merchants, particularly as it applies on the streets of London. For those who are not familiar with the problem, one pulls up the car at traffic lights and, before one knows it, someone has pounced on the car and is washing the windscreen with soapy suds. In truth, it is an unsolicited service much as described in new clause 6 which, disappointingly although understandably, was not chosen for debate.
The problem is most common in London, which is not surprising, as we have the most traffic and, indeed, the most traffic lights, which provide the opportunity for the squeegee merchant to select the car that he wants to clean. In one sense, the service ought to be welcome—the opportunity of having the windscreen washed for perhaps 50p—but regrettably, that is not the way in which the practice has developed. The service is unsolicited and one is given no opportunity to reject it or agree the terms. It leads to harassment, aggression and intimidating behaviour towards the occupants of the car. It has to be distinguished, for example, from the chap selling the Evening Standard beside the road—if one wants to buy the paper, one will catch his eye and he will walk over with the paper—or the man selling bunches of roses, to whom one can say, "Twenty roses for the wife, please"—or for whomever one is going to see. In those cases, there is an offer and an acceptance—an agreed contract.
Even confident and assertive people find it difficult to handle squeegee merchants. I came out of a car wash the other day and drove to the first set of traffic lights with a squeaky clean windscreen. I found a chap cleaning it before I had the opportunity to say, "Stop." That can lead to resentment. Some people refuse to pay, and others ask the squeegee merchant to stop providing the service, both of which actions may lead to trouble. Regrettably, there have been reports of attacks on drivers. Only yesterday, I heard that a driver at traffic lights on Vauxhall bridge asked a squeegee merchant to stop cleaning his windscreen, but as he wound down his window to convey that message, he got a bucket of water in his face. [Interruption.] It is quite amusing, unless one happens to be the guy driving the car.
In another case, someone asked a squeegee merchant to stop. The chap said that he would, but he cleaned off the soapy suds with wire wool, which permanently scratched the windscreen. My concern is primarily for vulnerable drivers—the elderly person just driving down the road to the shops, or a single woman on her own who finds the situation hard to handle.
When he was in opposition in September 1995, the Home Secretary made what was described as a tough-talking speech on the subject. He said:Then there are the obstacles faced by pedestrians and motorists in going about their daily business. The winos and addicts whose aggressive begging affronts and sometimes threatens decent compassionate citizens, and the 'squeegee merchants' who wait at large road junctions to force on reticent motorists their windscreen cleaning service.He said that there would be a crackdown, but we are 14 months into this Parliament, and we have seen no crackdown.
The problem is that the law does not specifically target problems of this type. The police must pray in aid a variety of offbeat powers to prosecute squeegee merchants. In the Vauxhall bridge case, the chap who got 884 the bucket of water in his face went to the local police station, where he was told the police would not prosecute because it would be one heck of a job to produce all the evidence and because the legislation did not target that type of crime. Various Acts are available to fight the problem in an oblique way: the Public Order Act 1986; the Metropolitan Police Act 1839; the Highways Act 1980; and London local government legislation. However, those powers do not properly equip the police to make the clean kill of a quick prosecution.
We need a targeted crime, as set out in the non-selected new clause 6. My amendment was intended to be probing. and I should be interested to hear what the Government will do to address a problem particularly prevalent on the streets of London and in areas around my constituency.
§ Mr. Rowe
My concern is the Government's attitude to truancy as expressed in the Bill and in some educational measures. Inspectors' report after inspectors' report has demonstrated that truancy falls to a very low level if young people feel that what they are being taught is worth while, and if it is taught in a good way. Measures are being introduced in the Bill and elsewhere that will force children back into schools from which they are absenting themselves because they think that what they are getting is not worth having.
For too long, we have treated the education system as the cheapest form of child minding. We may find that there is a serious morale problem among teachers who no longer wish to take on for the rest of us the role of forcing authority on young people, many of whom are tall, large and threatening, and who can completely disrupt a class. I strongly believe that the policy of forcing young people back to school—which we all applaud in theory—is misconceived. We must reconsider how we deal with truants, and how we treat teachers who have asked, openly and by implication, to be relieved of the burden of trying to deal with people with whom increasingly they have huge difficulty.
I have suggested that the time may have come for another look at whether education should be compulsory under the law, which enshrines our 19th-century belief that the authority of school is the cheapest way for our society to deal with youngsters who are increasingly unsuited to the kind of schooling they are getting, who know that they are wasting their time in schools and who need somewhere else to go.
§ Mr. Michael
There have been three strands of debate. Let me first reassure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that our proposals are sensible. I want to persuade him not to press his amendment, and to suggest that he is wrong to oppose our carefully constructed proposals, which will effectively hand authority back to parents rather than increase the power of the state.
Amendment No. 75 would require local authorities and police forces that are carrying out crime and disorder reviews to take account of the behaviour of those under the age of criminal responsibility. That is entirely sensible, but the amendment is not necessary. In drawing up crime and disorder strategies, local authorities, the police and their partners should base them on crime and disorder audits. The audits should reflect the causes of problems in a local community, including the behaviour 885 of those under the age of criminal responsibility. If there are problems, they should be dealt with, and they should appear in the strategy. If there are no problems, clearly there is nothing to be dealt with.
We have deliberately left the question of what issues and aspects of crime and disorder need to be addressed in the strategies to those who are experienced in the local area. There is nothing between the Government and the right hon. Gentleman on that point, and it is clear from draft guidance now available on the website that those under the age of criminal responsibility should be taken into account. I am happy to look again at the guidance, and to make more transparent anything that is not clear. The right hon. Gentleman's point is a good one, but it does not need to be in the Bill.
§ Mr. Michael
If the right hon. Gentleman reads the guidance, he will see that it is widely drawn. Audits of crime and disorder go wider than just criminal activity, and they include minor and petty disorders, which often cause even more distress to local communities than crimes that are regarded as more serious. Our target in the audits and strategies is to reduce the level of crime and disorder, and that covers the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, I am happy both to reconsider the guidance to make sure that it is clear, and to accept any comments that the right hon. Gentleman may wish to make on it.
An amendment identical to amendment No. 76 was tabled in Committee, and I thought that we had dealt with it. I was surprised to see the amendment tabled again, but it allows me to explain the position to the whole House, just as I did in Committee.
Some neighbourhoods are troubled by the criminal and anti-social activities of unsupervised young children. Gathering in public places at night, they can cause alarm and misery to the rest of the community and encourage each other into anti-social and criminal habits. If it is a question of one or two individuals, the Bill's child safety orders can deal with it. If it is a question of a group of youngsters, and the hours that youngsters are allowed out at night have become a problem in a street, it is often difficult for parents to take the responsibility of setting a new standard. It is difficult enough for parents to buck trends, but if there is a settled trend in the community, it becomes all the more difficult.
I should explain the steps necessary for a curfew order to be used; I think that they will reassure the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. First, the local authority must consult the police—and more widely—on the terms of a scheme. They have to be put to the Home Secretary, who will consider them carefully to see how they suit local arrangements. Consultation with the local community and other agencies will take place before an order is invoked under the scheme. To place an order in a community or street, the local authority would have to consult the police. It must be a joint endeavour involving the police and the local authority. They would then have to consult the local community along the lines agreed by the Home Secretary in respect of the scheme. I can think of one case in my constituency where parents asked me to meet them to discuss problems in one community. Halfway through, they admitted that part of the problem 886 was children, including the children of people at the meeting, and that there was a need collectively to draw a line to set a standard for behaviour. Local child curfew schemes create the opportunity to do that.
Local child curfews form part of a wider community safety strategy and will be applied at the instigation of the local authority concerned because it believes that there is no other way in which to deal with unsupervised young children. This is not a magic wand that will deal with the whole problem. Often, other approaches will deal with the sort of problems that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed recognised needed tackling. This provision should be used in appropriate circumstances, in accordance with a scheme approved by the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Michael
I am trying to move quickly because I understand that that is what Conservative Members want.
§ Mr. Rowe
Given his background, does the Minister agree, that in many instances, the importation of a youth and community worker would defuse the situation? Has he done any costings to find out whether the cost of policing a curfew, which is likely to fall on the police authority, would be greater than that of the local authority providing someone to give the kids a lead?
§ Mr. Michael
I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is muddled, as he often is. My experience in 15 or 16 years of youth and community work, and as a councillor and Member of Parliament, is that we need a variety of mechanisms to deal with specific circumstances. I have made clear the specific circumstances with which this mechanism would help to deal. It may well be that the involvement of a local authority youth and community worker would help, but such workers are not a magic wand; nor are police officers. We need legislation appropriate to cover a variety of different situations and mischiefs that cause problems in local communities. I believe that this mechanism will prove its worth.
I do not think that the lack of information to which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has referred proves that there is a lack of evidence of need. We can all demonstrate anecdotally that youngsters are out on the street late at night in a way that destroys their future as well as damaging the local community. That shows that no one has been willing to tackle the problem. We will monitor the way in which the provision is used, along with the other measures that we have put forward as part of a comprehensive package. In due course, I am sure that we shall debate how it has worked in practice.
Amendment No. 12 was tabled by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway); I understand what he is trying to do. It is bad enough when children truant, but it is even more vexing when they engage in money-making ventures when they should be at school. The answer is to get them back to school. We added clause 16, which allows the police to act in partnership with local education authorities and schools to tackle truancy. It is practical because it ensures joint responsibility for dealing with 887 truancy. While truancy is an issue for the person who truants and for parents, who should take their responsibility, this measure allows police and education representatives to work together. There have been voluntary examples of that which have not had the authority of the law for the actions of police officers. This provision enables partnership to deal with the vexed problem of truancy.
It is not necessary or desirable to extend the provision to confiscating property, especially when no criminal offence is involved in its use. I hope that the hon. Member for Croydon, South will acknowledge the valuable contribution of clause 16 in seeking to tackle truancy by proper partnership—at Government level between the Home Office and the Department for Education and Employment, and locally by enabling partnership.
§ Mr. Ottaway
Will the Minister comment on the Government's approach to squeegee merchants? In opposition, it was part of Labour's crackdown.
§ Mr. Michael
That is part of the wider recent debate, which the hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, about the need to intervene quickly in things that cause nuisance and distress to people, and to ensure that they are tackled by the police to prevent them from escalating. Minor items of disorder, as was shown by the British crime survey, lead to more serious offending and damage to the community later. Often offences are committed, and that is a matter for the police. One of the things that we are engaging with is creating a structure in which those who suffer from the commission of offences and the creation of nuisance in their community can work with the police to have the problems tackled, rather than it being a question of complaint and counter-complaint.
If the hon. Member for Croydon, South looks at the whole Bill and the mechanisms that it creates to tackle crime and disorder, both when serious and when at the precursor level to serious crime—including measures to deal with truancy—he should acknowledge that we have made great progress during the life of the Bill, which has been improved by the debates both in Committee and outside. For those reasons, I hope that hon. Members will not press their amendments, which I do not believe would improve the Bill. I hope that I have given an assurance about how its measures will be effective.
§ Mr. Beith
I do not think that the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) got an answer on squeegee merchants. When the Home Secretary raised the issue in his famous pre-election speech, I thought that he had lost the plot and gone seriously off message. I suspect that he is trying to forget it. However, it is a problem in some areas and we have not had an answer on how best it can be tackled.
I did not expect to get an answer from the Minister which would convince me that introducing the curfew principle into our system of law was desirable, and I have not. What I have got is even clearer confirmation than I expected that the Government see it as having only a limited role, and one which has to surmount many hurdles before it can be put into place. I hope that, in trying to surmount those hurdles, the various bodies involved will realise that there are more immediate and direct ways in 888 which to tackle the problem than a curfew, which would probably be an admission of failure. As the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) suggested, the involvement of youth workers might be a better answer, as might getting at individual behaviour.
It is a great mistake to tell youngsters who are merely out milling around, perhaps causing some irritation, but doing no harm, that they are acting against the law when they do not feel that they are doing anything wrong. Few things are more perverting to children's concepts of what is right and wrong than being punished for something that they did not do or did not feel was wrong in the first place. Many have had that experience in childhood and it has probably soured their relations with authority ever afterwards.
The Minister has shown that some of the expectations that surrounded curfews are not in the Government's mind. They regard the provision as limited. Our amendments were designed merely to reinforce that limitation. We argued the issue of principle in Committee, so there is no reason to pursue the amendments today. They have given the House the opportunity to clarify the Government's intentions, which are clearly more limited than some comments had suggested. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.