§ 3. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)
What discussions he has had with local authorities regarding anti-social behaviour orders; and if he will make a statement. 
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
A large number of discussions have been held over the past three years with local authorities and with the Local Government Association on anti-social behaviour orders. Both local authorities and the police have widely welcomed this new power to tackle a scourge in communities up and down the country. Seventy-nine anti-social behaviour orders have now been imposed by the courts following their introduction on 1 April last year. However, as the House knows, I would like to see them used much more widely. On Wednesday, I shall speak to the annual conference of the Local Government Association, and will there be publishing a new protocol—agreed by local authorities and the police—to provide a renewed impetus to tackle this serious problem.
§ Mr. Loughton
I agree with the Home Secretary, but why does he think that anti-social behaviour orders have been used at the rate of barely one a week since they were introduced? Does he agree with the social exclusion unit report, which says thatanti-social behaviour is not being tackled effectively?Will he now admit to some of the blame, not least for sending out such mixed messages to local authorities over the past 14 months?
§ Mr. Straw
The only mixed message has come from the Opposition, who have appeared from the comments repeatedly made by those on their Front Bench not to want to have this important weapon against anti-social behaviour in place. The hon. Gentleman asked why the orders have not been used more widely. They should have been used more widely; however, I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to stand up on behalf of his constituents in the Lancing area of Sussex whose lives had been made a misery by Mr. John Vyles and Mrs. Madeleine Vyles, both of whom are now the subject of anti-social behaviour orders.
§ Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)
Will my right hon. Friend cast his mind back over the 18 years in which the Conservative party sent out the message that it did not matter what people did—that they could be as unpleasant and anti-social as they wished in the community and nothing very much would happen? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is right to use the orders to prevent anti-social behaviour and that the test should not be the number of orders, but the safety of the general public? Where a message has gone out from courageous local authorities working with the police—in Coventry, for example—the level of anti-social behaviour has gone down.
§ Mr. Straw
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. There is no question but that, as the police themselves report, in many instances the mere threat of an anti-social behaviour order has been sufficient to ensure that the behaviour concerned has moderated. My right hon. Friend will recall that we proposed the introduction of such orders in one criminal justice measure after another and that in each case we were told that it was neither necessary nor practical to have the orders in place—notwithstanding the fact that 644 there were such serious problems of anti-social behaviour across the country and that the level of crime had doubled under the Conservatives.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
Given that the Government were elected to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime and despite the best efforts of the Home Secretary—anti-social behaviour orders are part of a panoply of response—it appears that the overall crime figures are going up again and that violent crime figures are going up again. It appears from a ministerial answer given on Friday that the clear-up rate is less than 30 per cent. on average across the country, so does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, instead of looking for simplistic short-term solutions, it is appropriate for all the parties in the House representing England and Wales to try to get our heads together round two questions? The first is how we can prevent crime more effectively and the second is how we can ensure that there are convictions and that people are dealt with when crime is committed. Is the right hon. Gentleman willing to initiate talks in the House so that there can be a collective effort to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer and other Ministers to deliver the goods and deliver the promise?
§ Mr. Straw
I am always delighted to have constructive discussions with any right hon. or hon. Member of the House about their ideas for better reducing crime and disorder.
As for the crime figures, as the House knows, recorded crime overall appears to be likely to have risen somewhat from March last year to March this year, and violent crime to have risen by rather more. The House knows that robbery, particularly in London, has increased, and we discussed that on Friday during the debate on the Metropolitan police service. However, what is striking about the figures are the significant variations in the performance of otherwise similar police forces and in otherwise similar areas. Although the Lancashire, Northumbria and Kent forces have no more resources than other forces, they all show significant reductions in crime, while in other areas there have been increases. As well as getting on top of the long-term trend in crime, we must take the lessons from those forces and areas within forces that perform well, and ensure that they are translated across the country.
§ Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that even in areas such as Liverpool, where anti-social behaviour orders have been used relatively extensively, they have become a weapon of last resort instead of a tool of early intervention? Will he join me in contacting the Merseyside police and the local authority and suggesting to them that they ought to intervene and use the orders at an earlier stage, instead of using them as the last weapon?
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)
To what does the Home Secretary ascribe the fact that crime is rising for the first time in six years?
§ Hon. Members: Answer.
§ Mr. Straw
Of course I will answer. Crime has risen repeatedly since the war. It doubled under the Conservatives. As the right hon. Lady is, I know, particularly concerned about violent crime, she may like to know that in the year for which she was wholly responsible for crime, 1996—[Laughter.] In the year in which the right hon. Lady was a Home Office Minister, 1996, violent crime rose by 13 per cent. We are getting on top of the long-term trend in crime. I should like to know from the right hon. Lady whether she intends to go into the next election casting aside the record of the previous Government, under whom crime doubled, and whether she will promise that year on year, come what may, recorded crime will fall under the Conservatives.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Perhaps we can now come to the three years during which the right hon. Gentleman has been wholly responsible for crime. I asked him a simple question. The fact is that crime fell significantly and substantially for the last four years of our Administration. It then fell very lightly for the next two years, and now it is rising. To what does the right hon. Gentleman ascribe the fact that crime is rising? May I help him? Does he ascribe any of it to the decline in police numbers of 2,600 since he became wholly responsible for crime? Does he attribute any of it to the fact that 18,000 people have been released before the minimum point of their sentence? Is any of that to do with the rise in crime? It was a very straightforward question. Crime is rising. Why?
§ Mr. Straw
The right hon. Lady offers me a number of explanations. If it is true that the relatively small decline in police numbers that has taken place since 1997 lay behind the rise in crime that has taken place in some police force areas but not in others, she has to explain why crime fell in the four years from 1992–93 to 1997, despite the fact that police numbers fell in a large number of areas across the country.
The serious answer to the right hon. Lady's question is that there is no ready explanation as to why crime has risen in certain areas. However, as I explained to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), police forces in some areas, including Kent, have been able to reduce crime. Police in Northumbria have reduced crime every year for the last seven years. However, other forces have seen an increase in crime.
Finally, much to the right hon. Lady's disappointment, crime is lower now than it was at the time of the election. That is a better record than that seen by any incoming Government in the past 30 years and compares extremely well with the record under the right hon. Lady's Government, when crime doubled during the 18 years of Conservative rule.
§ Miss Widdecombe
The Home Secretary struggles. As he appears to think that he is in opposition and asking the questions, I shall answer.
646 The Home Secretary asked how crime managed to fall in the last few years of the Conservative Government, despite the fact that police numbers were falling. Crime fell because we put more constables on the beat so that there was a rise in their numbers. The Home Secretary has presided over a steady fall in the number of constables. Does he seriously intend to tell the House that having fewer constables has not contributed to a rise in crime? Does he agree with the Prime Minister, who said that the measure of a Home Secretary is what happens to crime figures during his term of office? On that basis, does he not agree that his predecessor was quite a good Home Secretary, and he is proving to be a very poor one?
§ Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)
I am sure that Northampton, which is examining anti-social behaviour orders, will welcome the new guidelines. Does my right hon. Friend recall visiting Blackthorn estate with me before the election? It used to have a crime rate on a par with that of Toxteth and has serious anti-social behaviour problems. Is the Home Secretary aware that his Department funded the Caspar project to deal with anti-social behaviour? Will he join me in paying tribute to the council, residents, police and especially the schools, which have worked to identify the reasons for crime and fear of crime in the local community? Will he consider making a return visit to see the great progress that those groups have made?
§ Mr. Straw
Indeed, I recall the visit that I paid to my hon. Friend's constituency before the election. The kind of experience about which I learned during that visit, and visits to many other similar constituencies, made us determined to put in place tough measures to bear down on the anti-social behaviour that was ripping apart my hon. Friend's area and many others. I am glad that we have put those measures in place.
I noticed that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) did not mention the Conservatives' attitude to anti-social behaviour orders and did not say whether they would keep them going or, in the words of the Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), would tear them up, despite the fact that they are plainly working throughout the country.