§ Order for Second Reading read.12.42 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In doing so, I am mindful of the number of Members who will endeavour to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and of the time limit on speeches. I shall therefore try to ensure that as many Members as possible can contribute to the debate on what I consider to be very important legislation, which will empower people across the country once and for all to get a grip on the scourge that bedevils their communities: the antisocial behaviour that makes other people's lives a misery.
I need to make it clear at the outset that this legislative vehicle is just one part of the broader story laid out in the White Paper "Respect and Responsibility", which was published a few weeks ago. The interdepartmental approach means that other legislation and measures will be picked up by the relevant proposals laid out in provisions such as the draft Housing Bill, which was published last week. I am very gratified that ministerial colleagues from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have joined the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), and me today on the Front Bench. This is truly a cross-government endeavour to tackle a cross-government challenge.
The Bill is of course a symbol of the need for a cultural change, not simply for legislative change. It is about putting alongside prevention and remedial action the key enforcement measures that send that signal to those involved in antisocial behaviour. Prevention will of course be crucial, as will offering people a chance to remedy their behaviour. However, if they do not believe that the measures currently available are sufficient—if their understanding is that there will be no consequences for their actions—it is not surprising that they continue to cock a snook at the police, at housing departments, and at their neighbours and the wider community. The Bill is an endeavour to send the signal that we are no longer prepared to tolerate such behaviour.
I wish to reiterate my thanks to my colleagues and to my officials and advisers. I want to demonstrate that the establishment of the new antisocial behaviour unit—which again will have a cross-departmental remit—is an indication that we mean business, not merely by facilitating what will happen at local level but by driving the measures forward. In that way, there will be a foot constantly on the accelerator. We want to make sure that we check what is happening at local level, and that we encourage and support people at local level. We also want to ensure that there is cross-referencing with legislation that is before the House, or which has already gone through. That includes legislation being carried forward by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
§ Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although it is excellent 137 that work on the Bill has taken place across Departments and across Whitehall, this excellent Bill would have been even stronger if there had been full pre-legislative scrutiny? That would have allowed electors, people who work in housing offices, serving police officers and others to submit their views and to exchange ideas with Members of Parliament over a long period. As a result, this good Bill would have been made even better.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I always think it desirable to have the maximum possible prior scrutiny of legislation. We have endeavoured to secure that and, over the next two years, my Department will work to ensure that, wherever possible, all Bills appearing in our legislative programme will be published in draft form. However, we were faced with two problems. First, we asked whether there had been sufficient debate about the scourge of antisocial behaviour, and which measures already on the statute book work, and which do not. Secondly, we wanted to take account of what extra powers constituents and those who represent them at local government level believe to be necessary.
We knew, when we published the White Paper, that we would have to act swiftly. We therefore had to balance further scrutiny with the speed of implementation that would allow the people whom the Bill will empower to get on and do the job. In the end, we had to decide whether the people whom we represent would thank us if we promised them that we might do something in a year's time to bring in legislation that would be implemented in two or three years, or whether they would prefer us to get on with it now and implement the measures laid out in the Bill. On balance, we decided that the latter would be the better course.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
The Home Secretary is committed to this Bill, which the Government announced in the Queen's Speech of 13 November. Why have the Government broken the Cabinet Office guidelines that specify that every Government Bill should have a minimum of 12 weeks' consultation? The Government could have introduced this Bill earlier. Many of the Home Secretary's colleagues in local government oppose many of the measures in the Bill, and many of the professionals involved in other parts of the Bill think that it is inappropriate, badly timed or unnecessary.
§ Mr. Blunkett
The real difficulty with the Liberal Democrats is that they always want it both ways. They want to show the public that they are in favour of measures to enable people to protect themselves against antisocial behaviour, and then they want to use technical devices to slow the Bill down and avoid having to do anything about the problem. Local authorities will be responsible for implementing much of the Bill. I shall be very pleased indeed to contrast the effectiveness of those councils that are not controlled or influenced by the Liberal Democrats with the effectiveness of those 138 that are. That will be a measure of the sort of commitment to dealing with the problem that we are looking for.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Before I give way again—we shall not get very far if we carry on at this rate—I want to tell the House that I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) is in the Chamber today. He spent the past two years going around the country, listening and responding to people, and finding out what the police and housing department staff thought about antisocial behaviour. Those people did not ask for longer consultation periods; they said, "For God's sake, get on with the job."
I am bewildered by the numbers of people who seem to think that slowing down what politics and politicians are about is what the public want. The same idea is also evident in some of the public debate on this matter. What people say to me is that they are sick and tired of the gridlock that prevents Parliament and politicians from doing precisely the things that they have wanted for years. "When do we want it? Now!" is the usual slogan of flag-wavers in Parliament square. Well, we are giving it them now, and I am very pleased to do so.
§ Mr. Banks
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Some of the worst antisocial behaviour is perpetrated by English football fans travelling abroad. That is covered by the Bill, but will my right hon. Friend have any discussions with Ministers and the Football Association about the possibility of preventing English fans from travelling to the return match against Turkey?
§ Mr. Blunkett
As my hon. Friend knows, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen did a first-class job on the measures that we have included in the Bill, and I am happy to consider how we might build on that. I will talk to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East, about the way in which we might respond. Of course, legislation has already prevented 1,500 people from travelling abroad.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall, because my hon. Friend will never forgive me if I do not, and I live next door to her.
§ Helen Jackson
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. Does he agree that one of the commonest complaints about antisocial behaviour concerns the misuse of fireworks? Will he ensure that urgent action is taken, either through this Bill or the Fireworks Bill, a private Member's Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), to control that misuse, which terrorises old people, youngsters and animals alike?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree entirely. I was pleased to be able to come in for the Second Reading of that Bill promoted 139 by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), and we shall facilitate it in every way we can to ensure that it arrives on the statute book as quickly as possible.
§ Chris Grayling
The Home Secretary rightly talks about the need for action. May I ask him to consider the fact that measures to deal with one aspect of antisocial behaviour—namely, traveller incursions, which are a particular problem in my constituency—are already on the statute book, but Home Office guidance to the police tells them not to use those measures? Will he ensure that that changes and that guidance does not dilute the impact of the work that he is trying to do?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Let me be helpful. If guidance notes have gone out from my Department—not only on this issue, but on any others—that the police, local authorities or hon. Members on both sides of the House believe to be unhelpful, I will be happy to review them with Ministers immediately. We are in the business of breaking down barriers to implementation and preventing advice that may have gone out in the past, albeit with the best intentions, from disabling people in relation to carrying out their duties.
This afternoon, we are reflecting on action that is required in the future, as well as measures that have already been implemented, and on how it can best and most effectively be facilitated. That picks up well on the point made by the hon. Gentleman. When we found out that antisocial behaviour orders were too bureaucratic and too difficult to implement, we slimmed them down through the Police Reform Act 2002, but the Bill contains measures that will help still further. We discovered that police could not easily take action in relation to abandoned vehicles and/or vehicles being used off-road. The 2002 Act helped with that, but in drafting future measures we will have to review what needs to be done. Those measures must be clear and helpful to those who have to struggle with bureaucracy, and they must ensure that people understand that they have to help themselves. The message is: "We will help you if you will help yourself, but if helping yourself entails making the lives of others a misery, we will make your life a misery instead." What is so despairing is the philosophy that we so often hear: "If that hasn't worked, nothing will." I do not believe that. If a measure has not worked, it wants to be set aside or revised, but we believe that our measures will work.
That runs contrary to the myth that the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has been a failure. I want to put it on record that my predecessor, who is now Foreign Secretary, and his team did not get the full measure of accord for that Act, which has been a substantial success. It established the Youth Justice Board and, from that, the youth offending teams. It had tremendous success in putting in place the measures successfully to implement the youth justice pledge on the speed with which we deal with young offenders. It established community safety partnerships, which can work better, but are a substantial success. Its key measures—the 140 orders—have been a success. Those orders have been disparaged by Opposition Members, but let me reflect for a moment on just how successful some of them have been. So far, there have been 11,600 drug treatment and testing orders; 3,879 intensive supervision and surveillance orders; more than 18,000 reparation orders; just under 3,500 parenting orders; and more than 1,800 acceptable behaviour contracts. Through to November, before the interim orders were introduced, there were nearly 800 antisocial behaviour orders, even with all their difficulties. By the end of March, 3,000 fixed penalty notices had been issued in just four pilot areas. Those are successes, not failures.
§ Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley)
It is difficult to tackle antisocial behaviour effectively when it is so commonly seen in the home. For example, one in four women experience domestic violence at some point in their lives. To complement the Bill, will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that legislation on domestic violence will be included in the next parliamentary Session, and press for that; and will he let us know when we can expect the promised consultation document on that issue?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I intend, with parliamentary colleagues across Departments, to publish a consultation paper in the next few weeks. I also intend to publish a Bill in draft to enable people to scrutinise and comment on it, and over the next few months we shall bring forward other draft measures. I hope that that will take us forward in introducing what my hon. Friend rightly describes as a key complementary measure. So much of the tragedy of violence takes place in the home, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will want that to be addressed as quickly as possible.
The key question in relation to such measures is, "Are they used and, if not, why not?" That has two key elements. First, can we slim down bureaucracy still further? The answer has to be yes, and I challenge anyone who feels that some measures are too bureaucratic to come forward with ideas about how we might achieve that. I am intent on building on the O'Dowd report in relation to the police—I will have more to say about that in the weeks ahead—and, at the same time, on slimming down bureaucracy in the criminal justice system. Both measures require urgent and focused attention, but they also require those who are implementing them to be positive about doing so, rather than simply saying, "I wish somebody would do something about it." The people who can help us to do something about it are often those who are implementing the bureaucratic measures, and I challenge them to help and assist us.
§ Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)
Does the Home Secretary accept that the biggest problem of all for the policeman on the job is the length of time that it takes to process suspects when they are arrested? Until that ridiculous length of time and vast volume of bureaucracy is tackled, policemen will remain extremely reluctant to use the powers that they already have.
§ Mr. Blunkett
We are all concerned about that. The street charging measures that were thrown up by the O'Dowd report, fixed penalty notices, and the ability to use new technology to communicate directly back to the 141 police station and the computer are all crucial in being able to do the job. We will have to examine not only the technology, but the way in which it is used.
The second question is whether we can persuade people at local level to adopt particular measures. I am not talking simply about the better working of the police but about the way in which housing or environmental health officers respond. The best local staff do not want to pick up a telephone and say, "I really would like to help you but I don't have the power." What they would really like to say is, "I really would like to help you and, thank goodness, I now have the power. It is difficult, and I will have to come out and work antisocial hours, but I will now be able to assist you." Some people in professional organisations may have distanced themselves by promotion from the front line, but saying, "We don't want to implement these measures because they're inconvenient and make life difficult," is not the way to persuade the public to pay more council tax, income tax or VAT in order to fund those professionals' jobs.
§ Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood)
Will my right hon. Friend add social services departments to his list of those who should be contacted? Those departments are often already working with families, trying to support them in looking after young people who are behaving antisocially in their communities. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the important role of social services staff? Joint working between social services and the police must be enhanced.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I agree with my hon. Friend, who spent time as a chair of social services in Lancashire. She is aware of these issues. Joint working is important.
I can never resist hitting a ball over the net, so I have to say that there is a two-way street here. Social services have a key role in early intervention, and enforcement agencies should be positive at the stage when action and orders because of criminality are not yet necessary. It is important that the police and social services work together. However, it is also important that social services and youth offending teams know the moment when it is necessary to get tough—in other words, when to threaten enforcement. I was brought up on the estates that I have the privilege of representing, and my experience is that people rapidly get the message. If they get the message that they can get away with what they are doing, they will get away with it; if they get the message that someone will clamp down, it is amazing how quickly their behaviour can change.
We need more staff to implement our proposals. I hope that fixed penalties will be able to fund the work of environmental health officers and others; and I hope that achieving better behaviour will assist housing officers to do a positive job rather than spending all their lives fruitlessly trying to deal with antisocial neighbours and tenants when they do not have the power to do so. Dealing with such people when they do have that power will save them time and energy. The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), is here and would agree with that.
142 We also need more police and more of the police family. That is why, just a week or two ago, we were pleased to announce that in the 12 months up to September last year we had an increase of 4,337 police in England and Wales. That is the largest increase since 1976—which, of course, was under a previous Labour Government.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I cannot resist giving way because I know that my hon. Friend will want to say something positive about Wales. [HoN. MEMBERS: "Wales?"]
§ Liz Blackman
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the essence of the Bill is a partnership approach to challenging antisocial behaviour? Does he agree that protocols on information sharing have to be updated alongside all the other measures in the Bill to ensure that partners can work together effectively to challenge this scourge?
§ Mr. Blunkett
Yes, I do agree—and I was thinking of the Wales that is just south of Sheffield rather than the Wales that is west of the Severn. [Laughter.]
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Liz Blackman). The additional resources and policing available—and we are at a record total of 131,548, just to put that on the record, which is 1,500 more than we pledged for the end of March—will assist us to undertake the co-ordination about which my hon. Friend is asking.
Let me turn to particular elements of the Bill.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Well, I have taken a great many interventions. I would be happy not to do so the next time I am on my feet, if that is what hon. Members want.
Clauses 1 to 11 in part 1 deal with action against class A drugs and, in particular, crack houses, commercial or domestic. I am sure that the measures will be widely welcomed; they will be vigorously implemented because such places are a scourge of our time.
§ Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
Will my hon. Friend clarify a concern of mine about part 1? Why will the police have the power to close down premises that they believe are being used for the supply and use of class A drugs, but at the same time have to show that there has been nuisance or disorder? Why can they not close premises down simply if they are satisfied that class A drugs are being supplied or used?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We wanted to be as clear as possible about the evidence base and the ability to get that evidence swiftly. The more complicated the situation, if we open up all sorts of vistas of challenge, the more likely it will be that people who have—let me choose my words carefully—legal expertise at their disposal will make a monkey of the measures and therefore make things more difficult.
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
Is not the Home Secretary's hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on- 143 Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) making a very important point? The additional requirement on the police to prove that there has been disorder is something else for lawyers to get their hands on to prevent an order being made. With crack houses and the like, is it not inevitable that they bring in their trail misery, crime and social disorder?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We are talking about the police being satisfied that dealing is taking place and that nuisance is being caused. On the issue of immediate action in closing and sealing, it is pretty important—even for those of us who want vigorous steps to be taken—to ensure that people cannot cause mischief in the process. We have consulted the police on this, and they are satisfied that they will have the power to take the necessary swift and effective action.
Part 2 of the—
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Will my right hon. Friend give way? I really do apologise.
§ Mr. Blunkett
If I did not give way to my right hon. Friend, I would be bedevilled either by a series of his letters or, even worse, one of his questions.
§ Mr. Kaufman
This is a question, and it relates to premises being used for drug trading. I take it that the Deputy Prime Minister's licensing measures will deal with the houses of private landlords where drug trading takes place, but will the definitions in the Bill be wide enough to take account of, for example, the Texaco filling station on Chapman street in my constituency, which has been used for drug trading, and telephone boxes, which, through incoming calls, can be used for drug trading as well?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My right hon. Friend is correct: the draft housing Bill will implement some of the White Paper's key proposals—which were widely supported—on licensing and the designation of particular areas. I am very pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Ministers in his Department have agreed to implement those measures vigorously. I will drop a line to my right hon. Friend, speedily, about the abuse of telephone boxes and other public areas in relation to drugs. Clauses in the Bill extend powers in relation to social landlords and the contracts that have to be drawn up. There will be published and enforceable policy statements so that tenants and landlords clearly know their rights and responsibilities. That is not the case at the moment. Speeding up injunctions will be a key element. Demoted tenancies are other aspects of part 2, as are ways in which we will speed up the process of dealing with antisocial behaviour on the housing front.
§ Mr. Stevenson
I am enormously grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. I have a worry about housing and I hope that he will be able to clarify the situation. Part 2 relates to local authorities, housing corporations and registered social landlords. Antisocial behaviour in my constituency has unfortunately been tracked to private landlords, but I can detect no mention of such people in the Bill.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Issues relating to private landlords will be addressed in the housing Bill. I have indicated, as did 144 the White Paper, that we are keen for the measure to be implemented and targeted carefully. It will provide for entirely new powers and will address the related issue of the withdrawal of automatic and direct payment of housing benefit. That measure has gained enormous support and I am grateful to my ministerial colleagues for their help to ensure that it has cross-departmental support.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
We are concerned that cross-cutting measures that relate to housing and the Home Office should come into operation before the Bill reaches the statute book by starting a pilot project. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that discussions are being held with his colleagues so that we may have a pilot scheme in Stoke-on-Trent?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I congratulate my hon. Friend because in all the years that she has been in the House, I have never known her to miss a trick on pilot programmes. I am happy that discussions are taking place, and I know that the importance of the measures is acknowledged in the Potteries, which was reflected by her contribution and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). The provisions are especially important for areas in which traditional industries have been historically run down and very cheap properties are available. Necessary steps must be taken in such areas to stop exploitation.
Part 3 relates to truancy, and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education is here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is she?"] She will not receive a fixed penalty notice because she has only just left the Chamber. I am sure that she wants to spend time supporting the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in his endeavours today on higher education.
Part 3 will strengthen the ability to issue parenting contracts and to develop them as a prerequisite to the expanded parenting orders that address parents' actions. The orders will address not only parents who fail to take necessary action to support their children in going to school, but their behaviour on school premises. We want to strengthen the hand of head teachers and teachers who deal with the few parents whose behaviour is not only a terrible example to their children and others, but a disruption to the life and work of schools.
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the success of parenting orders thus far is due in no small part to the alacrity with which they have been taken up by parents themselves? Surely that shows that many parents throughout the country are desperate for the support that parenting orders offer and that could be provided by programmes of positive parenting that were directed more universally.
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Those who have run into difficulty, and those who fear that they might, have a deep desire to take parenting classes. We must ensure that parenting orders do not become a stigma for people who attend such classes. Every one of us who has been a parent will have despaired at least once, looked at the ceiling and wished that someone 145 would give us a hand. Children no longer live in close proximity to their grandparents, aunts and uncles and so their relatives' good—and sometimes bad—ways cannot always be passed on. We need the scheme to be more readily available and to spread it more quickly so that it is an attractive proposition, and not only an enforcement measure for when things go drastically wrong.
Part 4 addresses a matter of considerable interest that must be handled with great delicacy. The police know of small neighbourhoods or communities in which there is much antisocial behaviour and residents are bedevilled by gangs of youths, people who are out of hand and people against whom they know that the police would like to take action. Such people cock a snook at, and have total disrespect for, authority. We intend to give the police power, after consultation with the local authority, to designate such an area for six months to allow groups that are believed to be intimidating or to be causing a nuisance to be dispersed. That will send a signal that we are no longer prepared to put up with such intimidation, which can be deeply frightening and worrying, especially for elderly people. We do not intend the measure to be used to disperse young people who go about their lawful business or to deal with situations when two or more people are somehow perceived to form an intimidating group. However, we require more draconian action against people who deal in drugs and who are drunk and disorderly, often after binge drinking.
§ Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)
My right hon. Friend has anticipated much of my question. May I seek further reassurance about the implications of clause 29? It will give the police powers to disperse ifmembers of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more persons in public places".Will he assure me that the Bill will not make it unlawful for two, three or more people to gather on a street corner for social purposes?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am pleased to give my hon. Friend that assurance. The measure will be used when people refuse a police request to disperse and move on. The police will have the power to enforce the request and take immediate action. Problems do not exist in most places, but it is right to address severe difficulties that are experienced when lawlessness overwhelms a local community. If areas are designated, there will be an automatic power to lay down a curfew for an interim period to get a grip on the locality so that people feel safe to walk the streets again.
No one in any part of the country should be unable to walk down their street to catch a bus or train, or to buy a newspaper or milk, because they fear that they might he attacked or abused. We must restore the culture in which they were not fearful, although that will take time. People who phone the police should be told that something will be done, rather than, "Don't trouble us with this because we've got more important things to do." People who phone an environmental health department should not be told, "We'd like to help but we can't", but instead, "We'd love to help, and we will." 146 Housing officers should not say, "We're very upset about what is happening, but the situation is difficult", but instead say, "Yes, this is difficult but we are going to get together people in the locality and we will help you, with our new powers, to get a grip on the situation." If there is intent for that to happen, we can change the world together. That cannot be achieved, however, by us, the police, or housing or environmental health officers working alone, but by people joining together and being prepared to work together.
§ Simon Hughes
Can the Home Secretary explain why young people will not think that the Government are picking on them? Why should people be more afraid of a group of 15-year-olds hanging around on a street corner than of a group of 21 or 25-year-olds? If he thinks that it is a real issue, why not give the police the power to disperse adults behaving badly as well as young people who are just standing around?
§ Mr. Blunkett
If I read the hon. Gentleman right, anyone hanging about should be dealt with and dispersed.
§ Mr. Blunkett
And I am putting the question back to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to discover what he believes.
§ Mr. Blunkett
The hon. Gentleman does not believe that anyone should be dispersed. He thinks that the powers to do that already exist, but if they were working satisfactorily, there would be no need to strengthen them, as I said. We must remember that the previous powers were done away with. The police on the beat tell me—I do listen to them because they are the best people to listen to—that they used to have those powers but that they were swept away when a wider range of unacceptable powers were removed. Older Members will remember those as the "sus" laws.
§ Mr. Blunkett
Because respect is learned at that age and young people understand whether they can get away with things. However, the hon. Gentleman misses the point: such powers of dispersal do not exist. That is why we are introducing them.
To facilitate unity within the Liberal Democrat ranks, I will give way to the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), who was originally trying to intervene.
§ Matthew Green
Will the Home Secretary confirm that if a policeman wants to disperse a group of youths, half a dozen of whom are 17 and half a dozen are 15, he can use the power to send the 15-year-olds home, but the 17-year-olds remain on the street corner?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I am sure that the policeman would disperse all of them, having carefully analysed each person's date of birth. To quote my 20-year-old son, the hon. Gentleman should "get real." That is what he says to me. We are providing a power that is to be used sensitively and sensibly. If there is a serious concern about that in Committee, we will of course listen to it.
§ Vernon Coaker (Gedling)
My right hon. Friend should not be deflected from his course of action. The vast majority of people in my constituency, and I am sure across the country, will be delighted by the new powers to disperse groups of young people who are causing problems. The key to all the new powers will be their enforcement and use, and the cultural change that will ensue. Will my right hon. Friend outline again how he intends to encourage people to use the powers, including the power to disperse groups who are causing problems on street corners?
§ Mr. Blunkett
I shall, but I think that we are going up a gum tree. Although curfews apply to younger people of 16 and below and allow for their removal to their homes, the powers of dispersal apply to everyone. I want to ensure that we are not misled by the misreading of the Bill by the Liberal Democrats.
There are two issues to consider. The first is that the measures can be handled more speedily and therefore implemented quickly. The second is the reduction of bureaucracy. Above all, we must ensure that people at a local level are prepared to use the power. As I said, if people are not prepared to use it, we cannot make them, but local people can demand that the powers of enforcement are used. Part 5, which deals with sanctions, speeds up the issuing of antisocial behaviour orders further. It also relates to the enforcement powers for fixed penalty notices, in particular the ability to use those in the way in which they have been applied in the pilot areas. That will make a difference. I hope that the power that we are giving to chief constables to designate licensed agencies to use some of the more limited powers will enable us to spread the immediate implementation of the enforcement of such powers.
§ Angela Watkinson (Upminster)
I thank the Home Secretary for being so patient and giving way so often. Does he agree that the success of the dispersal powers depends on a policemen being available to do the dispersing? In my constituency, where we have the problem of youths congregating and intimidating local residents, no police officers are available to do that.
§ Mr. Blunkett
It certainly does depend on that, which is why the 4,337 extra police, the 1,300 community support officers and, with the help of my hon. Friends in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the neighbourhood and street wardens that are being introduced across the country will all help to achieve that. That is also why the new power for chief constables 148 to designate others in particular circumstances to use fixed penalty notices will make such a difference, as I hope it does in the hon. Lady's constituency.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I will, but I appeal to hon. Members to let me finish because it is important to move on to Members who have waited patiently to speak.
§ Mr. Tynan
I thank my right hon. Friend for attending the Second Reading of the Fireworks Bill on 28 February. That was much appreciated.
The point about the curfew, or the child safety initiative as it was called in my constituency, is that children as young as five and six were being left to wander the streets with older children. It was necessary for the police to pay attention to that to ensure that they were returned to their homes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the curfew has the additional effect of safeguarding younger children who are left to roam the streets at night?
§ Mr. Blunkett
It is an important protective order for younger children, especially after 9 pm. Many people despair when children as young as five, six and seven are out on the streets at such a late hour. They are picked up and led by those who engage them in drug running and other activities that destroy their lives as well as the lives of those around them. I must again congratulate my hon. Friend on the Fireworks Bill and hope that it makes speedy progress.
Part 6 of this Bill deals with firearms. We have spelt out what we intend to do about people who carry duplicate and converted weapons in a public place. We are clamping down on converted weaponry. We will introduce licensing measures and will ban the import and sale of such weapons. The new regulations on air weapons and the age group that can own them will also help. All those measures will have an important role to play in sending those critical and necessary signals.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
Notwithstanding the wide support that my right hon. Friend will deservedly receive for his attempts in part 6 to curb the antisocial menace arising from the irresponsible use of air weapons, does he accept that in banning the use of air weapons on private land for those aged between 14 and 17, the Bill will have the perverse effect of stopping a farmer's son shooting rats in his father's barn? I know that that is not the Government's intention. Will he assure the House that he will accept helpful amendments in Committee once he has received the necessary legal advice?
§ Mr. Blunkett
On a previous occasion—the Criminal Justice Bill, I think—I made the mistake of saying that I am always in favour of helpful amendments, and there were hundreds of them. So I shall say cautiously that there is a real issue, and we are prepared to discuss it in Committee, as we should be, given that debates in Committee are intended to try to find solutions that do not lead to other difficulties. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that assurance.
§ Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)
I welcome the change that will ensure that people have to cover their guns and not carry 149 loaded guns. However, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the guidance notes make it clear that the Bill will not prevent legitimate young shooters going to legitimate places to shoot? Will those people be covered by the reasonable exemptions, and will that be clearly stated?
§ Mr. Blunkett
We are seeking good and lawful reasons for carrying weapons, and we need to ensure that the guidance is positive and helpful in that way. I am grateful to my hon. Friend enabling me to clarify that.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)
In respect of part 6, does my right hon. Friend recognise the fact that there is another type of lethal weapon: the unauthorised, unlicensed use of scambler and off-road motorbikes? A fortnight ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) had a fatality in her constituency—a two-year-old was killed. There is frequent nuisance behaviour when such motorbikes are used on cycle paths and rights of way. They are a danger and a menace. Will he consider including powers in the Bill or elsewhere that will tackle that menace?
§ Mr. Blunkett
My hon. Friend makes an essential point, which highlights a very real difficulty. Under the Police Reform Act 2002, we have provided the police with powers in relation to the off-road use of vehicles. The difficulty is, first, to ensure that they know the law and, secondly, that they are prepared to use it. I am not critical of them in that regard; we need to find better ways to communicate with the police than we have at the moment. We rely heavily on asking the Association of Chief Police Officers to do the communicating, which is perfectly reasonable because it is a management role, but it does not go far enough. We need very simple and easy to understand communication about what is on the statute book and how best to use it, and that is critical in dealing with off-road vehicles. I have the same problem in the locality in which I live, and it causes a menace to people, animals and the environment, which is often damaged as well.
That brings me to part 7, which touches on the environment. First, there are new powers for environmental health officers, both commercial and domestic, to deal with noise nuisance. Noise nuisance—antisocial neighbour nuisance—is one of the scourges of our time and one of the things that upsets people most of all. It damages their health, and we need to deal with it. The clauses in part 7 also deal with things such as graffiti, fly posting, unauthorised tipping and the like. I hope that those proposals will be followed through by my good friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, who is driving things forward, with his ministerial colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to ensure that we have a cleaner, safer and quieter environment.
While I am here, I wish to say in passing that, although this is not in the Bill, I hope that, at some point, we will persuade manufacturers not to produce those wretched devices that lock and unlock people's car doors, making the most enormous noise at 6 am for no good purpose and making other people's lives a misery. I just wanted to get that off my chest. Finally, spray paints are just a damn nuisance.
150 All this is designed to provide the enforcement measures, to send the right signals, to give people the right powers and, above all, to tell agencies and local people that we are making the legislative provisions and putting in place the direction, but, in the end, it is down to them to use them. If we want a better place to live—a safer, cleaner and better Britain—we have got to do it together.
§ Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)
The fact that so many Labour Members have attended the Chamber and, we understand, are seeking to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, is remarkable testimony to the extent to which they recognise the problem of disorder from which the British public are suffering after six years of Labour Government. They are right to be concerned about that, and the Home Secretary is right to be concerned about it, and the motives behind the Bill are good motives and ones that we share. I hope that Labour Members felt a rosy glow as they heard the Home Secretary go through the wonderful measures that he is going to introduce.
I should say at the start that the Conservative party will certainly not oppose the Bill, but it suffers none the less from a few disadvantages when used for the purpose of propaganda by the Labour party at the local elections and thereafter. A few minor disadvantages, then: first, a large part of the Bill will do no more than make minor enlargements and refinements to existing powers; secondly, most of the changes are to the Government's own previous legislation, some of which has not yet been implemented; thirdly, a large part of the Bill will have absolutely no effect in practice; fourthly, other parts of it are unworkable; fifthly, some of it is entirely meaningless; and, finally, another part is of questionable good sense. It is therefore out of the Opposition's magnanimity that we choose to try to make it a better Bill in Committee, rather than to disrupt it at this stage.
I have made a number of allegations, which deserve to be substantiated. The Home Secretary has given us a magnum opus, which I cannot replicate, not least—I apologise to the House for this—because I will be speaking about quite another matter in Westminster Hall at 2 o'clock, but I will seek to substantiate those remarks. I said first that a large part of the Bill represents only minor enlargement and refinements to existing powers. For example, the antisocial behaviour injunctions in part 2 tinker with the antisocial behaviour injunctions—our old friends—in the Housing Act 1996. I cannot see any significant improvement.
The parenting contracts, which the Home Secretary mentioned in dealing with part 3, broadly replicate the home-school agreements under sections 110 and 111 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. In fact, they so closely replicate those measures that they replicate the fact that they are not compulsory and do not establish civil liabilities. The civil servants have obviously gone to great trouble to ensure that there is no advance on the previous legislation.
The group dispersal powers—they were much discussed—in part 4 almost entirely replicate section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986. In case the House does not believe me, I will read the relevant subsection of clause 29. [Interruption.] Oh, all right—Labour Members 151 wish to spare me the trouble and to take it on trust. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on, read it out."] No, no, I resist the blandishments of my hon. Friends. I do not want to bore the House. Let me assure the House that the words are virtually identical.
I turn to the fact that many of the changes are to the Government's own previous legislation, some of which has not yet even been implemented. Let us take the closure of crack houses in part 1. The previous Home Secretary introduced the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which amended section 8 of Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. The Home Secretary has not yet implemented the 2001 Act. I take it that he has not yet done so because he has decided to change it. Part 1 represents a change to the 2001 Act, which was introduced by his predecessor, but it has not yet been implemented.
The parenting orders in part 3 represent a revision of section 8 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, by which the previous Home Secretary introduced parenting orders. The revisions are not very substantial, but I take it that the present Home Secretary wants to make sure that he is the person who has the parenting orders under his name rather than his predecessor.
Then we come to those parts that will have no effect in practice. The Home Secretary mentioned the closure orders for noisy premises in part 7. This is most interesting, and I draw it to the attention of Labour Members because I hope that they will go out to their constituencies and local authorities and explain exactly what this part of the Bill actually does. It is presumably designed to make it more difficult to hold a rave. How does it do that? It does that by ensuring that premises that have a premises licence or a temporary event notice can be closed for 24 hours.
§ Mr. Letwin
If hon. Members will forgive me, I will not give way at this stage.
I am not an expert on raves—I have never attended a rave—but I rather have the impression that there are few holders of raves who seek temporary event notices under the licensing laws, and still fewer who seek premises licences. The Licensing Bill provides for premises licences but the process is lengthy and I doubt whether the average rave organiser would know how to fulfil it. If the rave does not possess a premises licence or have a temporary event notice attached to it, this Bill confers no power whatever to close it down. I admit that I am flabbergasted by that omission and we shall try to do something about it in Committee.
My favourite example—it is positively majestic—occurs in clause 42. What is the effect of that clause? It is that a person under 17 who is carrying an unloaded airgun in a case—a locked gun case—in a public place, who has a reasonable explanation for doing so and was previously legal will be illegal. That will dramatically affect the level of gun crime in this country. In fact, it will particularly affect any 16-year-old who knows how to fire an unloaded airgun without removing it from its case in a public place. That is a majestic provision.
§ Mr. Letwin
It would be funny were it not true.
152 I said that some of the Bill would be unworkable in rural areas—a point to which I hesitate to draw the attention of Labour Ministers, very few of whom have anything to do with rural areas. However, those of us who are local yokels with straw in our teeth are aware that it is the practice in rural areas for 16-year-olds to go around farmyards dispersing chickens—not raves or groups of young men—with airguns. However, under clause 43, subsection (4)(a), that will be illegal. I take it that the one policeman to be found in the length and breadth of rural England will be sent to prevent that 16-year-old from walking around his own farm dispersing chickens.
That will, of course, never happen, but much more serious is the issuing of fixed penalty notices in schools. That is an extremely important indication of the type of problem that we shall have to deal with in Committee. Clause 22 states that an authorised officer can give a penalty notice for truancy. That does not sound too bad, until one studies the definitions of "authorised officer" on page 19 where there is a lengthy process of successive approximation that I take it has been concocted to try to ensure that anyone not reading the Bill closely will not notice what is going on.
An "authorised officer" includes an "authorised staff member" and an "authorised staff member" is subsequently defined as includinga member of the staff".For the first time in British history and, as far as I can discover, with no international precedent, we have the mind-numbing idea that teachers could hand out fixed penalty notices to the parents of children at their school. I cannot imagine how the Home Secretary imagines that such a provision would be workable and I hope that we can change it in Committee.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)
The parenting orders in clause 25 are all very well, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the real problem arises when children are excluded from school, often for appalling behaviour, and the decision is reversed on appeal, often with the result that the credibility of the school, its governors and its head suffers enormously?
§ Mr. Letwin
My hon. Friend is right. That is why our hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), the shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, has rightly proposed that head teachers should be given sole power to order exclusions and that there should be no provision for them to be overruled. That would be a serious piece of legislation. Perhaps, within the long title of the Bill, we could introduce it as an amendment.
I asserted that some of the Bill is meaningless. In clause 12, we are told something that will dizzy and appal every neighbour from hell in Britain. When they read the provisions they will be absolutely terrified. We are told that the social landlordmust prepare…a policy in relation to anti-social behaviour…must publish a statement of the policy"—andfrom time to time keep the policy…under review".There is nothing wrong with that. Why should there not be policies on dealing with antisocial behaviour? Every registered social landlord whom I have been able to ring in the last 24 hours has told me that they already have such policies. The Bill will make it a legal requirement 153 for them to have such policies. Fine. Excellent. However, if anyone imagines that anything will change as a result of landlords adopting, publishing and reviewing such policies, they are dreaming.
Finally, I asserted that some of the Bill is questionable—although not much of it. If there were so much as to be worrying, or if much of the Bill was positively counterproductive, we should have to vote against it, but that is not the case. I hope that the Home Secretary will pause to reflect on at least one aspect of the Bill, however, as it would move us in a strange direction. It relates to the widening of the powers of community support officers in parts 4, 5 and 7. CSOs are to have the powers to disperse groups, to stop cycles—I admit that is not a great matter—and finally, under clause 51, to issue fixed penalty notices for graffiti and fly posting.
In principle, there is nothing objectionable in CSOs having such powers. However, they were given one set of powers initially, yet now, not many months after the measure that established CSOs, another Bill would add to those powers. I have no material doubt that it will not be long before the Home Secretary comes along with another new Bill—indeed, many new Bills. He is a serial offender as regards the production of legislation, or perhaps I should say that he is the most energetic Home Secretary since the war—something that horrifies those of us who have to shadow him. I fear, however, that it will be worse than just more legislation; there will be more legislation that gives more powers to CSOs. What will that do? Very gradually, it will recreate something that we already know: it is called a police force. It is time for the Home Secretary to ask himself whether he really needs CSOs. Should he not admit that he is moving towards making them police officers and actually do so? We could then stop quarrelling about whether the use of CSOs is right or wrong and whether they are policing on the cheap because we would have turned them into police officers.
The Bill is a crabwise assault on that proposition and that is misleading.
§ Huw Irranca-Davies
Despite the right hon. Gentleman's reservations, does he agree with Henry Ward Beecher who, 147 years ago noted that laws tend to gravitate downwards? He said:Like clocks, they must be cleansed, and wound up, and set to true time".That is the purpose of the Bill.
§ Mr. Letwin
Yes, but the problem is that, in many respects, the Bill is like a clock that is stuck at five to one and is right only once every 24 hours—[HON. MEMBERS: "Twice!"] I am so sorry; it is right twice in every 24 hours. Labour Members are awake—I am grateful for that.
Alas, the problem is that in order to make the Bill useful, it would need to include something really useful: people to enforce it. If there were 40,000 additional police officers, which the Conservatives are committed to providing, it would be worth paying attention to brushing up the legislation. The record of all parties over 50 years is inadequate. I do not deny that. It is time that 154 the Home Secretary and the Government admitted that for 50 years we have failed to notice what Civitas revealed last weekend: just after the war, there were three crimes per police officer; nowadays, there are more than 40. We have been systematically underpoliced. There should be consensus on both sides of the House that we should not be fiddling while Rome burns; what we need is not tinkering or amelioration, with little bits of legislation here and there, but a step change in the policing of this country.
§ Mr. Stevenson
The right hon. Gentleman is beginning to give the impression that he is enthusiastically negative about the Bill. I am listening carefully to his speech and am astounded to hear that the Opposition do not intend to vote against Second Reading. Surely he has the good grace to acknowledge that the Government have more than met their target for more police officers. During the past 12 months, we have appointed 4,500 additional police officers, which puts the Conservative record into the distant past.
§ Mr. Letwin
That is a charming rewriting of history. When a Government inherit a police force, diminish it, raise its numbers to just above where the previous Government left them and claim that as a world record, they are, in a literal sense, telling the truth. However, everyone in the country knows that we have been systematically underpoliced. To reply to the hon. Gentleman's earlier point, we are not voting against the Bill because it is not worth doing so. It is not a Bill that deserves to be voted against; it deserves to be slightly improved in Committee and permanently forgotten. A year from now, few people will even be able to remember that it existed.
The important point to arise from this debate—20 minutes of which was taken up by the Home Secretary before he even mentioned the Bill—and the thing that deserves to be remembered about it is the fact that the Bill is a prolonged form of legislative press release. This is a Bill designed to show that the Government are doing something about antisocial behaviour. I know it is difficult to do something real—I know it is difficult to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer to liberate the funds for the policing that we need; I know it is difficult to get young people off the conveyor belt to crime—but the fact is that tinkering with their own laws, passed not many months ago, or with other laws that are perfectly adequate, is no substitute for really tackling the problem. I would call the Bill a half measure but in fact it is a quarter measure, and I wish the Home Secretary luck of it.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed an eight-minute limit on all Back-Bench Members' speeches.
§ Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
As I pointed out to the Home Secretary earlier and to Mr. Speaker on a point of order, the Bill has come to us after an extremely short consultation process. Liberal Democrat Members find it an unsatisfactory muddle of 155 a Bill because there has been no proper preparation for the legislative process that is before us. There has been no draft Bill. Mini-consultation has taken place on certain aspects of the Bill, but that was too short to enable real members of the real public to respond.
§ Simon Hughes
No, not yet.
There has been no chance for the Home Affairs Select Committee to consider the Bill and to produce a report on it. There has been no chance for the Joint Committee on Human Rights of both Houses, which is meant to advise us on legislation, to take evidence and report on the Bill. There is a series of checks and balances that are meant to be built in before we legislate to ensure that we get legislation right. None of these procedures has been followed. I understand that on the Conservative Opposition Benches and certainly on the Liberal Democrat Benches—if people are honest, I hope that this applies on the Labour Benches—Members feel that there is much in the Bill that should not have legislative effect. That is not surprising. It is—[Interruption.] I shall set out exactly the things to which I am referring. Many provisions in the Bill are also clearly afterthoughts. They could have been dealt with in legislation that has been introduced in the past year or so, but the Government refused to do that, or did not want to. There are other provisions that are dangerous and should not be in proposed legislation.
That is why we have sought to use the procedure that the House arranged that it could have to commit the Bill to a place where we could take evidence, where we could hear from those who have views about the Bill and where—
§ Simon Hughes
No. In a second, I will give way.
We could have heard from the Local Government Association, which is meant to be involved in implementing many of the things that are before us. It has spoken strongly against large parts of the Bill.
§ Simon Hughes
No. I have said that to the hon. Lady already.
The LGA, which is dominated by the Labour party, is clear that some parts of the Bill are unnecessary and that other parts are badly intentioned. Those are examples of why a proper legislative process should have taken place. In answer to the Home Secretary's suggestion that we should legislate every time the people in Parliament square shout, "What do we want, we want it now?", that is sometimes the problem of his Department's response. It listens to the initial voice and does not think through the implications. That is why his Department legislates so much. That is why it has to regularly revisit legislation that it put on to the statute book only the previous year.
The great Home Secretary of the last half of the previous century was a then Labour Home Secretary not famous for much more legislation. The great, late 156 Roy Jenkins is famous for decriminalising and repealing legislation—getting rid of legislation—not for adding more and more legislation.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I want to put on record how much I admire the work of the late Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary. I admired in particular the way in which he embraced private Members' Bills as his own in order not to legislate through the normal process.
§ Simon Hughes
That may show a respect for Back-Bench Members and an ability to involve them in the parliamentary process. To be fair, I have just heard the Home Secretary say to one of his colleagues that having listened to a debate on a piece of legislation from Back-Bench Members of the Labour party on fireworks, that is a measure that he proposes to support.
§ Mr. Clappison
Given the hon. Gentleman's wish to tackle antisocial behaviour and his respect for private Members' Bills, does he regret the opposition that the Liberal party showed to the Bill that was introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) to tackle antisocial tenants, by scuppering that Bill and using every possible means within the private Members' Bill system to bring it to a halt?
§ Simon Hughes
Not in the slightest. That is because parliamentary processes are equal for us all to use. My party has argued for greater rights for Back Benchers. However, when a Back Bencher comes up with a misguided proposal, as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) did, we will strongly oppose it. We did so at the time and we would do so again. We know that it was also strongly opposed in parts of government. We know about the rows that took place in government. That is why housing benefit removal and child benefit removal are not in the Bill, thank God. We hope that they will not later be included in the Bill either. We respect—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will get back to the content of the bill.
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
The hon. Gentleman knows that in the Housing Bill that we shall gain the Government may seek powers to consult local communities on whether they think that the Bill, on which he and his colleagues spoke out, should be given legislative effect. Would he like that consultation to take place in his constituency so that we could hear the views of his voters rather than his own bias against the measure?
§ Simon Hughes
I am happy that people are consulted in all constituencies. The right hon. Gentleman should read the evidence of the Local Government Association and that of the Mayor of London in response to these issues. The arguments for taking money away from people, including penalising the poor and the disadvantaged, as an immediate response to antisocial behaviour lead to more marginalising, more alienating and making it more difficult for people who are already at the bottom end of the social scale. I am surprised at 157 the right hon. Gentleman, who has fallen for the populist trap rather than the principled trap, and is appealing to the populists in his constituency and not properly looking after those who are often the most socially disadvantaged and who need help rather than punishment.
§ Mr. Stevenson
Given the hon. Gentleman's scathing criticism of the Bill so far and his criticism of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for bringing forward the measure, will he give the House the benefit of his thoughts about whether his party will be voting for or against the Bill on Second Reading?
§ Simon Hughes
I can give the hon. Gentleman the answer now. The Bill is a muddle; it is a mixture. There are some good provisions and some unnecessary provisions. We will not fall into the Labour party's trap. The Bill is being presented this month only because there are local elections next month. We know the truth. That is the reality. It is a political ploy of a Bill. It is a shop window of a Bill. It is a window dressing of a Bill. If the Committee is sensible, if the House is sensible, and certainly if the House of Lords is sensible, large parts of the Bill will be removed before it reaches the statute book. Other large parts of the Bill will be amended. We shall then have a Bill that is left with a few decent bits that we want to see enacted. That is why we shall not vote against its Second Reading. However, if the Bill is not improved and if the rubbish is not taken out of it, we shall vote against its Third Reading. We shall then seek to amend it in the Lords in the hope that we shall get a Bill that is worthy of Parliament, not a Bill that was pulled off the shelves in the Home Office and cobbled together as a pre-election gimmick. Such a Bill would not befit the concentration of the Departments in question, many of which have their own Bills. They should be introducing education measures and housing measures, for example.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind the fact that representations have not been made to me as a Member representing a Northern Ireland constituency? There are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, but the Bill does not extend to them. Quite frankly, the people of North Down are as entitled to protection from antisocial behaviour as the people of north Devon and north Wales.
§ Simon Hughes
The hon. Lady knows that I always argue for legislation that treats the people of Northern Ireland equally. Had there been proper consultation about a properly thought-through Bill, we could have considered whether more powers should be devolved to Wales, and whether Northern Ireland wanted its own legislation, which it could amend, or wanted to be part of this legislation. None of that, however has been possible—it is an England and Wales Bill with a bit of a Wales opt-out, an occasional Scottish add-on and no Northern Ireland component at all.
§ Lady Hermon
Actually, the people of Northern Ireland have no choice. Responsibility for criminal 158 justice and policing remains with Westminster, as it has for 30 years, even—and I hope that talks with my colleagues at Hillsborough are successful—if the Assembly is restored. Criminal justice was not devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly before suspension, and is not likely to be, so responsibility rests squarely with Westminster. It is disgraceful that we fall far short in Northern Ireland of the protection that we rightly deserve.
§ Simon Hughes
The hon. Lady argues assiduously, as she did throughout the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, that Northern Ireland electors and Members of Parliament should be treated equally in deciding what criminal justice legislation they want. I hope that Ministers will pass that on to the new Leader of the House, who has been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who understands the issue, and may be sympathetic to the hon. Lady's representations.
Because the Bill is an antisocial behaviour measure, we look in it for a definition of antisocial behaviour but, of course, there is none. There is no consistent terminology in the Bill. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), appeared before the Select Committee on Home Affairs and was honest in saying that he had literally picked up the brief the previous week, so was less prepared than the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) would have been had he remained in office. That is not a criticism—as the hon. Gentleman knows, I am very supportive of him. However, when he was asked how he defined antisocial behaviour, he did not have such a definition because the Government have not provided one.
The danger is that the Bill confuses things. In the past, people knew where they stood. For example, if you committed a crime you went through the court process. The police and courts were involved and you were punished and sent to prison. There was a formal process and appeal, and proof beyond reasonable doubt was required. We are now putting other things into the pot. Annoyance may attract a criminal penalty, as may nuisance, but the civil process has less protection, and there is a risk that the Government may be muddling the old criminal law with new processes which they think are necessary but which entail certain dangers.
§ Simon Hughes
Can I tell the Home Secretary that while there are some things in the Bill that clearly need to be dealt with by criminal law such as the misuse of crack cocaine and firearms, other things may not be such obvious candidates for the use of criminal law? Dropping litter is not in the same league as misuse of a firearm.
I hope that the Government will accept my next point in their cooler and more rational moments. It is important that we do not judge people so harshly that we build a society where all sorts of relatively minor antisocial behaviour becomes a serious handicap for them later in their adult life. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), when we were debating the Criminal Justice Bill the other day on Report, 159 pointed out that under that measure someone's previous record of behaviour could be used in evidence against them in the criminal courts. There was a danger, he pointed out, that people's opinions about someone's behaviour would mark them, making it more likely that they would be convicted of a crime. Down that road lies the big brother state. Sometimes I think that the Home Secretary is in favour of that state—[Interruption.] That seems especially so, as has just been said, when he is the big brother. I resist that move, and I hope that he will make it clear that we should have much more devolution of power, not centralised power. We should try, not to criminalise more people and lock them up, but to make sure that they behave without being criminalised, without a criminal record and without ending up in prison.
§ Mr. Blunkett
I just want to put on record the fact that I am not in favour of the big brother or big sister state. I am in favour of introducing measures that provide for a civilised, acceptable level of behaviour in a civilised world where people can live in peace and quiet. That would avoid a situation in which some people's response to an ever-increasing dysfunctionality in communities, disrespect and the likelihood of disorder is such that a big brother state is appealing precisely because it would do the things that the hon. Gentleman spoke about. Those people are so sick and tired of things disintegrating around them that they would turn to extremes. That is my philosophy.
§ Simon Hughes
I share that objective with the Home Secretary, which is why we must be careful—I am sure that he understands this—not to legislate where we do not need to. We must always look first at prevention, rather than punishment, and must always look for things like mediation—tried and tested alternatives which work on the ground—and things that, as he has rightly said, build on the excellent work of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the partnerships that have been developed and many of the pilot schemes and initiatives that he, his Government, the Youth Justice Board and local government around the country have initiated.
There is much good news out there—so much, in fact, that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-East, was on the radio and television the other day working hard to persuade the nation that crime figures were going down again. I agree, and have said so. However, the Bill does not appear to be a response to the fact that those figures are going down—it appears to be a response to the fact that fear of crime is still high. Legislating because people are afraid of crime, as opposed to legislating because of things that people actually do, is a dangerous road to go down.
May I make a couple of practical suggestions to Ministers? They have contemplated in linked legislation amending the laws on begging. Begging has been a crime since 1824, but beggars have not disappeared because it is illegal. Ticket touting has been illegal for years, but ticket touts have not disappeared because it is illegal. Busking has not been permitted for years, but buskers have not vanished because it is illegal. The Home Office appears to believe that if you legislate against people they disappear. If you legislate against activity, it stops. 160 May I tell Ministers that that does not usually happen? It is much better to take alternative positive action on the ground.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth)
Will the hon. Gentleman do himself a favour and not misrepresent the facts? Begging is already illegal, as he knows, and we fine beggars. We do not register them or check up on their behaviour or the reasons for it. We do not use that begging to get them the drug treatment that it is estimated 86 per cent. of them need. The hon. Gentleman knows that that is what we are proposing to do—why does he seek to misrepresent it?
§ Simon Hughes
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. I said that begging has been illegal since 1824. He is right that the issue is often that those people have mental illnesses, drug addiction problems and alcohol addiction problems, and are homeless. The remedy is not to make them more criminal. The remedy is both to provide treatment for drug abuse, which the Under-Secretary is working on, but which is not yet available throughout the country, and to provide the resources for housing departments that local authorities ask for so that the homeless can be housed more quickly and effectively. Local authorities are not responding to the Bill by saying, "Yes, we want all those laws," they are saying, "Give us the resources to do the things that we know we have to do." Just blaming people and giving out more criminal records is a dangerous way to go. That is the way that America has gone. In Britain, 30 per cent of adults under 30 have a criminal record. If we take up the opportunity of giving out penalty tickets and fines to 13-year-olds, what sort of future will we condemn them to? If we begin to treat young people's experiences as a problem, not as an opportunity, which is what the Bill hints at, what sort of a message are we sending them?
§ Simon Hughes
I want to make two more substantive remarks and conclude, so that other colleagues can get in.
There are many things that we can do. We can make sure that housing allocation policies work better, so that families and communities are kept together and not separated. We can make sure that schools are given more power to run their own show, rather than passing more laws enforcing measures from above. We can design and build housing estates that make it less easy, rather than easier, for people to commit crime.
Of course some things are difficult. We have a world where young people sit in front of computers, where they communicate less and where parents talk to them less. I was at a gun crime memorial service the other day in Peckham, and the call to families was, "Speak to your children more." The Mums against Guns were saying, "We must speak to our children more. The dads must speak to their children more. We must have more communication." We do not want young people punished, marginalised and criminalised at a young age.
The Government are going down the wrong road. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was a good thing. The youth 161 Justice Board is a good thing. They have all done good work, and we should build on them. We should see the evidence of what works. In my borough, there are many successful schemes. The Karrot scheme and incentives for young people work. Southwark Mediation works. Neighbourhood wardens work. Kickstart works. Splash works. More police work.
I was in Watford on Sunday. The new Liberal Democrat mayor of Watford has just provided space for a skateboard park by the pyramid in the middle of town. I met some young people who said that they wanted that, to stop them getting up the nose of people in the town centre. They want to be able to do their own thing in a way that does not get them into trouble. Such schemes work.
Curfews do not work; they have never been used. Giving an 11-year-old a penalty notice will not work. Making teachers, local education authorities and education welfare officers behave like police officers will not work. It should be the police, not the teacher, the designated member of staff or the local education authority, who decide whether somebody has committed an offence. We must make sure we separate those responsible for supporting and developing young people, and those responsible for criminalising them. Unless we change the Bill significantly, there is a danger that we will yet again legislate in haste and repent at leisure.
It is sad that the Bill does not mention social services. [Interruption.] If it does it barely mentions them; there is certainly not a section on social services. There is a section on education, a section on housing, a section on firearms and a section on drugs, but the effective agency for picking up the youngsters in dysfunctional families who are liable to commit crimes are the social services departments, which are overstretched and burdened and asking for more resources.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) recently went on an official visit to Sweden, where children are normally not regarded as being capable of being put in the criminal justice system until they are over 16. They are seen as people who need help, support and educational backup. Sweden has a much higher success rate than we do and its approach is much more effective. We must look around us and learn the lessons of other countries. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac), who has tried to intervene about 16 times, asks what we would say. We say: nationalise the mediation process across every local authority. [Interruption.] I mean spread it across the country. I would not be against it being nationalised. We should make sure that social services and education departments have the resources that they need to do what they know works. We should make sure that community punishment is visible in the community. We should make sure we have many more youth and community workers, who can be positive role models for young people. We should make sure that we have restorative justice and schemes such as the Dundee family project, which helps families who are not very good at bringing up their children.
162 As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), we should not spend time legislating for landlords to have policies and procedures to deal with antisocial tenants, when they do not need legislation to do that. Most of them do it anyway. We do not need to legislate for parenting contracts, which are voluntary and so, by definition, do not need legislation. We certainly do not need parenting orders to be issued at the instigation of teachers and the LEAs. If disciplinary sanctions are needed, those should be exercised by the forces responsible for discipline.
§ Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)
That is the second time this afternoon that it has been stated in the Chamber that landlords do not need orders that define good policies and the way in which good or bad tenants are treated by them. The hon. Gentleman is well wrong. In my constituency we have faceless landlords, who are buying up streets and renting out the properties. Those are often giro drops. We need some control over that if we are to assert that criminality is not acceptable in my community.
§ Simon Hughes
The hon. Lady and I are not at cross-purposes. She is arguing that we need to regulate the private sector; I agree. That is being done in the housing Bill, which is out for consultation. That is where the parts of the Anti-social Behaviour Bill that deal with housing should be. We should not be debating demoted tenancies, which I happen to support, probationary tenancies and such conditional tenancies in the context of a Bill about law and order. Those should be dealt with in a housing Bill.
We should also consider how we deal with the private, the local authority and the housing association sectors. I am fed up with the fact that in my community there are powers that can be imposed on local authority tenants and their kids, and on housing association tenants and their kids in Rotherhithe, but not on the private sector tenants and their kids who live in the houses next door. Those powers should not be considered in the context of this Bill. The same applies to education. We have had six education Bills in the past seven years. If we want to change the powers that apply to education, that should be done in the context of legislation on education, not in the present Bill.
I end with two points, one of which relates to fixed penalty notices. I urge Ministers to hear what was said from the Conservative Front Bench earlier, what has been said before, and what we say. Fixed penalty notices should not be handed out by people who are not police officers or employees of the police service, with one or two exceptions such as environmental health officers, who have had a traditional role. The Bill tries to do again what Parliament last year said it did not want. Parliament said last year that it did not want the private security officer to be able to hand out fixed penalty notices. We say that today, as we said last year. The Government should have heard that last year and taken it to heart, and should not try again to push at a door that Parliament has already closed.
§ Simon Hughes
No. I also hope the Government are not serious about fixed penalty notices being given to 163 under-16s. There may be an argument for new penalties for over-16s. There may be an argument for legislating in relation to over-16s in certain respects. I am willing to accept that there is an argument for banning the sale of spray paint to under-16s, though why on earth its sale to over-16s should be banned I fail to understand. If they are adults who can work, pay taxes and serve the country, I do not understand why they cannot go shopping and buy what they want. If the Government think it reasonable to issue fixed penalty notices—fines—directly to 11, 12 and 13-year-olds, which is the power that the Bill permits the Home Secretary to introduce, I ask them to think again.
The Bill contains important proposals for dealing with drugs and firearms. If the Government left it at that, it would have support from the Opposition parties and more widely. The Government have chosen to throw all sorts of other measures into the Bill. It is a muddled Bill, in some parts, unfortunately, it is misconceived, and in many respects it is unnecessary. We will do all we can in Committee to make it a much better Bill, but I sincerely hope that the Government hear the voices in the Chamber and outside, and take out all the provisions that are wrong or which should not have been in the Bill in the first place.
§ Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)
I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
Again and again in 13 years as a Member of Parliament and as a councillor, I have sat down with groups of residents who are angry and frustrated about the persistent problems of crime, drug abuse and antisocial behaviour on their estates. Although it is probably not stated often enough, it is an article of faith that the more deprived a community is, the more damaging the impact of such behaviour will be, as neighbourhoods spiral further out of control and desirability and can end up exclusively as ghettos of the poor and deprived.
It is often not realised that young people are the victims of crime as least as much as they are its perpetrators. A recent survey conducted among young people by the youth parliament in my constituency drew out the fact that fear of crime, bullying, harassment and intimidation are among the principal concerns of young people living in the inner city. It is extremely important that we recognise that it is for the sake of future generations and as well as of pensioners and other residents, who also live in fear of crime, that we take some of the measures set out in the Bill.
The Bill contains much that is very welcome and that I support wholeheartedly, although I have one or two concerns that I want to flag up. Antisocial behaviour lies at the heart of the increase in fear of crime. It has already been mentioned that, despite the fall in crime figures across the board in recent years, the latest British crime survey shows a sharp increase in the number of people reporting fear of crime. I hate to describe some types of criminal behaviour as "lower level", but it is the range of behaviour that we understand to be antisocial that is part of the problem.
Mention has also been made of the fact that there is a lot of good news that we can talk about in most of our local areas. I am very pleased with the progress that has 164 been made on so many fronts in my constituency as a consequence of actions put in place since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Some projects have been funded in my constituency by sources such as the neighbourhood renewal fund, and the neighbourhood warden schemes have been positively triumphant in raising community awareness in terms of being eyes and ears on the street, building good connections with the local community and being part of the wider crime-reduction family.
On one of my estates, which has been plagued for years with persistent antisocial behaviour, we recently launched Britain's first mobile police station, which was in situ offering local residents a visible demonstration of police presence and a commitment to action. Last summer saw Operation Puma, a police crackdown on crime and antisocial behaviour that occurred during the summer holidays. The operation had a very beneficial effect across our estates. Police have also been working with secondary schools, some of which have had very serious crime and antisocial behaviour problems in the past.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has expressed to me his recognition of the very important contribution made by the rapid reaction crack protocol drawn up in the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is now received wisdom among crack addicts in north London that the one place where they do not want to be is Notting Hill, where the authorities come down on them like a ton of bricks. Unfortunately, one of the perverse consequences of the success of the rapid reaction crack protocol is that crack addiction and crack houses now tend not to open up in north Kensington and are being displaced to Brent and Paddington. I am delighted to say that Westminster police have now adopted the protocol, but other boroughs have not done so. While I welcome the additional powers in the Bill to enable a swift response to crack houses, may I therefore commend to Ministers' consideration the fact that we want every area, and every partnership between police and social landlords or other local agencies, to sign up to that model of excellent practice? In north Kensington, it has resulted in the closure of crack houses within a few days and sometimes within 48 hours. That has been a very successful example of good practice.
The other excellent example of good practice is the youth inclusion project, which has been working for a couple of years in an area with serious problems of crime and antisocial behaviour—the Dalgarno estates in north Kensington. I understand that such projects have managed nationally to achieve a 30 per cent. reduction in arrests. Locally, eight out of 10 young people with previous convictions among the top 50 who are known to be at risk of offending in north Kensington are linked to the youth inclusion project—an example of long-term, in-depth work that diverts young people away from crime and has a proven track record.
Some of my concerns about the Bill and about other ways in which we are responding to antisocial behaviour relate to resource constraints. In my area, policing is a particular concern. Unfortunately, Westminster still has 500 fewer police than 10 years ago. Due to problems with the census count, we have been unable to benefit from any additional police officers through the resource allocation formula in London. Although London is seeing a significant and welcome increase in the number of police officers, in areas of central London such as 165 mine, we are still under-policed, so the very welcome additional resources provided in respect of neighbourhood wardens and community support officers are still offset to some extent by the fact that too few police are available to work with our local communities.
The other worry is that the neighbourhood renewal fund and similar Government resources directed to deprived areas to help us tackle crime are sometimes offset by reductions in local authority discretionary expenditure. Ministers should be extremely aware of that issue. Cuts in important services such as the youth service and children's play facilities mean that young people who would otherwise benefit from such facilities are out on the street and at risk of offending.
Finally, I should like to say a couple of words about the provisions relating to the role of social landlords and evictions. One of my worries is that we may be in danger of not using the powers that already exist to enable landlords to clamp down on antisocial behaviour among tenants. As I hope my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will accept, social landlords have very strong powers available to them, including injunctions, possession orders, antisocial behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and introductory and starter tenancy regimes. The Homelessness Act 2002 gives local authorities new powers to refuse to offer accommodation or to reduce the preference given to applicants for housing where antisocial behaviour is an issue. Powers are available to social landlords and we must ensure that they are using them in the most effective way and working in partnership. In my experience, we are still in the early stages of securing effective partnership arrangements.
§ Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking)
During the Christmas recess, I sat for a couple of days as a district judge in a very busy south London court. The afternoon list one day consisted of a series of parents who had been brought before the court by way of summons to face an allegation that they had permitted their children not to attend school. Such examples of misbehaviour or lack of control by parents frequently arise in south London, so when I looked at the Bill and considered the issue of parental contracts with a school, thought that I would tell the House about my experience.
Seven mothers were due in court that afternoon. Two did not turn up, after having received a court summons. Two turned up roaring drunk and incapable of understanding what was going on. Another couple turned up and, albeit sober, were utterly inadequate and incapable of comprehending even what they were doing there. The seventh turned up and used the sort of language that we in the House would never use to each other, even on a rugby pitch. Those seven cases arose in one afternoon.
Where does that get us? It gets us to a clause saying that, although there is an existing criminal offence of not sending one's child to school, the Bill thinks that all may be cured by a parenting contract. There was not a mother in court that afternoon who would have had the 166 slightest idea what a parenting contract would mean. One or two could not write their names. Others might have torn up the contract and thrown it in my face.
§ Mr. Malins
I was powerless. Fines were a waste of time; there is no point in imposing a £50 fine on such people. Eventually representatives of the education authority said that they were doing their best with the mothers. I adjourned the cases.
I am worried about clause 18 because contracts will not work. Such concepts are not a good idea because we have to realise that we are dealing with people who are effectively from the—I hesitate to use the word—underclass. They are desperately underprivileged and outside mainstream society.
§ Ms Taylor
I am surprised by the hon. Gentleman's comments. My police force and local authority say that acceptable behaviour contracts between parents, the local authority and the police have been very effective so far. They say that the contracts are so valuable that they will avoid more drastic action later when the child is out of control. Why are the hon. Gentleman's local authority and police so different from mine?
§ Mr. Malins
If everything works so well, why is the Bill necessary? If the hon. Lady steps into the London courts, she will witness some of the problems that I encountered.
The Home Secretary's motives for introducing the Bill are good, but I wonder whether it will make a difference. In the past seven years of the Labour Government, 15 crime Bills have been introduced and the Home Secretary has produced more than 100 initiatives. They have not made a great difference: crime has increased.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said earlier, in 1971, 17 crimes were reported for every police officer. Today, there are more than 40 crimes for every police officer. When we consider our approach to crime, why do we never focus on detection rates? Many young people who commit the sort of low-level crime that falls into the antisocial behaviour category do it because they know that they will not see a policeman and that they will not get caught and dealt with.
Let us consider previous legislation on antisocial behaviour that the Government introduced. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was not such a great success. I warned that the antisocial behaviour orders would be bureaucratic and ineffective. Instead of the 5,000 that we were promised, only a few hundred have been issued. The Home Secretary tells us that 11,000 drug treatment and testing orders have been made, and that parenting orders have been issued. However, we never know how many have been breached. Yet day after day in the courts, one comes across breaches of orders that have not been effective at all.
167 Graffiti, drunkenness, criminal damage and noise form the sort of low level crime and antisocial behaviour that affects our communities. Plenty of existing law would be effective if a fully staffed police force administered it properly. Sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 cover much of the sort of behaviour that the Bill describes, such as hanging around on corners and apparently posing a threat to passers-by. Further measures are unnecessary. The Criminal Damage Act 1971 already deals with graffiti; people who are responsible for graffiti and are caught are always prosecuted under that Act. What is the need for more measures?
The common factor in most antisocial behaviour is drink. Our teenagers are the heaviest binge drinkers in Europe. Eighty-eight per cent. of criminal damage offences are committed while the offender is under the influence of drink; 15 per cent. of 12 to 17-year-olds have been involved in some form of antisocial behaviour as a direct result of drinking alcohol. Our neighbourhoods and communities have to face the need to get a grip on under-age drinking. We must focus much more on the supply of alcohol.
In my constituency of Woking, antisocial behaviour is perceived as being closely connected to the sale of alcohol to under-age drinkers. One Saturday evening, 83 per cent. of off-licences sold cans of lager or alcopops to a 15-year-old schoolboy who volunteered to help trading standards officers. It is a curse in our communities that young people drink far too much. It leads them to antisocial behaviour and crime. We should examine that problem and put more police on the beat in our communities. That is the way forward, not a Bill that is barely worth voting for or against.
§ Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)
I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). They missed the point of the Bill, which can be used in the context of crime prevention partnerships. It will be effective because it will allow for short-term interventions alongside longer-term preventive measures.
I am surprised at the condemnation by the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The partnerships that were set up under the Act work successfully. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If he came to Barnsley, he could see a crime prevention partnership that I chair, which has existed for almost eight years and works extremely well. The provisions in the Bill will be used to benefit the community.
I support the Bill, but recognise some of the anxieties that hon. Members have mentioned. Nevertheless, it will be successful in the context of the crime prevention partnerships. The explanatory notes do not mention the partnerships, but anyone who is active in a community knows that the provisions will be used for that purpose.
There is a need to strike a balance between enforcement and prevention. I shall give some examples from my constituency. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred to the difficulty of being able to tackle some problems. We 168 have set up the heads of agency group, which brings together people who can make immediate decisions locally and participate in longer-term decision making. That group includes the directors of housing, education and social services. They sit to consider specific cases, but they do not only examine each case on its merits, they make decisions in the context of longer-term action. For example, Barnsley operates a safer communities project in the village of Worsborough. It was initially funded by the Joseph Rowntree trust and helps to identify the risk factors that young people face. We hope that the study will result in an opportunity to roll out the project across the community. That will provide a longer-term approach to dealing with prevention, but it will run alongside the shorter term interventions provided by the Bill.
Clauses 1 to 11, in part 1 of the Bill, deal with drugs. I believe that the closure orders will be effective, although I have to say to the Minister that, in my constituency, drugs tend to be a problem on the estates and can therefore also involve tenant issues that will be dealt with later in the Housing Bill. We have, however, been able to move against tenants when we have had evidence of their using their houses to distribute drugs. We have evicted such people. Only a couple of years ago, in an old mining village called Ward Green, we were able to evict tenants who were involved in distributing drugs, which was leading to antisocial behaviour.
§ Mr. Clapham
I am sorry, but I have only a few minutes.
We were able to evict those tenants. The difficulty was, however, that they then gravitated to an area of Barnsley in which there were already problems and it became doubly difficult to deal with the matter at that stage. I know that the Minister is aware of such issues. Perhaps some of the measures in the Housing Bill will allow us to tackle that particular difficulty.
In regard to what the hon. Member for Woking had to say earlier, I can tell him that, in Barnsley, we have established a beat team. The local authority pays for the seven officers, who work together with three enforcement officers and a legal adviser from the authority to tackle environmental issues such as graffiti and vandalism. That is working well. Their work is complemented by the tenancy enforcement wardens, and we are having some success. I believe that the measures in the Bill will be helpful to those teams.
To return to the drugs issue, we reckon that the problem drives 70 per cent. of the crime in Barnsley. We have a big heroin problem, as do lots of other mining communities, and we need to be able to deal with it in the context of the Government's drugs policy. That will involve providing much more treatment, but, at the same time, it will be helpful to be able to deal with houses or premises from which drugs are being distributed by issuing closure notices.
Clauses 54 and 55 deal with waste and litter. These measures will be helpful, because once a vicinity starts to look shabby because of litter, it becomes conducive to antisocial behaviour. Being able to deal with such issues directly, again through the crime prevention partnership, by enforcing the measures in the Bill will be 169 very helpful. I want to draw to the Minister's attention to an initiative that I witnessed in west Wales. As co-Chair of the all-party group on ire prevention, I was asked to visit west Wales to see some of the initiatives—
§ Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)
I draw to the attention of the House the entry that appears in my name in the Register of Members' Interests.
I am the first person to welcome any initiative to tackle antisocial behaviour, which is a problem for my constituents and those of other hon. Members. I share the objectives that the Home Secretary set out—indeed, I warmed to many, if not all, of the sentiments that he expressed today. The issue for me, however, is that of how well the proposals will work in practice and how much difference they will make. I want to see proposals that will make a substantial difference to what is a very substantial problem. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) was right to draw attention to the Bill being one of 15 different pieces of legislation on these matters, some of which make only marginal changes to existing legislation.
My attitude towards these issues is coloured by the fact that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), I served on the Committee of one of the first—if not the first—pieces of criminal justice legislation introduced by this Government, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. I well remember the claims that were made on behalf of that legislation, both inside the House and outside it, before it came in. Anyone who took those claims at face value would be surprised to find the House now considering not only another piece of antisocial behaviour legislation, but one that puts right some of the problems in the Crime and Disorder Act. Furthermore, it is not the first Bill that has been needed to put right some of those problems.
I remind Labour Members that the flagship provision of the Crime and Disorder Act was the antisocial behaviour order, which the Home Secretary mentioned only briefly when talking about the various orders available under the Act. The antisocial behaviour order was, however, the brave new idea of the Act, and anyone who had the temerity, in 1998, to question its practicability had their concerns dismissed out of hand by Ministers. Well, how much use have the antisocial behaviour orders been? My hon. Friend the Member for Woking is right to say that we can learn from experience. My constituents are still waiting to find out whether an antisocial behaviour order can be effective in changing behaviour because, in the almost three and a half years since they have been available, not a single one appears to have been taken out in my constituency. Only about nine have been taken out in the whole of Hertfordshire, and just a few hundred in the whole of the country.
I have put this concern to Ministers in the past, and they have sometimes argued that this was proof of the effectiveness of antisocial behaviour orders. I remember, on one occasion, a Minister argued that the fact that the orders were not being made was evidence that potential miscreants were so frightened by them 170 that they had stopped committing antisocial behaviour. It might be the case that there is greater legal knowledge in some quarters than we had thought, and that there are some budding legal careers in unlikely places, but the Minister's argument would tend to suggest that the problem of antisocial behaviour had got better rather than worse since 1998. My constituents could tell a different story, however.
The antisocial behaviour orders that have been made have quite simply not been up to the scale of the problem of antisocial behaviour, and nor have many of the other provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act. When we consider the parenting orders, which have more to be said for them than antisocial behaviour orders, the Home Secretary said that only some 3,000 had been made over three years. That works out at about five for each of the more than 600 constituencies in this country over three years, and I think that we all know that the problem relating to antisocial behaviour orders is even bigger than that.
§ Simon Hughes
Does the hon. Gentleman remember the Home Secretary saying in December that he was surprised when he went round the country to find that people did not know about the powers that already existed?
§ Simon Hughes
Indeed. Is not that an argument for trying to work with measures that already exist first, rather than trying other things that have not been piloted and for which we can see no results?
§ Mr. Clappison
We need to ask how workable the provisions will be, which brings me to the reservations that I have about the Bill. I have already mentioned one of them in an intervention, which is the provision regarding crack houses. I welcome the idea of closure orders, but I wonder how many will be made in practice. I note, for example, that before granting an application for a closure order, a magistrates court will have to be satisfied not only that the premises in question have been usedin connection with the unlawful use or supply of a Class A controlled drugbut thatthe use of the premises is associated with the occurrence of disorder or serious nuisance to members of the public";and thatthe making of the order is necessary to prevent the occurrence of such disorder or serious nuisance for the period specified in the order.The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) was right about this, and I am sure that the police will be concerned. How many of these orders are going to be made in practice if all this has to be proved to the satisfaction of the courts?
An even worse example of potential legal overload in the Bill involves the power for the police to direct groups of youths to disperse. I know from my constituency caseload just how much of a problem some groups of youths can be.
171 In general I support that power for the police—indeed, I thought that in practice they had it already, and if they need more powers, I am in favour of that as well—but we should note what needs to happen before an officer can use the powers in the Bill. There must have been an authorisation for their use, and such an authorisation can be given only by an officer of the rank of superintendent or above. Authorisation can be given by that senior officer only if he has reasonable grounds for believing, first, that any members of the public have beenintimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressedas a result of the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more persons in any locality in his police area, and secondly, that antisocial behaviour is a significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality.
Before any authorisation, consultation must take place with any local authority whose area includes all or part of the relevant locality. Authorisation must be given publicity through an authorisation notice contained in a newspaper circulating in the relevant locality or posted in a conspicuous place in the relevant locality. The authorisation notice must comply with all the formalities set out in clause 30(4)(a) to (c), and the authorisation from the senior officer must comply with those in subsection (1)(a) to (c).
All that sounds a bit like applying for planning permission. Only when a police officer has jumped through all those hoops is he authorised to direct a group to disperse, or "move on" as we used to say—and before he can exercise that authority he must, when he wishes to use it, havereasonable grounds for believing that the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed".It surprises me that the police do not already have the power to move people on if their behaviour has had or is likely to have such results. At the very least, someone behaving in that way would be committing an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. In such circumstances police officers would properly enforce the law not by dispersing the youths but by arresting them, so that they could be brought before a court and charged with an offence. I wonder how much use those provisions will be in practice.
Moreover, the power in question relates only to youths under 16. Unfortunately, groups of youths do not always divide themselves neatly into groups of under-16s and over-16s. Whatever the Home Secretary says, that is a problem for the police in practice. It brings to mind our debates during the Committee stage of the Crime and Disorder Bill on child curfew orders, which the Home Secretary had the good sense not to mention when referring to that Act because not one has been made throughout the country—not least, I suspect, because of the problem of mixed-age groups. I hope for the sake of our constituents that the new powers turn out to be more useful to the law-abiding public than those orders.
I look forward to the introduction of measures that will make a real difference to people. I think that the provisions on antisocial tenants will need careful 172 consideration in Committee. I was very sympathetic to the Bill introduced by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)—
§ Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead)
I support the Bill without reservation, because I am happy to reflect the views of my constituents. I have represented the same part of Birkenhead—practically—since 1979, and during that time the nature of politics in the area has changed. In those early years, when I held surgeries or meetings or read letters, my constituents raised the issues that I expected them to raise: social security matters, the possibility of obtaining housing transfers, employment problems. Of course they still raise such issues, but the new politics that they raise are politics relating to behaviour. The Government are attempting to deal with that massive change.
Why do we keep returning to the issues mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison)? I call him my hon. Friend because he supported a measure to which I shall return shortly. One reason for the number of measures to deal with antisocial behaviour is the fact that it forms the basis of the new politics. It is difficult to grapple with an issue for the first time, and I do not believe that the number of different antisocial behaviour measures represents failure; I rejoice in the fact that when a measure does not work, the Government are prepared to come back, to make suggestions, and sometimes even to listen to our proposals for change.
I support the Bill because it reflects the current overriding concern of my constituents. They also want us to ask what the reasons are for the breakdown of common decencies in our society, and we should think about those in the long term. They do not, however, want us to be so academic in debating the causes of that breakdown that we do not try to enact measures aimed at preventing common decencies from collapsing still further. To what extent will the Bill help us to hold the line?
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere, as I call him, strongly supported a Bill I introduced earlier in this Parliament to deal with "neighbours from hell". There was widespread support from Members, apart from Liberal Democrats. I want to nail the untruth, peddled by the Liberal Democrats again today, that being tough on antisocial behaviour constitutes an attack on the poor. It is the poor themselves who are most damaged by such behaviour. Unlike me they have no bank balance. They cannot move away from the neighbours from hell, but must put up with them and see their children and their own lives destroyed.
I hope that the Government will consult widely on measures allowing action against private landlords who give succour, comfort and help to neighbours from hell. I hope that, if that does happen, they will go into the heart of constituencies that return Liberal Democrats, and ask ordinary voters how representative those Members are of the views trotted out in this Chamber by those who want to prevent us from taking such action. I look forward to going to the constituency of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) myself, and introducing him to some of his constituents and their views on these measures.
173 My hon. Friend, as I still call him, asked why we returned to all this with a sense of disappointment. It is true—we must admit it—that we had hoped to see the curfew measures used more effectively. We also wanted more antisocial orders to be used, not because we wanted to punish for the sake of it, but because we wanted to draw a line while looking in much more detail at the root causes of the breakdown of common decencies in our communities.
That is why, before this debate, I presented the Community Prosecution Lawyers Bill to ensure that in each of our constituencies the Crown Prosecution Service must establish an office, and a senior lawyer must be elected by our voters whose primary task will be to implement the Government's antisocial behaviour legislation. The CPS's role will be to ensure that that person has adequate legal training, but our constituents will decide who gains the highly paid position. My guess is that once the position has been gained, the thought of losing it as a result of failure to deliver on the Government's programme of trying to counter antisocial behaviour will serve as a way of ensuring that many more of our measures come into effect. Therefore, I hope that, when that measure comes forward, perhaps as an amendment at the Report stage of this Bill, we will gain Liberal Democrat support as well as support from those on the Treasury Bench.
In the moments that I have left, I reiterate the importance of the measures that the Government are trying to bring forward. I congratulate them when they are big enough to stand up and say that a measure has not worked as they want it to and that they are going to try to refine it. Antisocial behaviour is an evil that stalks the country. It destroys a common culture that the Labour movement was important in building. Why do we take the issue so seriously? We do it because we reflect our constituents' views and because antisocial behaviour is an attack on the common decency culture that the Labour movement had an important part in building in bringing about a significant change in the way people behaved to one another over the past 100 years.
There are now real threats to our constituents' safety and well-being. Many of my constituents, who have always put more into society than they have ever taken out, will be giving a roar. There will be a roar across the whole of the constituency, except among those few neighbours from hell who gain comfort from the Liberal Democrats.