I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of tackling anti-social behaviour.
I am pleased to be able to initiate a debate in Government time on this extremely important issue, which has an impact on every right hon. and hon. Member in this House and every community that we represent. In opening the debate, I am particularly pleased to focus on the fact that the Government have recently, through my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, made it clear that tackling antisocial behaviour not only is a continued priority, but will remain a top priority for them.
You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and all Members will know that antisocial behaviour has a devastating impact on the lives of individuals and their communities across the United Kingdom as a whole. I want to send a message from this Dispatch Box that antisocial behaviour never has been acceptable and that it never will be. The Government will continue to drive down antisocial behaviour to ensure that people have the right to enjoy their lives in peace, free from the devastating and often extremely damaging effects of such behaviour in their communities.
We all know from our own constituency experiences that graffiti, noise and petty vandalism are extremely important to those on whom they are inflicted and that they need to be tackled by the responsible agencies; I mean not only the police, but local authorities and others involved.
Let me say at the outset that antisocial behaviour is not committed by the majority of young people. It is something that we need to focus on in relation to all aspects of our society, not just the individuals who often get blamed for it, who in are a minority among young people.
I hope that the Minister will talk about not only antisocial behaviour but its alter ego, pro-social behaviour: in other words, the need to stop the problem before it arises by intervening early with young people, as early as when they are babies, children or at primary school, so that they discover the right way to grow, to learn, to listen and to develop as human beings.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point that I will indeed touch on later. He will know that through the youth crime action plan, the Government have focused a considerable amount of effort on ensuring that we tackle not only antisocial behaviour but issues to do with chaotic families, alternative activities, and interventions at a local level with individuals who are vulnerable to becoming involved in antisocial behaviour. That is because, as ever, prevention is just as important as enforcement and positive action against individuals at large.
I can report to the House that perception of antisocial behaviour across the board is reducing, partly owing to the Government successes that I will discuss in a moment. In 2008-09, 17 per cent. of the population felt that they experienced a high level of antisocial behaviour across the board, compared with 21 per cent. of the population in 2003-04. Accepting that there has been that fall in perception does not detract from the fact that when such behaviour is experienced by an individual, a family or a community, it has a 100 per cent. impact on them. We must act on the wreckage that this causes to individual lives and communities and ensure that we bear down on it still further despite our successes to date.
The hon. Gentleman will have looked at a range of issues. He does not, I believe, support some of the measures that we have taken on antisocial behaviour. I think that any measures to drive it down, and to drive perceptions down, are important. He will know that we are going to drive down still further some of these activities and perceptions where there are particularly high levels of antisocial behaviour. I will ensure that we continue to do that for as long as I hold this post, because it is vital that individuals whose lives are blighted by antisocial behaviour have not only the long-term remedies mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) but strong enforcement, strong action and help and support to drive it down still further.
I am candid enough to say to the House that antisocial behaviour remains a problem in several areas in relation to the work that we are doing. In the Place survey undertaken by the Department for Communities and Local Government—until recently that survey was ably examined and looked after by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears)—20 per cent. of people still felt that there were high levels of antisocial behaviour in their areas. That is why, whatever we have done to date in working tirelessly to provide an effective response in tackling antisocial behaviour—and we have undertaken a considerable amount of activity—there is more that can and should be done. Action needs to be taken to strengthen the response across all areas.
On 13 October, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced to the House a new impetus for tackling antisocial behaviour. That extra action covers activity in some key areas, and it supports not only the work done to date but the preventive agenda referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North. The action that my right hon. Friend announced includes practical support for victims of antisocial behaviour; re-emphasising to our colleagues in the police the need for a strong police response when it occurs; looking to establish across the country as a whole minimum standards of response and service for victims and individuals who have to deal with antisocial behaviour; considering action—this is particularly important—against those who flout the law, especially those who flout antisocial behaviour orders; and the action that we are taking focused on areas with high levels of antisocial behaviour.
The Minister mentioned as one of those five points raising standards locally, and the Home Office essentially setting national standards. How does he intend to follow that through? Will there be more inspection or regulation sitting behind it?
The intention is not to drive forward regulation or set central standards. We want to examine particular matters and encourage action plans in particular areas, with financial support, by 2010. The key points of the minimum standards will be taking reported cases of antisocial behaviour seriously, recording and investigating them, keeping victims informed of actions taken, telling the community on a monthly basis what action has been taken to tackle antisocial behaviour, providing practical support for victims and ensuring that all agencies—the police, local councils and others—link together so that there is effective management.
There have been occasions when agencies have had issues reported to them and taken an interest but have not had the co-ordinated response that is necessary to tackle them. We are challenging all community departments in local areas to sign up to minimum standards by March 2010, when we will review the information and ensure that action is taken.
Will the right hon. Gentleman include housing associations in his list of those to be involved? Often it is a three-way relationship between the local council, the police and housing associations. They are as important as the other two, and it will be helpful if they are included in the action that is to be taken.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Housing is central to some aspects of the antisocial behaviour that we face. Although local authorities have a responsibility for housing, a lot of the housing in my constituency is provided through housing associations. It is important that they are involved in establishing minimum standards. From my perspective, the key is to ensure that there is an effective link between neighbourhood policing and other agencies so that they come to locally acceptable solutions.
Further to the question that the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) asked, we need to make the standards that are set available to the public, who will have recourse to the local government ombudsman if they have a complaint. We will expect as a matter of course every police force and local authority and, taking the point of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam), every social landlord to seek at least to meet the minimum standards expected by the public and ensure that they keep on track.
We acknowledge the importance of all the issues that I mentioned. If I discuss each in turn you will see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we cover a number of matters in our latest proposals. First, we have always acknowledged that supporting victims is crucial. It is self-evident to Members that a victim may be a victim for the first time and may not know their way around the system, so we want to ensure that the victim is at the heart of what we do. Victims are often too frightened to give evidence against a perpetrator because they are scared about the impact on their communities, and as a result they often do not come forward.
One step that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced in October was an additional £2.8 million of funding to support local victims champions in all targeted areas, by which I mean areas with a very high level of antisocial behaviour, with a view to extending the program still further when we discuss the provisions of the White Paper later this year. That effectively means that we will provide services to support victims and witnesses of antisocial behaviour to bring cases forward in magistrates courts and throughout the process.
As I mentioned earlier, we have also promised tougher action on those who breach their ASBOs. We will conduct a review of how that is working in practice, involving both the Secretary of State for Justice and the Attorney-General, and we will shortly issue new guidance on what local authorities should do when an ASBO is broken and needs to be followed up, to ensure that those who have been given that community-based penalty see it through.
We have a renewed focus on advice on driving up prosecutions. Going back to some of the points that have been made so far today, I can say that we are also looking at local service standards, so that the public know what to expect when antisocial behaviour occurs in their areas, what the minimum standards are for responses, and what support is available to communities when such action is taken. I want to leave that, in large part, to local discretion—referring to the points made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch from the Opposition Front Bench—but I want to ensure that we have those measures in place. We will be reviewing what local authorities say they are putting in place by March 2010 and will hold them to it. We will also expect the community to hold them to it.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way a second time. Does he agree that it is important that he works closely with the Crown Prosecution Service and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the burden and level of proof are such that we can get convictions in some of those cases? Very often, targeting in the CPS means that it has to be almost 100 per cent. certain, which is rare, before it will take a case. Will he ensure that cases are taken on the balance of probabilities, rather than the CPS feeling target-bound and not taking other cases?
That is very important. Very often, the police, people who live on an estate or in a community, and the local council will know where there is a problem, and they must produce evidence to that effect. I take what my hon. Friend says. Again, as part of our review, we will be looking at the guidance we issue not only on breaches but in relation to prosecutions generally, because it is important that action is taken. That is what people expect and what decent people want in their communities. They want action to solve the problem, not necessarily, with due respect, words to go around the problem.
Effectively, we will also be providing—this is key to the drive announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on 13 October—specific support to areas where the perception of antisocial behaviour is particularly high. We have identified a number of key areas, including Salford and Doncaster, where there will be additional help and support. We regard that as critical in helping to drive down perceptions where they are extremely high. The extra support will be part of the action plan that is being drawn up. The plan is time-limited to March of next year to ensure that action is taken now in such key areas.
Linked to that is the question of the policing pledge and the policing White Paper, which will come out shortly. When that is produced—it will hopefully be later this month or, at the latest, early December—we will again be taking some clear next steps regarding what we can expect from the public and neighbourhood policing, with support from police officers. That will include a continued commitment to having a dedicated neighbourhood policing team in every community. Neighbourhood teams will cost resources, which is investment to which we are committed—not only for next year but, in terms of examining them in detail, for future years.
The White Paper will also include measures to enhance the focus of local neighbourhood policing, through working with partners and giving extra support to partnerships. That will ensure that victims, offenders and neighbourhoods are the focus of police activity, which is a positive step. From my perspective, identifying antisocial behaviour issues locally with the community is key.
None of that commenced on 13 October following my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary’s statement. This Government have been committed to tackling antisocial behaviour since they came into existence in 1997. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 created crime and disorder partnerships, and community safety partnerships in Wales. They are key when the Government decide what agencies across government need to be brought together to fight crime and antisocial behaviour.
The legislation also introduced the ASBO, which has given practitioners vital powers for dealing with serious antisocial behaviour. Some 14,972 ASBOs were issued between 1 April 1999 and 31 December 2007. In due course, ASBOs have changed the behaviour of many individuals who have behaved antisocially, and given confidence to the community in dealing with such behaviour.
I know about the number of ASBOs issued, but is the Minister worried that, over those years, more than 50 per cent. of those ASBOs have been breached? The figure for 10 to 17-year-olds is even worse, with nearly 65 per cent. being breached. That is a troubling figure.
I accept that the breaching of ASBOs has been a concern. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a fair man, and I hope that he will accept that the Home Secretary’s announcement on 13 October of extra steps to tackle breaches of ASBOs was a recognition that that number is unacceptable. If people are given a punishment, it must be seen through. Restraining orders in relation to a particular community must be enforced strongly by the courts, the police and the community at large. I accept that the breach rate is challenging, but I am convinced that we will take further action to deal with those individuals in a positive and practical way in the future.
Practitioners tell us that communities are given respite from the misery of nuisance and loutish behaviour by ASBOs, and we know that they work. Antisocial behaviour is a challenging and complex matter, without a one-size-fits-all solution. ASBOs are important, but they are one of a range of tools that we have used to support the development of policy to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its forms. Members will know that, from crack house closure orders to dispersal orders and, most recently, premises closure orders, we have given a range of powers that are now being exercised by local police through the courts to ensure that innumerable people in communities across the country are spared the difficulties caused by individual properties, licensed premises or individuals causing concern.
To return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North, enforcement is only one aspect of the work that we need to undertake. We need to ensure that the underlying problems that lead to antisocial behaviour are tackled at their roots. That is why we have undertaken action with perpetrators and their families, with the level of support needed to tackle the underlying causes of that behaviour. We have, for example, issued individual support orders, helping young people on ASBOs, and parenting orders, helping parents to tackle issues that cause problems or make them worse. In the last five years alone, we have issued 43,000 acceptable behaviour contracts, 12,600 parenting contracts and 3,000 parenting orders, and we have closed down 1,700 crack houses across England and Wales. That shows not only an element of enforcement, but recognises that we need to deal with dysfunctional families, in which one generation after another is not learning the basics of a decent society.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that some of the families about which he is talking are inflicting huge damage on their communities through other criminal activity, as well as antisocial behaviour? They are often pursued by the police through the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Does he understand the concern of some forces, such as West Yorkshire, that an inadequate proportion of the money gleaned through POCA is returning to those forces so that they can tackle the sort of problems that we are talking about?
I accept the point that my hon. Friend makes. It is clear that people involved in antisocial behaviour are often involved in a range of other criminal activity. In his response to the debate, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), will touch on that issue and give some real facts and figures. I am aware that considerable resources are going to local forces from POCA, but it is an issue that we need to look at. From my perspective—and my constituency contains families who cause difficulties, as every constituency does—the Proceeds of Crime Act and the confiscation of assets has been a key determinant in people desisting from this behaviour, and visible punishment has an effect on the community at large.
We have also had two significant and successful campaigns—the Together and Respect programmes—that have raised the profile of the action that we are taking on antisocial behaviour, brought practitioners together and contributed more to tackling those problems. To return to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North made—a point that I will refer to regularly—we have also introduced a range of early intervention initiatives aimed at preventing antisocial behaviour in the first place. Although not targeted solely against individuals who are involved in antisocial behaviour, schemes such as Sure Start and “Positive activities for young people” are part of the positive community building to which this Labour Government have been committed, to tackle deprivation, give respect and ensure that individuals are supported through their lives.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend for missing the first part of his speech, but I was serving on a Statutory Instrument Committee with the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell). My right hon. Friend talked about community activity. Does he recognise the important role that local action teams play at the neighbourhood level in bringing together local residents, their councillors, representatives of the council and the police to pinpoint where the problems are and to find solutions to deal with them?
Not only did my hon. Friend miss the beginning of my speech, but I nearly missed it myself, because this debate started so quickly.
Local action is vital. I mentioned earlier that the new drive initiated by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary includes efforts to look at local action plans that not only have the police on board, important though they are, but the local council, as well as enjoying the support of local tenants and residents associations, the local councillor and, as the hon. Member for Orpington said, local housing providers and social landlords. They all have a role, not only in standing up and saying, “This is not acceptable,” but in delivering plans that help to support the development of local activity in due course.
May I ask the Minister to add something else to the list— schools? He is rightly focusing on dealing with young people and giving them the right messages about the consequences of their antisocial behaviour. However, must it not also be the case that bad behaviour must have consequences in schools and that young people should understand that clearly? Is it not important to look at exclusions and ensure that head teachers have the authority to exclude without appeals panels putting children straight back into schools, thereby undermining the head teacher’s authority and teaching young people that they can get away with bad behaviour, which is why, I would suggest, the rates at which antisocial behaviour orders are broken are so high, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) mentioned?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to stray into other areas of departmental policy. I accept—and I give him the assurance—that schools play a central role in instilling discipline. However, I would also want a framework that ensures that when children are excluded, for whatever reason, there is a proper plan for that, so that young people do not have greater problems outside school than the strong discipline in school would pose for them. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will examine his comments on that issue and help him in his winding-up speech.
In considering discipline in schools and the relationship between young people and the police, would my right hon. Friend not agree that the initiative to ensure that most schools, including certain high schools in London, have their own dedicated police officer is important? Through his relationship with those young people, that police officer can often get intelligence on antisocial behaviour and crime being committed locally.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Part of the work that we are doing on neighbourhood policing is about strengthening and embedding those links still further.
I also refer right hon. and hon. Members to the youth crime action plan, which was launched in 2008. The plan is a tripartite scheme, involving not just the Home Office, which is my current Department, but the Ministry of Justice, where I was previously the Minister with responsibility for prisons, probation and youth justice, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, to look at making that link between schools, justice and activities for young people. That way we can ensure that we have not only tough enforcement and non-negotiable support where necessary, but a heavy focus on prevention.
I refer again to the significant investment made to date in family intervention projects, which also touches on the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North mentioned about ensuring that the multiple problems faced by the most chaotic families, such as drink, drugs, domestic violence and illiteracy—problems that cannot be separated from their communities and which must be dealt with as a whole—are dealt with through added investment. Colleagues will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced a major expansion of family intervention projects to ensure that we provide the means not only for enforcement but for deep work with chaotic and dysfunctional families.
Does the Minister agree that however important rehabilitation is, and it is important, there should, where it is justified, also be an element of punishment? Does he share my amazement at the fact that an 18-year-old who pleaded guilty to an offence in Chelmsford court last week and who asked the court to take into account 645 other offences, which involved stealing more than £1 million-worth of goods, simply got 150 hours of community service and was rehoused with his partner, moving from the town where he lives to Chelmsford?
You will excuse me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I cannot comment on an individual case that I know nothing about. I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, but a punishment based in the community can sometimes be more effective than a short prison sentence. My experience—I know that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) shares this view—is that short prison sentences can often be much more damaging in the longer term and lead to much more crime in the longer term than a properly targeted, focused community-based sentence. I cannot comment on the individual case, because I do not know it, but, self-evidently, somebody who goes to prison for 12 weeks might lose any job or home that they have, might not get off the drugs or alcohol that are leading them into particular problems and will, ultimately, not benefit from their time in prison. However, a strong community-based sentence that provides support in the community to tackle issues with drugs or alcohol and which gives people the opportunity to work or live locally can be effective in the longer term in reducing crime.
As a whole, the Government’s approach has been successful. Hon. Members would expect me to say that, but it is not just me saying that: three independent reports have told us that that is the case. The National Audit Office report found that two thirds of perpetrators stopped behaving antisocially after one intervention and that nine out of 10 ceased after three interventions. The British crime survey has shown that the negative perception of these issues is falling. If we look at the broader picture in our communities, we see that people are safer than they were 12 years ago, difficult though some of the challenges are. The chances of being a victim of crime are historically low and crime has fallen by 39 per cent. since May 1997. The recent data also show that, on tackling antisocial behaviour issues, confidence in our police has risen in the past year alone, from 45 per cent. in March 2008 to 50 per cent.
The neighbourhood policing role—this goes back to the point mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh)—means that we now have 16,000 community support officers, who were an invention of this Government. They not only support police on the ground, but help, particularly in local communities, to deliver a visible response and an embedded police presence in the neighbourhoods that need it most. Indeed, I have been out with local community support officers and I have looked at these issues in detail to see where we are on improving standards. We have provided some of the tools and powers that people want, but as I have said in the debate, there is more that we need to do. We have funded an action line, a website and help and support to practitioners to deal with the issues that I have mentioned.
I want to make a final mention of the youth crime action plan—a particularly important piece of work that is ongoing for the community at large. On enforcement and prevention, the youth crime action plan has been backed by £100 million of additional funding, which has been put into selected areas across the country, where offending rates are highest. That has supported a range of activity across the board to help reduce antisocial behaviour.
On Friday night last week—the night before Halloween —I visited the city of Liverpool, which is the city of my birth, to look at a particular operation in the Clubmoor and Norris Green area, which provides real help and support through interventions to provide Friday and Saturday night activities for young people. On Friday, through the youth crime action plan, the police supported the hiring of a cinema where they showed a film free of charge. Individuals were attracted into the cinema, rather than being on the streets causing mischief. We had an extra policing presence on the streets of Liverpool last Friday night. We had social workers and youth workers from across the city working together to look at vulnerable individuals who might have been drunk or involved in drug-related or other activity. Those youth crime action plan activities are funded by Government money that is being invested on behalf of the taxpayer to prevent crime. Such resources need to continue to be provided, and they will form part of the activities in our campaign to show that public investment is often good investment that makes a real difference on the ground in communities, as I saw on Friday night in Liverpool.
I, too, was out on Friday night. I hope that my hon. Friend did not have the torrential rain and bitter cold that we had in North Cornelly, where I spent the evening with my street pastor scheme. The street pastors are well known for the work that they have done with people who are drinking in town centres, but this is a new scheme that has been set up to work with young people. I was amazed at how many young people we found sitting around the streets and on walls, despite the cold and the torrential rain, with nothing to do. The street pastors invited them into the church to get them involved in cooking, football teams and all sorts of things. That sort of community engagement is vital for showing young people that the community cares.
Absolutely. I am not just talking about the scheme that I saw in Liverpool on Friday night, in which the cinema was opened as part of the plan to bring young people in. I have visited numerous schemes across the country in which police community support officers and local police officers are undertaking activities such as late-night football and youth club activities to try to divert young people in off the streets and get them involved in positive activities. That is all very positive and should be encouraged through the plan.
Before the Minister leaves that subject—to which I am sure others will refer later—may I point out that, if we are going to get youngsters actively engaged in voluntary activities such as those, we have to allow the adults the opportunity to work with them? The pressures of extra regulation are making it more difficult for adults to get involved in this way; they feel that it is getting harder to take part in such activities because they are constantly being checked up on. There is a relationship between the two. Will the Minister say something about that before he sits down?
It is extremely important that we have standards in place to ensure that we do not involve individuals who could put young people at risk. The Government’s response to this question is the direct result of the Bichard report, following the Soham inquiry, and the Magee review. These dealt with the implications of people working with young children. The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families has asked for a review of this matter, and we are looking at how we can get the balance right. It is important to do that, so that individuals can help and support young people while we ensure, as far as we can, that we eliminate the risk of other activity.
I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). The street pastors in Braintree do an excellent job, but one of the messages that I am hearing, particularly on the estates, relates to the loss of community centres as our towns continue to be developed. There is nowhere for young people to go. More importantly, at the side of every estate, we see signs that say “No balls allowed” or “No kicking balls”. Space must be made available so that young people have somewhere to go, outside and inside.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Young people—believe it or not, I was once one myself—want to be able to play football, or to get involved in a gang in a positive way. I was involved in a gang when I was a young person. They want to have the freedom to do things in a reasonable way and to enjoy the community, and we need to look at where their activities split and start to do damage to the community and become a negative force. The work that we are trying to do, in enforcement and in prevention, has that aim. Yes, the youth crime action plan, the diversionary activities and the support that we are giving to communities involves Government money—taxpayers’ money—going into those areas, but that is all being done in a positive manner to ensure that we can provide local alternative activities.
I have spoken for some 40 minutes now, and I want to give colleagues from across the Floor an opportunity to raise issues on the subject. The Government have a strong story to tell. We announced new measures in October this year, and we are committed to tackling antisocial behaviour. Every citizen has the right to enjoy their life, free from the burdens of antisocial behaviour that can damage communities. I look forward to hearing the debate, and to hearing my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary winding up later this evening.
I welcome this debate on antisocial behaviour—a problem that blights too many communities across the country and one that has a marked impact on the quality of people’s lives, the confidence people have in their own communities and their sense of safety. The Minister himself mentioned these factors in his opening comments.
I need to take the Minister to task, however, over what he said in that opening statement about the Government’s sustained or continued approach. Given that on the Home Secretary’s own admission, the Government have been “coasting on” for some time, that amounts to a serious indictment of their record on an issue that we were told—we have been told again this afternoon—was a priority. It all seems a far cry from the promise of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he said:
“We should and will be unremitting in our efforts to drive up standards of behaviour and enforce a culture of respect, for the benefit of all.”
Yet we know that the Government’s own neighbourhood crime adviser, Louise Casey, acknowledged that the Government had “let people down” on crime and antisocial behaviour. If today’s newspaper reports are true, Sara Payne, the Government’s victims champion, will warn later this week that the Government need to take antisocial behaviour “a lot more seriously”.
Apparently, the current Home Secretary believes that tackling antisocial behaviour has been a good idea that the Government had simply stopped talking about—hence today’s debate about antisocial behaviour. It puts me in mind of the comments in the “Respect Handbook”, which notes:
“Communicating action taken is as important as taking action”.
In some ways, the problem has been too much talking and not enough doing.
If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on action, why does he propose to cut the Home Office budget by £160 million, getting rid of 3,500 police officers, which will mean far less action on the streets of Britain under a Tory Government than under this Labour Government?
It is fairly typical of the right hon. Lady to come up with a point like that, when she well knows that there are plenty of savings to be made in the Home Office’s budget—on ID cards and all sorts of other things, but not on front-line services. That, I think, is the key part of our policy to ensure that we deliver those front-line services for the benefit of our communities and secure the safety that they rightly deserve.
It is interesting to hear the right hon. Lady approaching the issue in that way when her own Prime Minister has hardly shown leadership from the top. As Prime Minister, he has made only one significant speech on crime and antisocial behaviour. In that speech, given during the summer, he made the carefully considered suggestion that the law-abiding, rather than the law-breaking, should be accompanied to cash point machines by the police—a new twist on what Tony Blair had said previously. The Prime Minister also provided the remarkable insight that
“we face new kinds of crime—especially knife crime”
“we face new causes of crime—including binge drinking, youth gangs and problem families”.
That poses the question of precisely where the Prime Minister has been for the last 12 years. At the Labour party conference, he claimed:
“I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour.”
A policy on antisocial behaviour, however, is not just for Christmas; it requires a sustained approach, looking at the long term and not just the short term.
The costs of antisocial behaviour—both to society and to the Government as a whole—are significant. According to the National Audit Office, the cost to Government agencies of responding to reports of antisocial behaviour in England and Wales is approximately £3.4 billion a year. In 2008-09, 3.7 million incidents of antisocial behaviour—equivalent to more than 10,000 every day—were recorded by the police in England and Wales. On average, as the Minister said, even according to the Government’s figures, 17 per cent. of the population perceive high levels of antisocial behaviour in their area, with the young and the less well-off being disproportionately affected.
I may be mistaken, but is not the hon. Gentleman the same MP with whom I discussed antisocial behaviour orders and the whole attitude to antisocial behaviour in an interview on Radio 4? In that, he appeared to mock the Government’s attempts to deal with what he said was a particularly difficult issue, so has he been converted to the cause of dealing with antisocial behaviour and, if so, when did that happen?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and his party have experienced a damascene conversion to tackling antisocial behaviour, but I am afraid that his actions are not always as strong as his words. If he believes that antisocial behaviour orders constitute effective powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, will he explain why his party wanted to reduce their length from two years to three months?
Antisocial behaviour orders can be effective. We need to subject them to analysis, and to bear in mind the complete lack of focus on them that the Government have displayed. The National Audit Office was very clear about that. If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall develop my argument a little further and explain how antisocial behaviour orders may not have lived up to her own expectations, and may not be as effective as they could and should be.
Let me return to the human impact of antisocial behaviour which matters so much—the vandalism and graffiti that make neighbourhoods threatening and unsafe, the abuse and intimidation that put people in daily fear in their communities, and the noise and other acts of selfishness that can even prevent a home from being a place of refuge. The tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her daughter Francesca, could not provide a more distressing and dark parable to illustrate what it all means.
What was worrying in that case was the fact that Fiona Pilkington’s concerns were not responded to. Leicestershire police suggested that low-level disorder was not the responsibility of the police, but that of the council. They were fundamentally wrong. Issues of antisocial behaviour, criminal damage and threatening or abusive behaviour are absolutely a police responsibility. Those are precisely the matters that community policing should be confronting and helping to address, and it is deeply disturbing that responsibility for public protection—providing community safety—could be construed in any other way.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that what he has cited is the failure of a particular police force rather than the failure of legislation? South Wales police in my constituency are working proactively with all the care agencies that are dealing with young people to prevent developments from reaching the point at which an antisocial behaviour order is required. Once an order has been issued, so many other interventions have clearly failed. We should be focusing on earlier intervention rather than on antisocial behaviour orders.
The hon. Lady has made an important point about the steps that should be taken to prevent antisocial behaviour from occurring in the first place, and it clear that some good partnership work is being done around the country. However, we should consider the context. In response to the very point that the hon. Lady has made, the Police Federation argued that the adoption of initiative after initiative was having a negative impact on policing functions and was, perhaps, causing the police to lose their way when it came to priorities.
I suggest that the Police Federation meet my community safety partnership in Bridgend, which is so proactive and so keen to ensure that it develops partnerships and alternative approaches that the incidence of antisocial behaviour in our area is declining. Where there is success, we should focus on replicating it elsewhere.
I am sure that, if the Police Federation follows our proceedings, its members will note what the hon. Lady has said. There is a case for sharing and applying good practice more effectively than is being done at present, and I shall say more about that later. However—this also relates to the hon. Lady’s point—I think that we should consider what we mean by antisocial behaviour, as opposed to criminal behaviour, and whether describing behaviour in that way potentially plays down its significance. The term suggests that such activity is selfish and inappropriate, and that it is not the sort of conduct of which society approves, but it also blurs the line between what might be characterised as an annoyance and serious, sustained criminality. The Government’s chosen definition of antisocial behaviour brings together a disparate group of seven strands of activity, which leads the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies to suggest that
“it is hardly surprising that anti-social behaviour means whatever the government says it means. This has undoubtedly given ministers enormous scope to target whatever problem they consider to be of interest at any given point in time. Whether such a subjective and amorphous category provides the basis for robust, informed and evidence-based policy is a very different question.”
Against this backdrop, serious abusive, threatening and violent activity could be construed as simply antisocial—as something that might have to be put up with and as someone else’s problem. It is more than antisocial, however. It is utterly unacceptable; it is criminal and it should be dealt with accordingly.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that antisocial behaviour often starts over low-level issues? One obvious example is people falling out over a hedge. That sounds like a ridiculous issue to fall out over, but in my area it has often led to very difficult situations with people doing all sorts of awful things to each other. It then becomes a case of genuine antisocial behaviour. We cannot prejudge causation, therefore.
Causation is a pertinent issue, and also a very complex one. A whole range of interventions and support are needed to deal with these situations. There is, however, clearly a need for early action to be taken because, as the National Audit Office report and various other studies demonstrate, such situations can quickly escalate into becoming cases that involve much more serious offending. Addressing situations early is therefore likely to be much more effective than trying to deal with them later when the activity or behaviour has become more engrained.
This comes down in part to effective policing. The police cannot do their job when the Home Office is always breathing down their neck, controlling their actions from the centre. The police spend more time form-filling than feeling collars out on the streets. Just 14 per cent. of all police officers’ time is spent on patrol, while 22 per cent. is spent on paperwork. Although the Government have sought to change their command and control structure somewhat, it is interesting to note that the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, highlighted the following:
“There is every indication that the centre is struggling to overcome its addiction to central control through statistical approaches and one-off initiatives.”
It is strange that the current approach is to pilot greater police discretion in four areas of the country. We want discretion for officers to be a norm, not simply a pilot.
The interesting question here is what exactly the Minister means by that, because if we think about targets, inspection and the policing pledge, we realise that there is a whole range of issues on which the police are measured under a specific target-driven approach. Therefore, it is still interesting that—[Interruption.] The Minister claims from a sedentary position that there is only a limited range of targets, yet it is clear from the quote I have given that the police themselves think that the Government’s command and control driven target approach is still very evident. The police still strongly feel that.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, but does he not agree that we often need to direct when we want large public sector bodies to become involved in a new area of policy, such as in law and policing? Over the last 10 years, I have found that the police have often been resistant to getting involved in antisocial behaviour situations and that what is required is encouragement and the concerns of the public to be expressed. Every public body should be adaptable to people’s feelings and perceptions.
That is interesting, because the hon. Lady suggests that the power should come from the people—that it should come from the ground up, rather than from the top down. Therefore, she is making a case against her other point about the need to direct from the centre.
There is a need to create greater discretion across policing as quickly as possible, and our approach is based on two clear and simple principles: scrapping needless paperwork by giving more discretion to the police, and giving officers the power to innovate and stay on the beat. We do not need a whole host of targets, reviews, reports, key performance indicators, investigations and toolkits to meet the simple goal of reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. We need officers to be on the streets, not behind their desks. That is why we would cut the targets, the bureaucracy and the central control to allow police officers to get on with the job. That is also why we would abolish statutory charging for all summary offences and some offences triable “either way”, as we want to cut the pre-charge police paperwork that currently has to be given to the Crown Prosecution Service and wish to help restore morale among custody sergeants.
We have made a very clear commitment to keeping officers on the streets. Our approach is that we must ensure that front-line policing is supported because the public want to know that they have police officers there—there to protect and support them and to deal with the issues that matter to communities. That is why we are proposing these practical measures to address that by getting officers back on to the streets and ensuring that police officers have more time to deal with the problems that communities are concerned about. That is also why we would simplify processes, such as recording stops and searches by radioing in the basic details rather than filling out a form at the scene and another form back at the station, and why we would trial specially designed mobile custody suites—or mobile urban jails—to enable officers to process offenders on site without having to go back to the station.
Instead of improving and promoting good practice, inspection has become a stifling burden almost with a life of its own, with different agencies, different requirements, and different, and potentially conflicting, outcomes measured—and there is more and more to inspect.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of such inspection and the attempt to meet targets, many policing priorities have become distorted at the local level, so that whereas police may be available in some areas they are often directed to focus on issues that do not directly benefit the people living in their communities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about localising priorities. Some aspects of the culture that has been created have not supported or helped in that regard, nor have they ensured that the concerns of communities have been adequately addressed. This underlines why we must have a bottom-up approach and why communities’ needs and concerns must be respected.
I have been generous in giving way, so I will move on if I may, as I would like to return to my point on inspection.
We now have the policing pledge. On the face of it, its purpose is to set and raise standards, but adherence to it will be inspected. Therefore, we will have a further range of inspection of performance against the police pledge. It was introduced as a message to the public, not as another set of metrics by which to judge performance. If we keep on inspecting and inspecting, we will lose more and more police from the streets and spend more and more time on people in offices.
In addition, there are the tools and sanctions available to those in authority to deal with unacceptable behaviour. The Government have emphasised one particular order above all others: the ASBO. In the “Respect action plan”, Tony Blair claimed that the ASBO
“is now a household expression—synonymous with tackling anti-social behaviour.”
As with so many other statements of the former Prime Minister, if only it were true.
It was claimed that these orders would help to prevent problems in neighbourhoods, but if prevention was the intention, the breach rate of the orders would not be as high as it is. In some parts of the country, more ASBOs are being breached than are being issued. In Humberside, Northumbria, Surrey, Gwent and Leicestershire, breaches of the orders outstrip the number of new ASBOs being issued. As Chief Superintendent Neil Wain notes in his insightful analysis, “The ASBO: wrong turning, dead end”:
“As a serving police officer I had considerable use of ASBOs and what struck me was not only did they get breached on a regular basis, they did not appear to be controlling the behaviour of those subject to them.”
The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies notes that the Government’s flagship ASBO policy
“faced huge implementation problems at the start and is looking increasingly discredited as a mainstream response.”
It is interesting to note those comments, because clearly the policy was not necessarily thought through. The Youth Justice Board’s report on ASBOs indicated that many young people still do not have a clear understanding of the details of their orders; it was found to be not uncommon for them to “flout openly” the prohibitions that placed the greatest restrictions on their lifestyle. Most young people did not regard custody for breach as a real threat or deterrent.
For a while, it seemed that the Government had fallen out of love with the ASBO, with Ministers keener to talk about broader antisocial behaviour “interventions” than ASBOs. The Children’s Secretary even went as far as to claim:
“It’s a failure every time a young person gets an ASBO”.
ASBOs are now back on the agenda—reheated, repackaged and re-spun—with the Prime Minister’s latest contribution to YouTube calling for greater publicity for ASBOs, despite the fears of perhaps making them a badge of honour, and with the Home Secretary putting renewed emphasis on the orders with the creation of drinking banning orders or so-called “booze ASBOs”, even though a year ago I was told in a written answer that the Home Office was questioning whether the orders were needed at all.
As they have done this afternoon in the Minister’s contribution, the Government have sought to pray in aid the National Audit Office in support of their approach. Yet, the NAO found that the most effective intervention to prevent further incidents of antisocial behaviour among young people was not an ASBO but a simple warning letter. Rather than support the Government’s claims of effectiveness for ASBOs and other antisocial behaviour interventions, the National Audit Office observed that it was not possible to draw any conclusions as to whether other forms of intervention, or no intervention at all, would have achieved the same, or a better, outcome—the NAO and the Government just did not know.
The Government’s approach has betrayed a complete lack of proper analytical assessment of the various measures that they have introduced. That point was made by the Public Accounts Committee, which noted:
“Comparable local areas use different approaches to dealing with anti-social behaviour and there has been no comparative evaluation of the success of these approaches. Nor has there been a comprehensive evaluation of the use and success of the different measures and powers, making it difficult for the Home Office, the Respect Task Force and those dealing with anti-social behaviour to assess what works best.”
Despite the NAO specifically calling on the Home Office to evaluate formally the success of different interventions and the impact of combining enforcement interventions with support services to advise antisocial behaviour co-ordinators better at a local level, nothing has been published to date; the Home Office took the recommendation so seriously that it has only recently commissioned an independent evaluation of the comparative effectiveness of antisocial behaviour interventions, and it is expected to report next spring—that is more than three years after the NAO first highlighted the need for such an assessment.
As I have already said to the right hon. Lady, we support the use of ASBOs in a targeted way. The information that I have just provided simply sets out that their application and the approach has not been properly considered. That point is made not by me, but by the NAO. It is, thus, strange that the Government have been dragging their feet on providing the qualitative analysis required to ensure that practitioners and communities are addressing antisocial behaviour in the most effective way, which is the point that the NAO was making.
I will move on, because I have been generous in giving way to lots of people.
We would give police officers the discretion to deal quickly and effectively with young troublemakers who commit antisocial behaviour before they go on to commit more serious offences. We believe that there is a need for a quicker, less bureaucratic and more effective mechanism for addressing delinquent and unacceptable behaviour in order to help to prevent young troublemakers from going on to commit more serious offences. That is why we have proposed the introduction of the grounding order, which would enable the police to apply to a magistrate for an order against a persistent troublemaker, confining them to their homes for up to a month, except during school hours. If an individual were to break that curfew order, they should expect to find themselves arrested.
Let us consider public action to address unacceptable behaviour. According to Louise Casey, 75 per cent. of the public say that they are prepared to take an active role in helping to tackle crime. However, just four out of 10 people say that they would intervene to challenge antisocial behaviour, which is less than in any comparable European country—six out of 10 in Germany would step in. One of the barriers that exists is the feeling that if someone gets involved—if they challenge unacceptable behaviour and, for example, seek to enforce their ability to conduct a citizen’s arrest—they might be the one on the receiving end and, rather than being supported by the police and the prosecutors, they might be the one ending up with the criminal record. Louise Casey’s report states:
“There was a strong view from members of the public during the review that they would no longer intervene if they saw a crime taking place, for fear that they would either be attacked by the perpetrators or be arrested themselves by the police.”
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the proposal of the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) to introduce grounding orders, but he did not mention the other proposals made at the same time, which included confiscating mobile phones. Has his party dropped those proposals?
No, far from it. I did not mention those proposals for the sake of brevity and to allow other hon. Members to take part in this debate. We are certainly working up the proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell has actively highlighted. I shall return to the point about active participation by communities, once I have taken an intervention from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen).
I know that, beneath the party political banter, the hon. Gentleman thinks deeply about some of these issues. I want to take him back to his point about assessment and the evidence base. I hope that he will underline the fact that any future Government, of any political party, should always look at the evidence and the assessment, so that we get the right set of policies. Does he agree that massive savings would result if we were to spend a small sum helping young people—infants and children—grow up to be capable citizens, rather than spending billions and billions of pounds on court costs, drug rehab, tackling drink abuse and so on? Will he examine such an approach? It could do great things for his already flowering career, because he would be able to save billions of pounds at a time when we are looking to repay some of the debt that is accumulating.
The hon. Gentleman has made a significant contribution to the debate through a number of the pamphlets and papers on the need for early intervention, on the focus that he has discussed and on the fact that if we take action when people are younger, we can make such a difference. I recognise what he has said, and I will discuss that preventive approach, focusing on those sorts of issues, before I conclude. He makes a powerful and important point, which I know is shared by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who has produced a number of papers on early intervention and on dealing with family breakdown issues and ensuring that those issues are focused on because of the significant difference that can be made.
I return to the point about active citizens and people’s apparent reluctance now to intervene to confront antisocial behaviour and crime. We believe that there is a need to support, rather than hinder, the active citizen. That is why we would amend the police guidelines so that officers back those who use reasonable force to maintain the Queen’s peace, and why we believe the code for Crown prosecutors should be amended so that it is clear that it is not in the public interest to prosecute those who reasonably and legitimately perform a citizen’s arrest in good faith. If people take appropriate action to protect their communities, they should be praised, not prosecuted.
Let us move on to the wider issue. Enforcement, sanctions and policing are only one part of the solution. If we are to make a more sustained and substantial shift in community safety, we have to address the underlying causes behind that behaviour; aggression, abusiveness and violence are, in part, a symptom of much wider and deeper societal malaise. As Barnardo’s rightly points out in its briefing for today’s debate,
“the underlying causes of anti-social behaviour are complex and multi-generational.”
This is about addiction: the UK has the highest level of drug use and the second highest level of drug-related deaths in Europe. It is about the binge drinking culture, with more violence in the small hours of the night and hospital casualty departments having to deal with those who have committed alcohol-fuelled excess. We need to deal with truancy and exclusion from school, ensuring that underachievement and the lack of basic skills do not close off options to employment and lead inexorably down a criminal career path. We need to strengthen and support families and deal with a benefit system that has become so complex that it holds people down in poverty rather than lifting them out to fulfil their aspirations.
That is why family policy is so essential in setting boundaries and instilling discipline as well as creating greater understanding and respect for people from a different generation from one’s own. Parents are the key to the debate, as they can raise the aspirations and opportunities of their children and give them the best chance in life to fulfil their aspirations. However, they can also hold them back and discourage them from fulfilling their potential for fear that, as I heard in one deeply depressing case, their child’s success will highlight their own weaknesses and failures and the inadequacies of their lives.
Particular times in a family’s life put extra pressure on relationships, and the early years of a child’s life are a good example. Parents are more likely to split up in the first year after their child’s birth than at any other time. Family breakdown is, of course, not the only cause of our present societal problems, but some figures stand out. A child whose parents have split up is twice as likely to live in poverty and more than 75 per cent. more likely to suffer educational failure. According to the Centre for Social Justice, more than 70 per cent of young offenders come from lone-parent families.
Such deep-rooted problems require a sustained approach over the short term, medium term and long term. That is why we would end the couple penalty in the benefits system so that families are no longer incentivised to live apart and why we would provide more health visitors across the country, so that families have the support and advice they need to give their children a good start in life. We would ensure that there is greater discipline in schools, with head teachers having the right to exclude pupils, and we would enable schools to make behaviour contracts legally enforceable. We would also reform pupil referral units to ensure that they adopt the best practice of those graded by Ofsted as outstanding and of special schools that cater for children with behavioural difficulties to get troubled youngsters back into mainstream education as quickly as possible.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need to have an extensive look at the way in which many teachers think about looking after children? I was rather surprised to find that at the three party conferences, one teachers union had a large headline over their stand that read, “Putting teachers first”. Is it not important for our teaching unions to think again about putting children first?
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful and impassioned plea on this point. The focus needs to be on the children, for all the reasons to do with early intervention that I have already pointed out, so that we give children the best start in life and allow them to fulfil their potential, to take their opportunities and to ensure that they are positive, contributing members of our society. My right hon. Friend’s point will be heard loud and clear not only around this Chamber but in various places around the country, too.
The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) is being uncharacteristically unfair to the teaching profession. That was not the inference to be drawn—I am not a teacher—from the headline that he quoted. The teachers were seeking greater influence in the way in which education policies are developed and extended. They were not suggesting that they were somehow at the top of the pecking order and that children, parents and the rest were beneath them. It is very unfair of the right hon. Gentleman to describe that stand in such a fashion.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point. It is a question of focusing on children but working in partnership with that focus. I suppose that it is about having that factor in focus when ensuring that we consider the well-being of children.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has heard the words of John Carnochan, the former head of homicide in Glasgow and not someone whom anyone would regard as a pushover. He said that, looking back on his career, he wished that when he was offered 100 extra police officers he had chosen to have 100 extra health visitors, because of the intergenerational nature of violent crime in certain areas. He stated that he felt that our current policy was very much like having gold-plated ambulances at the bottom of a cliff rather than investing in an inexpensive fence at the top of it. Early intervention will stop a lot of things that the hon. Gentleman is talking about and allow those families to self-perpetuate positive traits with optimal parenting skills, which will reduce crime, drink and drug abuse and all the other problems. Will the hon. Gentleman recommit to that, as I know that many members of his party feel the same as I do?
I think that the hon. Gentleman has made his point very powerfully and persuasively. That is why I made the point about health workers and giving support to parents in the early years of a child’s life. It is recognised that that can make a difference in creating a much more positive outcome for family and for the child if those problems are identified early on. That is why it is important to focus on the issues to do with early intervention, so that we take a preventive approach.
We need to ensure that any changes that are made are long lasting and that we make an intergenerational break. It is exceptionally dark and depressing to go to various parts of the country and to hear of third or fourth generation gang members. When such an approach is passed down in a family from one generation to the next and then to the next without any apparent hope or opportunity for the young people concerned, that is not the sort of society in which I want to live. I am sure that that view is shared across the House by Members of whatever political colour.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the subject of early intervention and the need to support families at that stage. I had the opportunity to visit a Sure Start centre in my constituency and, separately, to go to see Home-Start, which does similar sorts of early intervention support work. Home-Start said that about half of its problems arise from bad housing, whereas Sure Start said that some 75 per cent. of family problems arise from bad housing. From a holistic perspective, does the hon. Gentleman that agree that if we are going to deal with that, we need to ensure that there is a stable housing environment? Without that, it is quite difficult to provide early intervention and support for the families and to keep things on an even keel.
The hon. Gentleman has made the point about housing in his own way. Clearly, when we consider housing and the resettlement of offenders when they leave prison or drug rehabilitation, we need to ensure that there is adequate housing that enables people to come back into a community. It is essential to have a housing mix as part of that.
We also need to deal with drugs. We would introduce an abstinence-based drug rehabilitation order to break the cycle of addiction and offending, re-focus the approach to treatment on rehabilitation and recovery rather than simple maintenance and management, and emphasise prevention in drugs education rather than simple harm reduction and acceptance. We would also introduce a national citizens service programme for all 16-year-olds who want a place, providing a six-week programme to strengthen the skills, confidence and outlook of young people as they approach adulthood.
Then there is the framework for delivering sustained change on crime and unacceptable behaviour. Local authorities should be re-focused on crime prevention and early intervention, providing services to prevent crime from happening rather than attempting to reduce it once it has. Many local authorities are doing innovative positive work in their communities to combat antisocial behaviour, but, as we have heard, too many crime and disorder partnerships are police-led rather than council-driven. Rather than having even more micro-management, there should be clearer ways to identify and share good practice—practice that is scalable and transferable—and the Audit Commission has an important role to play in collating and communicating that information.
Rather than trying to fulfil some of the roles of local authorities as well, the police should be allowed to concentrate on what they do best—deterrence, detection and enforcement. There should be clearer responsibilities, clearer ownership of problems and clearer accountability. We need to address the perverse incentives that are hard-wired into the system and seem to encourage the approach whereby drug treatment strategies are largely focused on substituting a prescription for a drug habit, often ending with illicit drugs, methadone and other prescribed drugs being taken at the same time, and whereby it is seemingly more cost-effective for local authorities to let troubled teenagers go to young offender institutions than to deal with the factors behind their behaviour. That is simply absurd.
It is time for a new approach based on the recognition that only with the Government and individuals, and the social institutions that exist between the two, sharing responsibility can we make substantial and sustained differences in changing behaviour; that families and communities are more effective at instilling a culture of respect and responsibility than laws, rules or regulations; and that, ultimately, societal change is required to promote safer and more cohesive communities. This is too serious an issue to be allowed to drift or for people to coast on. If the Government are unable to meet that challenge and to demonstrate their commitment to the sustained approach that is needed to deal with the problems in our communities, we are ready, willing and waiting to meet that challenge.
I am pleased to make a contribution in what is an important debate, as evidenced by the number of hon. Members in the House on an occasion when a vote is not likely. That indicates interest from all parties in what are very significant and serious issues for our communities.
I am particularly pleased to contribute because I represent Salford—one of the most deprived communities in the country, although the area has been transformed in recent years—and I want to commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the energy, enthusiasm, tenacity and determination that he has shown not just in tonight’s debate, but in his personal commitment to tackling antisocial behaviour, because he and I appreciate that the poorest people in the poorest communities often suffer disproportionately from antisocial behaviour. For many years, that fact went unacknowledged and unchallenged, and there was a failure on the part of all parties in local and national Government to recognise that those people who very often did not have a voice, power or influence in our society were subject to some pretty horrific actions in their communities. That was certainly the case in Salford 15 or so years ago. In the past few years things have changed, but there is still a great deal more work to do.
Nationally, the figures for antisocial behaviour have reduced from 21 per cent. of the population feeling that antisocial behaviour is a big problem to 17 per cent. In my community, the figure is still just over 30 per cent., so this is a big and important issue for our communities. I am sad that some of the comments so far—I hope that other contributions will strike a balance—seem to have drifted into the analysis that this is about either enforcement or support. The purpose of every policy undertaken by the Labour Government for the past decade or so is to ensure that a twin-track approach is adopted.
Of course there must be enforcement. The communities that face a range of problems need respite, support and the backing of the police, local councils and public agencies. Underneath that, there must be the polices mentioned on many occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen): early intervention, support and prevention. Those things are not mutually exclusive, and if we characterise the debate by simply saying that all the regulations and orders— whether ASBOs, ASBOs on conviction, parenting orders or parenting contracts—do not matter and that we need to shift our investment to early intervention and prevention, we will be doing a disservice to some of the people still in poor communities who experience antisocial behaviour every day and, in many cases, are still under attack. I am happy to say that those families are perhaps fewer in number than some years ago and that there has been a great deal of success in tackling antisocial behaviour, but the problems are still there.
Of course my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that there are social and economic reasons why such neglect should not be allowed to continue. Does she agree that the alienation, despair and neglect sometimes felt in those poorer communities have made them more susceptible to the political activities of extremist parties and that tackling those would be a beneficial side effect of an increased focus on poorer communities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point and, again, one that I hope will be supported right across the House. When people feel disaffected and excluded from opportunities that other people take for granted—whether in education and housing or, indeed, in their safety and security—there is ripe and fertile territory for the poisonous and divisive messages of extremists. We must do everything that we can, whatever shade of politics we adopt, to ensure that those people have the same rights, ambitions and opportunities as people in more affluent communities.
I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that there are two sides to policy on antisocial behaviour: enforcement and support. I should like to commend my own local authority—particularly its leader, Councillor John Merry, and the deputy leader, Councillor David Lancaster, who takes the lead on these issues—for doing what the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) was saying does not happen. Our city council—a good Labour council—takes the lead and drives on a range of issues. We have been a pilot area for every initiative that anyone would care to name. Our council is absolutely committed, and our police service takes extremely good action. I spoke to my chief superintendent, Kevin Mulligan, this morning, and he said, “Hazel, there’s a lot of debate about antisocial behaviour orders. People have been cooling on them in recent times. I’ll tell you this: I’m not one of them. I’m a chief superintendent, and I want the whole range of tools at my disposal—ASBOs, parenting orders, contracts and dispersal orders.” He is a hands-on cop, and he is determined that he will protect the people of Salford.
Perhaps the right hon. Lady will agree that another aspect of the problem is that human behaviour is often habitual, rather than necessarily rational, that people need to develop good habits, and that one way to enable them to do so is for us to ensure there is better discipline in schools. In my constituency four or five years ago, a child was excluded from school for assaulting a classroom assistant, yet that child was forced back into school. Does the right hon. Lady agree that that is not helpful to good discipline?
I certainly agree that discipline is essential and that it is important at school, but I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman: many of these problems start at home. The primary responsibility lies with parents. About 90 per cent. of the public say in all our surveys that parents must take more responsibility. I agree that schools have a major role to play, but it is not simply down to them. If people learn the boundaries and standards of behaviour at home, they will take them with them through the rest of their lives.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a small child who develops social and emotional capabilities will be a better student, will listen and learn, will have an aspiration to work and will, in turn and above all, become a good parent? We cannot start early enough in offering the support that she mentions to ensure that children grow up that way. Every public sector servant—whether her chief superintendent, her council leader, a teacher or a doctor—will give the same message: if we can get to those youngsters early, they will not become offenders or spend a lifetime on benefits. That is the core of early intervention philosophy, which, of course, must be balanced by dealing with those people who ultimately transgress. We must have more time to deal with those who transgress—
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about early intervention. I saw some research recently that analysed the reasons for antisocial behaviour and talked about children at the very early stages of their lives. It said that many of those children, if they were not loved, had no idea about empathy and simply did not realise the effects of their behaviour on other people because they had not had a bonding experience with their parents at an early age. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to intervene early.
I will press on, because other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
I want to say a little about motorbikes and scrambler bikes. As a motorcyclist, I am obviously very keen to make sure that people use their motorbikes properly, but I am afraid that far too many people use them to cause an absolute nuisance to other people. I have been out and about in every part of Salford over the past few months. A few weeks ago in the Claremont and Duchy areas of my constituency, people told me that scrambler bikes, quad bikes and mini-motos were a menace to them and their communities. I am delighted to say that some 40 of those motorbikes were confiscated over the summer, and on Friday last week a public crushing ceremony was conducted in Buile Hill park.
That is not complicated, it is not detailed policy administration, and it is not based on a huge amount of research, but I can tell the House that that kind of visible, simple, tangible action where something has been a nuisance, the police and the council have acted, and there has been a visible crushing of the bikes in the park, has done more to raise public confidence in the community than many other things. I commend Chief Inspector Mark Kenny, who is responsible for our operations, for doing something that can be seen and is important to us.
Far too many decent people in our communities have to put up with intimidation, harassment and unacceptable behaviour. I am sorry to say that there are people who do not give a damn about the effect of their behaviour on others. That is why it is important that the police use the whole range of tools available.
I asked Mark Kenny on Friday, “Do you need any more legislation, Mark, in order to tackle these issues?” He said, “No, I don’t, Hazel. We’ve now got a whole range of tools at our disposal. I don’t have to turn up at an incident and say there’s nothing I can do. There’s always something I can do.” As a police officer, he also wanted the freedom to be out there on the streets, showing that he was on the side of decent people.
There will be a range of operations this week. It was Hallowe’en on Saturday, and it is bonfire night on Thursday. These occasions ought to be the opportunity for families to have fun and to go out to enjoy themselves, but all too often many communities live in dread of such events. Many, many families have suffered incidents such as having eggs thrown at their windows, or being terrorised with fireworks. Again, I am delighted that this week in Salford we have Operation Treacle—not quite operation treacle toffee—and Operation Staysafe, which are major operations being undertaken not just by the police but by the local council, the youth service and trading standards—a range of public agencies determined to keep people safe over the next few weeks.
This week a roadshow is going to 10 areas of our city, asking local people, “What more do you want us to do to tackle antisocial behaviour in your neighbourhood?” Agencies are not simply saying what they are going to do, but are asking people, “What are your priorities? How can you help to drive our agenda?” I want to see more of that. The hon. Member for Hornchurch spoke about active citizens. If we give active citizens the right to set the priorities for the police and for their councils, they will be far more likely to join us and to stand shoulder to shoulder with us because they have been able to influence that agenda.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. She is very generous, and I will not interrupt her again. Does she agree that one of the most important developments over the past 10 years has been the development of uniformed services other than the police—for example, police community support officers, community protection officers and wardens—uniforms on the street at different levels whom people can interact with and trust? That has been extremely important. Does she hope, as I do, that Governments in the future will ensure that all these levels of security on the streets continue?
When we meet police community support officers, all of us as constituency Members of Parliament have huge regard for them. They are out 90 per cent. of their time, patrolling. They have time to build relationships. They meet the head teachers and the shopkeepers, and they protect the public. Any political party that seeks to make cheap points about PCSOs needs to think again.
I was pleased to be the Minister in charge of the Respect action plan when the family intervention projects were first commenced. They are one of the most significant things that we have done to tackle the antisocial behaviour agenda, which is what people would call a wicked issue. It is not susceptible to normal approaches through the criminal justice system. That is why it is so controversial. The family intervention projects are innovative and exciting, and they are the way forward for us. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has announced a massive expansion of the projects so that we will, I hope, be able to turn around the lives of the 50,000 most dysfunctional families in this country. If that is not a transformational act, I do not know what is.
When family intervention projects were first proposed, when I was the Minister responsible, they were characterised to me as “muscular social work”. I thought that was a lovely description. They were put forward as projects where, if necessary, a muscular social worker would virtually live with one of our most chaotic families. They would make sure that the family got up in the morning, that the children got dressed, that there was a hot meal on the table in the evening, and that they went to bed at a decent hour. Some people thought this was the nanny state gone mad, but for the most chaotic and dysfunctional families, getting a routine into their lives was almost the basic starting point in tackling antisocial behaviour.
An extensive evaluation has been carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. I was very taken with the way families described this muscular social work approach. They said that the intervention staff would
“be there hammering on your door … and they’d come in, they’d say, ‘Right. Have you got the kids up? Are they washed? Have they brushed their teeth? Have they done their hair?’ By the time they threw all that at you, you’re thinking to yourself, my god, what’s going on here, you know. But they pushed, they do push you quite hard to get it done.”
Such sustained intervention has been key to the family intervention projects’ success.
The evaluation identified eight key factors in the family intervention projects. I shall mention a couple of them. The first is that there was a dedicated key worker, who worked with the family intensively for as long as it took to make a difference. That sustainability is key. There is no point in intervening for six weeks or three months if that family needs 18 months or two years of intensive attention in order to change their behaviour.
The second key factor is that as well as support, sanctions were key to success. Most of the families in the projects were facing the possibility of eviction from their homes for antisocial behaviour. Having the ability to say, “Either you change your behaviour or there will be consequences,” and the fact that there are sanctions in the system, has been fundamental to changing the behaviour of many of those families. It is important that there is this element of enforcement, as well as support. With this whole family approach, and with a sustained, dedicated key worker intervening for long enough, it is possible make a huge difference.
The right hon. Lady talks about sanctions, such as families being removed from their homes if they do not comply. Were those sanctions enforced? If so, in how many cases, and how effective were they? I have trouble understanding how it improves the situation if someone is evicted from their home.
I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that in 85 per cent. of cases, the behaviour changed sufficiently that those families were no longer facing the threat of eviction for antisocial behaviour because they were no longer a nuisance to their neighbours. Many of them may not have become the neighbours from heaven, but they certainly stopped being the neighbours from hell. It was therefore tremendously successful in 85 per cent. of cases.
The Salford project, which is run by Action for Children, was one of the early pioneers. We have been going for three or four years. It is coping with up to 60 families, and I hope that with the Prime Minister’s announcement of the expansion of the projects, we could double that number to just over 100 families. Then we would start to reach people who are not yet in crisis, but for whom we have identified a range of ways they need to be helped.
The family intervention projects in Salford have been a tremendous success. A lady told me this morning about a mum who had a serious alcohol problem, was facing domestic violence, was causing noise and criminal damage, was facing the prospect of eviction, and whose children were out of school. Within 18 months—these things do not happen quickly—that mum has reduced her alcohol consumption, she is on the user group for the project, she is interviewing staff, her children are back in school, and there has not been a report of antisocial behaviour for the past five months. That is real evidence of the success of this way of working.
The family intervention projects illustrate a whole new way of working that could be really useful for our public services generally. It is about integrated working by a range of agencies, and about saving money and using it more effectively. Most of those families cost about £250,000 a year, having had a multiplicity of public sector interventions that did not change their behaviour. We have probably saved about £200,000 per family, because we have brought together services, given the families a key worker, given the key worker sufficient influence to change the way the way those services work and changed behaviour. If that is not smarter working, I really do not know what is. In the years to come, money will be tight whichever Government have to make the decisions. Therefore, by learning the lessons of the family intervention projects, we can use our money more wisely in the long term, and that will be hugely important.
Other aspects of the antisocial behaviour agenda have made us think differently. The co-location of services, for example, has brought together police and probation officers and debt and drug counsellors, and Salford was the second pilot area for the community justice approach, which was trialled in Liverpool. We have trained every one of our magistrates in restorative justice and antisocial behaviour, and ensured that we use our housing powers to the utmost in order to make that difference.
We have found housing injunctions to be incredibly important. We have issued 100, and, when they have been breached, we have been prepared to go to court for committal to prison. There have been four prison sentences and five suspended sentences; again, we have shown that we mean business. If someone has a housing injunction, their behaviour needs to change: if they behave well, of course they will be left to live in their home and carry on in their community; but if they breach the injunction, consequences will follow, and that is very important, indeed. At Salix Homes, we have a very driven Better Neighbourhoods officer, Sue Sutton, who has just rewritten all our tenancy conditions to place a heavier emphasis on tenant responsibility. She is absolutely determined to ensure that that works.
We need integrated services, with councils, the police and a range of agencies working together, but we also need the determination to protect the decent people in our communities. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism that much good work has been done, and I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement on breaches of ASBOs, publicising ASBOs and giving more support to victims. However, I still believe that there is a great deal more to be done if we are to protect the most vulnerable people in our poorest communities.
That agenda has driven me ever since I entered Parliament, because I live in my community and know the problems that people face daily. I see them for myself, and I see many people who are harassed and intimidated through no fault of their own. It is the personal responsibility of every Member, including me, to speak up for people who do not have a voice, and to exercise power for people who are powerless. I therefore ask Members from all parts of the House to support the use of enforcement powers where necessary. Of course we should practise early intervention and try to prevent problems from happening in the first place, but for goodness’ sake let us not shy away from the fact that we have a responsibility to protect people and ensure that they can lead their lives in peace and go about their business without the fear of harassment and intimidation. Such behaviour still occurs all too often, but it occurs less often, and for that I am grateful.
I believe that our Labour Government are on the side of the people in our communities, and long may they remain so. I also welcome the conversion of Members from other parties, although I have yet to hear from the Liberal Democrats—it will be very interesting to find out whether they have changed their minds on antisocial behaviour. I shall be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) has to say about the national picture, but I know that locally, in Salford and in many other places throughout the country, Liberal Democrat councillors have consistently opposed the use of dispersal orders and antisocial behaviour orders. Their record locally is very poor indeed.
This Labour Government, however, will continue to be on the side of the people who need our protection. I am absolutely delighted about that, and long may it be the case.
I was about to compliment the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears)—before she finished with that outrageous slur on my party—on a thoughtful and interesting speech. I very much agree with her central thrust, which, as I understand it, is that we need to deal with the problem by using a set of agencies across the Government and locally. I recently visited the Liverpool community justice experiment and was very impressed by it. I know that there has been a similar effort in Salford, too, but it depresses me that the Ministry of Justice has decided not to roll out the scheme, because it seems that there has not been a holistic appreciation of the cost savings to other Departments. The MOJ has looked at the costs that its own budget would incur, but it has not taken into account the savings elsewhere. Our inability to join up government in a way that makes the most effective contribution is an enormous problem.
I welcome the debate, which is a valuable opportunity to discuss a serious issue, and I shall discuss two main aspects. First, I shall consider the scale of the problem and outline why the measures being used to tackle it are not working; and, secondly, I shall outline my party’s position on antisocial behaviour and make it clear how we believe that it can be effectively challenged by considering the evidence of those policies that work and those that do not.
Antisocial behaviour is one of the greatest challenges that our society faces, and I agree with the right hon. Lady not least on her point that it affects those who are most vulnerable in our society—not just young people, as many people think, but those living in low-income and deprived areas. In 2008-09, the police recorded more than 3.5 million incidents of antisocial behaviour—more than 10,000 a day. The Home Office estimates that responding to antisocial behaviour costs the taxpayer £3.4 billion a year. Some 17 per cent. of the population believe that there is a high level of antisocial behaviour. That is an improvement on previous recorded findings, but the figure is still far too high, particularly in low-income areas, where it rises to 32 per cent. when people in so-called “hard-pressed” areas are asked. They are typical of the area that the right hon. Lady represents.
However, knee-jerk and punitive measures that are applied indiscriminately and in isolation do not work well. The most infamous of those is, of course, the antisocial behaviour order, and such orders are now routinely breached, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) said. Almost 15,000 ASBOs were issued between 2000 and the end of 2007, according to the latest available figures, and more than half of all ASBOs were breached. Among children, the breach rate was 64 per cent., and, of the almost 15,000 ASBOs issued in England and Wales, 40 per cent. were given to children.
Penalty notices for disorder are scarcely better. Almost half those issued in 2007 were not even paid. As a result, almost 1,000 children were sent to prison for breaching an ASBO between 2000 and 2006. That represents 42 per cent. of all children who breached an ASBO in the period. By the end of 2007, more than 1,000 children had received a custodial sentence for breaching their ASBO. Half those sentences were for periods of more than five months, yet we know that there is no evidence that custodial sentences act as a deterrent to such offending. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The figures for 2007 show that 75 per cent. of 10 to 17-year-olds reoffended within one year of being released from custody, and the reoffending rate for a young man serving his first custodial sentence is 92 per cent. The result is that we have criminalised a generation of young people—particularly young men, and particularly those from ethnic minorities. That has become a matter of concern, even to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The evidence that the hon. Gentleman offers is debatable. Would he not accept that while a young person is in prison—and the offences for which they are imprisoned are usually serious—they will not, at least, be available to reoffend in the communities from which they come?
I am astonished, because I was recently at a youth offending institution in west London where a large number of the children were on remand—admittedly for serious issues, in many cases, but not for any offence.
I have cited the Government figures on reoffending rates. Some 73 per cent. of antisocial behaviour is perpetrated by males, and almost half were under 18 years of age. The Youth Justice Board found that 22 per cent. of young people given ASBOs are black or Asian—two and a half times the proportion of people from ethnic minorities in the population as a whole.
My experience in my constituency suggests that it is often only when police officers, council officers and a relevant organisation are thinking about issuing an ASBO that all the other services get involved. The approach towards an ASBO often enables the support that should have come much earlier. It is the ASBO that triggers that support.
I recommend that the hon. Lady does what I have done myself in such circumstances: try, as the local MP, to get together a case conference involving the agencies and knock heads together. That actually works. If we have to wait until the police are at the point of issuing an ASBO, the people who have been suffering from the antisocial behaviour will have been doing so for far too long. Later, I want to develop some of the ways in which one can try to be a bit more effective earlier on.
Research carried out by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children suggests that 35 per cent. of all ASBOs issued to people under 17 were to children with a diagnosed mental disorder or a learning difficulty. Nearly a third of all people say that teenagers hanging around on the streets are a big problem and, as we know, antisocial behaviour is predominantly perpetrated by children. Yet rather than giving young people a real and attractive alternative, we too readily give them an ASBO.
ASBOs are extremely punitive—sometimes, frankly, to the point of being ridiculous. Take 13-year-old Zach Tutin, who was served an order banning him from using the word “grass” anywhere in England and Wales for six years. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Luke Davies was forbidden from using the front door of his home until he reached the age of 21. It seems to me that such sanctions can never change a young person’s behaviour for the better, never make them accept responsibility for their actions and never engage them with the victims of their behaviour.
The current approach has not been working well, yet as usual the Government have flip-flopped on what to do about it. When the 2006 ASBO figures were released in 2008, the right hon. Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), then Home Secretary, asserted what we Liberal Democrats had argued for some time: that alternative methods of early intervention are far more effective than ASBOs. However, in July 2009, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the new Home Secretary, announced measures to revive the use of ASBOs, admitting to Government complacency on the issue. What approach do the Government believe in? Are they merely chasing after tabloid headlines or looking at the evidence for what actually works?
Despite some of the remarks from the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), I am afraid that the Conservatives are offering only more of the same. They have criticised the Government for headline-grabbing gimmicks, but, frankly, their ideas are no different from the current solutions. They have suggested confiscating the mobile phones or iPods of young people who behave antisocially. The hon. Gentleman suggested that young people could be grounded out of school hours for up to a month.
Such schemes are slow to implement, and continue to criminalise children, rather than diverting them away from antisocial behaviour at an early stage. What really work are community-based punishments and solutions. The Liberal Democrat council in Islington pioneered the use of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are more rehabilitative for the offender and more beneficial to society. A National Audit Office study has shown that they were highly effective in combating antisocial behaviour precisely because they get buy-in from the people involved. Some 65 per cent. of the people stopped behaving antisocially after one intervention, 86 per cent. after two interventions and 93 per cent. after three interventions.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned grounding orders, the concept of which I am not yet wholly familiar with; that is my fault. Does he agree that it would be good to impose a grounding order on the child via the parents rather than through the panoply of the courts?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the need for support from the family. One of the issues with ASBOs has been the lack of application of support orders to ensure that they are backed up. If that is the hon. Gentleman’s point, I entirely agree with him.
The same National Audit Office study found that on average acceptable behaviour contracts cost £230 and were 65 per cent. effective. That compares with ASBOs, which cost a frankly staggering £3,100 yet were only 45 per cent. effective.
The hon. Gentleman is praying in aid the National Audit Office report. Will he comment on the fact that that report also said that
“Sixty one per cent of people aged under-18 displayed anti-social behaviour again”
having received an acceptable behaviour contract? What are his comments on the breach rate for those young people?
I just gave the actual breach rates for acceptable behaviour contracts, and they are on the record. I pointed out that breach rates go down substantially at the second intervention and that at the third intervention, there is 93 per cent. effectiveness. That was in the NAO study. Sadly, no solution operates as a magic wand; I am not saying that one does. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Hornchurch seems to believe that a magic wand can be waved. Does he think that any particular measure can solve the problem on its own? Acceptable behaviour contracts are certainly more effective than ASBOs. However, contrary to the myths peddled by some Labour Members, we Liberal Democrats have never been against antisocial behaviour orders; we have always said, however, that they need to be seen—
I have been fortunate enough to have served on the Public Bill Committee of every bit of recent legislation relating to antisocial behaviour. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) opposed antisocial behaviour orders during our discussions of the first Anti-social Behaviour Bill.
I have looked back at the record very carefully, and I assure the hon. Lady that we were on the record in this Chamber supporting ASBOs as a last resort. When we voted against the Third Reading of that Bill, for all sorts of other reasons, we were accused of voting against everything in the Bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is entirely free to go on making such claims, but they are simply incorrect.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the research done by the university of Groningen, which identified that it is absolutely critical that rules should be enforced, and that unenforced rules undermine the whole concept.
In Birmingham, we have supported a limited number of antisocial behaviour orders as well as acceptable behaviour contracts. We are particularly keen that offenders who create graffiti should be forced to remove it from the walls. Does my hon. Friend not share my regret that the Government would not support proposals for community fixed penalty notices, which are a way of enforcing the rules so that those who create graffiti are forced to remove it?
I agree with my hon. Friend, fundamentally so on his initial point that if we are to have such law it must be properly enforced. The real problem with ASBOs is that the Government’s periodic attempts to use them have not been matched by the necessary back-up. If they were used as a last resort at the end of a whole series of measures that were able to bring gradual pressure to bear, we would be providing a much better back-up for ASBOs and there would be fewer breaches. In reality, in some areas where they have been overused they have unfortunately become a figure of fun because they have not been properly applied.
Research by the Audit Commission has found that a young person in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer more than £200,000 by the age of 16, whereas one given support to stay out of the criminal justice system costs less than £50,000. Those costs, together with the evidence on the effectiveness of community measures and community sentences, should be enough to tell the Government that a resurgence in the use of ASBOs cannot and should not be the way forward. Yes, they are a last resort, but they should not be something that we reach for as a panacea. Acceptable behaviour contracts are drawn up in consultation with the offender and so provide a greater chance for young people to voice their concerns and agree on what is acceptable. Those young people are far more likely to comply with a contract because they are more engaged in the process, which imposes positive rather than negative conditions on them. Liberal Democrats would expand the use of acceptable behaviour contracts, integrating them with alcohol and drug treatment where necessary.
However, community measures and community sentences alone are not enough. A study by the Prison Reform Trust published in October 2009 found that the reoffending rate for young people involved in restorative justice schemes was 38 per cent., compared with 52 per cent. for community sentences alone and 71 per cent. for custodial sentences. By confronting the offender with their victim, restorative justice highlights the consequences of the crime or the behaviour, and the emotional engagement can lead to genuinely heartfelt changes in behaviour. We have seen that in the interesting recent report on the use of restorative justice in Northern Ireland. We would engage a wide range of public services—councils, the police, schools and care homes—in restorative justice schemes and ensure that restorative justice panels were set up to co-ordinate the process.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is no longer in her place, stressed the importance of prevention and mentioned her recent experience with her local street pastor scheme. I, too, have had experience of two street pastor schemes in my constituency—in Fair Oak and in Eastleigh itself—and I can testify to the positive effects. In the case of the Eastleigh scheme, it is too early to tell, but in Fair Oak there was a clear fall in antisocial behaviour in the years following the scheme’s implementation. Street pastors’ engagement with young people has been effective and commendable.
Above all, young people need to have alternatives to antisocial behaviour. The old adage that the devil makes work for idle hands to do is true. We would create a youth volunteer force to make engagement with the community more attractive to young people. Activities could include the restoration of sports facilities or environmental projects, both of which could provide people with skills they can use again in future. The emphasis must be on encouraging positive behaviour rather than penalising negative behaviour. A 2009 report by the Audit Commission concluded that sport and other organised recreational activities run by local authorities can provide cost-effective solutions leading to reductions both in antisocial behaviour and in the use of the police.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about being cost-effective. In Nottingham, for about £700,000 we were able to help more than 100 teenage mothers to get their children set on the right way with the right life skills and personal development, and the empathetic behaviour mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). That is about the same as the cost of three people going into a secure unit for a year at the age of 16, two of whom will, statistically, return to it later on. Will the hon. Gentleman commit his party, as I invited the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) to commit the Conservative party, to doing some serious analysis on cost-effectiveness and evidence-based projects so that such early intervention becomes the common reality?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman —he is absolutely correct. We need much more serious assessment of the costs and savings across Government agencies, particularly if any Government are going to persuade the hard-nosed men and women at the Treasury that it is something worth doing. If someone from a Department goes in to the Treasury saying, “I want to spend more on this,” particularly given the likely fiscal environment in the next 10 years, they will need to have some pretty hard evidence that savings will be made elsewhere. As I said in response to the thoughtful speech by the right hon. Member for Salford, time and again we have seen a lack of joined-up government in the failure to assess, overall and holistically, the budget impacts of many measures. That is crucial if we are to make real progress.
Individual programmes need to be combined with measures to allow local authorities to tackle unacceptable behaviour on the spot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) noted. A 2008 study found the first hard evidence, to my knowledge, that the mere presence of graffiti, broken windows or litter in an area more than doubled the likelihood of people littering and stealing there. The broken windows theory has been extremely controversial, but it is now getting enough support to suggest that it needs to command cross-party consensus. One solution, which the Liberal Democrats tried to introduce in the Policing and Crime Bill, would be to allow local authorities, as well as the police, to order people to clear up their own graffiti or littering. I will not go into that any further at this point.
I am surprised that we have not heard more about the effects of alcohol, which fuels much of the antisocial behaviour in our town centres. Responsibility for the control of alcohol falls largely within the remit of other Departments, and not enough is being done. Under-age drinking is a huge problem. We know from a Home Office report that 40 per cent. of more than 2,600 licensed premises surveyed in 2007 failed to check for identification and happily sold alcohol to minors, yet very few licensees are being prosecuted for selling alcohol to under-age children, particularly in off-licences. The Government have created alcohol disorder zones, but to date, not a single council has decided to use those powers. The Government need to focus on the basics, which include conducting test sales to ensure that children are not being sold alcohol and prosecuting those who sell it to them. We need to work across government effectively, and the focus should not just be on policing and repressive measures but on early intervention and tackling alcohol misuse. The family intervention project is an interesting idea. We will see how effective it can be when the evidence comes in, but over time it looks promising.
I do not for one minute want to suggest that ASBOs are inappropriate in all circumstances—that is certainly not so. They are a last resort that should be used sparingly, and when all other options have been exhausted, but they must be properly enforced. We need to re-engage with our young people and give them the opportunity to improve their behaviour, to take responsibility for their actions, and to have a productive future that is not blighted by a criminal record. Only when we do this will we be some way towards tackling the antisocial behaviour that we all want to combat.
The debate has indicated how complex dealing with antisocial behaviour is. One complexity that underpins it is that, unfortunately, there is not a blank sheet or the same starting point for all those involved in antisocial behaviour. We seem to agree about the need for early intervention, and I say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that everything he suggests we should be doing, we are doing very well. However, some people in our community—adults and young people—have been involved in antisocial behaviour for some time and sucked in the energy of many different agencies and services, and in those cases firmer action needs to be taken.
The right hon. Lady says that the Government are doing everything that we suggest they should. We suggested both in Public Bill Committees and on the Floor of the House having fixed penalty notices for community service orders, but the Government did not accept that.
As far as I am aware, a number of fixed penalty notices are available for use by local authorities for dealing with graffiti, litter and all sorts of things. On many occasions we were criticised for introducing them, but in the right circumstances they are of huge benefit to the community.
I shall make a little progress, if I may, because I am in the first paragraph of my speech.
It would be fair to say that in most of the Don Valley communities that I represent, antisocial behaviour is still one of the biggest concerns that my constituents raise with me. We have heard again this afternoon about its impact on our poorer communities, but it crosses communities and it is not only adults and young people from poorer backgrounds who cause problems. I spent some time with safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency this summer and was told by police officers, as I was by those in other parts of the country when I was a Home Office Minister, that one thing that they find galling is parents turning up to a local park and unloading their kids from their 4x4s with alcohol to amuse themselves for the evening. That is not acceptable, and the need for parental responsibility applies to all parents, no matter what their level of income.
In Don Valley and Doncaster, I have seen some real progress compared with 10 or 11 years ago, when it seemed that the criminal justice system did not really care about or understand the impact of antisocial behaviour. Some 13, 15 or 20 years ago, the police were short-staffed and ran from crisis to crisis. If a neighbourhood had a community police officer, that officer was pretty much on their own. In the police service, that sort of policing was not seen as valuable to future career prospects. Now we have seen some positive changes.
At that time, antisocial behaviour went largely unrecognised and the police often did not have the time to come out and deal with complaints about youth nuisance, harassment or intimidation. Even when members of the public reported incidents of antisocial behaviour, the reports were not collected and often went into a black hole. The police would then say, “Well, nobody’s complaining to us”, and the community would say, “We are complaining, but nobody is gathering the intelligence and using it effectively.”
That failure to address antisocial behaviour undermined public confidence in local police, but it was also a failure of Governments past. It was a failure of leadership, resources and the will to address the underlying causes of such behaviour. It became clear, particularly to Labour Members, that we needed to respect the families who faced harassment and intimidation outside their front door day in, day out. We needed to take on a criminal justice system that did not understand and was not really interested. Tackling antisocial behaviour is an example of a public policy originally advocated not by the professionals but from the grass roots in our communities, and supported by elected representatives who were determined to get action. The Labour Government got it, and sought to improve the situation.
New resources have been provided to rebuild communities such as mine—coal mining communities savaged by the loss of traditional employment—and a focus on education standards has meant that we have gone from only 34 per cent. of young people getting five GCSEs at A to C in 1998 to 71 per cent. in 2009. There have been extra community funding, home security initiatives and youth funding. There are more police officers—13,500 more nationally—and new police community support officers to supplement their work, which has been central to turning the antisocial behaviour problem around.
I am pleased to say that across South Yorkshire, like many parts of the country, we now have dedicated safer neighbourhood teams, with police officers, PCSOs and community wardens working with other agencies and accountable to the neighbourhoods that they cover. We have identified the power gaps and bureaucracy that got in the way of action, and we are putting the situation right.
There is always room for improvement, and policies and practices are always worth reflecting on and changing if necessary. There is no doubt that the Government have got a lot right in tackling crime, but there is more to do. We are the only Government to have reversed the rising trend of crime not for one year but year on year for more than a decade. Crime is now a third lower, and in Doncaster it has fallen by 10 per cent. in each of the past two years.
We are all doing something right, then, and well done to all those countries too.
New powers have been important, and we have spent considerable time talking about ASBOs. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that any power that is provided should be used in the best way possible, but it is interesting that he talks about using antisocial behaviour powers as a last resort. That approach is too constricting, because people involved in such activity are often extreme in their behaviour and wilfully disregard what is acceptable in communities. That is one reason why using such powers only as a last resort results in breaches—by then, the problem and the individual concerned have got out of control.
There are other orders available, such as youth referral orders for young first-time offenders, which build into the system restorative justice, reparation and apology to victims. In my experience, those who try to act big when served with an ASBO end up behind bars. If that is a badge of honour, it is one that is welcomed in most communities. In Doncaster, the council’s legal services staff have pursued 55 ASBOs since 2003. Four have been extended and a further 16 are currently being progressed. I am grateful to them for the support that they give our safer neighbourhood policing teams.
A number of the new powers have been vital in giving those on the ground the tools they need to restore public confidence. The confiscation of alcohol in the street, the power to close crack houses, the breaking up of gangs in designated areas and the power to escort young children home after 9 pm have all proved popular and, if properly targeted, are highly effective. I spent some time with safer neighbourhood teams in my area this summer, and I was pleased to see that when we came across young people with alcohol, even when the one holding it was over 18 and could provide proof, the alcohol was confiscated if younger people were present. That power is important, effective and quick.
However, I say to Ministers that in the past couple of years I have been a little worried about the moving of responsibility for antisocial behaviour from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. In August 2008, an interview in the New Statesman with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was prefaced with the comment:
“The so-called Respect agenda has been quietly shelved and the obsession with Asbo rhetoric curbed.”
In my view, that policy shift was misguided and wrong. Moving the Respect unit and responsibility for youth crime and antisocial behaviour to the DCSF did not make any sense. Tackling those problems should be firmly the responsibility of the Home Office, whether it involves young people or not. The Respect unit should have stayed with the Home Office, and I am glad that it has now been put firmly back where it belongs.
For a period, searches for information about antisocial behaviour on the DCSF website produced pages of press releases about the children’s plan and playgrounds. I do not think that anyone in the Commons would vote against more youth facilities or playgrounds, but we do not stop intimidation or harassment just by providing swings.
Labour is the political party that most people identify with to tackle antisocial behaviour, but we are in danger of losing ground. Thankfully, that does not reflect the good work that was happening on the ground in Doncaster and elsewhere. To that end, the current Home Secretary has my full support in turning things around, because rhetoric matters. It does not matter as much as what is happening, but it sets the tone, which is important when the public are listening.
We should never be complacent about antisocial behaviour. It is a contributory factor to neighbourhood decline; it makes people feel powerless and makes them stay indoors more; it makes parents more worried about their children playing out; and, let us not forget, the largest group of victims of antisocial behaviour consists of children and young people. Often, they cannot go to the youth club because there is a gang outside intimidating them, they cannot use the playground because glass has been scattered across it, and they cannot enjoy the services that are in the community because they are preyed upon by young people and sometimes adults. Antisocial behaviour makes people fear their own neighbourhoods at certain times of day and night. It is absolutely corrosive and eats away at the quality of life.
The problem of antisocial behaviour is local. It may happen in a particular gathering place, an off-licence, or a couple of streets, or it may be to do with a particular family. Each problem requires a local solution, but to make such solutions effective, we have needed better teamwork between councils and police, new powers to deal with the problems, and particularly local policing and community liaison.
As I said, I spent three shifts on duty with the safer neighbourhood policing teams that operate in my constituency, and I am very grateful to Sergeant Richard Vernon and his Doncaster West team; Sergeant Russell Higham and his Doncaster South team; and Sergeant Richard Barnes’s team, whom I accompanied in the Hatfield and Dunscroft parts of Doncaster East. They would not let me get away without mentioning them. It was good to see how they were making a difference. They worked very closely with the council’s neighbourhood wardens, and PCSOs make a valuable contribution to those teams. One told me that they extend an open invitation to Richard Littlejohn, who described PCSOs as “plastic policemen”, to visit Doncaster to see the important contribution that they make.
PCSOs respond to community feedback to shape their operations, use local intelligence from the public and others to task their operations, whether that is to do with roads where traffic speed is excessive, an off-licence where young people gather or a churchyard drinking spot. They organise night-time operations to tackle motorbike nuisance and burglaries, visit victims of crime and are involved in drugs raids.
What lessons did I learn from that experience? First, on parenting orders, we need to hold parents to account. When Doncaster truanting cases are taken to court, it is standard practice to request a parenting order, but when children and young people are involved in antisocial behaviour, that does not happen. I think that that is wrong and I am campaigning locally to ensure that the loophole is closed. That is certainly one of the clear comments that were made by the three safer neighbourhood policing teams that I was able to work alongside this summer.
Secondly, on communication, as a local MP, I know how much is being done to tackle antisocial behaviour and of the success stories that arise from that, and the police and others hold regular meetings—monthly, I believe—to listen and provide information. They are getting better at communicating success through community newsletters, websites and the local media, but many residents are still not aware, and tend to believe only the negative stories in our national media, which rarely cover the positive action and change on the ground.
Delivering immediate, cheap but topical information to the most affected households about what is being done could give an enormous boost to residents’ sense of well-being and should be encouraged. Likewise, MPs have a key role in providing information on constituents’ concerns and communicating to them the powers that exist. I did a survey of constituents, and it became clear that although they knew about safer neighbourhood teams, they did not know how to contact them. I was able to feed that into the process and help to put it right.
Thirdly, justice is important to the public’s sense of safety and fairness. For a number of criminal offences, the public would support non-custodial sentences if they had faith in such an alternative. For too long, the professionals have argued against visible community sentencing. Sometimes, professionals, Ministers and Opposition Members have been squeamish about the idea of an offender wearing a bright jacket when undertaking activities in the community where they have committed crimes. Thankfully, that has changed, but I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we need go further and apply the same conditions to under-17s, who need to be seen to be facing the consequences of their behaviour. Too often, they are taken off to do worthwhile activities remote from the community they have harmed.
I recognise the need for a variety of actions to move a young person away from a life of crime, and to show them that there is understanding of how they became what they are, and support for them to take control and turn their lives around. However, that should not be at the expense of facing up to the consequences of their actions and the debt they owe to the community.
Fourthly, the Home Office is undertaking a pilot whereby communities can bid for the return of the proceeds of crime. I think that that is very worth while. I am very proud that I was the Minister who took the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 through Parliament. Crime should not pay. However, I would like my hon. Friend to look at the possibility of further decentralisation, so that the assets of crime that are collected can be used more locally and so that there is a greater opportunity for direct involvement in decisions on how that money should be spent.
In my final comments, I shall focus on the horrendous and brutal attack on two children in my constituency earlier this year. The attack in Edlington was all the more shocking because it was undertaken by two boys aged 10 and 11. The attack was exceptional in its severity, for Edlington or anywhere else, and the malicious injury of children by other children is always shocking. Given that the two attackers were under the supervision of Doncaster children’s services, it is no surprise that an inquiry is under way.
A lot has been written about Edlington, much of it unfair to the former pit village. Photos used in one newspaper showed a street with derelict houses that was demolished years ago—a new health centre stands there today. The village has gone through tough times, not least in the years following the closure of the mine in the mid-’80s, but that is not the Edlington of today: crime has fallen steadily; there are fewer offences and victims; there is better local policing and good community organisation; and there are improving schools. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is far from broken.
I am sure mistakes will come to light during the inquiry. The people in the services are human and make mistakes, and we always say, “Never again.” When children die or are terribly injured, there is quite rightly a huge amount of publicity and debate, but what we do not talk about enough are the children who survive early childhood but who are so damaged that their futures is bleak, and who could become a danger to themselves and to others. Those wider issues need to be addressed alongside the question of why the victims in Edlington could not have been better protected.
Sadly, some families are badly dysfunctional. No parent is perfect, but some are hopeless and cruel. When parents are heavy drug users and live in an atmosphere of selfishness fuelled by addiction, how can a child be fed, cared for or emotionally supported? I have met many young adults who are caught up in crime who have drug or alcohol problems or sometimes both. Their life stories often involve a lot of intervention from social services and others, and large amounts of time spent in foster care or residential homes.
We have heard how the Government are supporting earlier intervention on our most challenging families, which I support, but I believe, as does Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, that in some cases, children should be removed sooner rather than later. For a number of reasons, over several decades, keeping children with their families appears to have assumed priority status.
Coram, a charity devoted to the welfare of children, partners prospective adoptive parents with children under two whose future is being decided by the courts. If the birth family can demonstrate to the courts, often after drug treatment and support, that they can meet the child’s needs, the baby can return to their care. If not, the carers can proceed to formal adoption. All the adults take the risks and, above all else, the child’s needs are paramount.
The great advantage of that process for the children is that it will speed up planning for their lives without having to suffer moves of placement and delay. Coram is holding a conference today to promote that adoption model, which they call concurrent planning. Only four local authorities have worked with the organisation, and most are sticking to the old methods.
I realise that that matter would most appropriately be dealt with by Ministers in the DCSF, but I am trying to address how we can save some of those children from becoming the problems that they may become in their later lives, as we have seen in our communities. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister takes my points on board and that the Children’s Secretary will seriously look at that model and assist a wider debate on its use.
I do not believe for a second that we would be discussing antisocial behaviour orders today in Government time had it not been for the tragic deaths in my constituency in 2007 of Fiona Pilkington and Francecca Hardwick, and the subsequent coroner’s report, which came out in October. The two tragically died in a fire in a car, and the coroner returned verdicts of suicide and unlawful killing. That case has forced the whole antisocial behaviour issue up the agenda, which is why we are discussing it today.
The small community of Barwell has been distressed by these events, as has the larger community of my constituency. Indeed, it has shocked the nation, and we have had the arc lights of the national media focused on Barwell. On behalf of the community that I have represented for more than 20 years, I make the point that Barwell is a good community. It has a great carnival in the summer. The people are hard-working, they work together and they like each other. The problem is a tiny number of people. As other hon. Members have said, it is a tiny number who cause the problems, and they have to be the focus. Whatever measures we take, we have to focus on the ends of the normal distribution—those few people who cause all the problems.
I attended the memorial service for Fiona and Frankie on Tuesday last week in Barwell at Newlands primary school, organised by the Reverend Andrew Murphy and all the churches in Barwell and Earl Shilton, the next-door village. It was a very moving ceremony conducted with great dignity. Fiona’s mother was there, as was Francecca’s brother. The community—a good, solid Leicestershire community—came together. So to those who have rubbished Barwell and its people, I say stop. It is a problem caused by a tiny number, and it is being worked on.
The coroner criticised the three main agencies—the police, Hinckley and Bosworth borough council and, to a lesser extent, Leicestershire county council. Given the statement earlier about the firing of the drugs tsar, how can the crime tsar, Louise Casey, have survived, when she has criticised the Government so vociferously. She has said:
“We have let people down”.
She was critical of the division of responsibility for antisocial behaviour between the Home Office and the Department for Children, Schools and Families, a point touched on by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). How can the Government be so hypocritical and fire the drugs tsar, but let the crime tsar survive? I can give way to the Minister if he wants to intervene. No; he is firmly welded to the Bench.
How did we reach a situation in which, allegedly, tackling antisocial behaviour is not really part of police activity? One officer made a remark to that effect that was broadcast nationally. I see the Minister shaking his head, and I agree with him. If we look back over the history of policing, there were periods when different demands were made of the police, and different direction was given from the top. In the 1960s, Roy Jenkins, the Labour Home Secretary, introduced—reasonably enough—what was called pandarisation, with the use of little Morris Minors to make the police mobile. It was a good idea at the time to achieve more effective policing, but it failed because it broke the link between the police and the policed. Eventually the policy was reversed. Recently, we have had reactive policing. That partly dates back to 9/11 and the whole terrorist issue. Organised crime has also demanded police resources, and a few years ago we had an unduly large proportion of murders in Leicester.
The solution to the problem lies in the origin of British policing, as devised by Sir Robert Peel and the Metropolitan Police Act 1829. The Act required that able men be appointed and sworn in as police officers of the metropolis principally for “preserving the Peace.” That was their first duty, although they were also tasked with
“preventing Robberies and other Felonies and apprehending Offenders against the Peace.”
Those are all important, but it is preserving the peace that is the first duty of the British police officer. Sir Richard Mayne, the first commissioner, described the preservation of public tranquillity as the first priority. We have lost that aim.
We have reached a point at which it is easier for police forces to pursue the other objectives, and we have not had enough emphasis on the simple requirements of keeping neighbourhoods safe. The awful case in my constituency has brought that to the fore, and we are now looking for ways to improve the situation. I suggest to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Opposition spokesman that we must focus on peace in the community. That is what people want above anything else.
Hinckley and Bosworth borough council was also criticised, but in some ways it has been ahead of the game. The last Conservative administration in 2006 introduced the weekly information-sharing meetings, where all the agencies got together to discuss what to do. Subsequently we have had neighbourhood action teams, and a range of interventions and remedies. There have been special measures taken in Barwell—a community house was introduced there in July. However, in 2007 and beyond, there was clearly a breakdown in communication between the agencies. In defence of the town I represent I must add that, it would be wrong to say that no one was concerned and that no action was taken.
The right hon. Members for Salford (Hazel Blears) and for Don Valley made robust speeches, saying that tough action had to be taken. Councils have to take tough action. Indeed, some law enforcement—in terms of maintaining the peace—has shifted from being a police duty to being a council duty. The councils are obliged to apply these remedies, but that is not the core discipline of council officers. The councils are getting these instructions, but taking such action is complicated. Councils have to be very robust and have a policy that makes it clear that if orders are broken, there will be consequences. The matter will be taken to court, and it is no good saying nothing will happen. We have had problems in the past with Traveller communities, when difficult law and order issues arose—
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the pivotal role of housing in tackling antisocial behaviour. Does he agree that, as well as councils taking action, there is often a great deal of antisocial behaviour in the private rented sector and that the introduction of landlord licensing, which I am fighting for in the Gerald road and Seaford road areas of Salford, can make a big difference? Privately rented property is often the source of a great deal of antisocial behaviour.
I agree with the right hon. Lady, but I chose council tenants, because councils often have control over vast swathes of housing. An important sanction is to tell council tenants, and other tenants if applicable, that they will not be moved to a nicer borough—that is, shifted to somewhere better. Rather, they have to understand that if they do not follow the requirements of the new measures that have been introduced, they will go to worse housing. Councils must be robust about that, so that the move will be difficult for those concerned.
Leicestershire constabulary has introduced an extensive training programme for the police. The Minister would do well to encourage councils to ensure that they train their staff too. Indeed, I was interested to hear his ministerial colleague saying earlier that he would issue instructions to councils about how they should handle antisocial behaviour. However, the lack of co-ordination on that has been a terrible gap—indeed, a glaring hole—in the Government’s policy.
I will say a word about that in a moment, but first I want the Minister to take on board the need to train staff. There must be adequate training to safeguard children and adults alike. Why do I say that? Let us look at the number of agencies and sub-agencies that we are dealing with. We have the safeguarding adults board, the weekly information-sharing service, which I have described, the crime and disorder reduction partnership, community safety programme boards, adult social care departments, adult social services, children and young people’s services—the list is endless. How do we co-ordinate all those groups? I was speaking to a senior colleague on the council in Hinckley who said, “Well, Fiona slipped through the net.” We have to ensure that the mesh in the net is thicker and that less gets through. We have to consider all those issues.
I have mentioned the police and Hinckley and Bosworth borough council, but I must now mention Leicestershire county council, which was not criticised to the same degree. However, it has a youth offending service, a youth service, which is represented on the police-led multi-agency joint action groups, and a family intervention project, as described by the right hon. Member for Salford. The county council has other projects that have helped, such as its support for the work of the multi-agency Barwell recovery strategy, which is led by the borough council. Those projects, along with the youth impact team initiatives and the safeguarding adults boards, are all helping.
Let me return to the police for a bit. Leicestershire constabulary took quite a beating in the inquiry, but the police have also taken positive initiatives, raising the profile of the safeguarding adults programme. The police have also introduced the JACQUAL—joint action for quality of life—team and the police and council antisocial behaviour teams, so they have not been dilatory in acting after the problem.
However, the police have suffered a major handicap. The 101 telephone system, the non-emergency system that the Government trialled in Leicestershire, was extremely successful. The police picked up a lot more information, because a lot more people were prepared to ring them on that simple, three-digit telephone number. I cannot imagine why the system has been dropped, with all the technology that we now have, which, relatively speaking, is becoming cheaper. Given the success of the project, the Minister should look again at the resources for it.
The police in Leicestershire have introduced two other measures that are well worth mentioning. The first is a system whereby they know exactly where every car on the beat is. The second is a laptop system that makes available a massive amount of information at any one time.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is not in her place now, talked about street pastors, who represent an interesting development. The scheme is a Church-backed project to put people in the community on the streets at no cost—they are volunteers—to help individuals. I shall be finishing on this theme, but when the Churches are united or there are individuals who want to help, we have to embrace them. We cannot ignore them. They are volunteers, so they are cheap; there are no bills to pay. We need to put our arms around them and say, “Yes please, we need your help in our communities.” That is important.
The other issue—perhaps I should say, “The next related issue,” because, unusually, I have a little time this evening, although I assure colleagues that I will not speak for too long, because that is not necessary—is political control and direction. I served in the Army years ago, and it used to be said that men are only as good as their officers. However, with councils the opposite is the case. The officers are only as good as the men and women elected as councillors who control them—or should control them, because far too often officers are given their head.
We have very good officers in the county, and I have a lot of respect for Hinckley and Bosworth borough council officers, but boy, do I wish that there were sometimes better political direction, because officers should not have to deal with the allocation of housing, Travellers’ sites or resources on their own. That is what politicians are for. We are there to oversee those people. That is the relationship.
I am glad that I have the support of the right hon. Ladies. We have to look at the issue, so perhaps the Minister should offer some guidance.
I said that the tragic case in my constituency had attracted a lot of attention. Indeed, some contributions were made at the party conferences, but to call someone a “victims champion”, as Labour did at its conference, is a bit tacky. I mean, how can Sara Payne be the champion of all the people who have problems? That was not a very good use of language. However, I think—perhaps predictably—that some important proposals were made at the Conservative conference. They included introducing a range of instant punishments, such as grounding orders, which may need to be developed, and cleaning up local parks, which is eminently sensible, as well as dealing with mountains of bureaucracy and trying to give more power to the police to take action.
I am interested in the concept of grounding orders, but a power already exists through parental orders. Part of what parental orders should be used for is ensuring that children are not out and having to be picked up by the police and others at 11 o’clock, 12 o’clock or 1 o’clock in the morning. It is the parents’ responsibility to ground them, and if they do not, the parental order kicks in.
I have some sympathy with what the right hon. Lady has said. However, what we really need, whichever Government are in power, is to find a system whereby the police do not waste their time, which means that when they apply their time, it is effective and has an outcome. We do not want endless visits by the police that achieve nothing. I say to those on both Front Benches that we need to focus on the quality of police time and on how police time is used. We now have support officers, and we can make things much more effective.
The police’s task has been made much more difficult by some of the Government’s measures. One measure, which the Prime Minister himself has criticised, is 24-hour drinking. I was in conversation last night with Byron Rhodes, the chairman of Leicestershire police authority. We talked for about an hour, and he said, “Look, two o’clock is surely enough, isn’t it? You should see the amount of police resources it takes to deal with nightclubs after that.” Does it make sense for clubs to close at six o’clock in the early hours of the morning? Are we really a nation that needs to drink through the night? I do not think that we are, and I think that we have proved that these changes do not work. We are not a continental nation—we do not naturally sit there with a sausage and a lager at six o’clock in the morning. [Interruption.] I was thinking of my time in Germany, but I had better move on fast, because I am getting into a lot of trouble. We should revisit the alcohol laws. The licensing laws were brought in during the first world war, because munitions workers were getting so drunk. That was happening in one city north of the border in particular—I will not defame it this evening—so the licensing laws were brought in for a purpose. We really need to revisit the issue.
Another problem, which has been addressed on many occasions in the House, is cheap alcohol and how it is purveyed. If it is a loss leader in supermarkets, it will contribute to the problems.
The crime problem has been exacerbated by the downward pressure on, and the destruction of, the traditional British pub. The number of pubs going out of business is tragic. I could mention the Dog and Duck in my constituency; it is happening all the time. People used to go to these places for community. If people sit at home drinking lager behind laptops, we will have criminals—we will have people who cannot form relationships and who do not have friends. We should protect the pubs.
A related issue is the removal of dartboards from pubs. I will not use the G-word—gentrified—but there is definitely an attempt to push places upmarket, and that means taking out the dartboards. A survey has been done on this. The removal of dartboards is a great tragedy, because darts is a national sport. I have played it, although I do not play it very much and do not pretend to be a great darts player, but I do not like to think of pubs losing their dartboards. In Leicestershire, we have skittles. We have a lot of skittles alleys—they are great fun, and a lot of pubs still have them. How about the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench and who might be in power in a few months, doing a bit to support pubs that keep traditional games? Why can we not offer some incentives? It would not necessarily be very expensive. Do we really want empty, gloomy pubs that close down? I do not think so.
Of course, the smoking ban has not helped. I voted against it and I am really pleased that I did, because the more I look at it, the more I think that it was a great mistake not to gradually phase it in—[Interruption.] I am not going to hold the support of the right hon. Members for Salford and for Don Valley on this one, although I have held it for most of the debate, which is unusual. However, it was a mistake to put everybody outside. And what about the environmental issues? Someone tell me the cost of these massive gas cookers outside—
Madam Deputy Speaker, I will relate my remarks to antisocial behaviour. We really ought to revisit the way in which we have blocked a large number of people who still smoke out of the places where they used to have their social life. That is a great pity.
I have talked about police priorities, and I have quoted Robert Peel and Richard Mayne—I have gone right back to the basics. The problem in Barwell was that the officers, in this case under the direction of their senior officers, were not applying themselves as a priority to keeping the peace. I think that things have now changed dramatically, and the police focus on Barwell has been formidable—I suppose that one would expect that reaction. The police have done good work, and I will refer in a moment to something else that will be happening as of Friday.
First, however, I want to turn to policies on elected police chiefs and other elected officials. I spent some time in New York, and I attended a well-known university researching policing and public order in a multiracial Britain. I looked at Scarman, policing in the ’80s and the riots in Brixton and Bristol. I have some sympathy with the idea of elected police chiefs, because I think that that political direction is important. However, if we do go down that route, there are real dangers that the police will be pulled in certain directions by particular groups. Given the current problems with terrorism and the other national issues that the police are obliged to deal with, there would have to be safeguards.
The Conservative policy of having elected police officials may be a good one. The problem is that people—
Madam Deputy Speaker, the answer is that we will have less antisocial behaviour if we have a police force that is more sensitively directed. I am suggesting to the House that it is not enough to have elected police authorities, even though they have been reformed and now have a different composition. There is a strong case for having some—not a lot, but some—elected police representatives in communities.
I have one last point to make on the political issue. I notified the borough council—[Interruption.] I ask the House to bear with me for just a minute longer. I notified my borough and county councils, the police and the police authority that I was going to make this speech. I said that there was a fair chance that I would be called because of the problems that we had had. The focus of the problem locally has been what is being done in Barwell. I am sure that this is a happy coincidence, but I received an e-mail before the debate saying that four youths linked to antisocial behaviour in the Barwell area had been charged with offences and will appear before the Hinkley courts next month. As I have said, I am sure that it is a happy coincidence that that arrived before this debate, but it might not be. It might have arrived because I, as the Member of Parliament for the constituency, notified the agencies involved that I was going to make my speech. That is a good example of political accountability, with elected representatives in this honourable House saying what they feel, and action being taken on the ground.
A lot of politics can be summed up in simple words, and one of the great phrases of this autumn was uttered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I think that it represents what the country wants, so parties on both sides of the House should take note. My right hon. Friend said at the Conservative party conference:
“We’ve got to stop treating adults like children and children like adults”.
I gave a great sigh and thought, “Thank you. That’s what people really want to hear.” The nation is fed up with being told that the kids are giving us the runaround and adults cannot take any action. That has had a really serious impact on our policing. Traditionally, everyone in this country was a policeman. We always have been—it is part of our culture. One has only to read in “Oliver Twist” about Bill Sikes’s dog running off to the east end and being pursued by everyone in a hue and cry—one does not have to watch the westerns to see the posses going out. The fact is that everyone was always part of the police, and we need to get back to that so that we can support the police. We do not want to hear the police tell us, “We’ll nick you if you touch that person.” Why would they do that? Because they have poor direction. There is not enough political input at the top telling them, “Don’t say that. It’s stupid.” The police cannot enforce all the laws anyway. There is a duty on all of us to keep the peace.
The other issue that I want to raise before I sit down—[Interruption.] It is unusual to have a bit of time in the House.
I will sit down soon.
We have to deal with this business of risk, and our risk-averse society.
It is very sad, and we need to build people up and make them strong. I want to finish in Barwell. In the local paper this week, one of the letters said:
“We must unite to fight back at yobs”.
I absolutely agree with that sentiment, and a lot of my speech has been about that. There has also been talk about Frankie’s law. I think that the term was coined by a newspaper. Councillor Hazel Smith is a close friend of the Pilkington family, and she is a great councillor in Barwell. She has asked why we cannot have a law whereby, if 10 people sign a petition, the local agencies have to take note. That would be so simple. Why should 10 local people not get together and sign a petition to say that they are unhappy about something? They could stick it in the council’s letterbox or the police letterbox, and someone would have to reply. Let us empower the local people.
We have had a terrible tragedy in my county in the small town of Barwell in my constituency. I honestly believe that that tragedy, which reached the national and even the international media in the autumn, will bring good. I earnestly believe that good will come out of it, that we will have a better focus on policing and that that will make our communities safer.
I hope that the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) will pass on my condolences—and, I am sure, those of everyone in the House—for what happened to Fiona Pilkington. I can assure him that that case has given me some sleepless nights as I worry whether I have taken into account everything that my constituents have told me at my weekly advice surgeries. Whatever the headlines might be, and whatever opprobrium might be considered to attach to MPs at large because of the problems with our expenses, many people come to see us to express their serious concerns and private anxieties. Sadly, we are often the people who take up the cases of those who are the most voiceless, and of those who are ignored by the authorities. Because of the case in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I am conscious of the need to do so even more.
For everyone in the House, this is the epitome of the bottom-up debate. It is because our constituents were concerned about antisocial behaviour that we have any antisocial behaviour legislation at all. Ten years ago, it was Back-Bench MPs of all parties in this House who, understanding their constituents’ concerns about this issue, forced legislation through and demanded action in the face of hostility and jeering in the national media and in much of the political establishment. Antisocial behaviour was not a fashionable subject at the time, and it was only because of the interaction between constituency MPs and their constituents that we understood that it was a priority for them. As a result of our constituents’ anxieties, police safer neighbourhood teams have been introduced, along with a whole range of new powers for councils, housing associations, the police and other public bodies.
This has to be a source of continuous revolution, however, if we are to tackle the problem. That is why I would like to concentrate on some of the areas in which we fail. We do not fail in all areas, but we need constantly to get better. We need to understand when we are resting on our laurels or failing to take the direct action that we need. It is a matter of concern to me that we are all developing an antisocial behaviour industry—a bureaucracy that sometimes blocks progress in favour of its own cosy meetings and cosy time scales. Too often, formal processes do not lead to satisfactory outcomes, and more flexible, direct, informal and decisive action would be quicker, cheaper and better.
Does the hon. Lady think, as I do, that a directly elected police commissioner might cut through that bureaucracy and provide the more direct, focused response that local people want and demand, and which successive Governments have failed to deliver?
That could be one of the means by which we could do that, but no structure will necessarily give us the entire answer. In our communities, the elected representatives—the MPs, the councillors, and those in regional government—need to be concerned with the day-to-day experience of our constituents, many of whom feel voiceless and powerless. People who know that the remedies for antisocial behaviour exist tell me that they are going to the services that should be providing respite but not getting the necessary action. The public respect our good intentions, and are pleased that the powers have been put in place, but, on occasion, they have found the industry better at delivering excuses than solutions.
I checked my casework system today, and discovered that, in the past year, I have written 171 letters about antisocial behaviour. Like the hon. Member for Bosworth, in preparation for today’s debate, I contacted my local police commissioner. I also contacted the chief executive of my local council and the chief executive of a major local housing association. I did this mainly because I felt that this could help to get some cases resolved, but I was surprised that all their responses were defensive. They blame other organisations, or loopholes in the law. They say that they could resolve the problems if only they had more money and power. Worst of all, they sometimes do not see the point in trying.
One of the most revealing comments came from a group director of London and Quadrant Housing Trust, one of the largest housing associations in my area, and a brilliant organisation in many respects. He said:
“Even if we do evict someone for antisocial behaviour, we’d only move the problem on elsewhere”.
First of all, it is not futile to take action against antisocial behaviour. Action against tenants who are causing a nuisance can make a difference. Secondly, why would a housing association not make its top priority the welfare of its law-abiding tenants who simply want to live in peace and quiet?
The chief executive of Merton council was similarly revealing. I have written to him many times about antisocial behaviour. It is one of people’s top concerns in my constituency, if not the top one. He passes every single case that I have personally written to him about to a more junior officer. He feels that I “misunderstand” his role. He says:
“I contribute to the council’s work on antisocial behaviour at a strategic level by jointly chairing the Safer Merton partnership and by ensuring the council has staff and a programme in place to provide a response to the issue.”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She clearly shares my utter frustration that, when the tools have been given to local authorities and the police to do the job, they fail to use them. Does she agree that some of those officials who appear to be ducking the issue would be well placed to suffer some of the antisocial behaviour that our constituents suffer?
Absolutely. I hope to provide such an example later in my speech.
The chief executive of Merton council went on to say:
“I am clear I am acting appropriately and I consider the conclusion you have drawn is wrong and misunderstands my role.”
For me, however, it is important that he knows what his officers are doing. How does he know that his strategic decisions are being implemented on the ground? It seems to me that the word “strategic” is often the last bastion of those who do not want to roll their sleeves up and get their hands dirty. After all, it was his authority that removed a dispersal order from Mitcham town centre earlier this year, despite protests from local residents. Everyone in Mitcham supported the dispersal zone. It did not make everything perfect, but it certainly helped. Yet, for Merton council and the police, the improvement in crime and antisocial behaviour meant that it was not needed any more.
I did everything that I could as an MP; I do not think that I have ever felt so frustrated about one single issue. I went to see my local neighbourhood team, I went to the council, I went to see the inspector and I went to the area commander. Eventually, I wrote to the Metropolitan police’s commander of territorial policing, Maxine de Brunner. I am delighted to be able to make this speech tonight, just to let hon. Members understand some of the content of her response. She told me that
“concerns were raised by interest groups such as Liberty that even with the checks and balances contained in the legislation, the powers infringe human rights. Consequently…Merton have taken an evidence-based approach in considering whether a new zone should be granted, and from the evidence available at this time, it has been decided that a zone cannot be justified.”
I was under the misapprehension that we lived in a democracy—clearly not. Liberty is not what it says on the tin—at least, not for the Mitcham residents who wanted the liberty to walk through their town centre without being intimidated by groups of troublemakers and who wanted to be asked their opinion about this order. Later in the letter, Maxine de Brunner says:
“Specifically in relation to the dispersal zone in Mitcham, the Figges Marsh ward panels did discuss the dispersal zone with the local police, as did the Glebe Court residents association, and the rationale for this decision was shared with residents.”
She does not say that the decision was unanimously opposed and that these groups did not accept that rationale because she knew that the most vulnerable people sometimes do not make the complaints that we hear from those with greater confidence and the courage to complain.
Where was I to go from there? I persuaded more than 100 residents to give up a Saturday morning to meet the police and state the obvious; within a few weeks, the dispersal zone was back in place. However, the decision to remove it was symptomatic; it lacked common sense and local knowledge and it was more to with acting in the interests of a tiny minority of protest groups and going through bureaucratic hoops than acting according to the welfare of the people of Mitcham.
I would like to mention a few more individual cases, because they highlight where we can improve what we are doing. Gilpin close is on a 1980s housing estate of about 200 properties; the majority are privately owned, with some operated by housing associations. The estate is in a cul-de-sac just off a main road. Nobody walks or drives through the estate other than the people who live there and their family and friends. It is often off our radar. This summer, a couple came to my advice surgery and they described how two or three neighbouring houses were terrorising the estate. Over the next few weeks, local councillors and I met more of their neighbours and heard more about abuse, threats of violence and doors being kicked in. One man who simply lived alone and went to work long hours every day had his windows kicked in three times in three successive weeks. People were followed and shouted at in their own homes and there was low-level drug taking and vandalism. One couple were actually assaulted. This had been going on for 18 months.
Much of the trouble was caused by one particular family, including a nine-year-old boy. All the agencies had got together—the police, the safer neighbourhood team, the council, the housing association, the school and the child in need team—and they had all plodded on through the process. All the while, however, the people in Gilpin close had to live with it. They were prisoners in their own homes for months and months on end.
The chief executive of Merton would not have lived like that; the commissioner of police would not have lived like that; the head of London and Quadrant housing trust would not have lived like that; I would not, and you would not, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Because, however, the antisocial behaviour industry we created did not stop the trouble in its tracks, the poor people of Gilpin close had to live like that or move out. In fact, some residents tell me they do not report antisocial behaviour because they are worried about becoming victims themselves by complaining or, worse still, because they fear they will not be able to use the ultimate sanction, which is to sell their home if they cannot resolve the problem.
It is interesting to note that it is not just elderly or young people or middle-aged people who suffer from these problems. The people suffering from antisocial behaviour come from all ethnic backgrounds, all ages and all classes. One particular case provides a stunning example. An elderly lady of 89 came to me recently, together with a young Tamil couple with a baby. They live on the same ground floor of the same block and suffer from the same problem—a 19-year-old guy deciding that whatever time of the day or night he wishes to play football outside their door, he can do so. In spite of years of complaint and in spite of this amazing elderly lady being brave enough to complain—on one occasion this young man even kicked her stick away in the high street because of her complaints—this problem could not be solved. I do not know about other hon. Members, but I do not pretend to be the brightest person in the world, and what should be done seems obvious to me: a few pyracanthas should be planted in the middle of the lawn so that this man cannot play football. He would then simply have to move less than 100 yards away to play football in the pitch next door to his block.
Then there is the case of Mrs. A of Lilleshall road, who complained to me after her safer neighbourhood team told her that they could not do anything about the kids shouting, screaming and drinking from her street corner. Again, I sensed the whole industry crunching into gear and about to spend months consulting on what action would be most appropriate. Would it not be better to spend a fraction of the money that that would cost on landscaping the corner to make it a less attractive hangout?
What about Mr. K of Malmesbury road, who came to me complaining about a nine-year-old throwing stones at his house late at night? The police said that they could not do anything because he was below the age of criminal responsibility—but he is nine years old and out late at night! He is surely not too old to be taken home and it is surely not too difficult for the police to have a tough word with his parents. The boy is not too young for a parenting order. The creation of safer neighbourhood teams is absolutely fantastic, but we have to be able to empower our police officers with doing the work of getting involved with antisocial behaviour and publicising what they do as much as doing it. Sometimes, not unreasonably, our police officers do not have those skills. For a long time I have thought that it would be a fantastic idea to use those people who we know are great marketers in our society to use some of their time to help the police in the work they do. That would be doing a great community service.
Let me provide a particular example, which my sister told me about. My hon. Friends will know my sister well and are aware of what a tough character she is. She is not a woman to be crossed. When she was at our local shopping centre one weekday morning at 9.30, she stood on the corner and watched two PCSOs walk around the perimeter of the shopping centre—not talking to the mums with their kids in the buggies, not introducing themselves at all. When they had finished, my sister went up to them and said, “I am really sorry. I watched you do that. Don’t you think it would be a good idea if you shook the hand of everybody you met, talked to them and gave them your card so that they would know how to contact you?” They looked completely bewildered at her question and just said, “Oh, people do not like to be bothered when they are shopping.” We all know that that is nonsense; we all know that people are crying out for a return to the mythical Dixon of Dock Green—the police officer who knew every blade of grass on their watch. We know that those PCSOs, who were probably very good officers, need to be given the skills so that they know how to react and connect with people to build that relationship of trust.
One thing I would ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to look at is the reintroduction of the old Respect taskforce. It used to be a real help, particularly as Members became increasingly frustrated that the council, police service and housing association were not dealing with antisocial behaviour. It was possible to contact that taskforce and ask its members to come and talk to the services involved. These people were often experienced practitioners who could cut through the miasma of bureaucracy and come up with a solution. I would seriously like to ask the Minister to reintroduce this taskforce.
My hon. Friend may be aware that the Home Secretary has said that he is going to produce some more guidance on good practice. Does she agree with me that the Respect taskforce took that guidance and actually helped MPs, councillors and others to find the means to get things put into practice directly on the ground?
I am grateful for that point, and we will certainly look at it. We are trying to ensure that we get the level of support we need in areas where there are challenges to overcome. Officials and other colleagues from the Home Office will, under Louise Casey’s direction, visit and support local authorities that need that help.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that, which will provide an important resource for all MPs who are concerned about antisocial behaviour.
The fact that there are many Members present this evening and that no one is scoffing at our discussion of antisocial behaviour shows that we have come a long way forward from 10 years ago. I am sorry that my speech has been mainly negative, but my desire is to produce better results than we are achieving at present. My desire is to break out of a bureaucratic setting, and to think about how we can resolve problems. That does not always involve the most expensive or difficult remedy.
My intention is to encourage people who are involved in the practice of dealing with antisocial behaviour to look for the quick and the cheap solutions, but also to understand how desperate people’s lives can be when their next-door neighbours frighten them, do not allow them to sleep, and generally inhibit their enjoyment of life. I hope that if the debate pushes the matter back up the agenda and prompts a look at new, real solutions to the problems, we shall have earned our money today.
I shall brief. Let me begin by declaring my usual interest as a practising lawyer and as one who sits part-time, traditionally, in a number of criminal jurisdictions.
A week or two ago, in the middle of the afternoon, I was on a train 20 or so miles south of the centre of London. A group of about five young people got on. I think that there were two or three young girls of 13 or 14, and a couple of young boys of about the same age. They had been drinking. They sat almost next to me. Within seconds all their feet were on the seats, and within seconds the language was becoming fruitier and fruitier and less and less pleasant.
I put up with that for a couple of stations, and then three points occurred to me. The first—given that the behaviour was pretty nasty—was that I was not sure where I could get hold of a guard. Secondly, I asked myself whether I should intervene. I do not know whether my colleagues would have intervened, but I lost my nerve because there was a chance that I would get thumped. Thirdly, I thought to myself, “Wait a minute: what has gone wrong here? All we are talking about is the fact that someone, somewhere, has not taught these young people how to behave properly in public, and it is a real shame.” I watched them get off the train a couple of stations later: a nice-looking, young bunch who might make quite a lot of life. But they had behaved so badly on the train, and I was not even sure that they had noticed what they were doing.
We have heard a great deal about ASBOs tonight. We have heard a great deal about their effectiveness or otherwise in relation to antisocial behaviour. I remember when they were introduced. Indeed, I have had to administer a few myself. They have a place in life—the Minister said so, and I agree with him—but there are an awful lot of breaches. The overall figure is 50 per cent., and in the case of youngsters aged 10 to 17 it is nearly 65 per cent.
Actually, I am not sure that I like the idea of a 10-year-old being subject to an ASBO. There must be other, better methods. Nevertheless, there are breaches. In 2005, 4,000 ASBOs were issued and 2,100 were breached. In 2006, 2,700 were issued and 1,800 were breached. Earlier, the Minister spoke of tougher action from the Government against those who breach ASBOs. He will know that already in the magistrates court breach of an ASBO carries a sentence of six months. He will also know that in the Crown court it carries a sentence of five years. Tremendous penalties are available to the courts, and I do not think that we need to toughen them up.
We have also heard a great deal about new measures, but the question for me is not how we intervene in relation to antisocial behaviour, but when we intervene. In my view, the earlier we do so the better. For years in the House, I have heard about the introduction of new measures by successive Governments. I have heard about new policies, new orders from the courts, acceptable behaviour orders, parenting orders, referral orders, grounding orders, websites, helplines and night courts. The list of initiatives is endless. But does it get us anywhere? I do not think it does, and I think that most people out there in the community realise that that sort of top-down approach is not really effective.
When they break down—the children or the orders? It is hard to say.
Yes, I am a very junior member of the judiciary. I take that little slight on the chin. The trouble is, as far as I can see, that a great number of ASBOs are being breached. That suggests not only that they are not always effective, but that we are not intervening early enough with our children in the community.
The hon. Gentleman appears to be arguing that ASBOs are not effective because they are breached. Does he not accept that ASBOs are often applied to the most prolific offenders, and are therefore more likely to be breached in most circumstances? I defy the hon. Gentleman to tell my constituents Mr. and Mrs. Patel on the Duchy estate that their bravery in standing up and giving evidence was not worth while. It has made a huge difference to that estate.
I am afraid that that comment was not worthy of a former senior Minister; it is as simple as that. All I am saying is that ASBOs are not always effective. My main point is that our intervention should come at an earlier stage, with the children in our community.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I was about to say that the myriad orders, agencies, new punishments and new sentences from the courts are no substitute for a good, loving home life with proper role models for young men in our communities and proper discipline in schools, so that people learn from a very early age how to behave properly. I think that the House should focus on that.
Another issue that is very important to me is literacy. I have a great deal of anecdotal evidence from the courts where I sit. A huge percentage of the youngsters who appear before me—indeed, this is true of many aged between 18 and 25—have real literacy and numeracy problems. A typical example might be a young man, perhaps 20 by now, who comes from a very poor estate where there was no green grass and nowhere to play. He lived four floors up in a block of flats where the lift did not work. His mother was probably addicted to Prozac, and his father or stepfather was probably drunk and knocked him about. He went to school and did not make much of a fist of it. It was not long before he was beginning to get behind in his lessons, and then he began to truant. When he was truanting, he eventually got himself excluded form from school. He would go back occasionally, but then, because he was frustrated with life and could not read and write properly, his behaviour was becoming worse and worse. Finally, he was permanently excluded. Eighty-two per cent. of youngsters under 21 in our young offender institutions have been excluded from school at some stage, and approximately 50 per cent. have been permanently excluded from school. Many of them were excluded because they were disruptive. To a great extent, that disruptive behaviour comes from frustration at their lack of literacy and numeracy.
So many youngsters are incarcerated on short sentences—which, by the way, I believe are a complete waste of time and money—in our young offender estate. The levels of literacy and numeracy in the young offender estate are very low indeed. However, in many of our young offender institutions the maximum amount of time spent on education and training is only four hours a week. What the devil is that worth to somebody who goes in there barely able to read or to write his own name? There is also two hours a week on team sport. Call me old-fashioned, but I happen to believe in the merits of team sport—of learning to take a knock and give a knock, and to behave properly.
As often as not, those in our young offender institutions are locked up for 17 hours a day, and there is a total lack of emphasis on what is truly important: getting the boys—they are boys—to read, write and become better qualified for life outside. There is also a total lack of emphasis on resettlement. In the last few months of a sentence, we should be striving hard to ensure that every youngster coming out of a young offender institution has somewhere to go—a job to go to, a mentor, a bit of support outside—otherwise there is just a revolving door and they come back inside.
The behaviour of a minority of young people is very bad—although most young people are brilliant. However, I firmly believe that we, as a Parliament, must not debate this issue every six months, trying to outbid ourselves with more and more different punishments, more and more different bodies and more and more different headlines, when in fact we know that the truth is that we must intervene with youngsters early, because if we do not, the rest of our talk is rubbish.
It is about 8.30 pm and seven Members still wish to speak, so I shall keep my comments as brief as possible.
I had wanted to talk about the importance of the role of the family. I have looked at the situation in some European countries where there is a stronger family ethos and where antisocial behaviour differs very much from ours both in type and in the amount and frequency of it. That will have to wait for another day, however.
Instead, I shall discuss a situation that arose in my constituency over the weekend. The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said she was out in her constituency on Friday night, observing how the street pastors operate. I was out in my constituency in the very early hours of Sunday morning, having received a telephone call to let me know that 800 cars, each containing between two and five young people, had arrived between two villages. They proceeded to leave the cars, walk into the woods to a disused warehouse and have an illegal rave. We might ask, so they left their cars and went into the woods; where is the harm in that? Well, there are a number of ways in which that behaviour was antisocial, and there are a number of issues to do with how it was dealt with and how I would like it to be dealt with in future.
First, the warehouse was unsafe; there was steep rock and it was surrounded by water. It is also no exaggeration to say that everybody in there was high on drugs. The organisers were making their money by selling the drugs, not by charging an entrance fee. The cars had been left all over the road, too, and the local people were kept awake from about 1 am, when the cars started to arrive; they screeched up and down between the two villages. There was also the noise from the sound system. Three thousand people descended on to this small rural area, and it was completely overwhelming.
The debris caused were an antisocial feature, as was the fact that there were no toilets—people just went to the toilet where they could. My biggest concern, however, was the fact that there was no water supply and also that there were no medical facilities, no emergency services and no back-up. These kids had no water. I was there for seven hours, along with others. The kids were taking pills, inhaling from canisters and yet they had no water. They were not in a position to be in control of what happened to them or their own safety.
Another big concern is the fact that these people came to our constituency in the first place. They did so because the place they came to was seen as an easy target. Two policewomen were sent at the height of this rave. I am not sure what they were sent to do; I imagine the phone call went to the emergency services and they came. They wandered into the middle of this illegal rave, but they should not have done so because their safety was compromised. We needed a strong response from the local police to protect the safety of these young people, getting them out of this area and this danger.
What did the police do? When it became daylight these two policewomen, having been up, left their shift and two policemen came to take over—they were great people, but what could two of them do in the face of this? The police superintendent told us that they were going to send a helicopter up to assess the danger, despite the fact that we had been there for hours and had already been up there. They sent the helicopter up, although we had actually been told that the weather was too bad; we knew that it was raining, because we were soaked to the skin. Thank goodness it does not rain in Afghanistan, Iraq and such places, because I have no idea how helicopters are used there when it rains. The helicopter eventually went up when the rain stopped, and a couple of hours later the police did come out. The action chosen was to stand and to serve an order on the organisers—but there were no organisers as such.
People slowly began to disperse peacefully. All credit to the kids, because they did, in their incapable state, try to clean up some of the mess as they left. People who should not have been driving were getting into cars. Drugs are as dangerous as alcohol when one is driving, and these people should not have been getting into their cars on leaving—this was 13 hours after they had arrived. If we had had an elected police commissioner who was accountable to the people of the two small towns where this rave took place, the police would have been more rapid in their response and more effective in how they dealt with the situation. As it was, this rave continued and people had their day disturbed, as their night had been. Can one can imagine this going on all through the night? I was there at 7 am and I got home at 2.30 pm —we were just in the position where we could leave around then. The mess on the roads and at the site was disgraceful.
We have spoken about antisocial behaviour today, and people have cited their cases and what has happened to their constituencies. Antisocial behaviour can be anything from a child misbehaving, or somebody on the tube or train with their iPod on too loud so that it disturbs everybody else’s peace and environment, to something like the 3,000 people who arrived in my constituency. At the bottom of all this is the authorities’ ability to deal with antisocial behaviour as it arises. I know that a number of cases have been made for the myriad of agencies and tools that both the police and the authorities have to deal with antisocial behaviour, but the fact is that in many cases they do not deal with it. As I witnessed with my own eyes on Sunday, it is not a case of not wanting to deal with it; it is almost a case of there being too many instruments for the police to use. It is not as though any one event is dealt with by saying, “This is how we deal with this; this is the tool we use.” There are so many tools that the police are confused as to what they use and when.
We know that 15,000 antisocial behaviour orders have been served, that 50 per cent. of them are breached and that 65 per cent. of ASBOs given to young people are breached. That constitutes a fail; it means that ASBOs are not working. Rather than serving ASBOs on young people who behave in a way deemed to be antisocial, perhaps we should be reinforcing our police, so that they can act in a way that makes these young people think twice about what they are about to do before they commit any instance of antisocial behaviour; those 3,000 young people who wanted to arrive in my constituency for an illegal rave should have known that it was not worth their while, because the police would descend on them and move them on. It should not have been worth their while coming from Wisbech, Suffolk and all the other places that they told me they had arrived from, because the police should have had the powers and the ability to deal with the situation straight away and move them on. Apparently some police forces do take that approach, which is why the kids were in my constituency; they were there because the police forces in their area have a zero-tolerance attitude towards these raves.
It has been very interesting to listen to some of the speeches made by Labour Members—in fact, it has been amazing, because this Government have been in power for 12 years, but some of the speeches have almost suggested that antisocial behaviour is a new phenomenon that has suddenly arisen. If we speak to anybody, anywhere and ask them what is of huge concern to them, the answer will be the rise in antisocial behaviour in all areas of life and in all places. Whether it is on the train or in schools, or whether it involves people descending on the streets in my constituency, antisocial behaviour is on the increase and it is getting worse.
Whatever we are doing with the myriad tools and instruments that the police have, it is not working. The sooner the Government accept that, the better. As soon as they understand that the way to deal with antisocial behaviour is to give the police powers, to make them more accountable and to give them the ability to deal with such behaviour as and when it arises, the better it will be for all of us. One way of doing that, and of ensuring that it happens, is to consider having elected police commissioners.
The hon. Lady is about to refer to the elected commissioners as part of the solution. Will she explain why so many senior police officers do not see those as part of the solution at all and are worried about a politicised police force?
I am delighted—I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Who would want to vote for their job, which is incredibly safe, to become not so safe and more accountable to the people? Who would want that? It is probably self-explanatory why police chief constables do not want this to happen. We are not talking about elected chief constables—the hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands me—but about elected police commissioners. They are not quite the same, but it does not make any difference: if someone were accountable for how the police respond to antisocial behaviour, I guess it would be dealt with much more effectively.
I will sit down now because I know that lots of hon. Members want to speak, but I wanted to highlight the case in my constituency this weekend, how it disturbed the lives of many hundreds of people and how we need to reinforce our police forces so that they can instantly deal with such situations when they arise.
This has been an enlightening but also frustrating debate. We have heard about many things that have frightened us on behalf of our constituents, but we are frustrated because we have been here before. It is not a subject on which there are easy answers or places where we have been successful. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) made as eloquent a plea for a change of Government as I can remember hearing, if that is her experience in her constituency after 12 years of a Labour Government. The only phrase that she did not include was a plea at the end of, “Why, oh why can’t someone do something about all this?”
The hon. Gentleman needs to be aware that the council involved, Merton council, is a Conservative-run council and my complaints are mainly based on its actions. I did not want to mention it, because I did not want to reduce people’s concerns for the constituents to whom I referred.
In my understanding of government, the Home Secretary is a Labour Home Secretary, the democracy that the hon. Lady was asking about is run by a Labour Government, and if a council is not doing something there is a democratic way of dealing with it. She was complaining about Labour policies. Who created the structure that she was kicking up so much fuss about? It was a common theme among a number of colleagues who spoke, who talked about the endless meetings and liaison panels and the industry that has grown up. It is not one council’s fault or one Government’s fault. There has been a change of attitude over a long time, but the truth is that after 12 years there is only one place where the buck stops, and that is with her colleagues.
I shall do my best to be brief. I shall cover ground similar to that covered by others, but I want to outline the situation is in my constituency and say two or three things that highlight the concerns in North-East Bedfordshire, a largely rural area with frustrations and concerns related to antisocial behaviour.
In Little Staughton—a small parish in the north of my constituency—people had a very bad summer. A series of outbreaks of criminal behaviour, including damage to property, and abusive behaviour was finally traced to a young man and a few acolytes whom he led. The young man had problems, which is often the case with those involved in such activity and behaviour, but huge distress was caused to the local parish. However, its excellent parish council chairman, Tony Moss, is concerned about people’s inability to be contacted by the police and about the criminal justice system’s inability to inform them about what has happened as the result of their complaints and concerns. He said, “If you’re not attached to the criminal justice system, you’re not aware of what’s going on.” He is concerned that the police’s hands are often tied in terms of informing people of the progress of a case and the individual concerned and what the sentence and compensation might be. In that case, the parish council believes that restorative justice would make a difference. It would like the young man and his friends to work in the village, so that people could talk to them about what has happened, so that they can understand the impact of what they have done and regain some self-esteem by doing something about it. The parish council’s approach seems perfectly reasonable: this is something in which the criminal justice system should involve people.
In an intervention I mentioned the concern felt by many people who look after organisations that the increasing bureaucracy and regulation relating to child safety are driving away those who want to take part and volunteer to help children and young people in my constituency. I was disappointed by the Minister’s response. I hoped that he would be more positive about the concerns that have been raised about the Independent Safeguarding Authority and say that he takes them rather more seriously than the incumbent chief executive would appear to have done.
There is a good article in The Sunday Times this weekend by Jenni Russell, who describes how a small boy could not be picked up by someone who knew him, because he had not been authorised to pick up the child. The youth worker who stopped the child being taken home knew that the boy faced a mile-and-a-half journey on his own in the dark, in the rain. She could not take the boy home either, and he went home in the dark, in the rain on an unlit road. Jenni Russell says in her article about the way we now deal with such issues and the checks:
“Everything about this approach to the question of how to make society safer is wrong. The problem isn’t that most people are potential abusers of children or adults; it’s that a tiny and determined minority are. Vetting millions of people is not only horribly intrusive; it’s a waste of time. It will create a false sense of security. Even if all the rumours and accusations the ISA received were accurate, and even if it got a remarkable 99 per cent. of decisions right, that would still mean that hundreds of abusers would be cleared, and more than a hundred thousand innocent people would lose their jobs or their reputations by being ISA-barred.”
I had a message today from the twinning association in Sandy in my constituency. The mayor of Sandy, Geoff White, passed on to me a letter from the twinning association that says, “You’ll no doubt have read in the newspapers during the last week that the independent safeguarding agency is now demanding that anyone who comes into touch with children that are not their own offspring will now need to have a CRB check. This includes those who are giving a lift to their own children’s friends to football practice and other clubs etc. and it also seems designed to stop foreign exchange students or children on normal twinning trips from visiting unless the hosts and probably the entire committee have been checked. The current situation with youth groups such as scouts, guides, sports groups etc. is that all leaders and helpers should be CRB checked before being allowed to work with the youngsters, but now the Government wishes to include anyone who comes into contact with children.” We have created a situation in which those who—
Order. I was not watching the hon. Gentleman precisely, but was he reading from an electronic device?
No; I think that doing so is to be discouraged. I will not say any more at this point; I should like to take advice. The hon. Gentleman should continue with his speech.
I am not sure that it is a good idea to read from an electronic device during a speech.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I was seeking to make the point, which the community in Sandy was making to me, that the involvement of adults with youngsters in a series of societies and groups gives those youngsters the opportunity to be mentored, to do something and to become engaged in community activity. The youngsters who need direction most are often those who will be most disadvantaged if adults feel that they can no longer take part in such activities and feel squeezed out of the role that they play as leaders in society. The damage being done, and the separation being created between adults who wish to be involved and those whom they can look after, is becoming too great and is threatening to create more antisocial behaviour as an indirect consequence.
Reference was made earlier to Louise Casey. What she said earlier this year was highlighted by a number of speakers. She says that the justice system appears to most people to be a
“criminal’s justice system”,
and that instead, they want a
“public justice system”.
Her own research, she says, has shown that two thirds of the public think the system respects the rights of the offender more than those of the victim:
“The public need to know that people who break the rules face consequences, otherwise they give up hope”.
In her contribution, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) said that the debate was sometimes polarised between those who spoke about intervention and those who spoke about justice. She is correct to say that it is a mixture of the two, but I do not think that anyone in the debate or anyone who has spoken seriously on the subject has tried to polarise it. We need early intervention, and we need the engagement of adults when children are young and as they get older. Of course, as in the case referred to by my local parish council in Little Staughton, we need to know that justice works and is effective. One of the failures of the Government over the past 12 years is that the public are not convinced of that, or Louise Casey would not have said what she said.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the conclusion that I am rapidly coming to—that one of the problems is continuity in the judicial system? A single sentencer should see cases through beyond the point of sentence and have feedback on whether that sentence is effective in reducing crime, which is what the system is all about.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is all a matter of greater accountability and making sure that once boxes have been ticked, a case is not pushed off to someone else and does not disappear from sight. A number of colleagues have made reference to that.
I close with one final issue. It is an old chestnut, but the older I get, the more true I think it is. Once we start to deconstruct authority, what do we put in its place? Not long ago there was an automatic assumption that the teacher was always right, the head was always right, the policeman was always right, and the adult was always right in any situation where there was a conflict of opinion with a child. It was rough justice, but there was certainty.
Now we know that adults are flawed and make flawed decisions, but we have so deconstructed authority that we have taken away the certainty that the old system provided and put nothing in its place. Instead of certainty with a bit of rough justice, we have uncertainty with a lot more rough justice, and a lot more people losingout because that authority and that sense of certainty have gone.
There is a continuum in the deconstruction of authority that leads to people feeling, “I can do what I like, because I can challenge anyone I like and I will get away with it. It will take the system so long to catch up with me that I can do what I please.” That is how people feel that a sense of justice has slipped out of the system. It has been cumulative over a long period. From what Labour Members have said, it seems that they have not quite been able to deal with that. It will thus fall to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to do so when they get the chance.
I was delighted this afternoon to hear the Minister, in his introduction, emphasise the right of everybody to enjoy their life in peace. The sentiment was echoed by the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). The other thing that has pleased me is that I do not think I have ever seen quite so much nodding from those on the Government Benches to contributions from Opposition Members, and vice versa. There is a huge degree of consensus across the House.
I shall not speak about young people and alcohol abuse, because that topic has been covered. Instead, I shall echo the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and speak about single examples of neighbourhood harassment. I welcome the comment from the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) that these troubles occur across all social backgrounds.
The two cases to which I shall draw the House’s attention both involve articulate, intelligent families who live in their own properties. In the first case, the family own two houses in a terrace, and the alleged problem involves the house in between those two related properties. There has been physical and verbal abuse, foul language and intimidation of the elderly parents, in particular—so much so that they are frightened to walk alone across the neighbour’s property to their relatives’ house. That abuse culminated in actual assault, first of the elderly father, and the assaulter was given a five-year caution. The second assault took place on the elderly mother, even though the caution was still in existence. The perpetrator was arrested, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided against prosecution, as the only witness was the husband, and that was inadmissible. So the family continue to live, in their words, as prisoners in their own house, and their quality of life has plummeted. They have given me 55 pages of evidence documenting intimidation and abuse, including many communications with the police and the CPS. Yet those intelligent, articulate people are still terrified to walk between their two houses.
The second case again involves privately owned houses at the end of a very pleasant and quiet cul-de-sac in one of the best areas of my constituency. Although two of the most deprived parts of the west midlands are in my constituency, those are not the areas to which I refer. There are about eight dwellings at the end, and again, two constituents from the same family live nearby and are separated by the alleged troublemaker. There are not many other complaints, because one of the eight houses is empty; one couple are frequently away; one elderly couple are in poor health and too frightened to complain; and one property is on the market, so the owners cannot get involved because they do not want to jeopardise their sale. We are therefore left with just the two houses occupied by members of the same family, and another lady elsewhere.
The harassment has been going on for seven years, involving physical obstruction, verbal abuse, obscene gestures, spitting, rubbish thrown into gardens and trespassing. Some events have been recorded on CCTV; again, there have been many police visits; and, again, the CPS has felt unable to prosecute. I have taken up the matter, and I have a copy of a letter from the CPS, but it just has the matter down as allegations of behaviour not amounting to crimes, and it claims that it has no evidence of concerns from other people. That is incorrect, and I shall take it up with the CPS.
However, my constituents wrote to me, saying:
“The whole situation is becoming a very dangerous farce, anti social bullies and thugs are being allowed to rule our communities… It is high time that the law was sorted out to put the police back in control and make penalties commensurate with the offences and not just a derisory slap on the wrist.”
Since the very sad Pilkington case and the case in Lichfield, where somebody was actually killed, constituents have written to me, saying much the same as that letter. They say, “Put the police back in control, give them the powers and make the penalties fit the offence.”
We have probably all heard this old proverb, “Good fences make good neighbours.” In these days of open-plan living, open estates and very few barriers between houses, we cannot have good fences to make good neighbours, because it is just not possible. So we must somehow give the police and other authorities more weapons to be more effective.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I appreciate that four Members wish to speak in the next 30 minutes.
Like many other Members, I should like to address the Minister with some advice based on anecdotal evidence. Having been a Member of Parliament for the past four years, I have had experiences like those of many other Members, and I hope that what I say will help the Minister to come to some sort of solution to the problems that many of us have addressed.
I want to begin by congratulating not only Essex police as a whole, but my local police in Braintree and Witham; I am thinking not only of full-time police officers, but of specials and police community support officers. Against the backdrop of there being an attack on individuals every 30 seconds in this country, we have seen locally a reduction in the number of incidents of antisocial behaviour. My local police are to be congratulated on that.
The problems, however, are numerous. I have five children, and I would not bring any of them into Braintree town centre on a Friday or Saturday night. I would rather take them to the cinema in Freeport, which is at the edge of Braintree, because the town centre has almost become a no-go zone—whether because of the binge drinking or the youths congregating and looking aggressive. It all becomes intimidating, not only for people wanting to bring their families to the town centre, but for the elderly as well. That is the first problem.
The second problem is the 24-hour drinking culture that has developed. I had a meeting with my local police chief in Braintree recently, and he commented on the fixed-price, all-in drink promotions. He said that they did not bode well for a reduction in “antisocial behaviour”; he actually used that phrase. The police are very cognisant that the drinking culture, including the cheap alcopops and 24-hour drinking, is a major cause of antisocial behaviour.
Youths congregate not only in the town centre, but in the estates and villages, and the problem is not only the fact that they congregate. A number of times, particularly last summer, I have gone out to talk to the young in the town centres and estates, asking them what the problems are. The problems are twofold. First, there are no community centres for them to go to any more. There were community centres in Braintree 10 or 15 years ago, but now they just do not exist; all the areas have been developed as a result of the pressure for house building and so on. There are not even simple things such as shelters. My council did build a wooden shelter, but a week later the whole thing was torched and it was there no more. The council is now trying to build shelters out of metal, which cannot burn down.
Village greens have become centres for drug dealing. During the 2001 election—sadly, I did not win a seat—I distinctly remember speaking against my Labour opponent in Silver End. We were discussing antisocial behaviour and the drug culture, and the audience started laughing because through the window at the back could be seen a youth on a moped dealing drugs with kids from the local village. Village greens also face the problem of antisocial behaviour.
There is also the issue of disruptive vehicles. When it is otherwise empty, in the early hours of the morning, Freeport becomes a go-cart centre—people skid their cars around there. The right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) mentioned motorbikes. I had a meeting up at Cornish Hall End, a small village at the north end of my constituency. On Saturdays and Sundays people there have problems, and not only with young people. Mature adults race their motorbikes through the village. Motorcyclists read that if they zoom through Cornish Hall End and on to Finchingfield, they get a very good run. That is highly disruptive and antisocial to people in those villages.
Then there is the major issue of schools. As I am sure that many of us hear when we go to meet our local headmasters, a small minority of children are disruptive and antisocial and cause problems for the vast majority of children.
The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) talked about noisy neighbours. Every single week when I hold my surgeries, I get at least one or two people who come in and talk about noisy neighbours. That becomes very frustrating, whether it relates to loud music or arguing and shouting. What about the concept of neighbourliness? I say, “Can you talk to your neighbour?”, and they say, “Yes, we do, but they simply won’t listen, and the noise and abuse goes on.”
When I meet elderly people, including members of Braintree pensioners action group, they often say that fear of crime, not necessarily crime itself, is a major issue in terms of antisocial behaviour. I live in a semi-rural area with isolated village communities where many people live alone, including elderly people, and this issue is brought to me time and again.
The town centre of Braintree, in particular, and Witham, to a certain extent, have become no-go areas at the weekend. That takes up a great deal of police time. The police keep telling me how much time they spend on form-filling and transporting drunks and people who are behaving badly. It is similar to the situation in schools, where a few badly behaved children can impact on the learning of the many.
So what are the solutions? Locally in Braintree we have a mixture of community initiatives and enforcement. We have hard-line policing policies at closing times. We have two alcohol-free zones. We have street pastors on Friday nights who work independently of the police; I congratulate them on the work that they do. We have a term-time roadshow that interacts with children of all ages. In the past year, there has been a reality show attended by about 1,500 children aged 13 and 14 to try to equip them to deal with the problems that they will encounter. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). We have had Operation Marple, whereby the police go around not only confiscating alcohol from minors but trying to provide solutions by finding alternative activities for them. It is not merely a question of punishment but of trying to figure out ways to engage with and help the young children in our community.
The schools in my area have done a tremendous job in improving behaviour. I congratulate those at Maltings academy and Rickstones academy in Witham, Tabor school, Notley school and Alec Hunter college, including the heads, for the excellent work that they have done, particularly in the past couple of years, in reducing antisocial behaviour in their schools.
When I have gone out with the police, they have targeted hot spots. When I meet small community groups, I tell them that they must report it to the police when there is a problem because the police can then target those hot spots over time and reduce antisocial behaviour in those areas. Most important of all, there is a need for greater police visibility, especially on the estates and in the villages. I congratulate the PCSOs on the excellent work that they do in trying to reduce the fear of crime and on interacting with the community.
On a national level, the police must be freed up from at least the perception, if not the reality, of red tape and bureaucracy that keeps them off the street: we want them on the street, as we have heard from many Members on both sides of the House. The police should have the power to remove, not just to disperse troublemakers. As the Conservative Treasury team have said, the price of alcopops should be increased as a way of reducing antisocial behaviour. There also need to be tighter curfew orders against persistent offenders.
Most important of all, parents have to take responsibility. That was stressed by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). If no other message comes from today’s debate, we must point the finger at parents and say, “You have a responsibility for your own children.”
Finally, I draw the Minister’s attention to the good work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the Centre for Social Justice on tackling the causes of antisocial behaviour and the breakdown of Britain today.
I start by saying how much I admire the work of the police. It is an unenviable job, and to follow on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) said, the police have expressed frustration to me about their inability to get charges through the Crown Prosecution Service and into court.
Although we have spoken a lot about the young people of this country, it is not just people under 18 who cause antisocial behaviour. It is often families and people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, so it is not right to demonise young people. In fact, I had the honour of attending a meeting of the all-party group on youth affairs last week, chaired by the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel). Some 50 young people were there who took an interest in their community, in law and in government. I urge Ministers to speak to those young people and listen to them, because they want to put things right as well.
I have lived in the same street in my constituency all my life, and it has saddened me to see the change over the past 20 or 25 years. The community has disintegrated in some parts of my constituency. Areas such as mine relied on traditional industry, and we are now seeing the second and third generation of people unemployed. That has led to a loss of identity and belonging. Children have nothing to belong to, and they do not want to address anything in their area any more. They are disengaged from all aspects of life.
We have heard about the tragic death of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter, and we could all cite cases of exactly the same problem. There are two ladies living alone in a council property in my constituency who have had their windows smashed four times in the past six months. Often in such cases, the same thing happens as in the case of Fiona Pilkington: the crime is reported, but because it is at the same address as a previous crime it tends to get low priority. I have tried and tried to get those two ladies registered as vulnerable adults, because they are in trouble all the time, but the council will not recognise that.
The Minister said that the problem of perceived crime was reducing, but I only hope that real crime is not going up. In my constituency, the police have told me that because of the recession the increase is more than 10 per cent. I have said before in the House that we have taken police away from our communities. We have empty police stations across our boroughs. I have said many times that we should go back to having police houses on estates. It was said earlier that the police need to live with the problem, but they used to do that. They were there on estates and on hand to respond to problems.
I have asked many times for family intervention. When troubled parents have two, three or four children, the chances are that the children will not be angels. Unless we deal with the problem on a one-to-one basis, it will not be solved. The Minister mentioned the family intervention project. Will he clarify who pays for it, and who controls it, and when he will consider rolling it out in other areas?
The problem of education has been mentioned. I have said many times that children are now having children, and the grandparent role has disappeared in some families because people aged 30 do not see themselves as grandparents. The wider family is starting to dissolve.
One project that has been introduced in our area is the PACT meeting—partners and community together—which is a wonderful concept using the multi-agency approach that we have heard about tonight. The problem is that when issues are raised at PACT meetings time and time again and nothing is done, it drives away people in the community. They think, “What is the point? Why should I attend? Nothing is ever done.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest said, people are becoming afraid to come forward and confront those who are causing problems. We have heard tonight about the 3,000 or so laws that have been introduced over the past 10 to 12 years. My hon. Friend and I were present when the “Anti-Social Behaviour Enforcement and Support Tools” document was published. The sad thing is that although we support the document, we have yet to see it really put into force. The last thing we need is more laws that will not be enforced.
I was very concerned to hear in the news recently about the proposal—although it has been put to one side—for police to carry guns. We are moving towards an American system, and that is something to which I object. My worry is that we are also looking at vigilantism. If we are not to deal with the situation in a law-abiding way, in some areas—I have seen such things on estates in my constituency—we could move towards vigilantism and people taking the law into their own hands.
I have urged police in my constituency to walk the streets in plain clothes. Very often, they turn up like the cavalry, with the horns blowing and flashing lights, so by the time they arrive, the perpetrators have gone—the police have driven them away. That is wonderful for that street at that time, but the police have just moved the perpetrators elsewhere. CCTV cameras have the same effect. They are a wonderful concept, but they tend to move the problem from one street to another, not to solve it.
The police look at statistics—the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism mentioned that the number of targets and statistics is being reduced—but my worry is that they book smaller crimes, such as parking offences, and the community is given those statistics on what the police have done. In many cases, the police do not investigate car damage. I have urged my constituents at the very least to ask for a log number whenever they phone the police, because if their call is listed as “no crime”, at least there will be a log of the call to the police station.
There is huge concern about the loss of funding. We have heard about the multi-agency approach, but the budgets of borough councils are being squeezed every year. I am afraid that the number of youth workers will decrease and that community centres will be closed. I am also concerned about short-term funding. We put something in place for six or 12 months, but if it works, it should be there for ever. We are worried that the voluntary sector is being squeezed and losing funds. We have heard about wardens on the streets and community pastors—there are lots of initiatives, but it is no good having an initiative for a week or a fortnight. If it works, it should be funded for ever.
One debate last week was on the Territorial Army. I wonder whether there is an opportunity for the young people who are causing problems to be part of the TA, the Air Training Corps or the Scouts. Can we develop a programme that will get those youngsters involved in community work? I know there are lots of problems with health and safety these days, but there are so many things that need doing in our constituencies, and I am sure there is a will and a way to do them.
I look forward to the day when people from both sides of the House can sit around the table together—we have heard good ideas and wonderful things from people of all parties and, I hope, from independents. I wonder whether we could one day get together and put those things down on paper and introduce them.
The House will be aware that in the year 2007-08, 3.9 million instances of antisocial behaviour were recorded in England and Wales, but we also know that that is a gross underestimation of the actual number, because many people simply will not report instances because they fear reprisals. In fact, it was estimated that last year, more than 30 million instances of antisocial behaviour took place in England and Wales. The Government have pledged to be
“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”,
but I think we are all agreed that that phrase has a hollow element to it right now.
It is not just the Opposition who are critical; I would like to refer to an article in The Daily Telegraph last month by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), who wrote:
“Come the election, Labour will have been in office for 13 years. Voters are entitled to ask why…the Government didn’t act sooner to counter the hothouse in which neighbours from hell are so easily bred.”
Crucially, he added:
“After all, if the defence offered up over the banking crisis is that no one saw it coming, the same cannot be said in relation to anti-social behaviour. There was plenty of evidence that lives were being destroyed.”
While the Government sleepwalk, tens of thousands of our fellow citizens are daily subjected to utter and absolute misery, many of whom are the most vulnerable and poorest in society. There is no point Ministers shaking their heads in disapproval: the facts speak for themselves, as do our post bags—
I will not give way, because the Minister will have plenty of time in the winding-up speech.
The Government have had a plethora of initiatives, with a mixture of results. ASBOs have had limited success and, instead of being a deterrent, they are often seen as a badge of honour. As for penalty notices for disorder, I issued freedom of information notices to every police force, and the results were disturbing. There were instances of penalty notices being served on individuals who had not yet paid the previous penalty or penalties. One individual received nine PNDs over a five-year period, eight in one year alone. One would have thought that there would come a point when people would stop issuing PNDs and take some serious action.
One of the things that we must do most urgently is stop the police suffocating under bureaucracy. People do not join the police force so that they can become clerks in offices and sit behind desks. They join the police force so that they can be out on the streets, fighting crime. That message has not been taken on board in the past 12 and a half years.
Antisocial behaviour is a stepping stone to more serious crime. If a young thug believes that today he can terrorise his neighbours, there is no reason to believe that tomorrow he will not walk into a shop, assault the shopkeeper and take the day’s earnings. It costs £60,000 a year to keep an individual in a young offender institution, and it costs £41,000 a year to keep a prisoner in prison. We are all clear that for every pound that is spent on a youth offender institution or a prison, it is a pound less for our pensioners, our armed forces, hospitals, schools and so on. So it is vital that we try to deal with the root causes—as hon. Members have mentioned.
Early intervention has been mentioned. Many social issues need to be considered, but time does not allow me to go into them in great detail. They include family breakdown; drink and drug abuse, both by parents and the offending children; lack of stable family units; lack of parental supervision; and lack of discipline, both at home and in schools. There is also a distinct lack of role models. The only role model that some individuals have is a father—in some cases, a mother—in prison or, if not in prison, engaging in activities that will lead to imprisonment. Crime is seen as a family occupation, often followed by the next generation. Being picked up by the police, fined or locked up in prison is simply seen as an occupational hazard.
Of course, many of the solutions have been covered—the work of councils, other agencies and so on—but I want to mention two particular instances in my constituency, both from the voluntary sector. One concerns a highly respected local individual by the name of George Martin. Mr. Martin and a group of well-meaning people raised funds and bought a centre in the village of Stilton in my constituency. They run that centre on a voluntary basis and it is a great success—as I know, because I have visited and spoken to the children and young people who use the facilities.
Another successful venture is in the village of Somersham, where I have visited a refurbished and improved play and sports area for young people. I went there with a dedicated councillor by the name of Steve Criswell. It is a partnership between local business and the district and parish councils, and is also a success story for a local initiative.
There is one other measure that I would like to commend to the House: the national citizen service, which has been put forward by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). It comprises a six-week course for all 16-year-olds to have a life-changing experience—an opportunity to mix with others away from home; an opportunity to test their limitations and challenge their prejudices; an opportunity for personal growth and service to others. The national citizen service will help to prepare young people to become better citizens, so that they can learn to be responsible and have respect for themselves and others.
In conclusion, after more than 12 years, six Home Secretaries and countless pieces of legislation and initiatives, there is still so much more to do. This Government came into power on a promise of toughness, but they have shown themselves to be desperately weak. I am only sorry that along the way so many people have suffered, and that they continue to do so.
We have heard from numerous speakers this evening that a wide range of strategies are in place to try to deal with antisocial behaviour. However, they are only as good as the sanctions that apply when they are breached, which happens all too frequently—unsurprisingly, because they are issued to people who are non-conforming and have no natural empathy with others.
The initiative that interests me most is the child safety order, which allows compulsory intervention when a child under 10 engages in antisocial behaviour. To most right-minded people, the thought of a child under 10 out in public unsupervised and getting into trouble fills us with horror. A child safety order allows compulsory intervention and, if breached, can lead to a parenting contract, which is issued on a voluntary basis, but which, if breached, can lead to a parenting order. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he might elucidate what happens when a parenting order is breached. What happens then to the child who required the child safety order in the first place?
We have also heard about the wholesale breaching of ASBOs. Breaching an ASBO is punishable by a fine or up to five years in prison. I am not sure how often the continuous breaching of an ASBO leads to a custodial sentence, but when it does, it is important that the person concerned leaves prison a better person than when they went in. One way to achieve that is by improving education and training courses in prison. However, one of the greatest impediments to that is that someone serving a custodial sentence who has to make a court appearance will thereby lose their place in the prison where they are serving their sentence. When they leave court, they are transferred to another prison, which means that any education or training that they might have been undertaking is lost, and they have to start all over again.
To somebody who might not have a good educational grounding before they go into prison, that is extremely discouraging. I hope that it might be possible to do something about that, so that people in prison can at least complete the education and training courses that they take. Even more needs to be done with employers, particularly large organisations, so that people who have completed custodial sentences are given a chance of employment, so that they can become productive members of society.
All the strategies that are in place need serious review, to see which are working and which are not, and how well they are working or otherwise. Barnardo’s has had some interesting ideas about both education programmes for children and parents outside prison, and a range of specialist services, including remand fostering, which all need to be considered together in addressing how best to combat antisocial behaviour.
There is great perplexity among people in my constituency who have been victims of antisocial behaviour. We have big problems on our buses. At one stage, two routes had to be withdrawn because the antisocial behaviour was so bad, with passengers and drivers being abused and bricks being thrown through the windows, but that has now been overcome. The routes had to be withdrawn for a period, so all the people who wanted to use them were disadvantaged because of the bad behaviour of a small number of people. I should pay tribute to Havering PCSOs, who are now doing an extremely good job of riding on the buses and giving confidence to elderly passengers in particular. Happily, for the time being at least, the bad behaviour on the buses seems to have been overcome.
Two elderly ladies who were living on either side of a problem family have contacted me this week. There was a litany of antisocial behaviour over a very long period, culminating in the family’s house being burned down and one of the adult members of the family ending up in prison. These elderly ladies now find that after the house is refurbished, one of the younger generation of the family will be allowed to assume the tenancy. They are extremely nervous that continued antisocial behaviour will lead to their having to start keeping diaries all over again. They cannot understand why a family who behaved so badly have been able to resume their tenancy in a new house that has been paid for by the taxpayer, with no guarantee of any peace of mind for their neighbours.
I want to see more police powers and more flexible police powers, so that when young people cause trouble, particularly at night out in public, the police can return them not to their homes, as they do at the moment—to the great surprise of some parents, who cannot understand why their young children have been returned home—but to the police station, so that the parents will have to come and collect them. No doubt that will be of great inconvenience to some parents, who have no idea where their children are—and who care even less—because they do not supervise them. That will at least give the police an opportunity to discuss the children’s behaviour with the parents in an attempt to modify that behaviour. There is also the opportunity for curfew orders and the confiscation of mobile phones. There is a whole flexible range of additional powers for the police to use to try to overcome this scourge in our neighbourhoods.
For the few minutes that remain, I want to concentrate on what we would colloquially term families from hell—those in which every member behaves in a socially unacceptable way and makes it impossible for anyone living in the vicinity to enjoy their lives, because of aggressive, intimidating and threatening behaviour. Such families often damage their own and other properties and they are unable to live in harmony with others, treating everybody else as a potential enemy. Of course, the children learn this behaviour from the adults around them.
Strangely, these problem families are in their own comfort zone because everyone else around is scared of them. They are in control of their area and they can make other people’s lives a misery without hindrance. The younger members, in particular, often belong to a gang and run around at night causing mayhem. However, having to move somewhere strange where they are not known by others—this is particularly true of the teenagers, who may suddenly be separated from their gang—is the last thing that such people want. Without the local reputation that they have built up, they might become the victim of the sort of intimidation that they have enjoyed meting out to others.
Although the situation is much more difficult in private property, the threat of eviction from public property much sooner in the proceedings—such proceedings can often take as long as a couple of years—could have a much more salutary effect than issuing ASBOs, which are often treated as a badge of honour and breached again and again with impunity. People should know that their antisocial behaviour could affect the security of their tenancy, in the same way that points affect a driving licence. Their victims might be encouraged to come forward with evidence if they thought that that would be effective, and that would enable the local authority and the police to build up sufficient evidence to take matters to court.
In short, several improvements could be attempted to address this problem: strengthening tenancy agreements by accumulating sanctions, with earlier eviction as a tool for moderating behaviour; better education and training in prisons, so that people who serve a custodial sentence have an opportunity to be productive and to find employment when they come out; more discretion for police officers and more flexible working hours for PCSOs; and clear consequences for troublemakers to deter them from going on to commit more serious crimes. The decent, law-abiding majority should be protected, and these simple measures could help to act as a deterrent to those who blight our neighbourhoods with antisocial behaviour.
This has been a lively and worthwhile debate. We have heard compelling arguments from hon. Members on both sides of the House about the Government’s failure to live up to their promise to curb antisocial behaviour on our streets. I would particularly like to commend the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), who has done an enormous amount of work on this problem, as the Government have clearly failed to do. My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) has also spoken, and both are Members of Parliament in the same borough as me.
Labour’s top-down, target-centric approach to fighting crime has quite obviously failed to deliver. It is a fact that 10,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour are reported every day, and almost one fifth of the population believe that there are high levels of antisocial behaviour in their community. Antisocial behaviour blights the lives of ordinary, everyday people who are trying to go about their lives, commuting to work, going out with their friends and walking to the shops. They cannot go about their daily business without being hindered by fear and having to look over their shoulder at every corner. The tragic case of Fiona Pilkington and her daughter highlighted the lengths to which people can be driven when they are on the receiving end of this horrific behaviour.
Shockingly, levels of violent crime have increased by almost 70 per cent. in the past 10 years. That is an appalling record for the Government, who have failed to fight crime and antisocial behaviour effectively. Even the Home Secretary has admitted that the Government have been resting on their laurels rather than effectively fighting antisocial behaviour. The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said that she felt the Government might be losing ground, and that they should not be complacent. Clearly, there are fears on both sides of the House that that might be happening. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) referred movingly to Fiona Pilkington. How many more people like her, who live in fear and who are afraid to leave their homes because of threats of violence and abuse, will there be? That is another example of a family that was appallingly let down by Government failure.
I agree with much of what my colleagues have said this evening, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins), who spoke about the need for discipline in schools and the need to deal with truancy. He also said that literacy was a factor in this situation.
A major catalyst for antisocial behaviour is substance abuse, as we all know. The United Kingdom has the highest level of problem drug use in Europe. This Government have allowed a dangerous and toxic youth drinking culture to develop, spurred on by 24-hour licensing and cheap drink deals. As my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) pointed out, drunken yobs have made our town centres no-go areas, deterring the many people who want to enjoy a quiet night out in town rather than drink themselves into oblivion. Binge-drinking-fuelled antisocial behaviour is a very real problem, and it is out of control.
Let us take as an example Moston lane in Manchester. On that one street alone, there are 22 premises that are licensed to sell alcohol. In Sheffield, a student was recently caught urinating on a war memorial after drinking himself into a paralytic state. Five years ago, while serving as Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) vowed to “eliminate” antisocial behaviour by the time of the next election. He has not delivered on that promise, and neither have any of his successors. This complacent attitude cannot be allowed to continue.
We cannot tackle crime unless we also address the causes of crime: family breakdown, drug abuse and binge drinking. We need an extensive review of how to tackle the blight of antisocial behaviour. Measures that work should remain in place and those that do not should simply be scrapped. A poll by the Centre for Social Justice found that more than 75 per cent. of people think that the police are not intervening enough against antisocial behaviour. I believe that that was borne out by the comments of the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), who had so many concerns that one would have thought that she was referring to a Conservative Government—but of course it is her own Government who have failed on so much of this, and they will pay the price next year.
The police have been suffocated by red tape and now spend more time at their desks doing paperwork than they do pounding the streets. We will cut police bureaucracy and give them greater powers so that they can respond more easily and more quickly to stop youths who are disturbing our communities. Fewer police sitting at their desks means more police on the streets—and there is no substitute for that. As the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) made very clear, we need to put the police back in control to be more effective, and I agree.
We will enable the police to remove young offenders from the streets altogether and to propose the introduction of street curfews and the confiscation of possessions as a deterrent against future bad behaviour. If the police believe someone is carrying a concealed weapon, they will be able to search them more easily—without a plethora of paperwork. These would all constitute real and effective measures that would enable the police to enact targeted interventions, which would have a significant impact on stopping those who indulge in antisocial behaviour before their behaviour develops into something far more sinister.
As you will know, Mr. Speaker, as shadow Home Affairs Minister with specific responsibility for animal welfare, I take particular interest in the use and abuse of animals as tools for the purpose of antisocial behaviour. Nowhere does this horrific concept resonate more strongly than in respect of dangerous dogs. In recent years, the breeding of dogs to scare, intimidate and, in the worst cases, attack others has become a significant and dangerous problem for many inner-city communities and wider urban areas across the country. Irresponsible youths and gang members with antisocial agendas are breeding and training dogs to be overly aggressive and destructive in order to provide themselves with a form of “protection” or, more specifically, “street status”. In reality, they are breeding a living, breathing offensive weapon.
The number of complaints received by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about status and dangerous dogs saw a twelvefold increase between 2004 and 2008. Over that same period, admissions to NHS hospitals for dog-inflicted wounds soared by 43 per cent. It is no exaggeration to say that what we are seeing is an emerging epidemic. It is crucial that we take into account the criminal implications, while maintaining the best interests of animal welfare at heart.
The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 prohibits the breeding, sale and ownership of certain breeds of dog. The number of prosecutions brought under this Act has more than doubled over the past decade. However, as the dramatic rise in the number of incidents shows, this legislation has failed rationally to address the problem. This ineffective legislation has also manifested itself most cruelly with cases of innocent family pets being confiscated and destroyed by the police force. It has become all too familiar under this Government that a responsible majority gets penalised by a highly irresponsible and antisocial minority. That is why we pledge to repeal the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and replace it with a dog control Act, containing provisions and requirements with a much stronger emphasis on owner responsibility.
Crime and antisocial behaviour have defined the downward spiral of this Government’s 12-year legacy. Broken promises have led to a broken society. Labour’s web of failure has now entangled more than just man: man’s best friend is also suffering owing to ignorance and a reluctance to review the legislation. Public safety is of paramount importance, and today’s problems will be tackled effectively only through properly thought out legislation and adequate support for those who enforce it.
This has been a useful and wide-ranging debate, and it was enriched by Members’ constituency experiences. I hope that they were not experiences such as the case of Fiona Pilkington—the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) mentioned that—although such experiences do remind us of what can happen in extreme cases, when agencies that people rely upon let them down. It has also largely been a realistic debate—although not entirely, I have to say. There have been no references to “The Wire”, a television programme that was the blueprint for Opposition policy at one time, and there were only three references in almost five hours to “broken Britain”, one of which was in the last five minutes. Such references are an insult to the police, local councils, the Churches, the voluntary organisations and, most of all, the residents who are working hard throughout the country to make their communities safer and better.
The reality is that crime is down by 36 per cent. in 12 years. If—this is an enormous “if” as it will not happen—the Government happened to change in the next few months, we would be the first Government since the war to leave office with crime lower than when we took office. That is the reality of the situation, whatever the rhetoric from those on the Opposition Benches.
I shall address Members’ comments in themes, rather than go through each speech. The first theme, which emerged from a number of speeches, was that antisocial behaviour is above all a local matter and that tackling it requires local action. It is a matter not just for the police or the council, but for the whole range of local agencies and partnerships working with local people in local communities. There are many examples of good practice throughout the country. Because somebody somewhere will know how to make the powers that are available work, one of the Home Office’s jobs is to make sure that the powers are used by people who know how they work, supporting and challenging local partnerships.
The second theme is that tackling antisocial behaviour is important in every community and that everyone, regardless of where they come from or whether they are rich or poor, wants to be able to live in their community in safety and with a fulfilling life. Unfortunately, that is not the case everywhere, particularly in communities where offenders prey on the poorest and most powerless. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) reminded us of the need for the twin-track approach of enforcement and prevention—to use that well-worn phrase yet again, of being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime, a prescription that even the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has come to get.
Through using the full range of available powers and enforcement and prevention, we have got crime down by 36 per cent. in 12 years. What we need is a clear enforcement message and clear punishment. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) is not present, but not for the first time, I agree with him in this regard. Having a strong enforcement message allows us to have the next conversation, which is about all the things we need to do to prevent antisocial behaviour. That means that we can talk seriously about the proposals put forward by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on short prison sentences; that was picked up by the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). Having that conversation is possible only when communities know that a strong enforcement message is going out as well, holding people responsible if they break the law.
A message that came through particularly strongly from Labour Members was the need for proper resources. That was picked up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). The Opposition were given the opportunity on a number of occasions to make commitments on resources, and everyone will have noticed that they ducked the issue.
We have an historic number of police officers: 16,000 police community support officers and 36,000 police officers in 3,600 neighbourhood policing teams spending 80 per cent. of their time on their patch. Let us have none of the nonsense about police being hindered by bureaucracy and unable to leave their police stations. To carry on repeating that message is to deny the very good work being done in neighbourhoods up and down this country.
The hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) is behind the game, talking, as he did, about the target culture. As the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism reminded him, there is only one measure: the single confidence measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) pointed out, the confidence target’s purpose is to make the police and others accountable to the public in all that they do, not least through the policing pledge, so that they face the public whom they serve.
The police have the powers available at their disposal, including antisocial behaviour orders, and, as has been acknowledged, the evidence from the National Audit Office is that where these powers are used, they work. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Hornchurch chunters from a sedentary position, and he has said, “Never mind ASBOs, what about a warning letter?” [Interruption.] I am delighted that that is what the NAO said, because I do not care what we use as long as it works. The message from the NAO is that if we intervene once—be it a warning letter or an ASBO—it changes behaviour in two thirds of the cases; by the time of a third intervention, it changes behaviour in 93 per cent. of cases. Both the police and local authorities must be prepared to use the powers and then, if they are not being effective, to escalate things—that is how to get effective action in local areas.
The focus has understandably been on young people and, in particular, on the need to divert them away from trouble, whether they are the offenders or, as in many cases of antisocial behaviour, the victims of that behaviour. People seem to forget that half the ASBOs given out do not go to youngsters; they go to adults. We need to be realistic about the involvement of young people in the criminal justice system too. I do not think that the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) was realistic in that regard. The reality is that fewer young people are coming into contact with that system, and that is a good thing. When they do come into contact with it, fewer young people then go on to reoffend, and that is a good thing. We should all be united—I hope that we are—in our view that young people, by and large, are law-abiding, decent and upstanding citizens in their local communities. We must ensure that the small minority who cause the problems feel the full force of the law and the powers that are available. I am determined that that is what will happen, but I am not sure that that determination is shared by those in every part of this House.
Young people spend most of their day in school—or they should do. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden spoke of the importance of good links between schools and the local police. That is why, as the Prime Minister has said, we want to see more safer school partnerships; I wish that we did not need after-school patrols, but if we need them, we should have more of them. It is also why we should be building on schemes such as Sure Start, not cutting them.
The hon. Member for Eastleigh mentioned the importance of sport—I agree about that—but he did not acknowledge the huge investment that this Government have put into school sport, school music and play areas in our local communities. He did not acknowledge it, but Lib Dem councillors up and down the country are, almost weekly, going around taking credit for the investment that is going into their local communities.
Much has been made of supporting families, and that is crucial if we are to win this struggle against antisocial behaviour. We need to make sure not only that parents are more responsible, but that they have the support they need to turn the corner for their family. That is why we are extending family intervention projects, which have been supported very strongly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and others. They are expensive, but they are not as expensive as doing nothing. If we take a short-term sticking plaster approach, it will ultimately cost us more in the long run.
We also need to send a strong message with tough sanctions—we need tough love. It is not a choice to sign up to family intervention projects, but a responsibility that people have to do everything they can, with support, to turn their family around. The hon. Member for Hornchurch talked about poverty and educational underachievement, and I agree with him, but I do not think it is as simple as saying that if it was not for family breakdown none of these problems of poverty or educational underachievement would exist. The reality is that the causes of crime are extremely complex and they give us, as politicians, tough choices. Do we continue to invest in Sure Start, do we invest in family intervention projects or do we cut inheritance tax for the richest 3,000 in the country?
A lot has been said, as is often the case on these occasions, about providing good local facilities, particularly for young people. The Government have put money into providing activities on Friday and Saturday nights, when—surprise, surprise—a lot of antisocial behaviour happens. In 81 areas, there were 5,000 projects. It is up to local authorities and others to step up to the mark and to ensure that they are doing everything they can to make sure that those facilities and activities are available. I hope that when local councils look at their budgets and look to make cuts—youth facilities are often easy targets—and are scrambling to get 0 per cent. council tax increases next April, every Member of this House who wants youth facilities will be out there arguing for them in their area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell), who is no longer in his place, asked about the confiscation of assets—a key part of tackling offenders in our community. The direct answer to his question is that half the money taken in assets seized goes to the Home Office and makes up the Home Office budget that goes into front-line services. The rest is shared between agencies. He mentioned, as did others, community cashback, which ensures that money goes into local schemes and under which £4 million has gone into local projects, voted for by local people. Residents can see that justice is being done because they can see that crime does not pay.
I agree with the hon. Member for Eastleigh that we have to take a holistic approach. We have to ensure that the money, commitment and resources that go into local areas are all applied to the problems in those local areas. I commend to him the Total Place pilots that are running up and down the country to ensure that we are getting the most that we can out of our investment of money from Departments and agencies. That is crucial in these difficult economic times.
In conclusion, antisocial behaviour is an issue for every community. People have a right to live in safety, peace and security. We need a realistic assessment of where we are and of the progress that has been made. It is important to acknowledge and build on that progress. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford said that antisocial behaviour and harassment happen less often than they did. I agree with her, but they still happen more often than they should.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of tackling anti-social behaviour.