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Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis): I greatly welcome the opportunity to contribute, albeit briefly, to this debate, especially as I was not a member of the Standing Committee. I come to this debate with an interest stemming mainly from a number of years spent as a magistrate in what was then known as the juvenile court and is now known as the youth court. I hope also to give some practical examples from my own constituency where, in a voluntary way, some of the orders set out in the Bill are already in operation.

I fully support the Bill's provisions and will comment especially on the clauses concerned with curtailing anti-social behaviour. These measures must be implemented if we are effectively to protect people from harassment and disruption in their daily lives. My post bag over the past year has shed light on the fact that these measures will come as welcome relief to many people, especially older people and those on some estates in Halesowen and Rowley Regis who have been victims of anti-social behaviour by young people, some of whom, I regret to say, are as young as eight or nine.

I believe that it is high time that we, as elected representatives, took responsibility for dealing with the very real problem of youth crime and anti-social behaviour, which causes many law-abiding citizens such huge distress. The Bill is a welcome step in tackling youth crime, providing a clear strategy to prevent offending and, equally important, reoffending, by young people. For the first time, moreover, the Bill includes measures to make sure that it is not only the offenders themselves but their parents--through the new sanctions of parenting and child safety orders--who must face up to offending behaviour and take responsibility for it. Parents who do nothing to prevent their children from behaving in an anti-social manner, or, indeed, who allow them to run riot, will at last be brought to account by these measures. It is morally and ethically right that the onus be placed on parents to accept responsibility for their children's misbehaviour. Parental neglect of this kind is not fair on the children or on the people who become victims of the children who turn to crime.

In one part of my constituency, the police and the special constabulary have already been making valiant strides to place greater responsibility on parents. Last year, "Operation Guardian", which commenced across South Sandwell, targeted public nuisance and anti-social behaviour by youngsters. The police consulted community groups, tenants associations and police

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consultative committees before the scheme began. Directed patrols concentrated on areas identified by complaints from the public at times that were relevant to the nuisance occurring--with the intention of resolving the problem, not just dealing with the incident.

Often, the problem related to the activities of young people congregated in groups, but there were also more serious offences by neighbours, including assaults and criminal damage. Sometimes advice to the people concerned was a suitable response to an activity. If that was accepted positively, the problems could be resolved by such action alone. If it was not accepted, letters were written to parents seeking their involvement to exercise parental responsibility. Many of the parents responded positively to being informed about their children's behaviour.

The operation was highly successful, leading to 600 calls between May and September last year and a substantial fall in reported cases of nuisance behaviour. The Bill and the Government amendment will give greater impetus to such operations by formalising and rationalising them in a statutory framework. In the words of Superintendent Baxter, they will provide a "package of opportunities" to deal with such incidents.

I also welcome the power to impose curfews in areas identified by local authorities and the police as particular hot spots for trouble. I fully support the Government's initiative in introducing that bold step in a bold Bill. Local authorities should have the power to introduce local child curfews to address the problem of unsupervised, disruptive children on the streets late at night. Young offenders and their parents will be held accountable for causing disruption and, as it applies to children of 10 and younger, the measure will protect very young children from being drawn into criminal and anti-social behaviour--the so-called sub-criminal activities that can often spiral into serious crime later.

The sanctions that the police, acting in co-operation with local authorities, will have will protect the community from nuisance and harassment caused by youngsters and by anti-social behaviour generally, including that induced by drink or drugs. Replacing repeat and inconsistent cautioning with a final warning strategy is a welcome deterrent. We should be tough and consistent in our punishment of those who regularly cause emotional--and sometimes physical--pain to others.

In my constituency, great strides have already been made to tackle youth crime and social disorder on a multi-agency level. South-west Sandwell community initiative has successfully maintained the partnership approach, and strong links have been forged with the voluntary and statutory organisations in the constituency. A number of community safety initiatives have been supported through the project and have proved very successful in resolving local problems. The main focus of work with young people has been through a detached youth work scheme. That youth work has been issue-based, providing young people with an opportunity to examine their behaviour and increase their awareness of the choices available to them.

I should like to cite two examples of the success of the project in focusing young people's attention on their anti-social behaviour. In Cradley Heath and Old Hill, the recorded incidence of criminal damage and arson fell by 37 per cent. after the schemes were put into operation.

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On an estate on Grange road, reported incidents of nuisance behaviour fell from more than 200 to just four between April and August 1996.

The work of the police has been significantly helped by support from local community residents. Community organisations, the police and local businesses have come together and succeeded in reducing youth crime. Local people have acknowledged a change in the quality of life in the area.

Important though all the orders are, I am pleased that the Government are not introducing the measures in a vacuum. Tackling youth crime effectively requires a twin-track approach. We need effective powers and sanctions against offenders, and responsible and consistent social policies to ensure that being a young offender does not become an integral part of growing up. I support the Government's strategies for combating unemployment, drugs, failing schools and low educational achievement.

Reducing youth crime and disorder is about local authorities, the police, schools, parents and the community working in partnership. Voluntary and non-statutory schemes in my constituency have proved successful. We have to adopt legislative measures to give the relevant authorities the teeth to stamp out a problem that has been caused in part by the policies of the former Government and the social neglect over which they presided in some of our most deprived areas.

5.45 pm

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) spoke powerfully. I wish that things were as easy as she makes out. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made a more thoughtful speech, because he revealed a problem. We all know about the family from hell. I have followed the Minister's comments carefully today and in Committee. I understand what he is trying to achieve with families that may be out of control.

We should define our terms carefully. We can do no better than to refer to the oracle himself--the Minister--who described in Committee the aim of the orders:


Later he said:


    "We think it unlikely that an order would be sought against a child unless his behaviour was part of the behaviour of a wider or older group."--[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 30 April 1998; c. 48-53.]

We have the definition of an anti-social behaviour order, and we know that such orders will be directed not at individual children, but at the family. The Minister made clear in Committee the danger of introducing children to courts gradually, because they can become case-hardened with repeat appearances. I share that point of view, based on my practical experience. We have to be very careful about taking a child to court. I understand that the provision will be used only rarely, when it is the only way to deal with a family.

However, I am not sure that the Minister has answered the point about the children's panels in Scotland. I do not know the details of the Scottish situation, but I understand

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from the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) that the panels are informal, effective and successful. I do not think that the Minister dealt adequately with the point of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed on that.


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