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'including the behaviour of those under the age of criminal responsibility'.

23 Jun 1998 : Column 881

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 76, in clause 14, page 12, line 13, after 'considers', insert

'that there are exceptional circumstances which make'.

No. 12, in clause 16, page 14, line 3, at end insert--

'(3A) Where a constable has removed a child or young person under subsection (3) above, he may confiscate any article which he has reason to suppose that the child or young person was using in the course of offering any services (whether solicited or otherwise) to any person during the time he was absent from school without lawful authority.
(3B) An article confiscated under subsection (3A) above may be disposed of in a prescribed manner.'.

Mr. Beith: We have opposed the introduction of child curfews on both practical grounds and in principle, and we divided the Committee on clause stand part on that issue. As a matter of principle, it is inappropriate to deny basic freedom of movement to general sections of the public on the basis of the possible behaviour of a few individuals--one thinks of the present arguments about whether all English attendance at world cup matches should be stopped because of the behaviour of a few. It is a difficult principle once one starts to apply it; most of us have had experience of it from schooldays, when the whole class was kept in for the behaviour of one individual.

The terminology "curfew" had its origins in the locking of city gates at night, and its more recent use is borrowed from the practices of much more authoritarian regimes, which deny freedom of movement to many of their citizens for all sorts of reasons. Even for the apparently commendable reason of preventing or discouraging the bad behaviour of a few, it is not a desirable principle that large numbers of people should be penalised.

Furthermore, if curfews became widely used for this age group, it would be a substantial change in our society and in the relationship between the state and individuals, particularly in view of the signal it would give to young people. The more that young people are told that their behaviour is against the law merely because they are out and about, the more we shall sow in them the idea that the authorities, the police and the mechanisms of law and order are against anything that they do, rather than being there to punish wrongdoing and protect the innocent, which is the signal that we ought to be giving them. We want them to support the police, and to recognise that law and order is their protection as well as that of other generations. To penalise them merely for being out of doors is unreasonable if they are not at fault in any way.

6.15 pm

The Government care very much about establishing who is responsible for things, and they seem to be throwing responsibility in all directions at once. During the passage of the Bill and in their consultation papers, they have rightly stated that they want parents and children as young as 10 to take more responsibility. Now, they are saying that the state should take responsibility for deciding what time children should go to bed. The desire to place responsibility where it belongs has gone slightly askew in giving the state that power.

I wondered whether the decision to proceed in this way had a sound basis in research, so I asked a parliamentary question, but the answer did not refer to any specific

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research. How many young people under 10 are not being protected because of the absence of a curfew? If they are not being protected, could an existing power be more successfully enforced? How many young people are causing problems on the streets at night and what is the peak time for young offending? Is it late at night, when the curfew might be applied, or straight after school, when it would be impossible to apply? What has been the effect of curfews in other countries? Apart from the Hamilton experiment, which the Minister did not cite in his reply, we have no research evidence.

From the discussion, it has emerged that the proposal for local child curfews, however it started out, is now seen by Ministers to be more of an experiment than a substantial addition to policy. We are concerned that demands for extension of the use of curfews will increase. During our debates, hon. Members have pleaded that the age at which curfews apply should be raised and raised again, and that the period for which they apply should be longer and longer. Because of the pressures from the public to do something--not necessarily the right thing--about the problems that they face, we may be on a slippery slope in which curfews become more and more a part of our system.

Another concern is that curfews will be the first port of call in response to a problem in an area, and that if a few young people are causing trouble, we shall introduce a curfew rather than directing attention to them and using the resources of the various agencies, on a partnership basis, to deal with them and the problems that they cause. I appreciate that the Secretary of State will have to approve schemes, but he may be under growing political pressure to do so on a fairly widespread basis.

Given the decision in principle taken in Committee, we have tabled amendments to make it a requirement that the behaviour of those under the age of criminal responsibility in an area is considered when formulating crime and disorder strategies, so that thorough and appropriate responses can be developed. Recognising that that strategy would be developed, we could then allow child curfews only under truly exceptional circumstances--that would be the combined effect of the two amendments. More emphasis would be put on formulating plans to deal with criminal behaviour by groups of young people--children--and recognising that a curfew should be introduced only in genuinely exceptional circumstances.

Of course, a curfew is meaningless unless the police can enforce it and, if one has sufficient police officers to impose a curfew on every child over a certain age who is out at night in the area, one has available sufficient officers to target the people who are committing the crimes in the first place; that would be a better use of those officers. Much of our effort is dedicated to trying to ensure that if the powers are used at all, it will be in only the most exceptional circumstances and that resources will be targeted at young people who are committing, or are likely to commit, offences, and not at innocent young people, who will consequently feel that the police and the authorities are against them even when their behaviour is in no way illegal, and is no more unreasonable than being out at night after a time when some people think that their parents should have sent them to bed.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): I tabled amendment No.12 as a probing amendment and, within its confines, I must refer to the problem of squeegee

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merchants, particularly as it applies on the streets of London. For those who are not familiar with the problem, one pulls up the car at traffic lights and, before one knows it, someone has pounced on the car and is washing the windscreen with soapy suds. In truth, it is an unsolicited service much as described in new clause 6 which, disappointingly although understandably, was not chosen for debate.

The problem is most common in London, which is not surprising, as we have the most traffic and, indeed, the most traffic lights, which provide the opportunity for the squeegee merchant to select the car that he wants to clean. In one sense, the service ought to be welcome--the opportunity of having the windscreen washed for perhaps 50p--but regrettably, that is not the way in which the practice has developed. The service is unsolicited and one is given no opportunity to reject it or agree the terms. It leads to harassment, aggression and intimidating behaviour towards the occupants of the car. It has to be distinguished, for example, from the chap selling the Evening Standard beside the road--if one wants to buy the paper, one will catch his eye and he will walk over with the paper--or the man selling bunches of roses, to whom one can say, "Twenty roses for the wife, please"--or for whomever one is going to see. In those cases, there is an offer and an acceptance--an agreed contract.

Even confident and assertive people find it difficult to handle squeegee merchants. I came out of a car wash the other day and drove to the first set of traffic lights with a squeaky clean windscreen. I found a chap cleaning it before I had the opportunity to say, "Stop." That can lead to resentment. Some people refuse to pay, and others ask the squeegee merchant to stop providing the service, both of which actions may lead to trouble. Regrettably, there have been reports of attacks on drivers. Only yesterday, I heard that a driver at traffic lights on Vauxhall bridge asked a squeegee merchant to stop cleaning his windscreen, but as he wound down his window to convey that message, he got a bucket of water in his face. [Interruption.] It is quite amusing, unless one happens to be the guy driving the car.

In another case, someone asked a squeegee merchant to stop. The chap said that he would, but he cleaned off the soapy suds with wire wool, which permanently scratched the windscreen. My concern is primarily for vulnerable drivers--the elderly person just driving down the road to the shops, or a single woman on her own who finds the situation hard to handle.

When he was in opposition in September 1995, the Home Secretary made what was described as a tough- talking speech on the subject. He said:

He said that there would be a crackdown, but we are 14 months into this Parliament, and we have seen no crackdown.

The problem is that the law does not specifically target problems of this type. The police must pray in aid a variety of offbeat powers to prosecute squeegee merchants. In the Vauxhall bridge case, the chap who got

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the bucket of water in his face went to the local police station, where he was told the police would not prosecute because it would be one heck of a job to produce all the evidence and because the legislation did not target that type of crime. Various Acts are available to fight the problem in an oblique way: the Public Order Act 1986; the Metropolitan Police Act 1839; the Highways Act 1980; and London local government legislation. However, those powers do not properly equip the police to make the clean kill of a quick prosecution.

We need a targeted crime, as set out in the non-selected new clause 6. My amendment was intended to be probing, and I should be interested to hear what the Government will do to address a problem particularly prevalent on the streets of London and in areas around my constituency.

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