Crime and Disorder Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Clappison: How will the court know that?

Mr. Michael: How will the court know what?

Mr. Clappison: How will the court know that incivility is not a qualifying act?

Mr. Michael: The point I am making is that incivility would not be a criminal act if it did not reach the level of criminal definition, but it might well be part of a pattern of behaviour. For instance, shouting at other people and the conflict that arises from that is associated with more serious acts which could give rise to an application for an order. In other words, incivil behaviour could well be part of the context. I do not think that there is a problem with that. The court must decide whether the behaviour that is described in the evidence of those applying for an order is serious enough to justify an order being given. Any such behaviour should be seen in that context.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): I refer back to swearing on the bus or swearing across the garden fence at the neighbours such behaviour would clearly be deemed incivil. Am I correct in understanding the Minister to say that although it would not be sufficient on its own to merit an order, it may be referred to as part of a pattern of behaviour?

Mr. Michael: I want us to treat these instances as examples and not end up with definitions. I am saying that I think it extremely unlikely that such behaviour on its own would lead to either the police or the local authority feeling justified in applying to the court for an order. I suppose there might be circumstances in which the behaviour was so intense and extensive and took place over such a long time that the court might be convinced that it was serious enough to give rise to an order, but it is pretty unlikely. There are other ways of dealing with the problem. However, it might well be part of a pattern of behaviour that could be prohibited by an order to prevent distress, alarm and other problems continuing. Such exchanges help to take us towards an understanding of the mixture of issues that we have to take into account when considering the orders.

As regards the list of specifics, there is also the issue of the victim's firmness. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) dealt with that completely, so I see no need to linger on it.

11.15 am

The issue was raised of a sensitive soul who was unduly affected by the behaviour of others. That is covered by the fact that the police and the local authority would have to examine the behaviour and its impact and by the test of reasonableness before the court, which would have to be satisfied.

On a slightly more trivial note, the hon. Member for Hertsmere, who suggested that he might send smoke signals in his back garden, would be covered by environmental health legislation. An anti-social behaviour order would not be needed unless he took his tendency to the cultural behaviour of the red indian to the extreme in other ways.

I hope that I have made it clear that we need an instrument that relieves people in communities of the misery that they presently experience. When I have described events and the elephant on the doorstep to Members of Parliament, councillors, housing officers and people who, like me, have worked in high-crime areas, there has been a great deal of nodding. There is much enthusiasm for the orders.

I entirely accept the points that hon. Members raised on Tuesday; they are legitimately concerned that the order should be used to protect the public and that it is not abused or misused. I hope that I have satisfied hon. Members and allayed any fears that they might have had by providing the illustrations that I have done. I hope that we can move forward and allow the anti-social behaviour order to become part of legislation so that it is available to the police and local authorities. That will enable them to provide members of the public with the protection that has been sadly lacking until now.

Mr. Allan: I am pleased that we have had a useful debate on the scope of the order in the context of a group of amendments that is headed by amendment No. 38 in my name. My initial brevity was partly customary on my part; it was also partly the result of my wish to extent to the Conservative spokesman the courtesy of letting him introduce his amendments without rehearsing his arguments for him. I was pleased to see that we now have a grand alliance that seeks to uphold our traditional civil liberties. The two great parties of the 19th century and the Howard League are allied in their serious concerns about civil liberties.

Despite the Minister's additional clarification, however, questions remain. The hon. Member for Hertsmere made some useful and informative points about existing remedies. He was ably backed up by the hon. Member for Woking, who made particular reference to the Public Order Act 1986. The hon. Member for Hendon helped to make our point about the test of a reasonable person even though he tried to speak against it. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) showed himself to be a true libertarian, while the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) warned us not to be too distracted by busybodies, burglar alarms or neighbours from hell.

The Minister offered important clarification on the order's scope in response to our queries. Some of the human rights concerns to which he referred remain, and there will be scope to test them against the Human Rights Bill when it becomes law.

Mr. Paul Stinchcombe (Wellingborough): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the most important human right of all is the right to live free from fear and intimidation and to feel safe in one's own house?

Mr. Allan: Certainly, we accept that. There is, however, the major issue of the relationship between the citizen and the state. This country has quite rightly always had a tradition of law under which the state has had to follow the usual legal remedies, and these remedies must be proportionate to the acts. Liberal Democrats seek to clarify that the proposed remedies are proportionate and not overbearing. The Human Rights Bill will go a long way towards establishing such proportionality throughout criminal and civil law. We welcome that.

We are pleased to hear that juveniles are not the main targets of the order. Anxiety clearly exists that the wider body of citizenry may feel that tools are being provided to attack groups of youths who do just what young people do, which is to hang out on street corners. Young people have done that since time immemorial and they will continue to do so. We would be uncomfortable about supporting measures targeted specifically at such groups. People's ability to suggest in their defence that their intention and behaviour were reasonable is an important qualification.

We seek assurance that such qualification will extend to people such as the mentally ill. Somebody with mental illness may frequently engage in unreasonable behaviour that causes significant harassment, alarm and distress. The Bill should have scope to cover the fact that such behaviour would be reasonable, given the nature of the condition involved.

The key to the Bill's success or failure will be implementation. Liberal Democrats welcome the guidance notes, even if they are a little late. We shall consider the exact niche that the orders will eventually fill. We are anxious that they should not be used to level up offences, against those which were previously too trivial to bring the people involved into contact with the justice system. They should not level down offences either; they should not be used in circumstances in which a sensible remedy is available. Discussion of the Public Order Act 1986 was relevant in that context. If possible, a remedy should be sought to the criminal standard of proof within the Public Order Act rather than by resort to the order.

Liberal Democrats will ask the Minister to propose procedures effectively to monitor use of the orders. Such monitoring will be the key to establishing whether the Committee's debate about scope will be reflected in reality, when the legislation is used by police and local authorities. I hope that the Minister will agree that such monitoring is necessary, and assure the Committee that the Government remain open to amending procedures and to redefining the scope of the orders if they are misapplied for any reason.

We remain anxious about these issues. With the assurances that we have sought, I shall seek your leave, Mr. O'Hara, to withdraw amendment No. 38.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman leaves me with a small problem. Other hon. Members had indicated their wish to speak to the amendment. The hon. Gentleman has expressed an intention to withdraw it. I shall take the view that he has not sought the Committee's permission for that withdrawal.

Mr. Malins: I am grateful to the Minister for his responses. The matters debated have not been sorted out or answered to everybody's satisfaction, but the[Mr. Malins] Minister's approach has been constructive. He made it clear that the orders were not to be directed at very young people. That is odd; the Home Secretary has always said that his principal intention is to nip youth crime in the bud. One always had it in mind that the Bill's basic aim would be to get hold of and to deal with 10, 11 and 12-year-olds.

One or two points have not been dealt with fully. I am still interested in whether there is a particular reason why, when under the Public Order Act 1986 conduct from one dwelling to another is exempted from being an offence, it can constitute behaviour subject to an anti-social behaviour order under the Bill. That is a good thing, if anti-social behaviour is to be dealt with. It is perfectly possible for behaviour to have an effect that moves from one building to another for example offending a person in a building opposite. That is an intriguing difference.

Mr. Michael: That reason that youth offending is not the main target of the clause is that young people's behaviour particularly the development of offending behaviour in young people is dealt with in a practical and constructive way later in the Bill. I look forward to the debates on those clauses.

As to the comparison with the Public Order Act 1986, we should remember that we are considering a preventive order. It is more appropriate to ask whether any particular distinction should be made in the case of the order than to draw such a comparison.

 
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