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Child Curfew Orders

11. Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): How many local child curfew orders have been issued under the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. [99686]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): None yet. It is for local authorities to decide whether to apply for confirmation of a local child curfew scheme, in the light of their work on wider crime and disorder strategies.

Mr. Loughton: Does the Minister agree that the Government's child curfew orders have been exposed as a gimmick? They did nothing in my constituency, in Shoreham and Worthing, to counter 13, 14 or 15-year-old hooligans spraying graffiti and smashing up town centres, especially following the reduction of police numbers in the county by 161. If it is true that the Home Secretary is to have another go less than a year on, and that he plans to amend the Crime and Disorder Act, will the Minister acknowledge that getting tough on youth crime requires more than soundbites and pledge cards?

Mr. Clarke: That was a fine soundbite. I do not accept that the orders are a gimmick. I must put the hon. Gentleman straight. Local child curfew orders were an additional measure to counteract public misbehaviour by children under 10, not to deal with the 13, 14 and 15-year-olds to whom the hon. Gentleman referred. Child curfew orders are one of the range of measures available to crime reduction partnerships under the Crime and Disorder Act. The range of orders being taken up and used, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary outlined, demonstrates that the partnerships have been a tremendous success in achieving co-ordination and in deterring people from activities in which they might otherwise have engaged. The hon. Gentleman should sort out whether he is for or against legislating to prevent anti-social behaviour.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): The provision for child curfews under the Crime and Disorder Act has been warmly welcomed by both police and constituents in my area. The curfews depend, of course, on successful partnerships being built up. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred to initiatives to find out whether problems are occurring in partnerships, but could not a more proactive approach be taken to circulate local authorities and perhaps Members of Parliament with examples of the successful working of partnerships, so that we can take forward such measures in our areas?

Mr. Clarke: What my hon. Friend suggests is welcome and correct. That was one of the proposals that we set out in our crime reduction paper, published last week. We

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acknowledged the truth of what my hon. Friend says: we need to do more proactively in relation to local partnerships, and give examples of draft protocols, guidelines, training, best practice and so on, to ensure that the measures available are taken up in the most effective way.

Sex Offenders

12. Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South): What steps the Government are taking to ensure that (a) children and (b) other members of the public are protected from sex offenders. [99687]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The Government are committed to protecting children and others from sex offenders. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 contained strong additional safeguards in the new sex offender orders and extended supervision provisions. This Session, as part of the crime and public protection Bill, we are bringing forward proposals for a scheme to prevent unsuitable people, including sex offenders, from working with children.

Ms Moran: I welcome the measures that my right hon. Friend outlined to give priority to public protection from sex offenders--in sharp contrast to the Opposition, who did not consider the issue sufficiently serious to include it among their so-called guarantees. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is still considerable concern about the low number of prosecutions of sex offenders in cases in which the victims are children of five and under or adults with mental incapacities? What additional protections does he propose to introduce to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected?

Mr. Boateng: My hon. Friend has a track record of concern and action in relation to the protection of very young children from such sex predators. We look to the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 to provide a range of additional safeguards for children and young people, to ensure that the court has the opportunity to receive the best evidence from them. It is vital that the courts, the Crown Prosecution Service and Victim Support work together to ensure that those wicked people are brought to justice and that our children are properly protected.

Rural Policing

13. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What measures he is taking to reduce police response times in rural areas. [99688]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Government place great emphasis on improving police response times to emergency calls. At present, individual forces set their targets. The Association of Chief Police Officers is considering whether to move to a maximum 20-minute target time for all rural forces across the country. The current target time in Cheshire is 15 minutes, which is already ahead of that target. We intend to drive down the response time through the use of improved technology and more police officers, as we have already outlined.

Mr. O'Brien: As the Minister knows, police response times take, on average, twice as long in rural areas as in

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urban areas. That, coupled with the closure of police stations in rural areas, exacerbates rural dwellers' increasing sense of insecurity and desperation. Why do not the Home Secretary and the Minister implement the recommendations of the Home Office report on rural police funding? Does the Minister agree that his decision is yet another example of the Government's antagonism towards those who live in rural areas?

Mr. Clarke: That is nonsense, although I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his first contribution to Home Office questions. The facts for the Cheshire police are clear: they received an increase of £4.7 million--a 4.1 per cent. increase, which is well above the national average--and 28 extra officers. The force numbers are therefore increasing.

The Government are strongly committed to dealing with rural crime. We have established a series of measures, including those on reducing response times, which, I acknowledge to the hon. Gentleman, are an important aspect of community confidence in rural areas. We shall continue to drive forward the changes, which, I further acknowledge, are very necessary.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My hon. Friend may not be aware that there has been a sudden spate in rural areas of thefts of such expensive items as 4x4s and tractors. That causes alarm. However, my hon. Friend may also like to acknowledge that those in the rural area around Nantwich, especially the officers at Nantwich police station, are doing a tremendous job which is greatly appreciated by those who are most affected. When I accidentally set off the alarms in a Cheshire county council library on Saturday, the police responded at twice the speed of the relevant private security firm.

Mr. Clarke: I might have known that my hon. Friend was precisely the sort of dangerous, anti-social element that the Government are trying to tackle--in several different contexts. I am grateful for her contribution. In many parts of the country, the farm watch initiatives, which cover some of the farm equipment that my hon. Friend mentioned, have been effective. They are another consequence of effective local crime reduction partnerships.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is not the problem the fact that patrolling in rural areas is virtually non-existent, and that the thin blue line has become extremely thin in much of rural Britain? Given the problems that we have already discussed, such as difficulties in recruiting, training, equipping and retaining special constables, would it not be an idea to examine the policy on fire brigades, which is covered by the other half of the Home Office operation, and consider retained constables?

Mr. Clarke: I do not accept for a moment what the hon. Gentleman says about patrolling in rural areas, but I accept that there is a lot of interest in rural neighbourhood special constables or retained constables, and those issues are worth pursuing. Some rural forces have a strong local special constable presence, which is an example that we are looking at carefully across the country; and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I are carefully considering

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ways in which not only the fire service but the ambulance service can work with the police to ensure that there is a strong community safety element in rural areas.

Anti-social Behaviour Orders

14. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford): If he will list the anti-social behaviour orders (a) granted by the courts and (b) currently applied for. [99689]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Information on the number of anti-social behaviour orders granted or in progress is not held centrally, but I am aware of 10 ASBOs made to date. Orders have been granted in north Somerset--which my hon. Friends will be grateful to hear is a Conservative council area--Liverpool, Derbyshire, Redditch, Camden, Blackburn, Coventry and Waveney. They are a new weapon to help the police and local authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour in the community. We are giving more impetus to that work, and are setting up an action group to achieve that and to ensure that the police and local authorities have the confidence to take action quickly and efficiently.

Mr. Beard: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Is he aware that some of the delay involved in serving anti-social behaviour orders arises from difficulties with establishing the requisite evidence, either because the complaints are not sufficiently specific or because of intimidation or improvements in behaviour when inquiries are known to be afoot? Will he consider ways in which those difficulties might be overcome?

Mr. Clarke: Certainly I will. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said earlier, we are learning how best to address the evidential issues. We are considering ideas such as the use of portable videos in particular areas to strengthen the evidential basis of action, and we are talking to local authorities and police across the country to learn from their experience how we can give better guidance to ensure that there is much higher take-up of ASBOs. I hope that all Members of the House will encourage their local authorities and police to take up ASBOs in the most effective way.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): The Minister may read out a list of individual local authorities that have made orders, but is not the reality that pitifully few have been issued? Does he not recall that the Government promised that this measure was their way of addressing disorder in estates up and down the country? Should he not accept that the courts, the police and the local authorities have found the orders difficult to operate? Would not it be sensible to invite Lord Warner, as part of the review that the Home Secretary has announced, to consider the legal character of the orders? Instead of blaming civil rights lawyers, local authorities and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, the Government should look at the nature of the orders, because that is where the defects arise. They will have to accept responsibility for that deficiency.

Mr. Clarke: I have already said, as has my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, that we intend to provide much stronger guidance, stronger guidelines and better protocols to address those issues. I am acutely conscious that Hertsmere is not one of the authorities that have so far

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issued an ASBO, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been doing his best to persuade it and local police to use one in his constituency.

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