Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Lock: As I mentioned, the clause relates to new powers to provide similar protection for witnesses in civil cases and other categories of criminal cases as is currently provided under section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. That Act provides for protection of witnesses purely in criminal cases.

The hon. Lady asked what is being done to encourage witnesses. I assure her that the Government are committed to encouraging witnesses. She might be interested to know that we are currently rolling out an additional programme to make Victim Support available at all 413 magistrates courts following an announcement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in February 1999. I had the pleasure of visiting the Birmingham magistrates court Victim Support service on Monday. It provides an excellent service. Victim Support is well recognised in Crown courts and now operates in magistrates courts as well. We look forward to the rolling out of that programme during the next two years. Support will also be provided for witnesses in civil cases in the magistrates court, notably in family cases in which, I am afraid, there is as much intimidation of witnesses as in many criminal cases.

The hon. Lady also referred to the moving of witnesses' accommodation prior to trial. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was extremely brave and prepared to go public in his support for witnesses in a recent case. He received commendations from across the political spectrum for the stance that he took.

4 pm

The hon. Member for Taunton is right in that if Whitehall imposed a ``one size fits all'' system, it would cause enormous administrative inconvenience. I assure her that I shall pass her observations to the Home Office, which is co-ordinating the Government's approach to support witnesses, and ensure that they are taken into consideration before any decisions are taken. I commend the clause to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 40 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 41 and 42 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 43

Extension to older children

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Hawkins: We referred earlier to the problems faced by those at the sharp end—police constables and sergeants. There are particular worries about the Government's failure so far to introduce an effective curfew regime. When Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, was asked recently what he thought about curfews and the Government's proposals, and whether he had the numbers to enforce the curfews, he said:

    ``No, we have not...We have insufficient people patrolling and don't have the people with time to devote to this particular problem...At the moment, the current law applies to the under-10s. Whilst there are some out-of control nine-year olds, and we do encounter nine-year-olds who are burgling at night, causing major problems in their community, intimidating people, committing damage and being generally unruly, the larger, problematic group is the under 16s.''

That is obviously why the Government are talking about older age groups. Fred Broughton said that that was originally the Police Federation's suggestion, but that the Government rejected it. They have now learnt some sense as a result of their existing law being unworkable. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I both told the Government that that would not work when they came up with their original proposals.

Fred Broughton went on to say:

    ``But a larger group will require more police resources. Curfews are also highly bureaucratic and forces have been telling me they can't break through the bureaucracy to implement them in the first place.''

The Government may have learnt a lesson in terms of the age group and realised that we and the Police Federation were right when we objected to the original proposals. However, they have not learnt a lesson about bureaucracy. It may help the Committee if I say that, although we will certainly return to this subject on Report, I shall not invite my hon. Friends to vote against clause 43, but I shall invite them to vote against clause 44 because that is entirely over-bureaucratic.

Mr. Heald: It is bad enough being bureaucratic by introducing a proposal that would not work in respect of local authorities. If the Government want to extend the age, so be it, but to impose such bureaucracy on the police would be wrong.

Mr. Hawkins: My hon. Friend is right. What he said reinforces how misleading the Government's spin has been on the matter, as it has been on so many other subjects. In March 1999, the Home Secretary told the Association of Local Government and the Metropolitan police that the Government's original proposals for child curfews would

    ``serve the dual purpose of protecting the community and young children.''

The proposals have patently failed and the Police Federation are reporting from forces thoughout the country that they have failed.

In June 1996, when Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister told the national press that child curfews were ``eminently sensible'' and that they would tackle

    ``young children wandering the streets at night, getting into trouble, growing into a life of criminality.''

He went round the country making such statements. However, when the Labour party came into power, it produced something that was bureaucratic and unworkable. Unfortunately, it has not learnt its lesson. I do not want to take up much time of the Committee. I just wanted to raise a matter of general principle. While we do not oppose the clause, we think that the Government are not learning lessons from the failure of their policies. While we shall return to the matter on Report, we will definitely formally reject the following clause.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West): Given the level of opposition and the derision that the clause received on Second Reading, I was surprised that no amendments had been tabled to it. Opposition Members have made their position clear to a certain extent, although I am not sure that it is consistent.

Mr. Heald: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this clause and clause 44 build on the foundation of failure? What is the purpose of trying to amend such a failure?

Mr. Bailey: Supposedly building on the foundation of failure, I find it odd that the Opposition do not intend to oppose clause 43.

Uniquely among the members of the Committee, I am still a serving councillor and have been so for the past eight years. During that time, I have seen the great majority of complaints at my surgeries and the telephone calls to my home change from issues related mainly to housing to issues relating to youth behaviour and neighbourhood problems with which the clause deals.

Mr. Hawkins: That is the Labour Government for you.

Mr. Bailey: No, the past eight years since 1991. I appreciate that Opposition Members have not had the benefit of the literacy and numeracy hours that were introduced by the Government. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Bailey: May I continue? Comments have been made about the so-called failure to take any action on the legislation that is based on the 10-year deadline. That is because, while 10-year-olds can be and, indeed, often are involved in group antisocial activity in certain locations, it is rarely solely 10-year-olds. Unless the age limit is extended, the opportunity for the proposals to be effective is limited. Happily, the proposals deal with the problem.

My experience of complaints is that there are hotspots in certain localities. Sometimes, young people take an exception to groups of elderly persons and find them easy to intimidate and, on occasions, terrorise. Sometimes, the construction of a certain site causes problems. A convenient wall or a specified area within a housing estate may lend itself easily to young people's congregating there. At other times, empty premises can provide a convenient squatting area plus an opportunity to vandalise and pick up materials that can be distributed throughout the area, to the dismay of all the neighbours. Sometimes, the location of shops may be the problem; any shop that stays open at night provides a convenient pool of light in the dark and is a magnet to young people who want a place to congregate. Other members of the public have to make their way through a barrier of young people, which may add an extra intimidatory factor. We want to remove the opportunity for young people to intimidate others in those spots.

Previously, complaints have been made to the police, who are often overworked and cannot get to the area in time to deal with the problem. If they manage to turn up, it is difficult for them to discover the main perpetrators and distinguish between them and the hangers on. They are also limited in their powers to move groups on. Groups can be intimidatory simply by virtue of being a group; they may not be engaged in anything identifiably antisocial. Elderly people are intimidated by large groups of young people in closely defined locations.

When the police are unable to do anything, they may pass the buck to the local authority, which may then say that it is really a matter for the police. That means that no action can be taken, to the increasing frustration of local residents.

Jackie Ballard: I am worried by the implication of the hon. Gentleman's comments. He seems to mean that, because the police cannot deal with the problem of young people in numbers who intimidate other people in the community, a geographical blanket curfew should be enforced. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is an appropriate response to the situation that he has described?

Mr. Bailey: No. I am saying that this legislation may be appropriate for dealing with identifiable hotspots.

As for the alleged bureaucracy, it was implicit in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that local authorities, the police and the community had to work in tandem. The legislation will not be successful unless those parties work together. The police and local authorities are unlikely to respond unless there is a problem in an area, defined by the complaints made by local people.

4.12 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.27 pm

On resuming—

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