The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Angela Eagle): The Government are determined to tackle antisocial behaviour and disorder and have taken a range of initiatives. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced crime and disorder partnerships, antisocial behaviour orders and changes to the youth justice system.
Derek Twigg: During the general election campaign, the biggest single issue raised with me was antisocial behaviour and nuisance caused by young people, from which the communities around Dundalk road and Our Lady's Roman Catholic church in particular have suffered over the last six months. One of the problems is that some parentsalbeit a minoritythink that there is nothing wrong with a 12, 13, 14 or 15-year-old having alcohol and being dropped off at a local trouble spot and left there until 11 or 12 o'clock at night. Clearly, there is a problem in terms of community involvement. What initiatives can be taken in this regard? In Widnes, on a number of weekend evenings, there have been only two police officers available to deal with the problems. While we are getting some extra officers in the near future, police numbers need to be increased substantially in areas such as mine.
Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend is right, and anyone who has been on the doorsteps in the last month or two will have had the same experience. We all understand the importance of cracking down on disorder and antisocial behaviour. This matter needs to be taken seriously by parents, people in communities and the authorities. My hon. Friend may want to know that, in September, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 will introduce provisions that will allow public drinking to be banned from particular areas. That will make it a lot easier for police enforcement, because there will not be a problem with local byelaws.
Vernon Coaker: Will my hon. Friend look at the measures that we as a Government can take to put pressure on local authorities to use the powers they have to tackle antisocial behaviour in their communities, in conjunction with the police? In particular, will my hon. Friend look at the powers that local authorities have to do something about antisocial tenants who sign a tenancy agreement that, frankly, as far as Gedling borough council is concernedand, I am sure, many othersis not worth the paper it is written on, since the tenants continue to have noisy parties, to abuse their neighbours, to have untidy gardens and to carry on in a way that the vast majority of law-abiding citizens find an absolute disgrace?
Angela Eagle: I am not sure that we should have compulsory gardening, much as I would like that. However, we need to take the issue seriously. On1 October, there will be new housing and land rules that will enable courts to deal with serious harassment more quickly. There is also an issue in the private sector that has yet to be tackled.
Tony Baldry (Banbury): Does the Minister appreciate that most people concerned with tackling antisocial behaviour want not new initiatives but more police officers? Since the Labour Government came to office, the Thames Valley force has increased its strength by just eight officers. Indeed, over the past year, the number of officers in the area fell by 37.
I endorse everything said by the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) earlier. There is indeed a serious problem in the Thames valley. May I ask the Home Secretary, through the Minister, whether he will receive an all-party delegation of Members from the Thames valley after the summer recess to discuss the issue? It is not a matter on which any of us wants to make party political points, but there is serious concern about police strength, recruitment and retention in the area. It is no good the Government coming up with more and more initiatives on antisocial behaviour if there are simply not the officers there to enforce them.
Angela Eagle: It is important, when people are having the life tormented out of them by antisocial behaviour, that the police and local authorities take it seriously and take responsibility for dealing with it, ensuring that such behaviour stops. That is where antisocial behaviour orders can be very useful. Clearly, Home Office Ministers will receive delegations from Members who want to present information to them. I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman gets in touch with my right hon. Friend, he will be on his way to the Home Officeat least, as part of a delegationafter the summer.
As the House will know, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) resigned as First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly with effect from yesterday. I regret his resignation, and the reasons that brought it about. He has played a courageous part in the process so far and will, I am sure, continue to do so. Under the provisions of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which implemented the devolution arrangements in the Good Friday agreement, the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) automatically ceases to hold office as Deputy First Minister at the same time. Both have provided distinguished leadership to the devolved Executive over the past year or morea year in which the four parties in the Executive have worked together to tackle real problems on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland.
Under the Act, the Assembly must hold an election to fill the vacant offices of First and Deputy First Minister within six weeks. In the meantime, the functions of both offices can be exercised, but if that period expires without a successful election, I am obliged to propose a date for fresh Assembly elections.
We face a serious and sombre situation in Northern Ireland, but I think that it is right at the outset to recall the progress that we have already made: a new Assembly; devolution of power to a cross-community Executive; new North-South and British-Irish institutions; new protection for human rights and equality of opportunity; new policing legislation; and the first recruitment exercise for the new Northern Ireland police service, on a 50:50 basis. All that is already under way.
This process has, I believe, created the conditions of stability and confidence in Northern Ireland in which economic development is thriving. What we have achieved so far has been the result of efforts by all the parties in Northern Ireland. Of course, we still face many challenges: to ensure the stability and full operation of all the political institutions; to deliver a police service that attracts and sustains support from the community as a whole; and to take further steps towards the normalisation of security arrangements, as the threat diminishes.
Crucially, the basis for progress in Northern Ireland is the implementation of the Good Friday agreement in full, in all its aspects. That requires every party to be committed, and to be seen to be committed, exclusively to democratic, non-violent means. It requires that every party rejects the use of force or the threat of the use of force.
It also means that, as the institutional, social and legal changes set out in the Good Friday agreement are implemented, they must be accompanied by the putting of illegal weapons completely beyond use. In this, of course, we all have a collective responsibility, but some parties have a particular position of influence with the paramilitaries and, under the Good Friday agreement, are obliged to use such influence to achieve decommissioning.
It is because there remain problems in implementing the Good Friday agreement in full, as I have described, that I am here today to report further developments to the House. Over the weekend, we and the Irish Government received a further report from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, chaired by General John de Chastelain. Both Governments have published the report today and a copy has been placed in the Library.
The report notes that during the past year, the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Freedom Fighters representatives gave the commission general agreement on methods of decommissioning and supporting issues. It also notes the opening of some IRA arms dumps to inspections by the international inspectors.
Regrettably, however, the report also notes that despite previous commitments and assurances being reaffirmed in good faith, and all the paramilitary representatives wanting to continue to engage with the commission, there has been no decommissioning by the IRA, the UVF or the UFF to date.
The commission reports that the IRA representatives assured it of the IRA's commitment to put arms beyond use, completely and verifiably, on the basis it set out last year. This is, of course, welcome, but I am disappointed that the commission has still to receive answers to the other two key questionshow and when arms will be put beyond use. The simple fact is that the Good Friday agreement needs to be implemented in full.
The people of Northern Ireland want to see a fair and equal society, but theyindeed, as the Taoiseach has made clear, the people of Ireland, both North and Southinsist that illegal arms must also be put completely beyond use, as part of the process of transformation. We will succeed only if we all work together to move forward in all these areas.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach said after their meetings in Northern Ireland on Thursday, there is now little time left to resolve the difficulties and obstacles that remain. We are determined to live up in full to our obligations under the Good Friday agreement; but others must do so as well. The agreement involved compromiseeven painfor all sides; it will not work if each side implements only those parts with which it is entirely comfortable.
The overwhelming desire of the people and parties in Northern Ireland is to see Northern Ireland's democratic institutions functioning as intended. They are valued greatly. They want to see them working, not suspended, but on the basis of a total commitment by all to democracy and exclusively peaceful methods.
I expect to be working with the parties, together with the Irish Foreign Minister, this week. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have stated their clear determination to engage intensively to resolve these issues as soon as possible.
I will not hide from the House the difficulties we face. We have seen, in recent weeks, the dangers when politics appears to be stalling. There have been murderous sectarian attacks. People have been intimidated out of their homes. Young children have been used as pawns in sectarian disputes and, as so often, the police have had to step in, with the support of the Army, to maintain the peace and uphold the rule of law. In the course of so doing, 57 police officers were injured on one day at the
Nevertheless, Saturday's Whiterock parade in Belfast passed off relatively peacefully. I commend the responsible attitude taken by the vast majority of those on both sides in a very tense situation, as we approach further parades and marches over the coming weeks.
In the coming weeks, all of us must show that it is politics, not violence, which works. After such a long period of division, death and deep pain, it is not surprising that we face difficult challenges. But these hurts of the past impel all of us to find a way through to peace and stability for the futurea way that ensures that the bomb and the bullet are put completely beyond use as a way of solving our problems. This is not a matter of victory or defeat for one side or the other. It can only be a victory for all of us and all of the people in Northern Ireland.