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Mr. Denham: I made a point of saying that the clause relies largely but not exclusively on warnings. Subsection (5) allows for circumstances under which a warning is not practicable. I do not agree that the clause is loosely worded. It allows necessary operational flexibility. We should not forget the severe disruption that many of our constituents suffer through the irresponsible and unauthorised use of off-road vehicles, such as motor cycles, and people who joyride repeatedly around the same residential estates and roads. That causes great distress. I believe that clauses 60 and 61 reflect the mood in Committee and respond to a genuine environmental nuisance caused by irresponsible people against which action must be taken. Seizing vehicles will often be the best method of tackling that.
Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government or the parliamentary draftsmen to draw up a clause that deals with the "alarm, distress or annoyance", which hon. Members of all parties want to tackle, while ensuring that injustice does not occur. I am disappointed that the Minister has failed to deal with that aspect of my argument.
However, we have a timetable motion and there are other matters to discuss, and I shall therefore not try to divide the House. I am disappointed by the Minister's reply, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
'(6A) At the end of subsection (3) there is inserted "; save that, where the behaviour giving rise to the complaint involves prostitution, the complaint may alternatively be made to a county court."
(6B) In subsection (4), after the words "magistrates court" there is inserted (or, as the case may be, county court)".'.
The amendment would allow antisocial behaviour orders involving prostitutes to be considered in the county courts as an addition to current powers that permit them to be considered in magistrates courts.
Residents in central Swindon suffer severely from the prostitutes and pimps who frequent the area. A recent survey of residents found that most men had been propositioned. Only last week, a gentleman told me that he was driving normally and safely from the community centre and was shocked when someone jumped into the back of his car. If that can happen when someone is simply leaving a community centre, hon. Members can imagine the problems that many men in the area are experiencing.
First, I want to explain the disruption that prostitution is causing. I know of a child minder who is obviously embarrassed about the situation when the people whom she helps come to her door. Even 10-year-olds have been propositioned by prostitutes. That is clearly unacceptable. Condoms are discarded in people's gardens and in
I congratulate the police on their work on the problem. They have put extra resources into the area. Councillors, especially local Labour councillors, have been trying to tackle the problem. The community council has also been supportive. However, those are temporary solutions, and the community welcomed the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders. Great faith was placed in taking prostitutes to our magistrates court.
When the four prostitutes were identified, much work was put into ensuring that there was a strong case, especially as it was the first use of antisocial behaviour orders. I am attracted to the orders because they can be used to tackle other issues, such as the drug problems that many prostitutes in the area experience.
There was a co-ordinated effort to get an antisocial behaviour order through our magistrates court. The community experienced extra frustration when there was a delay. As hon. Members know, magistrates are voluntary, and the court worked hard to get the three magistrates together for a three-day hearing. The delay caused problems; once again, I congratulate the community council, which kept threats of vigilante action at bay. Hon. Members can imagine the community's frustration when a defence solicitor in the magistrates court described antisocial behaviour orders as a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I hope that the Minister will agree that that is not the case, and that the orders are appropriate for dealing with the genuine problems that prostitution causes.
The magistrates did not believe that the case was strong enough or that it fulfilled the requisite conditions. Hon. Members can imagine the huge disappointment in the community after that decision. A lot of work went into analysing the case, and into assessing whether it had been strong enough and whether the conditions had been fulfilled. The local borough council and the police strongly believe that the conditions were fulfilled, and that the problem was caused by having to deal with the case in a magistrates court. There was a real feeling that if it had gone to the county court, the application for an antisocial behaviour order would not have failed.
The reasons for that were, first, that county court judges are used to drawing inferences. In Swindon, the magistrates refused the antisocial behaviour orders because they did not have the evidence to link the individual prostitutes to the antisocial behaviour that they admitted was being caused by the soliciting. There was also no question but that those particular people were prostitutes. County court judges are much more used to drawing such inferences. Secondly, they are much more used to weighing up hearsay evidence, which is particularly prevalent in cases involving prostitution. That greater experience would really help in assessing such evidence.
Thirdly, county court judges are used to applying a civil burden of proof. Just as they have greater experience of hearsay evidence, they also have greater experience of applying such a burden of proof, and are better informed as to how much evidence is needed to balance the probabilities in such cases. The other advantage of
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): I am following the hon. Lady's argument carefully, but I have to say, with great respect, that the delay involved in finding three whole days for a county court hearing would be immense. In most county courts, that process can take three or even six months.
Ms Drown: I appreciate that comment. It took that long in Swindon, too, to get this whole process running. The amendment would allow more possibilities and flexibility. The time scale varies up and down the country, and I would hope that most of these cases would not need three days. The proposal would provide a sensible way for the Government to improve the quality of life for many of my constituents in central Swindon, and I urge the Minister to consider accepting the amendment.
Mrs. Brooke: Antisocial behaviour orders are multi-purpose toolssometimes rather blunt onesand because they are applied in many different circumstances, I can follow the argument of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown). Indeed, I listened to her speak on the matter in an Adjournment debate which I found very interesting. I had not really thought about the prostitution side of the argument at all; I was hooked into the argument relating to young persons.
I would remind the Minister that I was very concerned about one use of antisocial behaviour orders, which involved attaching them to a person moving from one area to another. That could have dreadful consequences for a young person. I have also pointed out a use for the orders that had considerable appeal in my area, certainly over the last few weeks. We have to think quite broadly about the orders, and we need a degree of flexibility.
I am no expert on the different kinds of court, so I do not know what the best solution is to this problem, but I support the hon. Lady's amendment. When we need to address a particular problem, we may need extra flexibility to make the provisions work and, I imagine, to let lots of other measures kick in so that that can be achieved.