Police Reform Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Hawkins: I shall not take up too much of the Committee's time at this stage. I understand the spirit of the hon. Lady's comments in presenting the amendments, but she said something towards the end of her remarks with which I want to take issue and which was slightly inconsistent with some of the points that she made earlier. She said that everyone speaks highly of antisocial behaviour orders. With respect, given how they have operated—or, rather, failed to operate—that is not true not only in the House but even of Labour Members. Indeed, one of those who have been most critical of the bureaucracy surrounding ASBOs as originally established is the

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hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), with whom I have debated on several occasions. He has initiated debates and tried to put pressure on the Government. It was therefore no doubt not a coincidence that, having expressed such great interest in the subject, he found that the business managers could not find a space for him on the Committee, because no doubt he would have repeated his criticism. He and I have spoken on many occasions outside the formal debates, and we have agreed that we need to keep up the pressure.

I welcome the Government taking the opportunity in the Bill to try to improve some of the more obvious flaws of antisocial behaviour orders. I shall not go too wide of these narrow amendments, because you would rule me out of order if I did, Mr. O'Brien, but as the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) made some general remarks, I wanted to make that point. Some important matters that relate to the wider implications will arise later, so at this stage I shall restrict my remarks—

Mrs. Brooke: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some authorities—I think that Liverpool is one example—have got through their antisocial behaviour orders very quickly? There is good practice—

The Chairman: Order. We are discussing a narrow amendment. I allowed the hon. Lady to wander around the issue a bit, but the amendment says ''after '1B', insert ',1C'.'' Nobody has referred to that. I ask the hon. Member for Surrey Heath to stick to the amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: In the light of your ruling, Mr. O'Brien, I shall not respond to the hon. Lady's point, although I might be able to address it when we consider other amendments.

I understand that the point behind amendment No. 277 is perhaps of greatest substance, and we shall listen with interest to what the Minister says about whether it would be better to delete clause 58(3) and replace it with the wording on consultation.

Mr. Denham: The reason why the clause is in the Bill and we are debating the amendment is that the Government have examined research on the experience of using ASBOs and listened to comments of hon. Members. Considerable success has been achieved through ASBOs but the system and the accompanying guidance can be improved.

The amendments address an ASBO that could be complementary to a criminal sentence from the courts. When we examined ASBO procedures, it became apparent that there were several instances in the civil and criminal courts when a great deal of work went into amassing evidence about individuals, whether for a repossession case in the civil courts or a criminal case, and the behaviour of the individuals was such that it would have been appropriate to restrain their future behaviour through an ASBO. It would not be an alternative measure but complementary to the steps taken by the court. That is why we are considering criminal court convictions.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole asked reasonably whether the criminal court should be subject to the same process of co-ordination that exists if relevant authorities apply directly for ASBOs. I understand the case that she made. The procedure in the criminal court will be slightly different in practice. There is no formal requirement for a relevant authority to apply for an order after conviction. The prosecuting counsel will be able to make representations to the court on behalf of the police or local authority and to suggest that a court order might be appropriate.

As the hon. Lady said, the consultation requirements on ASBOs apply only to applications made by relevant authorities. That requirement is present to ensure a co-ordinated and consistent approach by different agencies. The best way forward is for the criminal court to have the relevant information because it has examined the criminal case. Of course, it will be able to request reports if further information is required.

I am reluctant to concede a further and possibly bureaucratic and time consuming process of formal consultation with the relevant agencies, but it will be possible to ensure that the necessary information is brought before the criminal court before it decides whether to make an ASBO. It would be a shame to lose the opportunity of an additional way of imposing an ASBO by erecting an unnecessarily bureaucratic tier.

With regard to amendment No. 278, it is vital that a community may be protected from the behaviour of a person convicted of a criminal offence without requiring a separate legal process to obtain an ASBO, which is what the provision allows. The thinking is analogous to other provisions that allow an ASBO to be imposed on a person subsequent to eviction due to a breach of a tenancy agreement that involved harassment. I am sure that most members of the Committee are familiar with cases in which a local authority or registered social landlord has evicted someone and that person has popped up in a private tenancy down the road and carried on behaving as he did previously. It is reasonable to build on the court process to impose an ASBO in an analogous way. The route to a court and to a different court—it may be the criminal court—to which the police will take the prosecution, will provide flexibility in protecting the public further by restraining a person's future antisocial behaviour than the sentence that is passed by the court for criminal behaviour.

Without such a provision, we will be allowing a category of people to continue their antisocial behaviour, causing nuisance to their neighbours, against whom a great deal of time and money is spent amassing evidence. We will come out of such a situation without a necessary constraint on their behaviour. I hope that we shall retain the ability to maintain an antisocial behaviour order after a criminal conviction.

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Mrs. Brooke: I thank the Minister for his response. I was pleased that there has been some movement in the consultation process. I am still worried about the final point to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, but I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mrs. Brooke: I beg to move amendment No. 273, in page 51, leave out lines 37 to 39.

I shall be in some trouble now with the Minister because the provision was recommended by the evaluation document and I am speaking against it. Nevertheless, I want the answers to the important questions that I am about to ask to be on the public record. Antisocial behaviour orders are so far-reaching that they should be available only to recognised law enforcement officers—the police—or democratically accountable local council representatives. I shall not rehearse the argument about democratic accountability, but clearly that is consistent with the line that we have taken in Committee.

Some additional points need to be considered. Giving social landlords the power to apply for antisocial behaviour orders could become a charter for bad landlords. Good landlords will rely primarily on good housing management procedures to tackle problem tenants and, when antisocial behaviour orders are needed, housing associations will work in partnership with the police or local councillors. If bad landlords are given such a power, they can pose the threat of an antisocial behaviour order as an alternative to good housing management.

I have spoken to several representatives of housing associations about the problem and one association did not want the power as it saw itself as a good landlord. Another representative made some important points that I should like the Minister to consider. I believe that that organisation wanted the power, but it was worried about it. How would it obtain the information? It was worried that there was a problem with data protection and data sharing with the police. It felt isolated.

Ms Munn: Given how antisocial behaviour orders operate at present, many authorities use the local council as the lead when people are council tenants, but use the police as the lead in cases of those who are not council tenants. Does it not follow that there is logic in the housing association being the lead when people are housing association tenants? Given that people will be subject to the same processes and the same tests at court, the fact that relevant information would be needed would guard against bad landlords using the provision inappropriately.

Mrs. Brooke: I am not convinced that that is the case. It was certainly not the view of those professionals to whom I spoke. The hon. Lady's point comes down to democratic accountability. I should like an assurance from the Minister because, even with simplification, a relatively small housing association could be left with something that is difficult to handle

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and not have all the information. I believe that the cases could be different from that described by the hon. Lady.

6.30 pm

Mr. Osborne: I object to almost everything that the hon. Lady has said.

I support the principle of ASBOs, and the idea of giving that power to social landlords. However, if I were allowed one major complaint, it would be that of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath—they are too bureaucratic and difficult to use.

Longridge housing estate in my constituency has recently been transferred to a social landlord. On a recent visit there, the social landlord said to me, ''We wish we had the power to deal with the bad and antisocial neighbours, and we would love to have the power to evict them, or to restrict their activity in the way that ASBOs allow.''

ASBOs are a part of a series of imaginative penalties that the criminal justice system needs. I do not always support the way that the Government float such ideas—usually as eye-catching initiatives that are splashed in The Sunday Times. However, I agree with the principle that we need to look at more imaginative solutions.

Yesterday, I attended a Public Accounts Committee hearing with the permanent secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department and I was stunned—as were other Committee members of all parties—at the complete breakdown of the financial penalty system in courts: only 60 per cent. of penalties levied in courts are ever collected. As the permanent secretary conceded, it is really a kind of voluntary system; the offender decides whether to pay the court fine, because it is so easy not to pay it.

The permanent secretary said that all sorts of more imaginative solutions were being considered. ASBOs fall into that category, so I support them and their extension. However, they must be made less bureaucratic, so that they are easier to use—particularly if they are extended to social landlords, who will not necessarily have all the skills and bureaucratic back-up that are required to introduce them.

In my county of Cheshire, the chief constable recently told me that his force had introduced only five or six ASBOs in the entire county. The police said that they were keen to use them, but that they presented difficulties. Therefore, I regret that the Government are not using the Bill to strip away many of the bureaucratic problems that are associated with ASBOs, but I support the principle of extending them to social landlords.

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