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12 Mar 2003 : Column 291—continued

Antisocial Behaviour

12.31 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): With permission, I should like to make a statement on tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour.

In recent years, we have made significant progress in tackling crime and disorder. In the past six years, crime has fallen by just over a quarter and street crime has been reduced dramatically. The chance of being a victim of crime is the lowest for more than 20 years, yet the fear of crime remains high. No one will believe that crime has fallen unless they experience it in their own lives and those of family and friends. More than one in three people consider that antisocial behaviour is still affecting their quality of life. Over 30 per cent. are intimidated by gangs hanging around their neighbourhood. Too many lives are affected by the irresponsibility, disrespect and loutishness of others.

Antisocial behaviour can affect people physically and emotionally, undermining health and destroying family life. It can also hold back the regeneration of our most disadvantaged areas, creating the environment in which crime can take hold. Where enforcement is poor and antisocial behaviour goes unpunished, criminals learn that they can get away with lawlessness. That is why we are now leading a new drive to work with individuals, families and communities to build effective action against antisocial behaviour.

Rights and responsibilities must go hand in hand. The White Paper and the legislation to follow aim to put in place support and help for those who are prepared to accept it, and clear, speedy, and effective enforcement when they are not. Our public spaces should be open and free for everyone to use. Our streets should be free of loutishness, gangs and drunken hooligans, or drug dealers capturing the lives of young people. Neighbours creating noise and nuisance and those intimidating others are a blight on our society. Those who do not suffer should not get in the way of protecting those who do.

That is why we will crack down on noise and nuisance. Fixed penalty notices of £100 will be available to environmental health officers. Persistent abuse will lead to a reversion to probationary tenancies. Court action and fast-track eviction will follow. Automatic rehousing is no longer an option. Children of persistently antisocial and dysfunctional families will be offered new intensive fostering. Tenants and landlords must share responsibility. Antisocial tenants will lose their right to buy.

We intend to go further. Tenants must not be allowed to make the lives of others a misery. We will empower local authorities to license designated private sector landlords so that they no longer automatically receive direct benefit payments. We will also consult on the appropriateness of measures to withdraw from individual tenants the automatic right to be granted housing benefit. Where the problem is caused by pubs or clubs, environmental health officers will have the power to close them. Unscrupulous drug dealers can exploit weak tenants and owners of property. New fast-track closure powers will be put in place so that crack houses can be closed and decisive action taken to seal those properties.

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Gangs of youths can often be the catalyst for further crime, as well as intimidation. We will enable the police to designate areas experiencing high levels of antisocial behaviour, within which new powers to disperse groups causing problems will be available. We will merge these powers with those of child curfews to enable unaccompanied children out late at night to be removed and returned to their homes.

We are all aware of other forms of behaviour threatening our neighbourhoods. We have already announced measures to tackle the misuse of air weapons and the availability of replica guns. We will make carrying an air weapon, or an imitation one, in a public place an arrestable offence. We will support wholeheartedly the new proposals to restrict the sale and misuse of fireworks.

However, we recognise that family problems, poor educational attainment, unemployment and alcohol and drug misuse can all contribute to unacceptable behaviour. Those do not constitute an excuse, but we must act to enable people to rebuild their lives. We will take cross-government action to provide support, while upholding the principle of "something for something". No longer should an individual child disrupt a school, nor should inaction by parents disable that child for the future through non-attendance at school. Parents have a duty to ensure that their children are in school and behaving. Persistent failure will result in parenting orders, fines or fast-track court action. We will support families in overcoming their problems, through parenting classes and new fast-track parenting orders. We will examine residential provision as a compulsory part of education and rehabilitation.

At the heart of antisocial behaviour is a lack of respect for others—the simple belief that one can get away with whatever one can get away with. We need the help of the community as a whole in changing the culture. We need parents to instil a sense of responsibility and respect; communities to build the confidence to provide witnesses and to stand up to the thugs; and businesses to help in overcoming unacceptable and irresponsible behaviour.

Record police numbers, the historic reform of police pay and regulations, the new extended police family, including community support officers, specials and street and neighbourhood wardens, all have their part to play. We have an effective armoury of measures: fast-tracked, slimmed-down antisocial behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and parenting orders. Since August, almost 2,000 fixed penalty notices have been issued in the four pilot areas. We are clear that breaches of orders must be treated decisively. We must slim down bureaucracy, free up the police and enforcement agencies to do their job and engage the public, businesses and landlords in creating a safer and saner world.

I should like to thank all those who have contributed to the White Paper and also give my thanks for the co-operation of ministerial colleagues in this cross-government drive to rebuild civic society. I know that every Member of this House believes that families should teach respect, that bad behaviour must be dealt with decisively and that there is a need to restore pride in our communities. That is the challenge that we face in

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the decade ahead. I ask the House to support the measures that I have outlined today as a contribution to that endeavour.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing us with early sight of his statement.

For the past 18 months or so, I have been talking about re-establishing the neighbourly society and recapturing the streets for the honest citizen. The Home Secretary's admirable catchphrase "respect and responsibility" is remarkably similar. That similarity of phrasing is no coincidence; it arises from the fact that he and I share the same diagnosis of the same problem. We both recognise that there has been, and is in too many parts of Britain, a retreat from civilisation. We both recognise the truth behind the broken windows thesis that has guided American cities in their successful efforts to reduce low-level disorder and crime. We both recognise that, if our children are to grow up into the people whom we want them to be, they need to grow up in a society that is orderly and respectful and not on streets that are controlled by gangs, hoodlums, drug dealers and pimps.

The difference between the Government and the Conservative party consists not in a difference of diagnosis, but in a difference of views about the cure. Since the Government came to power, we have seen the introduction of some 15 Bills and Acts dealing with crime and disorder. Legislation is seeping out of every pore of the Home Office, and now we are to have another Bill. I doubt, alas, that this next accretion of the Home Secretary's prodigious legislative energy will do any more to cure the problems that we both diagnose than have his and his predecessors' previous endeavours.

The fact is that the boys in the gangs on the streets are strangely unaware of the Home Secretary's laws, because they are so little enforced. I shall not go quite so far as one of my right hon. Friends, who described the Home Secretary as fostering a police state without the police, but on a day when the snoopers charter is reintroduced and the Home Secretary publicly derides my commitment to providing 40,000 additional police officers, the House could be forgiven for wondering whether that right hon. Friend is rather too close to the mark for comfort.

In the absence of police on the streets, I wonder who will really enforce all those new measures. Or will they go the way of the child curfew orders that have never been issued? Will they go the way of the night-time courts, which now appear to have been abandoned after costing £6,000 an hour and £7,000 a case? Will they go the way of the mandatory sentences that have never been handed down? Will the new spot fines be enforced? Alas, the record of enforcement on existing fines, which is terrible, gives no grounds for optimism on that score. Will parenting contracts be any less bureaucratic than the antisocial behaviour orders, which have made strong men weep with frustration? Will the new crackdown on crack really have any impact if the police are overstretched and no effective, intensive abstinence-based treatment is available for young crack addicts? Will the new measures against begging, of which the

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Home Secretary has made so much today on the airwaves, actually do any more to diminish aggressive begging than could already be done under existing vagrancy laws if they were effectively enforced?

We are told in the press, from which, I regret to say, we nowadays learn more about the Government's intentions than we are ever vouchsafed in this House, that Downing street now wants to "under-promise and over-deliver" by concentrating on "specific, achievable policies" rather than targets.

The Home Secretary has put forward a plethora of specific policy intentions, but I fear that in the absence of police on our streets, and in the absence of coherent long-term programmes to lift young people off the conveyor belt to crime, the Home Secretary will find that the vast new range of powers that he announced will do no more than mask his failure to enforce effectively the laws that already exist.

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