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12 Mar 2003 : Column 300—continued

Annabelle Ewing (Perth): Will the Home Secretary clarify what plans he has to consult the Scottish Executive on the matters that might impact on Scotland, and when any such consultation is planned to take place?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I certainly will. Obviously, the issues around housing and housing benefit are most relevant to the question of reserved powers and to the relationship with the Parliament in Edinburgh. We will begin those consultations immediately.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): I welcome the confirmation that the Home Secretary is to introduce new laws to restrict the use of air weapons, which maim thousands of people every year and, in extreme cases, can kill. People are simply too young to use them at the age of 14. I also welcome the other measures that he has announced today. People experiencing antisocial behaviour in some areas feel that nothing can be done, and that they have to endure it week in, week out.

Lordswood in my constituency was having particular difficulty with antisocial behaviour. The Kent police responded, and the local community has seen a difference. That is giving the community the confidence to work with the police in the way that my right hon. Friend has described today. It is essential, however, that

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we have the necessary powers to stop the antisocial behaviour that so many of our communities have to endure.

Mr. Blunkett: I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on that since entering the House, and I welcome his support. I am pleased that the Kent police have responded in the way that he described and I hope that the new powers will help them to do so even more effectively in future.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): In order to have a system of on-the-spot fines, the Home Secretary knows that on-the-spot policemen are needed. In Sussex, we still have fewer policemen than we did six years ago despite all his assurances. What assurances can he give that this will not just be another way of further stretching police officers and distracting them from other duties? He also mentioned the culture of getting away with it. Does he acknowledge that we still have the same number of youth offenders in custody as we did five or six years ago, and that last year 77,700 people failed to turn up to court—that is, 13 per cent. of magistrates court cases? What is he doing to make sure that penalties stick when they are issued?

Mr. Blunkett: The Criminal Justice Bill and the Courts Bill are designed to incorporate measures to deal with cracked and failed trials, defendants' failure to attend court and the prolonging of court cases. On policing, the run-down in Sussex was part of a policy of the last but one chief constable. Within weeks of taking office, I had the pleasure of ensuring that he found other pastures in which to exercise his liberal views.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, which will also be warmly welcomed by my constituents. He mentioned dysfunctional families whose children are beyond control. I am sure that he is aware that some of them are as young as six or seven, and that their behaviour terrorises whole communities. That is a particular problem in council estates in my constituency, and I am sure that he agrees that social housing tenants, who often have no choice about where they live, should not have to put up with antisocial behaviour as part of their tenancy. How does he propose to increase the effectiveness of local agencies in dealing with those families because, as he will appreciate, it is not a matter for the police alone?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes, it is important that we take every possible step to remedy the problem and not just enforce the law, which is a last resort. We therefore want to experiment with new ways of intervening, such as with the co-operation of social services. We want to build on the Family Welfare Association and home start examples in which people move into the home so that they can assist families. When I was leader of Sheffield city council, home makers were literally undermined by professional bodies that did not like the idea of a practical scheme that did not involve counselling services but involved people going to the family, supporting and helping them to change their behaviour. If we cannot get through that way, we should ensure

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that, as part of parenting orders, residential provision is made available. In the end, people have to live in a civilised society. If we cannot do that by persuasion we will have do it through enforcement.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): In Hertfordshire, tackling antisocial behaviour is a question not of not enough police powers but not enough police officers. Given the £5 million shortfall between what Hertfordshire police need simply to stand still and what the Home Office has just given us, can the Home Secretary tell the House and my constituents how his new powers will be enforced, because we are short of more than 200 officers?

Mr. Blunkett: By continuing with record recruitment, we achieved a 40 per cent. increase in recruitment last year—the largest ever increase in recruitment in this country. What do we get when we recruit? Either we are accused of not recruiting enough, or the Opposition say that there are too many probationers in relation to experienced police officers. The Opposition cannot have it both ways—how can somebody become a policeman if they do not first become a probationer? That is an absurd argument and an example of doublethink. We are recruiting at record levels; we are putting the money in; there will be more police in the coming year than has ever been the case in our history; and we will carry on.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North): My right hon. Friend is right to maintain a focus on the spectrum of criminal and antisocial behaviour that blights the lives of residents in neighbourhoods in my constituency. I particularly welcome his commitment to speeding up proposals on the closure of crack houses. I commend the excellent enforcement work in my own boroughs, including the neighbourhood warden scheme in Westminster and the rapid reaction crack protocol developed by police and housing providers in Kensington and Chelsea.

On crack houses and many other forms of antisocial behaviour, one of the biggest problems is encouraging people to come forward and give evidence. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that more is being done to encourage and support people who give evidence against individuals guilty of operating crack houses and other antisocial behaviour?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend is right about the excellence of those schemes, and I commend them. She is also right that, unless we can provide protection for witnesses, particularly in London, where people sometimes have to be moved away from the situation that puts them at risk, provide professional support for witnesses, ensure that we use technology more effectively and, above all, give people the confidence to be able to come forward knowing that they will not suffer retribution, we will fail. That must be a priority, and we all need to work together to ensure that that is the case.

Lady Hermon (North Down): I assure the Home Secretary that the Ulster Unionist party supports much of his statement, so much so that I seek confirmation that the measures will extend to Northern Ireland. As he knows, criminal justice is not a devolved issue, and was

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not devolved before the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would therefore welcome clarification.

Will the Home Secretary also look at something that has worked well in Northern Ireland—restorative justice schemes? Disappointingly, there was not a single mention of them in the statement. There is a good lesson to be learned from Northern Ireland, and I urge the Home Secretary to extend the measures to our Province.

Mr. Blunkett: As ever, the hon. Lady is right. Restorative justice is critical and is covered in the White Paper. We have had more than 11,000 restorative justice orders so far on the mainland, which is welcome. She always charms me into agreeing that excellent schemes that she welcomes should be extended to Northern Ireland. I will obviously consult colleagues on making sure that we get that message across.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale): Thanks to Government funding, we now have street wardens and community support officers out on the streets of both Morecambe and Lancaster. Does my right hon. Friend agree that seaside towns such as Morecambe have particular problems with antisocial behaviour, usually caused by large amounts of privately rented accommodation and absentee landlords who do not care what sort of tenants live in their properties and have no commitment to the towns. Can he assure my constituents that the measures that he is introducing will help to deal with rogue landlords in Morecambe who cause so much misery to my constituents?

Mr. Blunkett: Yes I can. My hon. Friend is right—the local authority will be able to designate the areas that she described and can take action by providing proper licensing, by insisting that there are proper terms, conditions and contractual arrangements for those tenants, and by ensuring that action is forthcoming if tenancy agreements are breached.

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