Anti-social Behaviour Bill

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Mrs. Brooke: I rise to express general support for the amendments. Picking up on the themes that I have outlined before, I believe that people feeling alarm and distress could put pressure on the police to use the measure. The police need to be able to distance themselves from that. If young people gather and are perceived as alarming to others, there are better measures to deal with the problem, such as using the full works of the crime and disorder partnerships and local groups to consider diversionary tactics. Giving scope to go straight to the strongest possible measure

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does not solve the problem, because it just moves it elsewhere. Under the amendment, there would be an opportunity to consider the full range of measures before making a final decision as to which one to choose. As we have said, that often may well need to be imposed, but at many other times people will want to use a proper problem-solving approach.

Mr. Ainsworth: For the benefit of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I should point out that I was laughing at the insistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that she was right when he said that she might be. The hon. Gentleman should not be too sensitive about what I was laughing at; different things tickle different people.

I understand what hon. Members are saying and their concern that groups could be dispersed on the demand of members of the public who in fact do not feel intimidated, harassed or alarmed, but object to particular groups gathering in particular areas. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that, as drafted, the legislation provides that, before issuing authorisation or giving a direction, the authorising officer and the officer giving the direction must reasonably believe that a member of the public has been or is likely to be intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed. It is discretionary for the police officer to do that. There is no difference in substance between us. We do not want police officers to use these powers if the alarm is unreasonable. I believe that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire had doubts about his amendment when the Liberal Democrat spokesman rode in behind him and said that he wanted to put a test on the police officer to ensure that the powers were used only in appropriate circumstances.

I do not want the powers to be used in inappropriate circumstances, but I do not want to raise the threshold and put a barrier on police officers by making them go through an artificial thought process that deters them from doing what they should do and what their common sense dictates. The Bill as drafted does what we all want it to do. I shall reflect on the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but we can rely on the good sense of police officers to use the powers appropriately. They have the discretion to do so, and I do not believe that the amendment will qualitatively enhance that decision-making process.

I am worried that raising the threshold, with which the Liberal Democrats appear to be content, could deter the police from using the powers. I know that that is not what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but I am not sure that amending the wording is necessary. I ask him to give the matter further thought and to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Paice: It must be clear to the Committee from my previous remarks that I do not want to introduce thresholds or constraints to prevent the powers from being used. I am not wedded to the phraseology or even the methodology that I have proposed. The Minister referred to the senior police officer. It is clear that we are talking about a situation after an area has been designated as a relevant locality.

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Within a relevant locality, if a group of three or four people, maybe of one particular ethnic origin, are gathered together, an elderly lady might feel distressed or alarmed by their presence—without any justification, most of us would say, but for reasons of upbringing or whatever. I am trying to ensure that in such a situation—it may not be only to do with ethnic minorities; it could be for many other reasons but it is an example—the police do not feel obliged to intervene because of the phraseology of subsection (1). It states that

    ''where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing—

    (a) that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed''.

It may be perfectly clear to the officer that the elderly lady is alarmed. The issue is whether it is reasonable that she is alarmed. That is different to having reasonable grounds for believing that she is alarmed.

Mr. Ainsworth: In an attempt to bridge a gap that may not exist, if we spelt it out in the guidance that the constable should not use the powers if the alarm is irrational or unreasonable, would that provide what the hon. Gentleman is seeking?

Mr. Paice: That might achieve it. It is clear from my earlier remarks that I have no intention of pressing the amendment to a vote. I have raised a concern. The Minister said he would reflect on it. Issuing guidance may be the way to address the matter. I take his assurance that he will consider it, to ensure that what some people might call a vexatious case does not oblige the police to take action that most people would consider unreasonable in the circumstances. That is all I seek to achieve. I think that the Minister accepts and understands my argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Matthew Green: I beg to move amendment No. 159, in

    clause 29, page 23, line 40, leave out '6 months' and insert '3 months'.

This is a probing amendment. We want the Minister to justify the proposal of six months although we do not necessarily say that three months is any better; we merely want clarification. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say that the guidance will contain advice to senior officers about the appropriate length of time and the grounds for setting it. Anything up to six months as stated in the proposal would be appropriate. The amendment was tabled to tease out the Government's thinking on the matter.

10 am

Mr. Ainsworth: We want the police to be able to use the power as part of a strategy for dealing with antisocial behaviour in an area. They will need to use the power strategically. They will need time to be able to show that a strategy has borne fruit and brought about the change that is needed. We do not want the police to have the power indefinitely. Equally, we do not want them to have to keep renewing it under unreasonable time limits. Six months is a reasonable time for the use of the power in a particular area to

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effect a behavioural change. Three months is too restrictive to be able to assess whether the change has been achieved.

Matthew Green: Will the guidance issued to senior officers state what might be the appropriate time limit?

Mr. Ainsworth: Why does the hon. Gentleman think that an appropriate time needs to be spelt out in the guidance? The provision allows the powers to be used for up to six months, which is not an unreasonably lengthy time. I cannot see what the hon. Gentleman is getting at if he wants it spelt out in the guidance that particular times should be used in particular locations. I do not understand what he is trying to achieve. The six-month limit requiring the police to have achieved what they want to achieve or else to have to renew the powers is not over-bureaucratic. Renewal strikes the right balance between having to re-register an area unnecessarily frequently and leaving the powers in place for an unnecessarily long time. Six months strikes the right balance.

Matthew Green: I have done the arithmetic and there is no point in dividing the Committee. I beg to ask to leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Matthew Green: I beg to move amendment No. 163, in

    clause 29, page 24, line 3, leave out

    'and in such way as he may specify'.

This is another probing amendment, which is designed to check what the Government intend. I believe that

    ''and in such way as he may specify''

means that officers can say, for example, ''You will leave by a certain route. You will not walk through the shopping centre on your way out of here.'' The problem is that the clause states ''in such way'' rather than ''by such a route'' or something similar. I do not suggest that the constable would use it in this way but the problem with the clause as drafted is that he could say, ''You've got to crawl home.'' I am checking that the wording is as tight as the Government would like it to be. I know what they are trying to say and there is a lot of sympathy for their view but I am checking that they are satisfied with the drafting.

Mr. Ainsworth: All the amendments are probing this morning. Someone, somewhere—perhaps in the Liberal Democrats' office—has imposed a new regime.

Amendment No. 163 would remove the possibility of a constable or a community support officer specifying the way in which a group may disperse but that is useful for a constable or a community support officer as it gives them the ability to ensure that groups use a certain route and do not go past a problem area when dispersing as they have been directed to do. Depending on local circumstances, there may be a preferable route. For example, the police may wish to ensure that a group is kept away from people's homes, which may prevent further intimidation, while the group complies with the order that has been given. The intention is not to impose ridiculous situations, or to allow the police to impose

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ridiculous situations of the sort mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Matthew Green: With the Minister's assurance that the provision is purely intended to allow the police to specify the route that a group should take, and since that has now been clearly recorded, I am happy to—

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