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Mr. Grieve: Those Travellers who act unlawfully on sites that they have purchased have used the mechanism of the Human Rights Act 1998 to prevent themselves from being removed or stopped. Indeed, I question whether a stop notice will be effective when the 1998 Act is invoked. ASBOs are not used against Travellers because the police do not have sufficient resources.
Mr. Salter: The hon. Gentleman knows that we have had a welcome increase in police numbers in the Thames valley. The use of stop notices raises no problems with regard to human rights and we are yet to see whether they will be as effective as the Government claim.
I welcome the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill announced in the Queen's Speech. It seems to address the problems of fly-tipping, abandoned cars, noise nuisance and litter, which are all problems experienced by my constituents as a result of the Traveller encampments at Portman road in Reading and, sadly, replicated elsewhere across the country.
Moving the problem around is no solution. Laws that apply to the rest of us must also apply to Travellers. As yet, no ASBOs have been used to control the nuisance, threats and intimidation experienced by people living near to some, but not all, those temporary
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encampments. It is rich for the Conservative party to seek to make political capital out of that issue, because in 1994 a Conservative Government decided to remove the obligation on local authorities to provide suitable Traveller sites. The current review by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is considering that matter, and I hope that it will take careful note of the recommendations of the ODPM Committee to reinstate that requirement, which I suggest should be implemented on a county-by-county basis.
We have lost the carrot and stick. We do not have the carrot of a strategic network of sites where Travellers can stay and we seem reluctant to use the stick of the tough new powers that are available to curb unacceptable behaviour. A new approach is needed to break out of that cycle and I hope that the clean neighbourhoods and environment Bill will help; it is certainly the approach recommended by the majority of councils in the Thames valley region.
The second area that I want to touch on is antisocial behaviour and the application of the new powers, as well as the consequences of binge drinking in our town centres. Other hon. Members touched on that too. In Reading, we are enthusiastic users of the antisocial behaviour legislation in our communities and on our estates. We have used acceptable behaviour contracts to quieten youth disorder.
Innovatively, we have used seven ASBOs on the most prolific street sex workers. Fining drug-addicted prostitutes £40 for soliciting is plain stupidwhat on earth will they do other than to go back on the streets to earn the money? I am proud that our approach to using the welcome powers that the Government have given usif you like, tough lovehas resulted in five of the seven most prolific prostitutes engaging in treatment programmes. We have used ASBOs to cut crime on the Dee Park estate by 25 per cent., and I was proud to hear today that the residents there have won £1,000 in the taking a stand awards, which were announced today by the Home Office.
Turning to binge drinking in our town centre, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, recently conducted a survey that was publicised this morning on the "Today" programme. It indicates that the majority of Labour Members would welcome a voluntary or compulsory levy on some pubs and clubs, and particularly the large pub chains, that are happy to draw profits from our town centres and hold happy hours to encourage young people to drink and get out of their faces, but will not face up to the consequences of the crime and disorder that the excessive use of alcohol engenders. When I spoke today to my local area police commander, Chief Superintendent Dave Murray, he told me that, when he wants to put together a Pubwatch meeting in Reading, he can get the local publicans, but not the managers from the big chainsthey are not interested because they are on an incentive scheme that depends on how much alcohol they sell. It is time for the people who create some of the problems to pay back into the community the costs of policing our town centres.
The last issue that I want to consider in the brief time that I have available is the repatriation of drug-dealer assets. The Queen's Speech contains a drugs Bill, which is welcome, but we could go much further. Seventy per
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cent. of all acquisitive crime in my community is linked to hard drugs. The Assets Recovery Agency has been a success, but instead of the money going into a Home Office pot, why not ensure that the profits from dealing in class A drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin go into drug treatment programmes? The ill-gotten gains of drug dealers could then be spent on dealing with the problems that they themselves created: there would be a certain natural justice in that.
These proposals will be supported by my local authority and local police force. Reading would be happy to act as a pilot for such projects. In my view, there would be wide support from the community as a whole, particularly those whose lives have been damaged and families torn apart by the evil of class A drugs.
I welcome the new measures to protect witnesses when giving evidence in court, but also necessary are ways in which to protect the identities of people who wish to help the police in gathering evidence on the everyday minor crimes that blight the lives of ordinary law-abiding peopletheft, vandalism, graffiti, gratuitous noise, intimidation and drink and drug-related bad behaviour by the antisocial minority, most of whom are well known to the police but elude punishment. People are heartily fed up with that, and it looms much larger in their minds than terrorism. All that most people want to do is to pay their dues to society and to get on with their own lives without interference. That should not be too much to ask, but the antisocial behaviour of the few is now so entrenched that the perpetrators feel immune from punishment. The challenge is to teach them that they are not and to encourage witnesses to come forward.
Nowadays, the use of mobile phones and texting means that ever-larger numbers of youths congregate in public places in the evenings. Groups of six or 10 have grown to 50, 60 or even 70. When a resident or a shopkeeper calls the police to report, for example, a broken shop window, a damaged car or two youths picking up a crate of beer from an off licence and running off without paying for it, it is very difficult to identify the individual culprits out of the crowd. Even if they are still at the scene when the police arrive, as they often are because they feel so confident that they will escape punishment, it takes a brave witness to say, without any doubt, "It was him." Bearing it in mind that they all wear similar clothes, often hooded jackets, it takes a very confident witness not to be persuaded to waver when being questioned in court.
Of course, many witnesses are not prepared to go to court at all for fear of reprisals, and I am not sure that the proposals for giving evidence behind screens or via video links would adequately protect witness identity. That is a particular problem in "neighbours from hell" cases in which it is obvious where the complaint has come from. Neighbours from hell know only too well who their victims are. They enjoy making other people's lives a misery and the power that comes from intimidation. The reluctance of witnesses even to keep
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diaries or to report incidents of damage to their homes and cars or of threats of violence means that it takes police a very long time to gather enough evidence to support the issue of an antisocial behaviour order or an eviction order, or a drugs raid. Victims are often reluctant for anyone else to take up the problem in case they get the blame and suffer recrimination. In the meantime, victims continue to suffer day in, day out. One of my constituents recently suffered reprisals after being seen leaving my constituency office. Much more clandestine arrangements, such as confidential telephone contacts and neutral places for reporting information to police, need to be made to protect victims until the problem has been solved. Victims dare risk no visible contact with the police. Therein lies the real problem.
Only the most intractable cases ever reach the courts, yet magistrates see the defendants, polished up for the occasion and on their best behaviour, and are often persuaded to give them another chance. The effect on their neighbours is devastating and the antisocial activities are often stepped up as a deterrent to future complaints. Let us be under no illusion: the worst offenders collect ASBOs and injunctions like trophies. A common outcome is that the victims have to move house to escape an intolerable situation and the neighbours from hell prepare to claim another scalp from the unsuspecting new occupants.
Measures such as ASBOs, curfew orders and dispersal orders will not work unless they are enforced robustly and without slippage, and that takes police resources. Havering police, who are hopelessly overstretched, struggle valiantly to maintain public order when so much of their time has to be spent at the police station filling in endless forms instead of out on the streets fighting crime.
Of course, there is no substitute for beat policing, by real constables with real powers, who are familiar with their neighbourhood. Current police strength in Upminster makes beat patrolling a distant dream, but if the police we have were released from the burden of paperwork at the police station, they could be on the spot to issue fines and fixed penalty notices.
The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill also includes a provision to increase the powers of community support officers, and that concerns me. To the untrained eye, the uniforms of CSOs are so similar to those of police constables that members of the public cannot easily tell them apart. I believe that that is intentional. I believe that the public are intended to gain the impression that there are a lot more police on the streets than there are. It is a sort of confidence trick.
When CSOs were first proposed, a presentation was made to the Select Committee on Home Affairs and I was assured that the public would be able to distinguish them from police officers. Many of them cannot. My constituents often think that they have seen two policemen patrolling their road. They have not; they have seen CSOs. They are not police. They have received only three weeks' training, they have scant knowledge of the law and no power of arrest. That is not their fault. They have applied for the job in good faith, they are doing exactly what they have been asked to do and doing it well. However, how can they possibly achieve
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their purpose in deterring antisocial behaviour when a police car with two real officers in it has no effect?The sort of people who commit antisocial behaviour realise very quickly that CSOs are not police.
My other concern is the funding of CSOs. My excellent divisional commander finds his CSOs a helpful addition to his police strength. One advantage is that they are not called away in an emergency as constables often are. However, the salient word is "addition." CSOs should be "as well as", not "instead of" police constables. My concern is about the way in which the funding of police constables is affected by the budgetary provision for CSOs. If the funding for police constables and CSOs comes from the same global budget, is the latter at the expense of the former? Whatever the answer to that questionI hope that it is nothe decision about whether there is more operational gain from four constables or six CSOs, which constitute the budgetary equivalent, should be made in response to local need and circumstances and should not be imposed centrally. I hope that the Minister will tell me that that is the case.
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