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The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears): Merseyside police recently launched a programme of action to reduce antisocial behaviour, including vehicle nuisance, graffiti, litter, firework nuisance and binge drinking. Officers have committed themselves to realistic response times and providing updates to victims within 24 hours. Not all antisocial behaviour is criminal. However, when matters are serious enough to go to court, we are working hard to improve procedures and the court process. We have appointed 14 specialist antisocial behaviour prosecutors, and have set up more than 100 antisocial behaviour response courts to deliver justice more effectively and ensure a greater level of accountability to the public.
Ben Chapman: May I tell my hon. Friend that antisocial behaviour was the issue raised with me most often on the doorstep during the election campaign? For example, a hairdresser contacted me in dismay about the loss of business caused as a result of marauding youths terrorising customers. A cricket club contacted me in dismay about repeated vandalism and breaking-in to its pavilion. While I welcome greatly the news that the Beer and Pub Association is to tackle the issue of happy hours, and the powers mentioned in the Queen's Speech to curb those establishments selling drink to under-18s, may I ask the Minister what she proposes to do to tackle the issue in the longer term? May I suggest that she needs to take account of a multi-agency approach and of the fact that young people need adequate and appropriate facilities to be provided?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend highlights what Members across the House will have found during the campaignthat such issues are at the top of the agenda. I am absolutely delighted that the British Beer and Pub Association has today started to tackle irresponsible alcohol promotions, which, I believe, fuel a lot of the antisocial behaviour. The reducing violent crime Bill will include proposals to tackle that. I have made it clear to the House on a number of occasions that tackling antisocial behaviour is about not only enforcement but support. It is about rewarding good behaviour and providing diversionary activities for the decent young people in our communities, as well as tackling the minority whose behaviour is completely unacceptable.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that antisocial behaviour orders have been an important tool. Can she examine the fact that Conservative-controlled Barnet council has issued only a handful of ASBOS compared with neighbouring Labour-controlled Camden, which has issued dozens? Can she put pressure on Barnet to try to get its act together in that respect? Can she also examine the magistrates
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courts, which in our area do not seem to be taking breaches of ASBOs sufficiently seriously or imposing sufficiently serious penalties for such breaches? Can she raise that with the Department for Constitutional Affairs?
Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend is right that in order to secure the confidence of the public, we have to be seen to be using the powers that are now available on the statute book. Certainly, many local authorities, including Camden, have been trailblazers and pioneers in the use of such powers. I urge all local authorities, of whatever political persuasion, to act on behalf of local communities and make sure that they make a difference. With regard to magistrates courts, all magistrates are now having training about how such powers can be used, with guidelines on sentencing for breach of antisocial behaviour orders. I will continue to work closely with the Lord Chancellor and other colleagues on making sure that powers are used and are effective.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): The Minister is somewhat complacent on these matters. I agree with the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman), as in my constituency antisocial behaviour was the biggest issue on the doorstep during the election campaign. Does the Minister agree that we really just need more police on the beat, and more police able to deal with such issues? In that way, we will get the confidence back on our streets that is lacking at the moment.
Hazel Blears: I am accused of many things in the House, but complacency is rarely one of them. As Members will know, I am an enthusiastic advocate of using the antisocial behaviour powers, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that we now have record numbers of police officers140,000and 6,300 community support officers on our streets, and that we will have 24,000 community support officers over the next few years. I am pleased that the powers are being used more, with 4,000 antisocial behaviour orders and dispersal powers used 400 times across the country. That is making a difference. Tough enforcement and support, rewards and sanctions and rights and responsibilities all make up a very important agenda.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Can the Minister tell us approximately what percentage of antisocial behaviour orders are currently being applied to people with mental illness and disorders such as autism? Does she think that that is an appropriate use of ASBOs?
Hazel Blears: As the hon. Gentleman may know, we have issued guidance on the seeking of ASBOs in relation to young persons. It provides for consultation with the youth offending team or, indeed, with social services departments. If people with particular vulnerabilities or special needs are caught up in antisocial behaviour, all the partners should meet to discuss what action should be taken.
John Denham (Southampton, Itchen)
(Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems of using community sentences to deal with antisocial behaviour
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is that most members of the public are usually blissfully unaware that people whom they see out and about are serving such sentences? Does she agree that the case for requiring those serving community sentences to wear some type of uniform or identification is that the public credibility of the sentences, and public confidence in them, will increase as a result?
Hazel Blears: Let me make it clear once and for all that I have never suggested the wearing of orange boiler suitsand, Mr. Speaker, you will observe that no one on the Labour Benches is wearing orange today. What I did say, and what I firmly believe, is that local people want to have confidence in community sentences. They want to see that work is being done and that this is a tough option, not a soft option.
There are a number of ways in which we can ensure that that happens. I am particularly attracted to schemes giving local people a say in what kind of community work should be done, and enabling them to have confidence in the work when they see it being done. At the same time, those undertaking the work can gain valuable skills that will stand them in good stead. I genuinely believe, however, that people need to see justice being done if they are to have confidence in the criminal justice system.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Although my constituents, like those of many other Members, were concerned about antisocial behaviour, they did not want more offences to be created. Will the Government resist the temptation simply to create new crimes, and instead ask why so many measures to deal with offences that are already on the statute book never seem to be used? When, for example, was the last time someone was accused of behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace, which strikes me as an all-embracing measure to deal with many offences of this kind? Will the Minister recognise that what people really want are enough police officers on the streets, and a willingness on the part of the Crown Prosecution Service to enforce the measures that already exist? The response should not be simply to create more offences.
Hazel Blears: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that the issue is very important to his constituents, and that they want it to be dealt with swiftly. That is one reason for our introduction of fixed-penalty notices, 88,000 of which have been used to deal with drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. On-the-spot fines bring the situation home to offenders very quickly indeed. Such arrangements are much better than going through all the panoply of a prosecution which may take weeks or months. We are determined to bring about swift action.
The hon. Gentleman spoke of more police officers. We now have 13,000 more police officers than we had in 1997. It is this Government who delivered a record number of police officers, and the Government of the hon. Gentleman's party who reduced the police service by 1,100 officers.
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