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Westminster Hall

Thursday 19 January 2006

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]

Antisocial Behaviour

[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2004–05, HC 80, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 6588.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

2.30 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on the fifth report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, which was published just before the general election last spring, because it addresses an issue of great concern and because this is the first opportunity to discuss at any length in the Chamber the Government's respect agenda and the proposals that they announced last week.

One criticism of the Government's respect action plan is that not much in it is new, but those who have read the report, which the Committee unanimously supported last year, have said that the Government's proposed action is line with the report's conclusions.

The Committee's overall conclusion is that the necessary legislative powers to tackle most aspects of antisocial behaviour are largely in place, that the challenge is to ensure that they are used effectively in every part of the country and that there is no need for a raft of new initiatives or totally new approaches. In that sense, although some elements of the respect action plan are new, the general approach, which is to get things done properly at local level, seems to be right.

I shall run through some of the main themes that emerged during our work, rather than discuss the detail of the antisocial behaviour powers. One of the most obvious conclusions, and one that might sound strange, although I do not suppose that the hon. Members present will challenge it, is that antisocial behaviour is a genuine problem. Neither politicians nor the media have invented it. That might sound like a banal and obvious thing to say, but a constant note was struck throughout our inquiry by a minority of those giving evidence, who denied that antisocial behaviour is a significant problem. From time to time it was suggested that antisocial behaviour has always been there, that it is no different now and that politicians who talk about antisocial behaviour are simply creating a myth to justify some authoritarian powers.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way on that point. This is, without doubt, an excellent report, particularly the section entitled "Neighbours from hell", which begins at paragraph 54. Sadly, the Prime Minister's respect agenda seems to have painted social housing tenants as either victims or villains, which probably stigmatises millions of people and panders to negative stereotypes. Speaking as someone who spent half their life on a council estate, I feel particularly passionate about that.
 
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that affordable housing tenants and antisocial behaviour do not necessarily go hand in hand in the way that the respect agenda and some parts of the popular press sometimes imply?

Mr. Denham : I entirely agree, with one caveat: all the evidence is that antisocial behaviour and the fear of it are greatest in the most deprived communities in the country. There is inevitably some correlation between some social housing and deprivation, so it would not be entirely surprising if there were more victims of antisocial behaviour in those areas. I totally agree, however, that the stereotype is sometimes that antisocial behaviour is entirely created by tenants. That is entirely wrong.

There are, of course, very different types of antisocial behaviour. The sheer expense of drink, for example, means that much of the city centre binge drinking that goes on is done by people who have relatively well paid jobs, who probably rent or buy houses in the private sector and who may be socially very different from many people living on local authority estates.

The point that my hon. Friend makes is important and touches on a point that may be relevant later in the debate. The Committee concluded that all the necessary powers are in place to deal with antisocial people who live in owner-occupied housing and that no new powers are necessary. It will be interesting to see whether other hon. Members agree.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that investment in the public realm on estates is incredibly important and that it should be made in partnership with powers to deal with antisocial behaviour? Investment in the public realm might include removing graffiti quickly and designing neighbourhoods to discourage crime and antisocial behaviour, and it is incredibly important. We need a partnership between agencies, local authorities and the police to ensure that we design out crime and invest in and maintain our public realm. People often feel let down by local authorities and will react to the environment in which they live. If the local authority does not care about their neighbourhood, and local agencies do not invest in it, people will perhaps feel inclined to think that antisocial behaviour is acceptable.

Mr. Denham : Yes, of course it is right that local authorities and other agencies need to pay proper attention to creating and maintaining a good environment and to not allowing the idea to gain ground that those out there who are committing vandalism, doing graffiti or whatever are winning in local areas. I shall not go into much detail about that, although when I talk about alcohol and antisocial behaviour I shall certainly mention some design and planning issues that seem to have been neglected in the debate on binge drinking.

As I was saying, there was a strand throughout our inquiry that questioned whether antisocial behaviour exists as a phenomenon. We are convinced that it exists, but we feel that measures of antisocial behaviour do not always grasp the fact—it is known to most of us, as Members of Parliament—that continually suffering due to a string of individually minor events can have a
 
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devastating effect on the lives of individuals and families. The description of antisocial behaviour can sometimes be trivialised in parts of the media, just as it is sometimes sensationalised in others.

There is a more serious consequence of the debate on whether antisocial behaviour really exists. The view that it does not exist, that it is not terribly important or that it has always been there, much as it is now, is held by people who were significant witnesses and by significant people who submitted evidence. They come from some of the very agencies that need to be involved in the fight against antisocial behaviour. It would be wrong of me to damn whole professions and say, "They are all like that", but it would also be wrong to pretend that there are not strong strands in social services and the youth service, as well as persistent strands in parts of education in particular, that question the rationale behind the Government's drive against antisocial behaviour. People are not convinced that there is a major problem, and one issue that I want to draw out is the extent to which changing attitudes in those agencies and professions will be critical to Government success in delivering on their respect action plan.

When we wrote our report, we were cautious about assessing whether the Government are making progress on antisocial behaviour. There were welcome early indications from the British crime survey that fear of antisocial behaviour had reduced, and I believe that that trend has continued. I welcome the figures in the respect action plan suggesting that the trend has accelerated in the areas that the Government have targeted over the past year. Perhaps the good news is that we are beginning to learn what works when it comes to dealing with antisocial behaviour, and the challenge is to ensure that best practice spreads to as many different places as possible.

A second theme that ran throughout the inquiry also relates to perceptions of antisocial behaviour. Again, there can be tensions between local communities that suffer from such behaviour and the professional agencies that are engaged in those communities. We argue strongly that a process involving consultation, local decision-making and, perhaps, the new trigger mechanisms that the Government are discussing for the police would enable people living in a local area to define antisocial behaviour problems in that area and the standards by which they want to live. Nothing is more destructive than the tension that arises when the local community says, "This problem is intolerable", only to have somebody from the police, the council or another agency say, "We don't think it's that bad", before driving home to wherever they happen to live. It is therefore important to allow local communities to set standards at local level. When this idea is suggested, however, there is always a fear that local communities will somehow be irrationally punitive, but our experience as members of the Committee, as well as during our inquiry, is that people in local communities often have the most balanced view of which problems are caused by people's unreasonable behaviour and which are caused because there is nothing for the kids to do. A lot of otherwise decent kids are getting into trouble. Getting local communities more involved is an important part of the strategy.
 
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I return to the non-players, as we more or less describe them in recommendation 13 of the report. One challenge for the Government is to ensure that groups such as social services, education, adolescent mental health services and youth services are full players in antisocial behaviour strategies. I do not underestimate the problems, even when the basic argument that antisocial behaviour is a problem has been won.

I recognise that the Government have put money into social services, particularly to deal with support for dysfunctional families, but there is a real issue, which was honestly expressed by the Association of Directors of Social Services. If people are working in a job where the real driver is to avoid a repetition of a Victoria Climbié-type case, having the management strength to divert resources to dealing with dysfunctional families  that are causing a nuisance but not threatening a child's life represents a difficult choice for professionals to make. The Government will need to ensure that they have the right mechanisms in place to achieve the setting of those priorities.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has, over the years, always been a tension in social services departments, which have had to choose between spending money on people who are their responsibility and in their care, and spending it on preventing problems with children and working with families? Does he agree that children's trusts, which are coming on board, as well as the creation of young persons' directorates, provide an opportunity to involve not only social services, but all the agencies locally, in that preventive agenda? There should not be tension or conflict. This is an opportunity to bring together preventive work and spend money on children at the most needy end.

Mr. Denham : I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a huge opportunity, but it will happen only if, at quite a low operational level of individual decision-making managers, individual members of staff have the confidence to say, "We need to be doing the preventive work alongside the work that we do for the most serious cases."

I would like to go a bit beyond the conclusion of our report, although what I have to say is in tune with it. To give another example of a problem, there has been quite a lot of publicity in the past few weeks about whether the massive investment in dealing with truancy has worked. The logic of our report is that although a lot of money has gone into the education system for behavioural improvements and dealing with truancy, the bulk has probably been spent by schools in a short-term way—perhaps on extra classroom assistants, for example, to provide some separate provision for the most disruptive pupils. I suspect that little of that money has been invested jointly with social services money to target the dysfunctional families that those young people come from. The money has been used to buy short-term gain and peace and quiet, but has not contributed to the long-term tackling of fundamental problems.

When I started to draft the report, my feeling was that we would end up calling for a large amount of extra money to go into the system to tackle the problems of dysfunctional families and some longer-term preventive problems. However, the more we went through the
 
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report as a Committee, the more we felt that a lot of money has gone to schools and social services through the regeneration budget, the new deal for communities and so on. A lot of money is out there in the places where most of the problem-causing families exist and the challenge is to focus it directly on the people who often give rise to a series of problems. Although I welcome the extra targeted money announced for social services last week, that broad conclusion drives home.

I do not want to minimise the problems facing the Government in making these changes at local level. New institutional arrangements, such as children's trusts, will certainly help. We have highlighted yet again the extent to which fears about data sharing at local level provide a practical obstacle to different agencies working together. It is time for the Government to legislate so that there can be real confidence locally that individual agencies will not run into trouble if they share information from the police and from education and social services. When the problems are caused by the same young children or parents, it is crazy to have the same organisations running around and for nobody to be able to pool the information effectively. Measures are in the pipeline, but we need to go further.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. Can I confirm something? I hope I correctly understood what he said. He said at the outset that there is already enough legislation to deal with this sort of thing, but did he also say just now that we need not more legislation to bring these people together, but a management and a structure to produce a strategic plan of action to deal with this vast array of penny-packet problems? Are we not getting such a collective strategy from the various agencies?

Mr. Denham : The hon. and learned Gentleman has correctly picked up on a slight contradiction between two things I said. I congratulate him on listening; that is very nice, as one never knows on these occasions whether anyone will be listening at all. He has captured exactly the broad thrust of what I was saying: the main issues are managerial, not legislative. The major powers that are needed for agencies to tackle antisocial behaviour are in place, and the challenge is now largely managerial.

A few legislative issues are worth looking at. One is that, in practice, there is great confusion between the data protection legislation and the various bits of data-sharing legislation. We found a lot of evidence that, when in doubt, agencies at local level decide not to share information, because that seems to be safer than sharing information. That is an area where some change would be useful.

These comments are about the broad approach. It follows from what I have said that we are disappointed that the witnesses and the evidence we received tended to polarise between the enforcers and the preventers. We received large bodies of evidence from people who talked about effective enforcement action against antisocial behaviour, and from organisations that talked about the need for early intervention and prevention. In respect of that, we have made what I hope is the most obvious comment, which is reflected in the respect action plan: successful antisocial strategies will
 
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involve prevention and enforcement. If a Committee such as mine were to look into this issue in three years' time, it would be good if more witnesses presented balanced evidence, because we received evidence that tended to be one sided, one way or the other.

Let me make a few points about the overall approach. We could not find any evidence that there is excessive use throughout the country of punitive powers such as antisocial behaviour orders. On the contrary, measured against the incidence of antisocial behaviour, there appears to us to be too little use of them, rather than too much. There is a popular impression that people can hardly step outside their front door these days without having an ASBO slapped on them, but that is completely wrong. [Interruption.] Even in Manchester. I will say a little more about Manchester shortly, because we were very impressed by the evidence its council gave to the Committee. It is important to get this message about such powers across.

If anything, we feel that some measures are used too late in the cycle of offending. It was interesting to discover how many young people who had received ASBOs had quite serious offending histories before the ASBO was issued. Given the purpose of ASBOs, that suggests to us that the ASBO had been left too long and that turning to it earlier might have been better.

We were impressed by the evidence we received from Manchester city council, which made a perfectly reasonable point: housing injunctions and many types of ASBO require the individual to do no more than what a decent, ordinary person would do anyway. Used early enough, ASBOs are preventive rather than prescriptive.

It is clear that if things are left too long, the ASBO might have to go further and, for example, ban somebody from a certain area. Our view is that there are cases for using these powers earlier. That ought to make it possible to use some less severe measures, such as housing injunctions and demoted tenancies, before reaching the point of talking about evicting a family and all that goes with it in terms of rehousing them and making further provision.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I congratulate him and the Committee on the report, which addresses what is a significant and relatively recent phenomenon in my constituency.

Recommendation 32 covers ASBO breach rates that run at about 40 per cent. What evidence did the Committee take on the impact of sentencing outcomes? To illustrate my point, I refer to a local example in which a shopkeeper in the village of Harefield had his shop windows kicked in throughout the year. A police officer worked extremely hard to process the ASBO and breach of ASBO procedure, after which a sentencer from outside the community imposed a £100 fine. The criminal immediately contacted the police sergeant and laughed down the telephone. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand local worries about the remoteness and appropriateness of such sentencing?

Mr. Denham : I entirely understand the frustration felt in those circumstances. There is still an educative job to be done with some sections of the ASBO procedure. We heard of places in which good efforts have been made to
 
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educate magistrates and others at local level, so that they understand what the history is likely to be before an offender appears in front of them with respect to an ASBO or an ASBO breach. It is still clear to us that there are other parts of the criminal justice system where sentencers do not understand the significance of someone coming forward with such an offence, although I am sure that that is improving month by month.

Such sentencing problems are not new, as there were similar problems when football banning orders were introduced. It took a long time for several magistrates to understand how the law was meant to operate. I am sure that we will get there, but it is important to highlight frustrating cases as examples of what goes wrong.

Ann Coffey : Before my right hon. Friend moves on from housing injunctions, I want to say how effective it has been to publish the number of ASBOs that have been applied for by each local authority. That gives people living in an area a perspective on what their local council is doing.

I notice from the report that the Committee is keen on publishing the number of housing injunctions. In the light of the evidence given to the Committee, does my right hon. Friend consider publishing that information, as well as the number of ASBOs applied for, an effective measure for local residents, which would enable them to see that their councils were using such powers?

Mr. Denham : It is useful to publish that information. I was about to refer to problems at local level, and my local authority, Southampton, has a good record in dealing with antisocial behaviour—it has been highlighted in previous Government reports. In a recent constituency case, the housing department, having decided not to pursue possession orders, took no other measure. I am not a lawyer but, at first sight, it seemed that either a demoted tenancy or a housing injunction would be justifiable, given the evidence presented, even if the possession order was unlikely to succeed. The failure to take such action leaves neighbours feeling badly let down.

We are still some way from the time when there will be an automatic response from front-line agencies in considering the whole range of powers that might be used in a case and in ensuring that they use an effective power. There may still be a tendency for them to say, "We have always tried to evict people like these, but if we cannot evict them we will not do anything." Publishing information about how the powers could be used would be useful.

Alcohol and antisocial behaviour are also covered in the report. We welcome the Government's announcement that measures will be taken to establish, if necessary, statutory local schemes to deal with city centre binge drinking. If the regulatory impact assessment is to be relied on, my view is that the amount that the Government are assuming would be raised by the statutory scheme—perhaps £60,000 to £80,000 per year for a major city—seems pretty small in relation to policing and other costs. None the less, we welcome the Government's acceptance of the principle that the pubs
 
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and clubs that give rise to the problem should, if necessary, be forced to pay towards the cost of clearing up and policing. The Committee will want to return to that issue to see how things are working.

The more fundamental point that I want to stress is that we are strongly persuaded as a Committee that the problem with city centre binge drinking is not individual behaviour, but simply the large concentration of drinking establishments, and there being almost no other activity than drinking, in small geographical areas. Such establishments are segregated by age, and if the 25-year-olds do not drink with the 18-year-olds—or the 16-year-olds, if we are honest—and so on, there will be binge drinking, no matter what the enforcement or licensing measures.

Just as it has taken about 15 years to create those alcohol-saturated areas in towns and city centres, we need to accept that it will take 15 or 20 years of planning in the other direction to get back to a more balanced use of city centres. Although the Committee welcomes much of the Licensing Act 2003 and the idea of alcohol disorder zones, our conclusion is that we have planned, or unplanned, our way into the current use of our city centres. We will need positive planning in the other direction if we are to be able to reclaim our city centre streets, but that point did not receive as much emphasis in the Government's overall alcohol disorder strategy as I and the Committee would have liked.

I shall leave my remarks there. I look forward with great interest to the debate and the Minister's response.

2.56 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): As always, the Home Affairs Committee has produced an excellent report.

I hope that I am not alone in rather regretting the layout of this Room. One of the advantages of Westminster Hall was that the seating was laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. When we debated Select Committee reports, particularly when they were unanimous, that layout enabled the House to focus on what united us and on how we could find common ground, rather than on what divided us. This report was unanimous, so by definition there was a lot of common ground.

I do not intend to repeat anything the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, but will make some brief points of my own. Any hon. Member who is in any way active in their constituency will know that antisocial behaviour takes place and very often creates totally disproportionate distress to those affected. Youngsters going down a street setting mobile wheelie bins on fire might think that quite fun, but it is very frightening and distressing for elderly people.

In the past few days, we have heard a lot about the respect agenda, and understandably the tabloid papers have focused on the punitive measures. As with any system, one clearly requires punitive measures, such as antisocial behaviour orders. However, we also need to have some regard to how we help families that have difficulties with parenting. I am not entirely sure—sometimes there is confusion—about which agency should lead on this issue, particularly in rural or semi-rural areas, where county councils provide social services, and district councils, now through housing associations, provide housing.
 
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If one is to expect county councils and social services to help more with families that the right hon. Gentleman described as dysfunctional—families with difficulties—children's social services have to have a reasonably high priority. We have to recognise that social services budgets in the local government settlement must have a fair allocation. In Oxfordshire, we have a particular problem with the Supporting People budget, which is putting pressure on other areas.

On parenting, when I look back at those two university students, I sometimes think it a miracle that any of us bring up children. Parenting is a difficult thing, so we should be a little less hasty to condemn families who may have problems, because they may have them for all sorts of reasons.

In trying to keep youngsters out of the criminal justice system, we ought to look at pupil referral units and who runs them. I fully understand that head teachers should have the power to exclude pupils, but such pupils then go to the pupil referral units and are not there for much time, or they are meant to work at home. It always strikes me as bizarre that we exclude pupils from school and expect them to go home and behave. Perhaps if head teachers had a greater say over what happens in the pupil referral units, we might get those youngsters out of those units—perhaps into other schools, college or something more constructive. There seems to be a tendency, which is no one's fault, of writing such people off.

There do not seem to be very many schemes for helping mediation in neighbour disputes. As I am sure the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) will know from her experience at the Bar and as I certainly know from mine, some of the most vitriolic litigation comes from neighbour disputes over small issues. Going through the panoply of law is often not the way to do it, and maybe we should find better ways of resolving neighbour disputes at a local level.

I also have a particular concern. Often, new estates are appallingly designed. I represent one of the fastest-growing parts of the country; Banbury and Bicester are two of the fastest-growing towns. What happens with estate design? Let me describe the process. Planning permission is given for a load of fields to be built on. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is now calling in cases where the housing density is not great enough, so the idea of gardens or recreational space goes by the board. The developers set aside land for a pub, a doctors' surgery and shops and the private sector comes and deals with that. Land is set aside for the school and the county council, as the education authority, deals with that. They may, if the area is lucky, set aside land for a community centre, but no community centre will be built as no one has a responsibility to build one. There is no recreational land other than the school playing field, which can be used only when the school is operational.

In one new housing estate in Bicester, for example, there is nowhere for the youngsters to go and play. It is hardly surprising that they get into difficulties. There was quite a lot of vandalism and antisocial behaviour on the estate so the town council asked all the youngsters what they wanted. Not surprisingly, they said, "We'd like somewhere to hang out. We'd just like somewhere we can meet our mates, where we're not hassled by people." The town council then got round to building a
 
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simple shelter. Nothing more complicated; it is not rocket science. Of course, understandably, residents who live near the shelter are concerned about litter and noise, but if that estate had been designed with some reference to providing and ensuring some recreational space for young people—

3.2 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.17 pm

On resuming—

Tony Baldry : When estates are being designed, we cannot assume that if we build lots of houses we will, automatically, overnight, create a community.

We should increasingly think about "i" before "e"—that is, investment and infrastructure before expansion. In the south-east, the Government are certainly investing considerable amounts of money in new towns such as Crawley and Milton Keynes, and in seaside towns, such as Hastings, that need refurbishment. However, if they expect areas such as Banbury, Bicester and Didcot in Oxfordshire to take a large share of new housing, there has also got to be investment in their infrastructure so that they can provide recreational opportunities for young people.

We have been promised—as, I suspect, has every other part of the country—new and more police community support officers. It would be good to have them, and to know that they will become a permanently funded part of the Thames Valley police, or whatever its successor might be. There is some concern on the part of the police authority that, as has happened in the case of many Government projects, police community support officers will have funding for two or three years but that it will soon get lost in the general police authority budget. Then there will be a risk that a choice has to be made between established police constables and community support officers. That would be rather self-defeating.

Many communities, whether they are housing estates in towns such as Bicester and Banbury or villages, want the reassurance of seeing uniformed people out on the streets. I remember in my youth—it was not that long ago—regularly seeing police officers cycling or walking through villages. Indeed, at one stage a sergeant and two constables covered Bloxham, the village in which I live, and several other villages. Of course, policing has changed. However, people who live on housing estates and in villages still want to see that cover. Can we therefore have community support officers as speedily as possible, and can we ensure that they do not get lost somewhere down the line in the police budget?

A parish in my constituency has become confused and believes that it will have to fund community support officers. When the Minister winds up, will he reassure the Chamber that the community support officers will be funded from the grants in aid for police authorities, and that local communities will not be expected to fund them themselves? Otherwise, we could get into an invidious position in which rich parishes would be able to afford community support officers, and poorer parishes, with perhaps fewer high precepts, would not.
 
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Antisocial behaviour orders and potential breaches of those orders require a magistrates court system that works. I would just like to flag up the bizarre situation in north Oxfordshire, as I have the opportunity to do so. The situation may be untypical, but last week the Crown Prosecution Service abandoned no fewer than three contested trials in the magistrates court on one day, simply because it did not have sufficient prosecutors.

Perversely, the local superintendent of police tells me that the detection rates of the Thames Valley police are increasing faster than the CPS can advise them on whether they should charge people or bring prosecutions. If someone pleads not guilty, there are no prosecutors to try them. Eventually, the magistrates become fed up with cases being adjourned again and again, and in due course under the concept of natural justice dismiss them for want of prosecution.

That is not fair on anyone. It is not fair on the victims, because they may well not receive compensation orders, and it is not fair on the community. Nor is it fair on those who are charged, because there may well be quite a lot of publicity in the local newspaper about the fact that they have been charged, and they never really receive the opportunity to clear their name, if that is what would have happened in a contested trial if they had been found not guilty. The Law Officers who are responsible for the CPS need to ensure that the CPS has adequate numbers of prosecutors to keep up with charging people who are arrested, with giving advice and with bringing prosecutions.

That takes me to my final point. Who in the criminal justice system takes the lead on ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts? Is it the police, the local authority, the district council responsible for housing or the probation service? A constituency such as mine, which is semi-rural, is different from cities that have single departments and a single local authority.

It is not that anyone is failing to do their job properly, but I am sometimes worried that there is a lack of overall grip and that no one is saying, "We have issued this number of ASBOs. Why is there is a problem on that estate, and how can we deal with this?" I accept that district councils and the police are working more closely together, but points of concern remain. Where does the probation service step in? Where are the concepts of restorative justice? The geography of all this can become quite complicated, which makes it difficult for communities to know to whom they should turn if things are going wrong. Should they turn to the local authority to let it know that the ASBOs are not working, or should they turn to the police? We need a clearer understanding of who should lead on this, and who is the point of reference.

The Home Affairs Committee has done a good service to the House. If one read the tabloids, one would assume that everything was going wrong. There are difficulties, but communities generally want to tackle them, and we need both prevention and enforcement, and for all the different bits of the machinery of justice and the machinery of government to work well. If that can happen, communities can be more harmonious and can be safer and happier places for people to live in. I suspect that the issues that unite the House are far greater than the issues that may sometimes divide us.
 
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3.24 pm

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in today's debate.

The Committee's inquiry focused on three areas of antisocial behaviour: the antisocial behaviour of young people, neighbour nuisance and alcohol-related disorder. There are many causes of antisocial behaviour, and we considered whether the current definitions of antisocial behaviour are too wide. We concluded, however, that they should not be changed.

Any persistent antisocial behaviour can be devastating for those affected by it. One issue that we considered is whether much antisocial behaviour by young people is a matter of a lack of tolerance or of intergenerational conflict. We concluded that, for the most part, that simply is not true. Even the most seemingly innocent activity, such as persistently kicking a football at a house wall, can cause distress to the person living in that house. Sometimes the sheer number of young people grouped together can be threatening to older people. There needs to be greater understanding between the generations, but there also needs to be appropriate action to tackle antisocial behaviour in whatever form it takes.

It is also important to remember that antisocial behaviour is not just about young people behaving badly. I share the welcome by the National Children's Bureau for the clear Government statement in the respect action plan that tackling disrespect is not a youth issue any more than antisocial behaviour is. More than half of antisocial behaviour orders are issued to adults. The respect drive will address antisocial adults and families, as well as antisocial young people.

We should also remember that the vast majority of young people behave well and are a credit to their families and communities. The respect action plan points out that young people should be proud of themselves. For example, 45 per cent. of 16 to 24-year-olds participate at least once a month in informal volunteering, which is the highest level for any age group. The action plan recognises that constructive and purposeful activities have enormous benefits for young people. They can encourage and enable children and young people to contribute to their communities and can help to divert them from antisocial behaviour.

In the Green Paper "Youth Matters", the Government set out their commitment to ensure that all young people have access to activities that they find interesting and exciting in their local area. That should include a full range of cultural, art, sport, environmental and community-based activities. It is right that we should increase the opportunities for all our young people, while at the same time targeting disadvantaged young people through more activities such as sport.

We must also continue to tackle the problem of the minority who act antisocially, making the lives of many in our communities a misery. The Committee welcomes the introduction of ASBOs and the development of acceptable behaviour contracts. I have spoken to my local police, and I can say that ABCs, especially if used in conjunction with meetings with the young people and their families, are proving very effective. About 50 have been issued, only seven of which needed to lead on to ASBOs.
 
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There is also clear recognition that there is a need to introduce other measures to prevent the need for ASBOs and to support them if they become necessary. The Committee supports that view, and paragraph 170 of the report states:

I am therefore glad that the Government response to recommendation 20 states:

The Committee also welcomes the introduction of parenting orders, stating at paragraph 159:

I am pleased that the Government's respect action plan contains recognition of the need to support families and a commitment to improve parenting provision nationally through children's centres, extended schools and measures to improve the capacity of the work force through the national parenting academy.

As other hon. Members have said, being a parent is probably one of the most difficult jobs, and we need to increase the support that is available in our communities. The development of children's centres and the involvement of organisations such as Home-Start, which works with local families in my constituency, are crucial in helping to support families.

In welcoming parenting orders, the Committee also recognises that a coercive approach is sometimes necessary and can ultimately be of great benefit to the parents concerned. Indeed, I believe that parenting orders can empower parents. We were concerned that parenting orders were not being used sufficiently, and I am pleased that the Government have said that they will legislate to expand their use.

One concern that has been expressed by the British Council of Disabled People is that ASBOs are being issued to young people with disabilities such as Asperger's and Tourette syndrome. I would be grateful if the Minister commented on that. Families of children suffering from those conditions are particularly in need of support, not punishment.

Turning to alcohol-related disorder, the Committee concluded that there is no clear-cut evidence as to whether more flexible licensing hours will make the problem better or worse. It clearly existed before the introduction of the new licensing laws, which caused such great media concern. However, having spoken to the police in my constituency, I know that there has been no change in the number of incidents caused by alcohol abuse since the new licensing laws came in, although such incidents now tend to be more spread out, necessitating a review of shift patterns. It is clear that we should continue to tackle binge drinking and alcohol-related disorder.

The Committee welcomes the introduction of new powers to target individuals, including fixed penalty notices, which have allowed the police to deal better
 
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with drunken and disorderly behaviour. We also welcome efforts to tackle the sale of alcohol to those under age. I represent the brewing town of Burton upon Trent, now also known, of course, for its heroic football team. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I recognise the efforts that the alcohol industry is making to try to tackle alcohol abuse. Measures include voluntary unit labelling on all cans and bottles, and the "Take it Easy" campaign of messages on drink containers, paper cups and also—through Carling's work with the National Union of Students—on campus cash machines. We need to use many strategies to tackle antisocial behaviour and to ensure that we encourage people to respect each other, their communities and, perhaps most of all, themselves.

3.32 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I do not intend to trouble the time keepers much in this debate, as I want to make just a few quick points. Let me say to the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) that, as a supporter for 35 years of Reading, which is about to join the premier league, that she should remain optimistic about her local football team. She will undoubtedly enjoy such excitement in the future.

I commend the report, although I say that as a member of the Committee who was not on it when the document was written. I was a lowly parliamentary candidate at the time. The report is interesting and adds much to the debate.

I want to talk about antisocial neighbours—an issue that is covered extensively in the report. Hon. Members will know the experience: our hearts sink when people come to our surgeries and we can tell before they even open their mouth that they have come to talk about antisocial neighbours. That is a deeply depressing part of our work, because as MPs we are unable to do much to address the problem, even though it is the first thing that our constituents think about in the morning, the last thing they think about at night and something that dominates their day in between. Things often start out as a petty problem, but they can become very serious. Only half a mile from where I live, just over the border in the Wokingham constituency, somebody was tragically murdered in the denouement of an antisocial neighbourhood issue.

This is a serious problem, involving immense health and mental health issues that we all have to face. There is no doubt—I agree with the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham)—that there is adequate legislation to deal with the problems covered by the report, but many local authorities and registered social landlords are reluctant to use the powers that they have been given by this and previous Governments to address the problem. How many people come to our surgeries with diaries cataloguing years of misery, their ashen faces telling a story? For them, this process has become a way to administer the continuance of a problem rather than a serious attempt to end it. I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Government will carry forward the important section in the report on that issue.

I am interested by what the report says about mediation in antisocial neighbour issues. We all know from our constituencies that there is mediation and
 
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mediation—some is excellent and some not so effective. That is not necessarily because of the form of the mediation service; it can be because there is not equivalent will on both sides of the dispute to resolve the issue.

I commend the fantastic work of a mediation service in my constituency, Resolve, which is part of Mediation UK. I notice from the report that the Peterborough mediation service, from which a representative came and gave evidence, is very similar. It is part of a national organisation with a local perspective, and it does fantastic work. However, I was alarmed to read that only just over half of England and Wales is covered by mediation services. The Government need to address that. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen talked about managing the problem. We need to look at whether effective schemes are working locally, and to show best practice to other local authorities and give leadership on these issues.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, we should encourage local authorities and registered social landlords, through the Government, to consider the suitability of certain families and tenants to live in certain parts of their built estate. Like my hon. Friend, I represent a rural constituency that contains large urban areas. Although we have a good housing association and a well-managed single list with the local authority, I see too many families living in rural communities for whom that must be a rather terrifying experience, because they are used to urban living. Often, such problems can lead to neighbourhood disputes. In a current case, a young family have been put, by a social landlord based miles away, in a block of flats with a lot of middle-aged and elderly residents, which is completely unsuitable. That has led to a serious problem, which I am attempting to deal with.

I shall discuss one other aspect that emerged in the report, which is covered by the departmental response: the lack of data in relation to whether many of the laudable measures that have been introduced in recent years are working. The departmental response and the Minister's evidence to the Committee accept that there is a lack of data on how effective some of the measures being implemented are. I urge the Minister to consider the situation. It seems crazy to bother to introduce legislation without considering its effectiveness and how it is implemented.

When dealing with issues such as neighbours and antisocial behaviour, the partnership approach seems to work best. I pay great tribute to the safer communities partnership in west Berkshire, which seems to be tackling many of these areas, and the police reassurance scheme, for which we have been a pilot project. It is important that registered social landlords, local authorities, police, citizens advice bureaux, mediation services, mental health organisations, GPs and the range of people who deal with such problems on their own, individual basis talk to each other. We want the Government to help to drive that forward.

I again commend the Committee on the report and look forward to the Minister's response.
 
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3.39 pm

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I start by disagreeing with the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who is just leaving his place, but not on a serious note—I do not want to disturb him too much. I spent much of the first 19 years of my public/political life on Manchester city council in a horseshoe-shaped chamber and in some of the most acrimonious and difficult debates in which I have ever taken part. I have never been one of those people who believes that the shape of the Chamber changes the nature of the debate.

On the serious matter of the report before us, I have read it, and I am in awe of the people who produced it. It is an excellent report and I regret only that I did not read it until this debate was announced. I wish that I had read all the information in it when it was published, because that information punctures a lot of the myths, straightforward lies and misunderstandings about how ASBOs have been operating and what their benefits are. It destroys many of the myths believed by a number of people about the disbenefits.

We recognise the increasing problem of antisocial behaviour in many of our neighbourhoods. It is often associated with the inner city and poor areas, but I note from the hon. Members here today that it is not confined to those; almost every constituency in the country suffers similar antisocial behaviour problems.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The area that I am talking about is not particularly well-off. About an hour before this debate started, I was contacted again by a business that had suffered from antisocial behaviour: graffiti, vandalism and a break-in. The person said that the simple answer was not ASBOs but more police on the beat catching criminals and deterring crime. I should like the hon. Gentleman's views on that opinion.

Graham Stringer : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I was going to come to it later, but I shall come to it now. ASBOs in Manchester and other areas have been successful in dealing with antisocial behaviour, but one of the reasons why ASBOs and the 1998 legislation were necessary was that in some cases the agencies that should have been dealing with antisocial behaviour, including the police, had walked away from some of those problems. They had re-prioritised their work. I shall come back to that point when I get to licensing.

I agree that more police and other agencies should be dealing directly with the problem before the need arises for an antisocial behaviour order. In the present situation, however, those antisocial behaviour orders have protected many thousands of the people whom I represent in north Manchester. I mean thousands; I am not exaggerating. ASBOs have made those people's lives a lot easier, because although some of the antisocial behaviour described is trivial, though annoying—kicking a ball against the wall or playing loud music can make people's lives miserable—some of it is much more intense, frightening and awful than that.

I should have thought that there would be all-party consensus on such issues, but there is not, although there seems to be in this Chamber. There is an alliance between The Economist—I suppose that I understand
 
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where it is coming from, given its history—and some lawyers' groups from both the extreme right and the extreme left, characterised by ASBOwatch and others, I would think. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) said, parts of some of the professions believe that their role is to stop ASBOs and to be on the side of the perpetrators rather than the victims. Politically—this is particularly important in Manchester and elsewhere—the Liberal Democrats do not support ASBOs overall.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Graham Stringer : I shall in a minute, when I have finished. I hope that I may provoke the hon. Gentleman a bit more before I do.

I look forward to seeing the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) campaign round the country for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. He has my wholehearted support. People should know that the would-be leader of the Liberal Democrat party opposed the legislation that gave the police the power to disperse groups of youths; that he opposed fixed penalties for drunkenness; that other spokespeople for his party believe that criminals should have the same freedom as their victims; and that prison is a waste of time when dealing with many such problems. I look forward to the Liberal Democrat leadership race publicity.

Sir John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating speech, but he is getting a little away from the subject. We are not debating the policies of the Liberal Democrats.

Graham Stringer : I apologise, Sir John. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Martin Horwood : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I shall pass on his kind comments to my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). I am sure that he will be deeply encouraged by the hon. Gentleman's support, although it may not do him much good in the leadership contest. The hon. Gentleman seems to be labouring under a misapprehension. It is Liberal Democrat policy to support the appropriate use of antisocial behaviour orders.

Graham Stringer : I do not want to provoke you, Sir John, but some of the evidence in the Committee's report shows that councils controlled by the Liberal Democrats rarely use antisocial behaviour orders.

I shall go through some of the myths and the answers given in the report, because it is worth putting them on record. The report goes through the arguments against the often-used allegation that antisocial behaviour orders criminalise juveniles, and that they use a lower threshold of evidence than would be required for a criminal conviction. Paragraph 184 makes it clear that that is not the case.

One of the other accusations made against ASBOs is that, because 35 per cent. of them are breached, they are not effective. Martin Lee, an official who works for
 
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Manchester city council, has enthusiastically and effectively been responsible for protecting many in my constituency and elsewhere in Manchester. He said in evidence to the Committee that if 35 per cent. of orders are breached, almost two thirds are successful and that, as a result, many people's lives are better.

Although 35 per cent. of orders are breached, the nature of the ASBO means that even if a person goes back to the neighbourhood and makes someone else's life misery, the courts immediately have recourse to the order to take action. Although the ASBO will have been breached, it does not mean that protection is ended; it means that the next level of protection for the community is put in place.

Another accusation is that ASBOs are often brought maliciously. Evidence to the Home Affairs Committee shows that that is limited. Manchester city council gave evidence that, of the 4,500 ASBOs for which it was responsible, only 10 had been brought maliciously. I have heard evidence in my advice bureau that the perpetrators sometimes come forward and get their retaliation in first. It can take time to sort that out, but it is sorted in the end. It is no different from anything else in the criminal justice system—bad people often lie and try to get in first, but it is a relatively small problem.

Those who work in the probation service, social services and other services often say that the problem is caused by a clash of lifestyles or a lack of tolerance shown by the elderly. That is rather insulting to people who suffer such problems, and they deserve the protection that the public services can give.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) said that there have been cases in which people with Asperger's or other conditions have had inappropriate ASBOs made against them or in which the wrong conditions have been attributed to people. To deal with the latter point first, such cases are relatively rare. Let us look in detail at one of the examples in the report. A young man had been banned from going into a motor car because he committed offences in motor cars, which meant that he could not get support from elsewhere, a car ride away. That is unfortunate and may have been inappropriate—perhaps the condition should have been more specific—but when it comes to the balance between helping somebody who has made somebody's life miserable and stopping them from doing so, I would vote for stopping the behaviour and delaying the support. Such cases are not always as simple and straightforward as they seem.

People have come to my advice bureau and said that someone with an ASBO had Tourette syndrome. Like any hon. Member would be, I was concerned; it seemed inappropriate. Such cases make the law press and local newspapers, but when I followed the case through there was no medical evidence whatsoever that the young man had Tourette's. When we consider the complaints and criticisms, many are unfounded.

I have two points about the myths and arguments about the subject which are worth dealing with. First, some people have complained that the publicity given to individuals who are in receipt of an ASBO is wrong if young people are named. That criticism, when we sit back and analyse it, is wrong. A 15-year-old in my constituency took a chainsaw to cut down a camera that was trying to provide some surveillance and protection
 
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for people, drove a car into another car and set houses on fire. He was a serious problem. At the time that he received the ASBO he was in prison for something even more serious. When he comes out of prison he will be banned from the area. In case that young man breaches his ASBO, people on the estate need to know who he is and what he looks like so that they can report it. I am in favour of naming and shaming. I am in favour of people knowing who has an ASBO so that the community can get proper protection.

It is often said in a well-meaning way that some of the young thugs use an ASBO as a badge of honour and are proud to receive it. It makes them appear tough among their peers and gives them status that they otherwise would not have. There is an element of truth in that. However, if the ASBO is appropriate, I do not see that that is any reason for not making it. If it stops a young person going on to an estate or stops behaviour that has been a problem for someone else, it should be made. The fact that he, or in some cases she, might feel good about it for a short period of time does not mean that it should not be made. I have people with ASBOs coming to my advice surgery and they do not like them at all.

The fact that a minority of people feel that they are suffering should not be taken as an argument against ASBOs, and nor should the argument that the process criminalises young people. As the report clearly shows, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen noted, many people with ASBOs are already known to the police and are in the system. Many of the agencies involved should have intervened more effectively earlier in the process. The report's treatment of antisocial behaviour and antisocial behaviour orders, then, is absolutely excellent.

Having served on the Standing Committee that considered what became the Licensing Act 2003, I read the Select Committee's comments on licensing issues with interest. However, I diverge slightly from the Committee on one issue, which goes back to the point on which the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) intervened. When we discussed the Bill, I asked the Minister for Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn), who is the Minister responsible for the issue, how many times the police had charged publicans with selling alcohol to people who were inebriated. The figure for the year in which we were discussing the Bill was six. Anyone who goes into the centre of Southampton, Manchester or Birmingham, or even into the centres of relatively small market towns, on a Friday or Saturday or, indeed, on other evenings will find publicans happily selling alcohol to already inebriated young people, many of whom, as my right hon. Friend recognised, are under age. I do not say that there is a total solution to some of the problems of alcohol abuse in city centres, but having police sitting in vans, tooled up in case there is a big problem, is not the right response to the problem of publicans selling alcohol to under-age people who are already drunk. I do not pretend that any of this has an easy solution, but all the powers in the law should be used at an appropriate time. The police have withdrawn from the appropriate level of policing and they should not do so.
 
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There is another point about licensed premises in city centres. My right hon. Friend said that it has taken 15 years for the accretion of licences to come about and he hopes that there will be more diversity in 15 years. However, I do not really agree with him that the closeness of the pubs is the cause of antisocial behaviour. I know that comparing drinking habits between countries is difficult because there are different cultures, but if one goes to a city such as Seattle, one will find huge ranges of drinking establishments in a line that do not cause a problem. There is something in the way that young British people drink that causes the problems, and if we spread those centres out, we may spread the problem. The other side of the police response to drinking—dealing with problems once they have arisen, as opposed to before they have arisen—may well become more difficult.

Mr. Denham : I will not debate the point with my hon. Friend, but if he has time, I would ask him to have a look at the evidence submitted by Professor Rick Hobbs of Durham university and by Chief Constable Green of Nottinghamshire. Drawing on their experience, they were quite specific about planning and other related issues. They were the people who convinced the Committee, and I refer my hon. Friend to their analysis of the situation.

Graham Stringer : I will certainly do that. As I said, I have read the report and some of the evidence provided, but not the evidence that my right hon. Friend mentions. I suspect that what we are talking about is a knee-jerk reaction to the change in the spatial organisation of licensed premises. The argument is, "That is how premises used to be; there was less trouble then, so we should go back to that", but I suspect that that may not be the answer. However, I will certainly read that evidence.

I finish by thanking Martin Lee and the rest of the team in Manchester, which has been so effective on antisocial behaviour orders. Also, it would be wrong of me not to mention Bill Pitt, who was recognised in the honours list this new year. He has been very effective in his pioneering work on the subject in Manchester, but has also moved towards helping towns and cities across the country. He certainly has my congratulations and the thanks of the many constituents of mine whose lives were made better by the intervention of the units working for Manchester City Council.

4.1 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate on the Select Committee's report. First, I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), on his hard work and leadership, and on the depth of interest that he takes in the subject, which is obvious to everybody in the Chamber. I shall briefly follow down the road of what he said in his introductory remarks. His point about looking beyond legislation is extremely important; legislation certainly has its part to play, but it would be a mistake to think that the answer is always enacting package of legislation after package of legislation, without looking to see whether existing legislation is working, or whether other things need to be done. That
 
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is a lesson that we should take to heart generally in this place, and certainly when dealing with the subject of antisocial behaviour.

To take just one slightly topical example, it is a fair point that antisocial behaviour orders, which we have had a little debate about this afternoon, play a role, particularly in some areas; but that was not always the case. They were introduced some time ago. From memory, I think that they first came on stream in 1999 or 2000. The relevant legislation was one of the very first pieces passed by the Government. I recollect the Committee that considered it, because I served on it.

The Conservative party did not actually oppose antisocial behaviour orders, but I am not sure that that can be said of those in all quarters of the House. I will not go any further down that road, although it is interesting to ask when, or in what circumstances, the orders became appropriate to some. We warned at the time that care should be taken to make sure that antisocial behaviour orders were practical and would be used. There was a time when uptake was slow; the Minister and other hon. Members could confirm that from their experiences. They were subsequently modified, and are now used much more than they were in the first couple of years after their introduction.

On the same general point, I follow up what was said by the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), who referred to parenting orders. They are a very interesting idea, but statistics bear out that they have not been used very much so far. Perhaps it would be worth considering, when there is an opportunity, why that is so, and whether anything further could be done to make sure that they were more widely used.

As the Chamber will have gathered, the issue of alcohol-related disorder occupied quite a bit of time in the Committee's deliberations, and was the subject of much of the evidence that it took. There was a question in the Committee's mind as to the direction in which the Government were going on the issue. It is not that we contradicted the Government, but we wanted to consider whether other things needed to be looked into, beside the measures already being taken. When we heard evidence on the subject, we were struck with the scale of the problem. I have a slight disagreement with the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) on the issue; his point about publicans selling to people who were inebriated was very good, and I was interested to hear that the number of publicans prosecuted was so small. However, there is a limit to how much effect prosecuting more publicans has. Perhaps there is a case for considering the matter more carefully, but the evidence that the Committee heard about the extent of the consumption of alcohol in town and city centres suggests that there is an element of inevitability about this, given the numbers of people involved.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Has my hon. Friend heard of the example of a brewer in the west country who has decided unilaterally not to supply bars, restaurants and other outlets that have a history of antisocial behaviour connected to them? The brewer has said simply that he will not supply them with beer. That
 
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is already having a marked effect on the owners of those restaurants and bars, who are taking a more proactive stance to control their customers.

Mr. Clappison : My hon. and learned Friend makes an extremely important point. Anyone involved in the commercial side of the drinks industry who takes such a public-spirited stand deserves our plaudits.

I was struck by the evidence that the Committee heard—the Chairman of the Committee referred to it—from Professor Hobbs of Durham university and the chief constable of Nottinghamshire. Professor Hobbs gave us a very important economic analysis of alcohol-related disorder and the growth of the night-time economy since the 1980s. As he made clear, that economy is a very large and growing business. He says:

As the right hon. Gentleman said, there is a tradition in England—I do not know the position so well in other parts of the United Kingdom—of young people consuming alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights. I was staggered by some of the evidence that we heard of the scale of drinking today.

The evidence that we took from the chief constable of Nottinghamshire is that drinking in places such as Nottingham and, I suspect, Manchester is on a quite different scale from the drinking of the past. That is not to say that there has not always been a tradition of hard drinking in some of our city centres. There is the film, "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", for example. There has certainly been drinking in our city centres for 40 or 50 years, but I suspect that it was not on the scale of the drinking of today.

I was staggered when the chief constable, who gave evidence to us about a year ago in the run-up to Christmas, told us that 80,000 to 100,000 young people would be out on the streets on a Friday night in a city the size of Nottingham. Nottingham has a licensed capacity for more than 100,000 people. That is a huge number of young people to have out on the streets. Given the scale of the numbers of people consuming alcohol, there is bound to be disorder.

We know that the problem is not confined to Nottingham or our city centres. That fair point has already been made. This is a major social development throughout the country. The atmosphere in our provincial cities of any size—it is not so apparent in London—changes after about 7 o'clock, particularly on a Friday night but also on a Saturday night. It is quite unusual to find many people over the age of 30 in those city centres after 7 o'clock on a Friday or a Saturday night. Generally, it is groups of young people going from bar to bar simply drinking the evening away. That is the picture in our great provincial cities.

The later it gets in the evening, the more drink has been consumed, the more tense the atmosphere often becomes. We must recognise the fact that this is a social and economic development that has intensified in the past 15 to 20 years, and we need new thinking about how we will address this problem.
 
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The Committee was struck by the fact that the Government's response to alcohol-related disorder is currently founded on an assumption that the problem can be defined by, and traced to, irresponsible individuals and individual premises. That sort of thinking certainly has a role to play; that the irresponsible individuals who consume the alcohol and those irresponsible premises that sell the alcohol to them must face the consequences.

I do not disagree with that approach, but this is a very big phenomenon and more than that is required. There needs to be a more wide-ranging response to this problem. There needs to be a recognition of what has taken place, followed by thinking on a much bigger scale than there has been before to address it, including going back to the planning stage—looking at the planning of our city centres—and looking as well at the provisions that need to be made to accommodate such large numbers of people drinking on Friday and Saturday nights, particularly in respect of transport and toilet facilities. In short, what is needed is a much more thorough and wide-ranging approach than there has been before.

That brings me on to the conclusions of the Committee, which I support. I ask the Government to take them into account, particularly paragraph 296, where we say:

The issue is all the more important in light of the changes introduced by the Licensing Act 2003. It is probably too early to say exactly what the consequences of that will be, but, given the existing situation, there should be very careful monitoring of what is taking place. I hope that the Government will take that to heart, and look carefully at how they are evaluating those changes and what effects they are having on this already significant phenomenon that takes place on weekend evenings in our great cities.

It is tempting to say, "Young people have always enjoyed a drink," but this phenomenon is much bigger than in the past. It is reflected in university life today and, in the way I have described, in our provincial city centres and smaller centres throughout the country. Of course, many people go out and enjoy themselves without causing any trouble at all, and people should have the right to go out for a drink. But a deep-seated phenomenon is taking place, and there needs to be some wide-ranging thinking about it so that we can address the problems that are arising from it.

4.12 pm

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): This is an excellent and interesting report, and Committee members should be congratulated on it. I was particularly taken with the discussion about attitudes towards ASBOs, and the barriers those attitudes create at local level. I see ASBOs as a preventive measure. It is important to bear in mind that the young people who are subject to them often have multiple problems; usually, they have spent a lot of time out of school or come from dysfunctional families,
 
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and they frequently have alcohol and drug-abuse problems. They are an effective preventive measure when they are not breached, and 58 per cent. of them are not breached. How much more effective could they be in preventing such young people from continuing in a lifestyle and in criminality that will inevitably lead them to have further problems?

I agree with Committee members that to talk about enforcement on the one hand and prevention on the other, or about welfare on the one hand and justice on the other, creates barriers between the agencies concerned, which have a tendency to see themselves as being in one camp or another, and that is a pity. With children's trusts in the future and the bringing together of young people's services from across a number of local departments in a local council, there is an opportunity for ensuring that agencies are not at either end of an approach, but that they are part and parcel of achieving the same outcome, which is to give the best possible opportunity to all young people to achieve what they can in life, while at the same time ensuring that the behaviour of a minority does not affect the life chances of other young people.

I should be interested in the Minister's response to the fact that one local community problem concerns expectation. The community has become aware that ASBOs are a method by which to deal with young people who persistently create problems. Occasionally, I call meetings in my constituency, which representatives of local agencies and residents attend. A lot of frustration is expressed by residents about when a particular young person's behaviour will be dealt as it is expected that an ASBO can be applied for immediately and the behaviour controlled.

Such matters may be local to Stockport, but the part of the ASBO that deals with antisocial behaviour is applied for on criminal conviction, which can delay its application. The criminal system can sometimes be subject to delays while cases are deferred and so on, as a result of which the young person who has created the problem can often be on the streets for months displaying antisocial behaviour that is damaging to the neighbourhood. I want more use made of applications for civil ASBOs and interim ASBOs, which are a method of dealing immediately with antisocial behaviour without necessarily connecting to the criminal parts of the young person's behaviour. If the community is to have confidence in ASBOs, it is important that they are seen to be a method of dealing immediately with the problem and are recognised by the community as such. Otherwise, there will be difficulties.

Frustrations could also be better dealt with if the community were represented on the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. At the moment, local agencies with statutory responsibility to deal with crime and disorder are rightly members of the partnerships. However, if the community were also represented, it could be brought to the attention of the partnerships that priorities concerned delays. There would be a better prioritisation of the behaviour that such partnerships dealt with. Antisocial behaviour would be well up the agenda and such representation would be a useful mechanism. I should be grateful for the Minister's comments on that.
 
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May I make a plea? I believe strongly that publication of information locally is important. The ASBO process is a local mechanism and it is important that people know what their local crime and disorder partnership is doing compared with the crime and disorder partnership up the road. The publication of applications for ASBOs encouraged local crime and disorder partnerships to apply for them because that meant accountability, which goes some way towards explaining why their use accelerated after the first two years.

I want local councils to publish the housing injunctions that they have taken out under the Housing Act 1996. They are an easy mechanism for housing authorities and social landlords to use. They have an immediate benefit in that they can stop neighbourhood nuisance dead in its tracks at 2 o'clock in the morning by applying to a court the next day. Such a system is also good for those indulging in the neighbourhood nuisance. It is better that, than that they be evicted in six months' time for persistently playing the radio at 2 o'clock in the morning. At the moment, such figures are not published. Of course, we have access to them locally, but I should like to know, for example, Stockport's performance against Thameside and, more importantly, against Manchester. Will the Minister ask councils to produce the figures?

4.20 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon), I cannot claim credit for this excellent report. I was not on the Committee when it was produced. I was in Parliament, but I was doing time with the Constitutional Affairs Committee.

The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) told a story about the west country brewer who refused to provide beer to pubs that had both people drinking over the limit and unruly behaviour. I am impressed by that; it is such a good message to send out. I have a famous brewery in my constituency, Timothy Taylor's, and I feel like mentioning that story to it. It might be that it is a very upmarket brewery that does not provide beer to pubs of that type.

I would like to concentrate on antisocial behaviour orders and the Government's current actions. On 30 December, Jennifer, a young single mum in my constituency, was at home when a group of youths, who had been threatening and verbally abusing her over the previous five months, walked into her house while she was there with her young daughter to steal her property. There was no attempt to cover their identity; the thugs were simply relying on the fear that they had generated on the estate to act as a deterrent to Jennifer going to the police.

Why was Jennifer singled out? Perhaps because she works, because she has a car or because she has a child of dual heritage. I am not sure of the reason. We cannot sit back and allow innocent, law-abiding people, who are interested only in getting by, getting on with their lives, bringing up their children in a safe environment and living in harmony with their neighbours, to be subject to persecution and misery of that sort at the hands of a few mindless individuals.

Therefore, I wholeheartedly support the actions that the Government have taken in seeking to address antisocial behaviour. I welcome the respect agenda,
 
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which is not a gimmick. It is about the delivery of positive solutions to practical social problems. Anything that concentrates our efforts on supporting people such as Jennifer and on isolating the thugs must be at the forefront of our agenda.

ASBOs are a useful and effective tool, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) mentioned, we must ensure that they are never allowed to be worn as a badge of honour by those who have them. The gathering of sufficient evidence to secure an ASBO can be a lengthy process and can involve a great deal of co-operation from neighbours and the public in general. It is vital that, once imposed, an order is enforced without hesitation.

If a breach of an ASBO is reported to the police, they must treat it as an emergency. Failure by the police to react quickly to any breach will inevitably result in the loss of credibility of the ASBO and frustration for those who have put their necks on the line by giving evidence to secure it in the first place. The street cred of the offender will increase as he or she flaunts the abuse of the ASBO. For the police, enforcement must be a priority.

Likewise, we must ensure that other strands of our criminal justice system are geared to dealing with the realities of antisocial behaviour. I am told by magistrates in my constituency that the training given to them on ASBOs has been scant. Magistrates—important volunteers who act on behalf of their community—need to be in a position to make informed decisions based on detailed knowledge of the area and on what the practical effects of granting or refusing an ASBO can be.

A visit to any magistrates court in the country would demonstrate how cases of antisocial behaviour are clogging up our courts. Perhaps, therefore, the time has come to consider extending the battle against antisocial behaviour to specialised courts and having specifically trained magistrates consider ASBO applications. Specific training for magistrates, specialised fast-track courts and unquestionable enforcement would all help to avoid terrible incidents, such as that experienced by Jennifer.

However, I would urge caution. I have been told by magistrates in my constituency that ASBOs have sometimes been used as punishment for people suffering from a mental health problem. That cannot be right. We must not allow the tools of a punitive system to be used as an excuse for failures in mental health provision.

How many cases end up in the magistrates court simply because there is nowhere else to go? A visit to New Hall, a women's prison in Wakefield, demonstrates that a high proportion of the inmates are suffering from a mental health problem, as opposed to being criminals.

ASBOs have been used in an attempt to control the antisocial behaviour of mentally ill patients, which can lead only to failure because, owing to the illness, the terms of the ASBO will always be breached. We are setting people up to fail. To threaten them with the last place they should be—prison—causes yet more damage.

Antisocial behaviour cannot be addressed only through punishment. We need the carrot as well as the stick, and I am delighted to say that in Keighley we are adopting that approach in a most innovative way. A multi-agency coalition is working in the Bracken Bank area specifically to address antisocial behaviour through
 
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the empowerment of the local community, addressing the needs of young people and restoring hope in individuals as stakeholders in their community. All this is supported by the police.

This scheme is only at the planning stage, but with good will from all, and some financial support from various organisations such as local banks and building societies, as well as practical help from schools, community groups and trade unions, I hope that the people of Bracken Bank will triumph and that their peace of mind will be restored, along with the good name of Bracken Bank and my constituency.

4.26 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): I welcome this debate, and I am pleased at the depth in which the Select Committee on Home Affairs has looked into this issue. The report contains many valuable pieces of information and learning.

I represent Cheltenham, which may not have much of a reputation as an antisocial place. We are looking forward to the next round of the FA cup, in which Cheltenham Town will face Newcastle United. We understand the fear that will be coursing through Newcastle at the prospect of facing the mighty Robins at home, and we hope that the Toon Army will behave socially, rather than antisocially, when they come to Whaddon Road.

Cheltenham has had its share of antisocial behaviour problems, and we have a thriving night-time economy. Like the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), I witnessed the thousands of young people who were filling the clubs and streets of Cheltenham at 3 am at the weekend. I was stunned at the scale of the activity and fairly surprised at the amount of drinking in which many of those people seemed to be indulging. A description in the local paper, which referred to this as being like Beirut, is typical of the unhelpful exaggeration of the problem, which sometimes happens. There was clearly disorderly behaviour, and I am sure that there are many fights among drunken people on such nights, but that is not typical of young people who go out clubbing in Cheltenham or elsewhere, many of whom behave responsibly and enjoy a good time. We have to be careful not to condemn an entire lifestyle and generation just because of the behaviour of a few idiots.

What worries me far more is what we could call sober antisocial behaviour. Many hon. Members have referred to the instances, which we have all heard about in constituency surgeries, of persistent patterns of harassment, antisocial noise by neighbours, occasional racism and, often, intimidation. I have seen young people throwing rocks at passing cars from an estate in Cheltenham and airguns pointed out of back doors at other people's houses, and I know of instances of airguns being fired. Such antisocial behaviour is the more serious kind, which the Committee sought to investigate and address, yet, all the same, Cheltenham remains a civilized, hospitable place that is generally safe.

We need to try to get to some of the facts, and the report is helpful in that regard. Some facts are alarming. The Committee's reports mentions the snapshot
 
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Home Office survey in September 2003, which found 66,000 instances of antisocial behaviour in a single day, equating to 13.5 million per annum, or roughly one every two seconds. Even more alarmingly, it reports that the British crime survey has said that 80 per cent. of problems go unreported, which implies some 50 million or 60 million instances of antisocial behaviour in total.

I agree with the Committee's conclusion that there is a fundamental problem, although it is difficult to tell whether it is increasing or decreasing. If the numbers have gone up during recent years, that probably reflects an increase in revelation rather than an escalation, but we clearly have a problem in our country and it is right that the Government and all parties are seeking solutions to it.

I sound a few notes of caution, however. First, some categories are not terribly helpful. I notice that the Home Office list at the beginning of the report includes "teenagers hanging around" and "people sleeping rough" among instances of antisocial behaviour. Those are not necessarily antisocial activities. One may be a perfectly legitimate, sociable activity and the other the personal problem or tragedy of somebody who is not necessarily seeking to harm or disturb anyone else.

Secondly, many organisations that gave evidence to the Committee highlighted the danger of sucking into the ASB arena people who need help more than they need the judicial process. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer): some examples cited—children with Tourette's being given ASBOs and so on—may prove on further investigation not to be true. Nevertheless, if any such examples are true, they must give us pause for thought and we should seek ways to prevent them from being repeated.

Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty quotes the example of a boy with Tourette's whose ASBO ordered him to stop swearing. The National Association of Probation Officers mentioned a prostitute whose ASBO prohibited her from carrying condoms within a given area. Unfortunately, her drug clinic was in the restricted area, and one of its services was the provision of free condoms as part of its harm reduction strategy.

The media have referred to such examples. The Belfast Telegraph reported that

Another example said that

last year

Finally,

Such instances—[Interruption.] Such behaviour may be annoying, but it is clearly not appropriate for the judicial process. I accept what the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said—some of those cases may prove on further investigation not to be true—but the flexibility of ASBOs runs the risk that they may be interpreted in an arbitrary and sometimes rather peculiar way, and we need to ensure that we guard
 
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against that. Barnardo's warned against what it called "continual moral panic". As I said, in terms of alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, there is the risk that an atmosphere of exaggeration may build up the issue to be worse than it really is, and we need to guard against it.

Politicians and the media can choose which aspects of antisocial behaviour policy they want to highlight. There are two essential aspects, one of which is tackling the fundamental cause. The other, which has to act as a backstop, is tackling the behaviour itself if tackling the cause does not succeed. That is the Government's so-called twin-track approach.

Many initiatives on the first track that support individuals and communities are welcome. I point to individual support orders and the "Positive Activities for Young People" programme. My favourite example of a Labour programme, which I am always willing to quote to constituents as something the Government have done right, is Sure Start. I have referred to it as a positive and intelligent way to approach the underlying problems that later lead to antisocial behaviour.

4.34 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.49 pm

On resuming—

Martin Horwood : The Division bell interrupted me as I was listing Government programmes that I support. I had reached the end of the list, so I shall commend to the Government a few programmes and initiatives that they might like to consider adding to the positive measures to support individuals and communities. Shelter's inclusion project should certainly be considered if it has the positive impact and successful results that it claims for it in its material. Anything the Minister can persuade his ministerial colleagues to do in terms of encouraging sport and community involvement generally would be very welcome.

To give a constituency example, a summer football tournament for young people in Whaddon appears, anecdotally, to have a direct impact on the reduction of antisocial behaviour while it is taking place. As the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, positive solutions are sometimes as simple as the provision of somewhere for young people to hang out.

Occasionally, however, as a last resort, more punitive solutions have to be sought. Let me make it clear that the Liberal Democrats are not against antisocial behaviour orders; we just feel that they should be used appropriately and be supported by more positive measures. Indeed, Liberal Democrat-controlled Cheltenham has played a pioneering role in exploring the use of ASBOs—18 have been granted—but they should not be a blunt instrument. Cheltenham and other Liberal Democrat councils such as Islington have also pioneered the use of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are, perhaps, a cheaper and more effective option before people reach full ASBO level. We have welcomed those, too.

Other measures, which might be politely called coercive options, include parental control agreements. In addition, we have suggested community justice
 
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panels, the idea being that, if both parties agree, before a case comes to court, the community, and possibly the victims, could play a bigger role in deciding on the appropriate punishment for an offender. That would seem to give an important voice to the victims of antisocial behaviour, who have not been mentioned a great deal in this debate.

The Committee highlights the importance, if any of these proposals is to work, of joined-up thinking and partnership at local level. In Cheltenham, the crime and disorder reduction partnership works hard to try to bring all parties together, and to ensure that there is joined-up thinking. Even so, last year the youth service in Cheltenham complained that ASBOs were being imposed without its knowledge and without consultation with the young offenders' schools. The report highlights the need for more work to be done to ensure that everybody is talking to everybody else, so that there is a joined-up approach. Perhaps the appointment of dedicated antisocial behaviour caseworkers would be a way to achieve that.

We must not think of ASBOs as a quick win or an easy solution. They are designed to tackle a complex and difficult problem, and should never be turned into a political football if that can be avoided. Care needs to be taken that they are not applied in an arbitrary or peculiar way, as anecdotal evidence from various organisations suggests may now be the case. Even if there is not a general problem on that front, and ASBOs are addressing the wider problem relatively effectively, a small number of cases of injustice or the arbitrary use of ASBOs should cause us great concern.

In that vein, it is a shame that the Home Secretary was quoted last December as wanting to name and shame councils that were not using enough ASBOs. If we are effectively tackling antisocial behaviour at local level; if councils such as Rochdale have found effective alternatives to ASBOs, such as the Shelter inclusion project; and if we develop community justice panels as an alternative to ASBOs, we will have less antisocial behaviour and fewer ASBOs. That is a solution we should all be seeking.

4.54 pm

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): I begin by thanking, on behalf of the official Opposition, the Chairman of the Select Committee and his colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) and the hon. Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), for being party to the report. It has highlighted an important issue that crosses party political boundaries.

Although this afternoon's debate on the report has been useful, the issue is of sufficient importance to have been debated on the Floor of the House. An Adjournment debate would have been okay, but really the issue merits a longer, full-day debate in the House. If I have any regret about this afternoon, it is simply that we are in the wrong Chamber of the House of Commons. Having said that, I am delighted that we have been able to have this debate and equally delighted that so many have been able to participate and speak constructively about this vexing social and criminal problem.

During my intervention on the Select Committee Chairman, I alighted on the theme that comes out of this afternoon's debate: we do not need more legislation in
 
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this area of public policy. Indeed, if the electorate and good fortune favour my party in due course, and if I am still alive and on the Home Affairs Front-Bench team—we have a slightly youthful agenda at the minute—I hope we will take pride in introducing no legislation whatever during a parliamentary Session. The Home Department legislates excessively; occasionally, Governments need to stop legislating and start thinking. The right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) has provided yet another reason to reinforce that argument.

Let me begin by agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman. Not only do we not need more legislation, but—again, as I highlighted in my intervention and he was good enough to agree with me—we need strategic management. Too often in areas of public policy delivery, to use the jargon, all sorts of well-intentioned people run around doing all sorts of well-intentioned things in penny packets, but none of them talk to each other or pre-plan with their official or professional colleagues how best to provide a sensible, acceptable solution across the piece.

I shall give an example from my constituency. Members of Parliament may represent inner-city, less well-off areas, or—like me and my hon. Friends the Members for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry), and I dare say to some extent my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Hertsmere—areas that are broadly well-off according to the Government's social indices. My constituency and those of my hon. Friends, certainly to grant-making organisations in the European Union, look as if they do not need any money.

However, there are pockets of deprivation and difficult social problems even in relatively prosperous areas such as those. I say that because I, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, understand that there are plenty of difficulties in poor inner-city seats that I do not have to deal with. Equally, however, I hope that Members who have the fortune to represent parts of urban England do not think that because we live in and represent marginally better-off areas than theirs, we do not understand the acutely difficult issues that national Government and local government have to grapple with.

I come back to the example of my constituency. Early in my time as a Member of Parliament, during the 1992–97 Parliament, I became concerned about the increasing incidence of low-level persistent public nuisance on the streets of the suburban part of my constituency, the borough of Oadby and Wigston. I could not understand why that was happening, nor why it was allowed to continue to happen.

I borrowed the library of a local high school and called a conference there. I called together representatives of the police, social services and libraries, head teachers from the area, and church and other faith community representatives, as I think they are called. I asked pretty well everyone interested in the problem to discuss the issue at the conference, and we had a useful discussion for two or three hours. At the end, I suggested another conference within the next six months or year and requested that by the time we met again, each of the representatives in that room should
 
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have made official contact with another member of the audience. For example, a policeman would speak to a head teacher, a head teacher would talk to a parson, a parson would talk to a librarian and a librarian to someone at social services. [Interruption.] If I may, I shall resume my exciting story in a few moments.

5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

5.15 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Garnier : I asked the people at the meeting if they would talk to each other officially, and said that we would meet again in six to nine months' time. Sadly, at the resumed meeting at a different venue in the same borough, not one of those people had made the effort to speak officially to the others. That is a pity, because everyone in that room had a shared interest in dealing with the problem. Such situations require strategic management and require people to understand that such matters cannot be dealt with by one agency and not the other. If we have learned anything today, it is that; I do not suppose that you need to learn that lesson, Sir John. If we can do that cheaply and effectively without the need for legislation, we have learned two things.

The definition of antisocial behaviour is almost irrelevant. Rather like an elephant, it is easier to recognise than it is to define, and it may have different definitions in different parts of the country. A football being kicked against someone's front door in a crowded inner-city housing estate might be considerably less tolerable than if it were kicked against a farmhouse or barn door in the middle of nowhere. We need consistent local application of definition and response.

I look with some interest at something that was brought to my attention by Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, and which is mentioned in the report, namely, the Liverpool community justice centre. There one can get multi-agency access to a public disposer of justice. It is not the property of one particular aspect of the public services. From what I read in the report and learned yesterday from Anne Owers, it seems to me to be a sensible, practical way of dealing with matters. It is relatively new, but I have been encouraged by what I heard from Mrs. Owers yesterday and what I read in the report, and I shall make a point of going there as a shadow Minister, if I may, to see what is done there and whether that example can be used elsewhere.

What we need is not necessarily a national strategy, but consistent local application of the powers that are provided under existing legislation and the opportunities that are provided by sensible co-operation, about which many hon. Members spoke this afternoon.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I want to make a specific point about dispersal zones and their effectiveness in dispersing antisocial behaviour. I participate in the police parliamentary scheme. Recently, when I was on patrol in my constituency the
 
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police did their best to disperse up to 30 youths who were behaving in an antisocial manner. The police community support officers who attended that incident were not able to do very much because the trouble was not in a dispersal zone. If it had been, they would have had powers to act. To make effective use of CSOs, may I encourage, through my hon. and learned Friend, the use of dispersal zones?

Mr. Garnier : I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. I am sure that the Minister will take that example on board. We have had a number of different attempts at defining antisocial behaviour, which included references to neighbour disputes and drunkenness. We have all seen and heard examples of foul and abusive language and behaviour; we have heard interesting examples about attempted suicides and brothels; and we all know about crack houses. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) is one of my sparring partners in debates on the abuse imposed on my constituents by airlines using Nottingham East Midlands airport, which is of course owned by the Manchester Airport Group, of which he was a director. I am almost inclined to say that perhaps the aircraft that pollute and disturb my constituents at night should also be the subject of antisocial behaviour orders. The point is that it does not matter how many odd or eccentric examples we produce of what antisocial behaviour may be; we are talking about a species of public nuisance. The great joy of the English legal system is that it does not become hidebound to a specific definition.

The courts, the prosecuting agencies and, I hope, Parliament are sufficiently able to cope with definitions that are variable and apt to cope with particular circumstances, so I do not complain if the local people who are concerned about a particular aspect of public nuisance include in an antisocial behaviour order conduct that may in some respects be laughable in another part of the country. That is the whole point about the local application of sensible powers. The lady who feeds pigeons in her garden is creating a public nuisance because the excrement from the pigeons interferes with the quality of life of her neighbours. I do not have a problem with that. I do, however, want there to be a commonsense approach locally, albeit with centrally provided powers to achieve that result. I shall say no more about that, because even a good point repeated does not get any better.

Finally, I introduce into the debate a note of dissent about the Prime Minister's occasional off-the-cuff remarks, which no doubt he would like us to think he has thought about quite carefully, on all sorts of aspects of the respect agenda, as he so tastefully calls it. He spoils his case even before he has opened, or closed, his mouth by calling it the respect agenda, because it looks like a slogan rather than a well-thought-out policy. When one examines it, one finds that it is a slogan and not a well-thought-out policy.

The latest example of that is the instant justice idea that some clever person has put into the mouth of the Prime Minister. It is absurd and it brings the Prime Minister as well as the criminal justice system into disrepute, because it plainly has not been thought through properly. It is plainly likely to break down the confidence that there needs to be between the criminal
 
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justice system, the victims and the law-abiding public, even if we ignore, for current purposes, those who perpetrate these acts of public nuisance or antisocial behaviour.

I urge the Government through the Minister, and I urge the Prime Minister, to listen very carefully to what the Minister has to say. I do not know how often he has the opportunity to meet the Prime Minister, but I am sure that the Prime Minister would benefit from the Minister's advice, because this Minister has to deal day by day with the sorts of problems that the Prime Minister seems to create. I say that in a spirit of constructive friendliness, because, as each constituency MP has identified, we all have different sorts of antisocial behaviour with which we must deal, and we all want it to be dealt with. We would all be in a stronger position to deal with the problem if the Prime Minister could simply allow the thinkers to carry on thinking and could wait before he opens his mouth.

I shall leave it there, because I have spoken for far too long, and I would hate to be accused, even in this local environment, of antisocial behaviour.

5.23 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I join the chorus of welcome from both sides of the Chamber for the report with which the Home Affairs Committee has provided us. It is an excellent example of proper scrutiny. It does not nit-pick or point score, but takes a serious issue, analyses it properly, advances ideas and engages with the issue. The Government take that sort of contribution extremely seriously.

The report contains a whole range of recommendations that, for the most part, were fully accepted. Some 25 of the recommendations have led to substantial work being done in the Home Office, and we will supply the Select Committee with a full update on all the actions that we have taken so that a substantial contribution is available for the annual report and so on. Probably the most important thing that the Select Committee did was to emphasise the fact that this is a crucial issue. We have all demonstrated that with examples from our constituencies, apart from the analysis of the problem as a national one.

When the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) was speaking, I reflected that he was a new Member of Parliament entering the House with antisocial behaviour as probably the No. 1 issue in his constituency surgeries, correspondence and discussions with the police. When I was elected in 1997, along with a number of my colleagues in this room, it was probably getting to that point. For earlier generations of Members of Parliament, it would not have been the issue that it is today. Its importance has increased, and it was right of the Select Committee to underline the fact that it is a high profile issue that needs an urgent response.

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer). Another effective contribution of the report was to slay some of the myths which, if they are not challenged, will perpetuate and grow into further distortions. Many thanks to the Committee for that.

The challenge is to get beyond the sense of powerlessness that was around for so long in this place as well as in our constituencies and to begin to get the
 
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powers, resources and partnerships together to change people's lives. That is what it is about. We need to change the lives not only of the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour but, more fundamentally than that, of the victims, who live in their thousands in fear and trepidation about what may happen if antisocial behaviour is not challenged. There has been a danger of the debate polarising. In many instances, it has polarised. That is not helpful. We need all the elements that have been discussed this afternoon: the prevention and early intervention, the mediation and the enforcement, too. We need the enforcement to be carried through and to work. The trick is getting the timing right for the right intervention and the right person at the right time, so that we have the impact that we want.

It is important to share some numbers with hon. Members this afternoon. There have been 6,500 ASBOs made, 13,000 acceptable behaviour contracts, and 800 dispersal orders—I noted the comment about the important role that they can play and police feedback is that they are effective in tackling disorder. There have been 500 crack house closures, which is a tremendously important development. A crack house in a community on an estate can cause absolute mayhem. It is where the drugs are dealt, and so much criminality and antisocial behaviour is connected with them that taking them out is hugely important. In one example the police, working with local communities, have been applauded in the street by residents because of the action that they have taken to close such places down. That work must continue. We are also using the penalty notices for disorder; 170,000 have been used as an effective, early, quick way of stopping people and penalising them for their unacceptable behaviour.

I have given those numbers, but I emphasise that this is not a numbers game. We cannot say that we have tackled antisocial behaviour because we have had so many antisocial behaviour orders. It is an issue of how such matters are tackled locally with local strategies, and we should ensure that local people and their priorities are fed into that. I am pleased that the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has had the opportunity to find out more about the community justice centre in Liverpool. I encourage him to visit; there is a long line of people going, but it is important that people go and learn. There is a great passion at the centre for justice linked to the community in imaginative ways, not least because punishments should put something back into the community. I would encourage anybody who has not been to the centre to do so.

Connecting justice, whether for antisocial behaviour or other forms of criminality, with the community is an important step that we need to continue to take. We are beginning to see the impact, not only in the numbers, but in perceptions and attitudes towards antisocial behaviour. The Home Office undertook a survey over a two-year period in 2002–03 to 2004–05. The general perception across the country is that antisocial behaviour is at a high level, but over that period, it actually fell from 19 to 16 per cent., which is welcome. In the 10 trailblazer areas and the 50 action areas, where we have been doing the most intensive work on
 
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antisocial behaviour because of the level of the problem, the perception that antisocial behaviour was high fell from 25 to 19 per cent. Therefore, the fall in those areas was greater. As we engage and involve communities, they see and feel the difference, and we can measure that. We constantly need to move the gains we have made out from the intensive areas, so that we get through measures such as the national community safety plan and the respect plan. We want there to be that kind of impact throughout the country.

Inevitably, resources have been discussed. I am pleased that Members have welcomed the extra £52 million to support work with parents. In the respect action plan, we have introduced the national parenting academy. There is also £28 million to support the development of a family support network, and there is extra money for the youth offending teams. All of that is important; it will pioneer new work that will make a real difference. However, as several Members have commented, in the end what is important is that we bend and shape the mainstream funding that goes into many of these areas in ways that prevent antisocial behaviour; we must intervene at the right time, and deal appropriately with situations.

I warmly welcome the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about the reforms of the Children Act 2004, and the development of children's trusts. A more coherent organisation of local services will help to bend and shape those mainstream resources in helpful ways.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) mentioned Home-Start. That signals to Members the important role that the voluntary sector can play. Home-Start operates in my constituency; parents help other parents to get through some of the difficult situations they face. That is welcome. Also, the NCH Dundee project has been a trailblazer in terms of interventions with families.

Tony Baldry : One of the difficulties in respect of Home-Start is who funds it. In north Oxfordshire, it has been funded in part by the primary care trust, but the PCT says that it may no longer be able to make a contribution. One of the recurring problems that some of these very worthwhile, voluntary, non-governmental organisation, charitable sector groups face is constancy of funding.

Paul Goggins : The hon. Gentleman draws me into another area of my responsibilities—that of the voluntary sector. I am keen that we develop initiatives such as the Compact, so that we have a proper relationship between public funders and voluntary organisations. We must ensure that there is a dependable source of income so that the contribution that such organisations make can be relied on and people are not always worried about the funding running out. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley spoke about north Manchester; I ought to have an opportunity to say that similar things are happening in south Manchester, which is where my constituency is. He is right that this is not having merely a peripheral impact. It is affecting the lives of thousands of people. If
 
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one point in our debate grabbed everyone's attention it was my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) talking about Jennifer's experience. That is what this is about—the lives of people being either wrecked or changed for the better. I was grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton mentioned difficulties that are sometimes spoken about—to do with Tourette's or Asperger's syndromes, for example. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has been concerned about that issue and has paid particular attention to it. If an inappropriate condition is placed within an ASBO it can be reviewed, and if it is inappropriate, it should be reviewed.

We should not be surprised if there are one or two difficulties in the early stages of the development of this new order. However, we can learn about those cases and do something about them, and they should not deflect us from the fact that this has been an overwhelming success. We should not be distracted from recognising that.

Dealing with antisocial behaviour must be part of a wider strategy of dealing with criminality generally and of managing offenders. Civil powers are increasingly being used as a strong complement to criminal prosecutions. Criminal prosecutions are now not the only way to deal with people who cause mischief, trouble and disorder on our streets; we can use civil powers to recover criminal assets. Even if the level of evidence is not great enough to mount a prosecution, we can use it for civil proceedings, if it is sufficient. We can use antisocial behaviour orders, too. The issue is about having a full toolkit with which to tackle criminality and disorder, so that we can manage such people from end to end of the system, as we often say in the jargon, and prevent them from causing trouble.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport and others talked about accountability, connection with the community and how we can involve the community more. She talked about crime and disorder reduction partnerships and how they can better engage people. The review of the partnerships is ongoing and deals with many of the issues raised, including accountability, the sharing of data and the streamlining of partnerships, all of which are important. I can tell my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee and all its members here that we hope to publish the full assessment of that review very soon—indeed, before the end of this month, I hope. That is another piece of the jigsaw which I am sure will be welcomed by the Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport made a sensible suggestion about the collection and dissemination of data relating to housing injunctions. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister takes the lead on that matter, of course, but we shall draw her suggestion to colleagues' attention, and I am sure that they will be interested in it.

Clearly, alcohol disorder is of concern to us all. The subject has come up in many of the contributions this afternoon. My right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), welcomed, and has been a keen advocate of, the idea that pubs and clubs should make a financial contribution if a
 
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disproportionate amount of disorder is caused in their area. That idea is welcome. Having said that, the scheme is not just about the cash; those pubs and clubs have to get involved in an action plan with local authorities in the area to deal with the problem. That is at least as important as the money raised, because it forces the pubs and clubs to deal with the issue in practice. That is a new power that we hope will make a difference.

It is undeniable that alcohol consumption is changing the character of many of our towns and cities, certainly at night, but we should not just dismiss the issue as a problem. People have a legitimate right to go out and enjoy themselves, and it is important to remember that. Also, there are many jobs involved in the night-time economy, and that is an important consideration. Clearly, these are massive issues that have to be grasped by local authorities, the people who run transport, the police and so on. The industry, too, has to step up to the plate and meet its responsibilities. I am pleased to say to hon. Members that I think that the industry has begun to engage with its responsibilities in a more constructive way in recent months.

I warmly welcome the principles and standards document that the alcohol industry produced. It makes clear to its members the responsible way in which they ought to behave. They should not be selling alcohol to drunks or children. It is not only wrong, but against the law, and they have a responsibility to make sure that they do not do it.

Graham Stringer : Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am that the police are still taking very little effective action against landlords who sell to under-age drinkers and drunks? What will he do about it?

Paul Goggins : I heard my hon. Friend's comments on the subject earlier, and think that all of us have to pay greater attention to such matters. They are not just morally wrong but against the law, and we all have a responsibility. I expect the police and those who retail alcohol to take those issues more seriously. In discussions with the supermarket chains before Christmas, the Home Secretary and I, along with others, agreed on the objective of eradicating sales of alcohol to children. The supermarkets have voluntarily set out to achieve that over the next year. That is the way to go; we must set standards higher and make sure that the law is properly enforced. I agree with my hon. Friend that the police need to be fully engaged with that. There should be prosecutions, where appropriate.

The new licensing laws have been caricatured as being simply about loosening the controls, but used properly, many of the powers give greater control to revoke and review licences. We intend them to be used correctly.

Over Christmas and the new year we had the third of the alcohol misuse enforcement campaigns. Central to that was the test-purchase arrangements: people going to retail locations and testing whether those places are selling alcohol to children. We will publish those results, and the wider results of the AMEC, in the near future. I am pleased that, anecdotally, it seems that the introduction of the new powers has gone reasonably smoothly. That should not deceive us into thinking that
 
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the problem has gone away—it has not. It is still there to be tackled, and we must be vigilant in doing so. We will continue to monitor all of those things carefully.

I must say to the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) that it is both unfair and unacceptable that cases do not proceed simply because the prosecution is not available. If people feel that they have been denied justice, that is unacceptable. In general terms, we are constantly pursuing a more effective, efficient system and administration of justice, to ensure that the courts system works properly. I hope that he will be encouraged to know that there are increasing numbers of specialist antisocial behaviour prosecutors.

I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley that the training of magistrates is not just an important idea—it is mandatory. They should be
 
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receiving proper training. We are developing antisocial behaviour courts, so that specialist well-trained magistrates are in a position to deal appropriately with the cases.

Remarks were made about the number of community support officers, which will continue to increase up to the 24,000 that we promised by 2008. We talked about the breach rate. The majority of cases in which ASBOs are put in place are successful. The use of the term "breach" means that an order is being enforced. We should all be encouraged by that. We will continue to work on an evidence base. It will, not least, be informed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen and the members of the Committee. Once again, I must say how welcome the report is.

Question put and agreed to.



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