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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 28 June 2006

[Frank Cook in the Chair]

Antisocial Behaviour

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

9.30 am

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting this debate on the important issue of antisocial behaviour, which continues to affect the lives of many of our constituents up and down the country. The Government are to be congratulated on making it clear from the start, in 1997, that antisocial behaviour would be tackled with the utmost determination. My concern—

Frank Cook (in the Chair): Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Lady, but I gave a commitment before the start of proceedings that I would alert hon. Members to the fact that Mr. Speaker has given a dispensation for male Members to remove their outer garments while sitting in this Chamber during this term of Parliament. That dispensation will be annulled once we return to the original Chamber for these proceedings after the summer recess. Those who wish to divest themselves of their outer garments may do so now. I apologise again to the hon. Lady. Perhaps she should start her speech again.

Ann Coffey: Thank you very much, Mr. Cook. I am pleased to see evidence of the relentless progress of modernisation.

My concern is to examine how we can take preventive action to tackle the root causes and how to use antisocial behaviour orders most effectively. We need not only to be tough on antisocial behaviour but to address its causes.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in his lecture in Bristol last Friday, rightly emphasised the importance of putting rehabilitation at the heart of the law and order system. He said that offenders should be

The earlier that process begins, the better. It is much better to prevent someone from entering the criminal justice system in the first place.

Effective intervention at an early stage to change the behavioural patterns of some of our young people and prevent their behaviour from escalating into a life of crime is essential. An integrated approach to the problem—a mix of care and control, carrot and stick—to improve the outcomes for both the young person and the community in which they live is necessary. Before I was elected as an MP in 1992, I worked as a social worker with children and families. Agencies have always taken that dual approach to the behaviour of dysfunctional families. There have always been, and there always will be, debates about how much care and how much control there should be, but both are essential.

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I fully support antisocial behaviour orders as a method of controlling persistent antisocial behaviour, which can have a devastating effect on the lives of communities and put young people themselves at risk. As my hon. Friend the Minister will be aware, most ASBOs—54 per cent.—are applied for and issued on criminal conviction. At that point, a pattern of criminal behaviour has often been well established. Criminal behaviour such as taking and driving cars and burglary is almost always accompanied by antisocial behaviour, so applying for and issuing ASBOs at that point is the right course of action.

Today, however, I shall concentrate on stand-alone ASBOs—the other 46 per cent. Those applications are made specifically to deal with antisocial behaviour, although the offenders may already have previous criminal convictions. With proper intervention accompanying the control offered through an ASBO, there is an opportunity to prevent young people from embarking on a life of crime.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): The hon. Lady raises an issue that is important to all MPs, so I congratulate her on securing the debate. She has talked about identifying the causes of antisocial behaviour and about early intervention and prevention so that the kids do not go down the line of hard criminal activity. Alcohol is a major cause of antisocial behaviour on the streets and bad behaviour in children. Police can use the under-age drinking laws introduced in 1997 to take the alcohol from the children, but those laws also allow the police to involve the parents at that stage, so that they know what behaviour the children are getting involved in and can intervene if possible. We know that some kids do not have two parents, and that is a problem. Would the hon. Lady encourage police forces not only to take the alcohol from the children but always to bring the parents in, make it uncomfortable for them and ensure that they know about their responsibility to take early action so that their children do not get into the criminal justice section in the first place?

Ann Coffey: I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the earliest possible intervention. Of course, if the first agency to become involved in cases of alcohol misuse is the police, it is important that they then involve other agencies to stop that alcohol misuse from becoming a persistent problem.

If we go beyond the informal intervention that the hon. Gentleman was talking about, I would argue that intervention should also be by the use of individual support orders—ISOs—which are designed to tackle the underlying causes of a young person’s antisocial behaviour before they begin to offend or to offend persistently. ISOs have the authority of the court, agencies have to provide the intervention detailed in the order, and the young person is aware that there are penalties for non-co-operation, unlike with the informal acceptable behaviour contracts.

ISOs were created under section 322 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 for 10 to 17-year-olds who are subject to ASBOs. They are civil orders and became available on 1 May 2004. They can be attached only to stand-alone ASBOs, not to ASBOs that are applied for and issued on criminal conviction. ISOs are intended to
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supplement the prohibitions of ASBOs with targeted positive requirements. For example, the order can require counselling for substance misuse or behavioural problems. Orders may last up to six months and can require a young person to attend up to two sessions a week. Breach of the order without reasonable excuse is a criminal offence.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I must declare an interest as a member of the supplemental list of Coalville magistrates court. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Is she a little disappointed by the number of individual support orders that have been used since May 2004, given that courts have a duty to use them in appropriate cases if they believe that they will head off further antisocial behaviour? That might be related to training, and I am pleased that the Judicial Studies Board is reviewing the training of magistrates to ensure that they are aware of their powers. When I was on the bench, people used to criticise the magistrates, and would ask why they did not do x, y and z. The training was not always up to date. Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that, and does she hope to see the wider use of ISOs as the months and years roll by?

Ann Coffey: I entirely agree that for the take-up of ISOs to improve we must make all agencies aware at a local level of their value, but we must also, when a civil ASBO is applied for, encourage magistrates to consider carefully whether an ISO should also be attached. I hope that the Minister will encourage that when he responds, and will suggest how he will make magistrates more aware of the orders and how that will be incorporated in their training.

The making of an ISO is mandatory when the court considers that the criteria for doing so are met. The criteria are that an ISO would be desirable in the interests of preventing further antisocial behaviour, that the defendant is not already subject to an ISO and that arrangements to implement ISOs are available in the local area. There is no formal procedure for applying for an ISO. The court can decide to impose one, or the complainant might request one in conjunction with an ASBO. It is disappointing that of the 789 stand-alone ASBOs issued on application between May 2004 and the end of September 2005, only 31 had an ISO attached—that is only 4 per cent. Given that the ISO is a constructive measure, imposing on a young person positive conditions that tackle the underlying causes of their antisocial behaviour, it is difficult to see how the conditions for making an ISO were met in only 31 of the 789 cases. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on why ISOs are not being applied for more frequently, when the making of an order is mandatory.

When talking to people about this, I have received the impression that there is some confusion about the criteria for an ISO. Some believe that it cannot be applied for if a young person is already the subject of another order, which might explain the low numbers. Many of those subject to an application for a stand-alone ASBO might already have existing orders, such as a referral order, as
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a result of criminal convictions. Will the Minister confirm that the existence of another order does not mean that an ISO cannot be made?

It is interesting to examine where ISOs have been issued and how they have been used. In great swathes of the country, including major cities such as Bristol and Birmingham, no ISOs have been attached to ASBOs. Of the 146 stand-alone ASBOs issued in Greater Manchester to children aged between 10 and 17 between May 2004 and September 2005, only four ISOs were attached. In London there have been only four: two in Camden, one in Newham and one in Southwark. The area that has issued the largest number of ISOs is Great Yarmouth, where there have been six.

Examining one of the case studies from Great Yarmouth gives some idea of the positive value of ISOs. It involved five unruly boys from two families, who constantly disrupted neighbours by screaming, shouting and playing football on the balconies of their flats. They shouted at neighbours when challenged and banged sticks on neighbours’ windows and doors. Residents endured that for a year, and the boys were eventually given ASBOs with ISOs attached. The local council’s housing department, the police and Norfolk youth offending team, which devised and administered the ISO, worked together. The order was successful and consisted of four two-hour sessions with the group of boys, held over the course of a month. The aims were to develop listening skills and victim empathy to help the boys understand the impact of their constant shouting and banging on them, their immediate family and their neighbours. The sessions also included social skills games, and discussions on leisure time activities and contact with youth groups. The Norfolk team was pleased with the result, and the situation has improved. Some of the boys took up recreational activities and found new ways to be active and entertain themselves. I am sure that, having heard that case study, hon. Members can understand the implication for resources.

I am not alone in being perturbed at the low take-up of ISOs. Both the social exclusion unit and the Home Affairs Committee have expressed concern, and many other organisations have called for ISOs to be used more readily. In November last year the social exclusion unit produced a report entitled “Transitions: Young Adults with Complex Needs”, which stated that

despite the fact that courts are obliged to grant one

The next section of the report is worth quoting in full, as it raises the idea of making ISOs automatic in order to overcome that poor take-up.

David Taylor: Are there not three other reasons for the low take-up? One is the that the length of ISOs is capped at six months, and some aspects of diversionary training and support need longer. Secondly, local authority social services departments do not always provide sufficient resources to contribute towards the funding. Thirdly, there is the attitude of the middle-market tabloids towards anger management or communication skills courses, which are dismissed as soft options and as the creation of social workers, without any understanding of their potential. Does my hon. Friend agree with those points?

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Ann Coffey: I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and in particular with his point about tabloids not understanding the value of anger management courses and counselling in overcoming dysfunctional behaviour patterns that affect the person concerned and everybody with whom they come in contact. In fact, I sometimes think when I read the papers that anger is held up as something to be admired, rather than something that in many ways is a negative quality if used inappropriately.

The next section of the report says:

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I have been listening to the hon. Lady with considerable interest. I congratulate her not only on securing this debate but on the manner in which she is presenting her arguments. Does she agree that it is important not only to get volunteers to assist in the retraining—if that is the word—of people who are offending in the ways that she described but to have an audit afterwards to ensure that they have not regressed to the same bad old ways? She gave the example of the children on the balcony. I wonder whether six months later she would receive the same complaints again if she were the MP for the area.

Ann Coffey: I entirely agree that it is important to evaluate the outcomes of ISOs. I hope that the Minister will touch on that in his reply. It is important to know that legislation is successful in its intention, otherwise why bother?

The Home Affairs Committee report on antisocial behaviour published in April 2005 welcomed the introduction of ISOs and said that they usefully complemented the aims of ASBOs in preventing antisocial behaviour. The Committee was disappointed that take-up was not matching expectations.

Many organisations said that ISOs were potentially of great benefit. For example, the Magistrates Association said that they should be granted as a matter of course if magistrates are satisfied that they will help prevent repetition of the behaviour. The Local Government Association “warmly welcomed” them, arguing that the approach

The Committee expressed disappointment that social services departments and other key players such as local education authorities, the child and adolescent mental heath services and youth services were often not fully committed to antisocial behaviour strategies. It stated:

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the Association of Directors of Social Services—

I hope that the directors of the new children’s services that are being set up by local authorities will have a more positive approach.

Funding is a key issue. There was no initial funding for ISOs, and many organisations, including the Home Affairs Committee, complained that lack of cash was a barrier to take-up. A ring-fenced £500,000 was eventually made available in June 2005, more than a year after ISOs were introduced. I understand that the take-up was poor, but that could have been for a variety of reasons. The money came late, and often it takes time for knowledge about funding streams to spread. The ISO is new and we must remember that the use of ASBOs was slow to begin with, but has sped up in the past two years as their value has become fully appreciated.

In view of the criticisms of funding that the ring-fenced money for ISOs addressed, I am disappointed that it has proved short-lived and that the funding arrangements have changed. Funding for this financial year, and from now on, will be available through the £45 million uplift given to the Youth Justice Board as part of its prevention budget. That means that it now comes from a general pot of cash. Youth offending teams have been asked to submit plans to the Youth Justice Board for how they will spend their allocations from the preventive money.

I believe that the latest funding arrangements for ISOs will not help to increase their use. Because the money is not ring-fenced, ISO money will be in competition with other preventive work, much of which is informal and does not have the force of a court order behind it.

Given, I believe, that youth offending teams have not fully appreciated the value of ISOs as a preventive measure, it is likely that they will not see it as one of their preventive tools and will prefer to use the money on other projects. That seems to be borne out by the fact that of the 156 YOTs in the country only six have applied for specific money to resource ISOs.

If, for example, a court decided that it was appropriate to have an ISO that involved one-to-one counselling sessions with a trained therapist on an aspect of a young person’s behaviour, and funds had not been set aside, the resources would have to come from another part of the budget. That might not be a serious barrier to an ISO, if it cost about £1,500 to £2,500, especially at the beginning of a financial year. However, it might become a barrier as funds are used for other purposes.

Of course, nobody is happy about applying for orders that carry no resources, and indeed take from existing ones, be it those of the YOTs, the children’s service or the local primary care trust. Indeed, that argument, between local and national Government, is well-worn and has gone on down the years.

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