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28 Jun 2006 : Column 76WH—continued

Furthermore, housing associations and other social landlords can apply for stand-alone ASBOs, to which courts can attach an ISO. It is likely that those applications will increase from social landlords under pressure from tenants to deal with antisocial neighbours and behaviour
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on their estates. If one of the criteria for granting an ISO is that the magistrate be satisfied that arrangements for implementing the order are available locally, how can he or she be satisfied if specific money has not been set aside and there is no transparency in the availability of that money?

David Taylor: This will be my final intervention.

My hon. Friend mentioned housing associations and registered social landlords. She might be interested to know that a very successful positive futures programme has been developed in North-West Leicestershire on the Agar Nook estate, a housing association area, and on the Greenhill estate, formerly a local authority area. Could courts not be obliged to divert young people in front of them on to those programmes, which are not always used by those young people who are at the greatest risk of antisocial behaviour? That is the problem. We need to make the two work together more closely.

Ann Coffey: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. One of the barriers to that is that the housing associations do not have specific resources and rely on those provided by other agencies. That is one of my arguments for how valuable ISOs are, because they mean that the other agencies have to provide the resources to support good projects such as those that he mentioned. Ring-fenced money nationally would have made that simpler, in the absence of ring-fenced money locally. I understand the arguments about local flexibility, but I am not very sympathetic when local flexibility creates a barrier to the implementation of excellent policies such as ISOs.

In each area of the country, there is a minority of young people who are the cause of most of the problems for themselves and others. Significant improvements could be brought about by changing the behaviour of that small number. That is where properly funded ISOs could play a far greater role. The impact of antisocial behaviour should not be underestimated. I receive many complaints from constituents, and only yesterday received an e-mail that said:

Bob Spink: I am sure that, having read out that e-mail, the hon. Lady will none the less accept that the vast majority of children in our constituencies are good kids, honourable and dignified children, with a great future, and the picture is spoiled by a small minority of yobs.

Ann Coffey: Of course the hon. Gentleman is right. It is also true that the small minority of youngsters who cause the problems are also at risk of being drawn into drugs and crime by other young people who prey
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on those more vulnerable than themselves. When we talk about antisocial behaviour, we should not forget that it is often caused by some young people against other young people. We should be aware that the problem is not an age thing. All of us who bring up children worry about who they will meet outside when they get to a certain age and start to be more independent. That is one of the reasons we want to make the community as safe as possible for everybody.

The children’s charity Barnardo’s has written to me to say it believes that the guidance for magistrates should be strengthened, with a presumption that an ISO should always be made. Barnardo’s says that courts should have to state specifically why an ISO would not be applicable. That is an attractive proposition. The charity also wants a legal requirement that any application for an ASBO on a child should be preceded by an assessment of their circumstances and needs that would be conducted by either a YOT or the relevant children’s services department. Barnardo’s has said:

The Government are already doing much to support and protect the most vulnerable families. I recently visited the new children’s centre in Adswood and Bridgehall in my constituency and was impressed by the huge range of interventions that are being made by all agencies to improve the life chances of children in one of the most deprived areas in Stockport. For those young people in the area who have not received such early interventions and are at risk of becoming the prison population of the future, it is even more essential that preventive measures such as ISOs are used to their fullest potential.

I would therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to do all in his power to encourage the use of ISOs, including reviewing guidance to magistrates and local authorities and, if necessary, sending a special letter to the YOTs to remind them of the value of ISOs. I would also like consideration to be given to making the ordering of an ISO automatic, which is an idea that Barnardo’s and the social exclusion unit have floated in the past. I would like close monitoring of the new funding arrangements to evaluate their effectiveness in encouraging a better take-up of ISOs. In particular, there should be evaluation of the difference in use in areas with and without specifically earmarked funds for ISOs in their current business plans.

If the take-up of ISOs is still disappointing next year, I would like the Minister to consider making some ring-fenced money available nationally. This is an excellent initiative and policy widely welcomed by a range of organisations that have both community safety and the interests of children at their heart. Let us work together to do all we can to support it.

10 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this morning’s debate. I shall be speaking as one of my party’s spokespersons on home affairs, but I also speak as a neighbouring Member of Parliament to the hon. Lady and a fellow Stockport borough MP.

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I also compliment the hon. Lady on what we probably all thought was the thoughtful and considered approach she took in the speech while outlining her concerns. I do not think she will find much substantive difference between us as I support her general contention. I sympathise with her concerns over the issue for various reasons.

First, I am all too aware that in the hon. Lady’s constituency and in mine issues relating to antisocial behaviour are a key quality-of-life factor and local people care passionately about them throughout the borough of Stockport, which in addition to the her constituency includes both the Cheadle and the Hazel Grove constituencies and, indeed, part of the Denton and Reddish constituency. It is true to say that although the borough itself is a relatively safe place in which to live and work, we still have some way to go before any of us can be totally satisfied that we have the problems fully under control.

Secondly, I sympathise with the hon. Lady because, in her efforts to find and promote better ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour and people who participate in those activities, she has tacitly recognised the limitation of many Government policies in that area. Although ASBOs, around which so much Government policy and rhetoric seem to be based, have their place, it is clear that there is a problem with the huge failure rate—just under 50 per cent.—and continuing public concerns that they are at best a limited weapon in the fight against the nuisance of antisocial behaviour.

Bob Spink: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that dealing with antisocial behaviour both starts and ends with the parents?

Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree with that comment. We all need to do what we can to support parents to take more responsibility for and interest in the activities of the children when the children are not at home.

I shall take this opportunity to clear up an urban myth that has been cultivated in certain places, namely that the Liberal Democrats have never supported and still do not support ASBOs in principle. As I have said, they have their place and the hon. Member for Stockport will be aware that if we did not support them the local Liberal Democrat-controlled council in her area would not have issued more than 40 in recent times.

We have argued consistently as a party that ASBOs should always be used selectively and in conjunction with other methods of intervention to tackle the causes of the offenders’ behaviour. I fully support the hon. Lady’s position and support orders and the theory and rationale behind them. My party and I have been arguing for some years that Government policy has not adequately addressed the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour and that it has not dealt with the long-term issues. That is precisely why we have advocated, and indeed used, alternatives to stand-alone ASBOs, in particular acceptable behaviour contracts, commonly known as ABCs.

The hon. Lady will know that her local council has issued well over 100 ABCs, and in Stockport and beyond they are proven to have a higher success rate
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than ASBOs. I believe this success is down to the fact that they address, or at least attempt to address, the causes of antisocial behaviour. They are a more genuine attempt at rehabilitation than ASBOs and that is why they are more effective in dealing with offenders’ patterns of behaviour.

Ann Coffey: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that ABCs are usually a contract with young people who do not have such an extensive history of antisocial behaviour, while ASBOs tend to be served on people after intervention with an ABC has been attempted? It is not a question of either/or but of having them all as tools that can be used to intervene at every level. ABCs are a good way of dealing with things, but, sometimes, with a small minority of young people they are not successful.

Mark Hunter: Yes indeed. It is important that the full range of these measures is utilised as and when appropriate. My point is simply that all these measures have a place, including ISOs, which I support. I am also talking about the attitude that prevails in certain councils—happily, not the one encompassed by my constituency and that of the hon. Lady—where there is almost an instinctive reaction to reach for ASBOs as the first measure to introduce in these situations. That probably is not terribly helpful.

It is in that respect that I believe Stockport has succeeded—at least partially—in tackling these issues. Indeed, the key reason that our local council has not applied for funding for ISOs is because it never issues an ASBO without also putting in place measures to deal with the underlying causes of an offender’s behaviour. I would, however, welcome the opportunity to join the hon. Lady in a campaign to try to ensure extra funding for Stockport’s community safety unit so that it can put into practice an even more comprehensive package of measures to intervene with offenders, particularly young people, to deal with the root causes of these problems.

I appreciate that this debate has not been called solely for us to discuss local, Stockport issues although I could happily do that for the remainder of the time available.

Ann Coffey: Before the hon. Gentleman finishes talking about Stockport, I have to say that I do not want to get into a discussion about whose responsibility it is, but I could equally argue that one of the issues locally may be that there needs to be increased awareness of the value of ISOs. Stockport made the decision about the resources it could allocate to them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the YOT in Stockport does an excellent job. I should also like to congratulate Steve Brown, the community safety officer, on his very good work.

Mark Hunter: Indeed, I would be pleased to pass on the hon. Lady’s congratulations to my constituent for his good work in Stockport and I accept her points entirely.

It is both interesting and sobering to note that only around 30 ISOs have been issued nationwide so far, despite being launched with the usual Government
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fanfare. The hon. Lady has probed the reasons why take-up has been relatively poor and she is right to do so. All the evidence I have seen, though, points to the fact that for ISOs to be more widely used, they should be applied to all types of ASBOs. Again, we are in substantive agreement there.

Early intervention is absolutely crucial and I support efforts being made to that end. In addition to early intervention, it must be clear to all agencies involved in the process that ISOs are an option that should be seriously considered and I would welcome any ministerial assurances this morning that magistrates, police, local authorities and social services are all aware of the possibility of putting orders like this in place.

However, we should not confine ourselves either to ASBOs or ISOs. Schemes associated with mentoring, involving members of the wider community in some sentencing, and more effective ways to combat bullying and truancy are all vital if we are serious about making a difference to our communities

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Gentleman add to that list the need to provide facilities for young people of all age groups? Borough and local councils have a responsibility to ensure that there is a decent range of facilities for youngsters to enjoy so that they do not have to gather in massive groups on street corners at night, as happens in Canvey Island in my constituency.

Mark Hunter: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. In fact, I shall move on to that issue swiftly.

If we are serious about dealing with antisocial behaviour and social exclusion, it is vital to tackle all the issues I have mentioned. By offering a less prescriptive minimum curriculum entitlement, as my party has suggested, schools could develop more imaginative programmes for young people, who would then remain within the school system, rather than being excluded from it and thus being tempted by antisocial and, in some cases, criminal activities.

For too long, youth services in local authorities have been treated as Cinderella services. We are now reaping the results of that neglect. We need to work more closely with young people to develop the right services for them and not concentrate solely on excluding them, as the Government sometimes appear to do.

Ann Coffey: Is the hon. Gentleman, like me, pleased that, as part of the youth matters agenda, money is being made available to each local authority in the land—including, I think, £500,000 to Stockport—over the next two years so that projects are developed that young people want? That work will be very much from a young person’s perspective; young people will be asked what projects they want to develop. It will help to provide an alternative for young people who say that there is nothing to do.

Mark Hunter: The hon. Lady again makes a reasonable point. She will know, as a fellow MP for the area, that Stockport borough council welcomes any extra grant it can get its hands on, and I am sure that it will put the money to good use.

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If we are serious about reducing the fear of crime in our communities, we need a greater commitment to visible policing and more police officers on the beat. The hon. Lady will be all too aware of the funding crisis afflicting Greater Manchester police. According to the chief constable, we face the prospect of losing front-line officers. Our local situation highlights the fact that all the legislation in the world, including positive schemes such as the one we are talking about, is meaningless without the officers to enforce the laws.

Ann Coffey: It is important also to put on the record the fact that the overall strength of the police force in Greater Manchester has increased and an increasing number of community support officers are being employed. Brinnington is about to have four extra community support officers. I would not like the hon. Gentleman to give the impression that police officers are being taken off the streets when in fact the overall strength of the police force is being increased. Community support officers have been widely welcomed because they provide visible policing.

Mark Hunter: I again welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention. She made her point in her usual effective way, but I note that she did not contradict my point that the chief constable of Greater Manchester police says that he faces the prospect of having to cut front-line services.

Bob Spink: I would like to confirm the hon. Lady’s point. I had grave reservations about CSOs when they were introduced, but I accept entirely that I have been proved wrong. I am delighted with the effectiveness of those officers in my community. I am also delighted with the neighbourhood policing moves and the fact that we now see policemen back on bicycles. That is fantastic. However, I am still deeply concerned about the fall in the number of special constables. The Government should take more action to recruit more specials. The numbers have been halved over the past few years. We should make a particular effort in that respect, too. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mark Hunter: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and I agree with his point. I have not referred to PCSOs, but as the subject has been raised I will say that I recognise their valuable role. It is only one part of the core debate, but I say to the Minister that in the eyes of the community at large there is a credibility issue about PCSOs compared with straightforward police constables whom people know and recognise in the traditional sense. The Government need to do a little more—

Ann Coffey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Hunter: I will give way to the hon. Lady for the last time, as I am close to finishing what I have to say.

Ann Coffey: It may be more of an internal issue within the police force, as I know that some police officers did not welcome PCSOs. It was very much a professional matter. From the community’s point of view, it is difficult to see the difference on the street
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between a police officer and a community police officer, because they are both in uniform. One has to look very carefully to see whether someone is a community police officer or a police officer.

Mark Hunter: I again welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention, but in my constituency residents seem to have no problem distinguishing between traditional police constables and PCSOs, as they wear distinctive badges on their uniforms. The frequent cry of some local residents is, “Well, we might see those”—PCSOs—“but we never see proper policemen.” As I am sure other hon. Members do, I try to explain that PCSOs are proper and legitimate officers making a valuable contribution.

Ann Coffey: I would be very happy if the PCSOs whom the hon. Gentleman’s constituents do not welcome were transferred to my constituency, where people do welcome them.

Mark Hunter: The hon. Lady makes her final intervention in a humorous fashion. I must make it absolutely clear that my constituents did not say that they saw them very often; nor do they ever see them on bicycles.

I reiterate my support for the hon. Lady’s cause. She displays a more thoughtful approach on these issues than some of her colleagues in the Government. All the evidence points to early intervention and support as key factors in ending the destructive patterns of behaviour in young people. ISOs can play an important role in that respect and I wholeheartedly welcome moves to extend their use.

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