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28 Jun 2006 : Column 83WH—continued

10.17 am

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): On the whole, this has been a pretty consensual debate, with only one or two little controversial elements, which put this Chamber in an excitable mood.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on initiating the debate on the subject of ISOs, which we all agree are a very good idea. She wants the Government to take up initiatives to ensure that ISOs are effective, which is particularly important. I wait with considerable interest to see how the Minister responds in that respect.

The hon. Member for Stockport mentioned the Prime Minister’s Bristol speech. Once again, it was a fine example of good intentions, but delivery is all-important and this debate is about the delivery of ISOs. They are a very good idea, but how can we make them work?

As we heard, ISOs were introduced under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. They allow positive conditions to be attached to ASBOs for 10 to 17-year-olds for up to six months, and they are designed to help to address the underlying causes of unacceptable and damaging behaviour by imposing preventive conditions on troubled young people.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) said, we are talking about a minority of young people. Years ago, I worked with the BBC in Northern Ireland during the troubles and it struck me then that only about 4 to 5 per cent. caused the troubles. The vast majority of people wanted a quiet life, which demonstrates what a thin veneer society can
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be. It needs just a few troublemakers—whether those involved in gangsterism or terrorism in Northern Ireland, or children causing a noise on an estate, as the hon. Member for Stockport described—to ruin the lives of many.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): At this stage, I would like to make a general point. We are talking about ISOs this morning, but, in talking about antisocial behaviour, which we have been doing in a general sense, we should try not to demonise young people and remember that more than half of all ASBOs have been granted to adults. They are responsible for antisocial behaviour as well.

Michael Fabricant: The Minister makes an important and interesting point that I hope people will note. It is indeed not just young people who are involved, but older people too. Again, however, it is a minority of adults and younger people who do not wish to ensure that society remains calm and do not have the respect for others that we expect. The other point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point made, is that parents also have a responsibility, and we should never forget that. He made that point in a number of telling interventions.

The principle behind ISOs is valuable. We should be tackling the root causes of disorderly behaviour, not just the symptoms. Both sides of the debate will agree with that principle, and we have heard that today. With that in mind, I would like to be able to say that the Government have made good use of ISOs since their introduction. However, as we have heard, that has not been the case.

As the hon. Member for Stockport said, only 31 ISOs have been issued since May 2004. That point was also made by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). Over the same period, 789 ASBOs were issued to persons aged between 10 and 17. That means that ISOs were issued in only 4 per cent. of cases, which is a startlingly low take-up.

We have again heard some reasons for that, and the hon. Member for Stockport made some good suggestions on how to deal with the problem. I note, too, that she has been consistent on the issue, which she raised during Home Office questions last month. Following the somewhat lacklustre response from the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety, she said:

Today, she has repeated that view, which gets to the heart of the matter. Until now, the take-up rate has been too low and too slow.

Under the guidance that the Youth Justice Board has produced since May 2004, a magistrates court making a stand-alone ASBO is obliged to impose an ISO where three conditions are met. The first is that doing so is

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The second is purely technical, but the third, which is quite interesting, is

In other words, it is up to the Government to give the support that the courts need to make a difference.

Ann Coffey: I really cannot have the Government being blamed for that. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all the YOTs in the country were asked to bid for the prevention money. What they bid for was down to them. Although I have issues with the Government for not ring-fencing the money, I do not argue that it was not made available. I query the use to which some of the YOTs have put that money.

Michael Fabricant: The hon. Lady makes an important and interesting point. I would say that the amount of money available was finite, but it is like the lottery—people often complain that they have not had lottery money in their area, but it turns out that they never applied for it, so that has to be done first.

One cannot help wondering whether it is the lack of support from the Government that is responsible for the low take-up of ISOs. I take the hon. Lady’s point: the number of ASBOs has increased over recent years, so why have we not seen an increase in the number of ISOs? I know that the Minister will address that point when he replies.

The issue has not merely come out of the blue. A report was issued in November last year by the social exclusion unit that warned that although ASBOs are common, little use is being made of ISOs, which are intended to address the causes of poor behaviour. I do not want to pick on the poor Minister, but what has his Department been doing since the social exclusion unit made its report?

It is not all doom and gloom. The Home Office recently increased the funding available in 2005-06 to the Youth Justice Board to fund ISOs. That is a welcome step. There will also be a new training programme for magistrates this year—about time, too—which will include the important issue of ISOs. That, too, is a step in the right direction.

I worry that there is broader story behind all this. There is little point in having such measures if they are not taken up and used by the courts and the authorities on the ground. We have had not only an avalanche of law and order legislation since 1997, but countless headline-grabbing initiatives and quick fixes. The Government propose gimmicks and then abandon them with alarming regularity. ISOs are pretty good; I hope they will not abandon them. Cash point fines for yobs and night courts are two prominent examples of gimmicks that were brought in and then abandoned. ISOs are worth while. They are worth pursuing, and I hope that the Government will do that.

If the Home Office carries on with quick gimmicks, we will run the danger that measures such as ISOs, which try to address the real causes, will get lost in the storm. It is not only me who believes that; I am afraid that the former Home Secretary seems to believe it too.

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Bob Spink: I have listened carefully to the debate and I note that one area has not yet been fully addressed. May I encourage my hon. Friend and the Minister to comment on it?

When the terms of ISOs and ASBOs are breached, that needs to be taken extremely seriously by the courts, otherwise those instruments will fall into disrepute and become ineffective very quickly. Are the Government interested in issuing clearer instructions to the Crown Prosecution Service and the Courts Service so that breaches of ISOs and ASBOs are taken extremely seriously?

Michael Fabricant: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point that chimes with my intervention on the hon. Member for Stockport, when I said that it is important that we monitor the effectiveness of ISOs. We do not want a great deal of resources to be put into the training, or re-training, of offenders only to find that within six months or a year they have relaxed back into the same bad old ways.

Mr. Coaker: I was going to make this point in my remarks, but given the question asked by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), it is opportune to do so now: 58 per cent. of ASBOs are not breached, which means that 42 per cent. are. Of that 42 per cent. of people who breach their ASBO on one or more occasion, 55 per cent. received immediate custody on the first or a later occasion, and of the young people, 46 per cent. received immediate custody. Those are important figures, because they show that there is a criminal sanction for people who break an ASBO and that that is treated severely by the courts.

Michael Fabricant: I thank the Minister for that helpful intervention, which shows not only that our courts exercise their authority, but that there is good monitoring of people’s behaviour so that the breaking of ASBOs is noted. In some instances—not in the example of ASBOs, but in others—courts have a power, but do not know when an offence is committed. The Minister’s point is reassuring and I am grateful to him for making it.

To conclude, underlying problems—family breakdown, hard drug use, binge drinking, domestic violence, teenage pregnancy—cannot be addressed with top-down national initiatives. If I may quote the leader of my party, we need “patient, personal support” to get at the causes of disorder and antisocial behaviour.

ISOs offer a really good step in the right direction, and it is time for the Government to make proper use of them. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to my points and, perhaps even more importantly, those made by the hon. Member for Stockport.

10.31 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on her speech, which a number of us have said was a thoughtful, measured contribution to an important subject, about which I know she feels passionate. She has spent much of her time in Parliament contributing
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to the debate on what to do about antisocial behaviour, calling for tough enforcement of the law alongside measures that support young people and communities. I congratulate her not only on her work in her constituency but on her contribution to the national debate.

Antisocial behaviour is a major issue for the Government and in many of our communities. It is clear that where the law is enforced effectively alongside neighbourhood policing, including police community support officers working with residents’ associations and local voluntary organisations, and where people work together and stand together, joining in to try to make a difference, real progress is made in communities up and down the country. That is one of the most important messages to be taken from the debate. The tools and the laws are there, and they should be used to make a difference in our communities. People should not abandon hope; they should be optimistic and challenge what is going on, and things can improve.

I do not want to get into party political banter, but there are record numbers of police officers on the street, and police community support officers have been extremely effective in contributing to efforts to tackle antisocial behaviour. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised the matter of specials. Only last week I was at an awards ceremony giving awards to special constables who had made a particular contribution in their communities. Again, that demonstrates the fact that the Government have tried to ensure that the valuable role of specials is recognised. We have also ensured that the number of specials recorded on the books is that of active specials. In some cases that has meant that the number of specials has gone down, but the number who are actually active and on the streets has increased. That has happened in my area and, I am sure, in many others. Specials do a fantastic job.

Bob Spink: I am reassured to some extent by what the Minister has said about specials. However, the fact is that the number of specials has halved in the past eight years or so. Will the Government have a campaign to increase their number back to the number that were in place when they took power in 1997?

Mr. Coaker: We run recruitment campaigns for specials all the time—there are poster campaigns and adverts all over the place because we are trying to increase their numbers. However, we are determined to have active specials on the books, instead of there being just a number on paper, because specials make a great contribution to policing in our communities.

Individual support orders were introduced under section 322 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and have been available since May 2004. They are civil orders that can be attached to antisocial behaviour orders made against young people aged between 10 and 17. They can last for up to six months and they impose positive conditions on young people. They are designed to tackle the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour.

ISOs are available for stand-alone ASBOs, which are made only in magistrates courts. Legislation sets out that when a magistrates court makes an ASBO against a young person, the court must also make an ISO if it considers that an ISO would help to prevent further
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antisocial behaviour. ISOs are not available for orders on conviction if it is expected that sentencing will address the underlying causes of the criminal offence. If a court declines to make an ISO, it must give reasons why it considers that it is inappropriate to do so. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), and perhaps when he reads my response, he will be reassured.

ISOs contain positive requirements that are tailor-made to suit the individual needs of each young person. They are based on a needs assessment of the young person in question. Examples of such requirements include treatment for alcohol and substance misuse, attendance at counselling sessions for anger management, and extra support in school. ISOs are not mandatory, although we want to see many more being used by the courts. To clarify an point of confusion, an ISO can be made even if another order is in place.

I should like to mention an example from Norfolk that shows the value of ISOs—I believe in using practical examples to show how policies can make a difference. The example shows how an ISO has been used to turn around the behaviour of a group of boys who had brought misery to residents for more than a year. The police and the housing office worked together closely on the case and discovered a pattern of nuisance, largely based on the playing of rowdy games on a shared landing between two flats. PCSOs and the estate manager mediated between the families and their neighbours. When mediation failed, joint visits were made to warn the families of their continued antisocial behaviour. The boys were given formal warnings that spelled out the consequences of their actions in terms of potential ASBOs and possible loss of their parents’ tenancy. When all the warnings had failed, a multi-agency team obtained an interim ASBO against the five boys to put an immediate stop to the nuisance. Evidence provided by the PCSOs and by the estate manager was used at the hearing, and interim orders were granted.

Minor breaches during the Christmas period were reported by witnesses between the interim and the full hearings, which strengthened the case for the ASBOs at the full hearing. Witnesses who were previously fearful of giving evidence were willing to testify at the full hearing when the ASBOs were granted. Importantly, an ISO was attached to each ASBO to tackle some of the underlying causes of the behaviour. If that can be done in one area, it can be done in many other areas too.

The main benefit of the ASBOs was the relief brought to the neighbours, who felt that they had been supported through the process by the police and the housing office. The ISO that was devised and facilitated by the north Norfolk youth offending team consisted of sessions aimed at helping the boys to develop an understanding of how their antisocial behaviour—their constant shouting and banging—impacted on themselves as a group, on their immediate family, and on their neighbours. The advantage of the ISO was that it gave the boys an opportunity to understand the effects of their rowdy behaviour on themselves and on others. As a result of the order and the interventions of the youth worker, the boys took up recreational activities and found constructive ways to spend their spare time.

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Michael Fabricant: I am interested in that example. I believe that it is the same as the one given by the hon. Member for Stockport, but fair enough. I do not know when those events happened, but I am curious to know whether three months, six months or a year on, the boys have relapsed, or is the situation still okay? Does the Minister know?

Mr. Coaker: So far as we are aware, things are still okay. I repeated the example that my hon. Friend gave to emphasise that if it is possible for Norfolk YOT to do something, it is perfectly possible for other YOTs throughout the country to do exactly the same thing. We use such examples as a good practice guide to show people what they can do and what they can use. I shall certainly be talking to my local YOT about it. It is something that I have become more aware of, and sometimes it is a matter of raising awareness and informing people of what is possible. What the example shows is that if all the agencies take action and work together, the community rediscovers a sense of purpose, a sense of hope and a belief that something can be done—and in fact, something is done. The message must be to work together and stand together. We do not have to put up with such behaviour and we can make a difference. Overall, the intervention package was a great success for that community and for the families themselves. It is an excellent example of the effective use not only of ISOs, but of all the tools available to tackle antisocial behaviour.

As we are focusing mainly on young people, let me reiterate an important point, which is that other young people also want something to be done about antisocial behaviour by groups of young people who are causing problems. When I meet young people, they tell me that they do not want to feel threatened on their street, that they do not want yobs—or whatever we want to call them—hanging around, threatening them and making them feel unsafe. Young people demand that something is done about the problem as well. It is not just old fogeys in council offices or in Parliament who want something done. The majority of decent young people in our communities also want something to be done, and they often contribute to the solution by coming up with examples of what the council should do to help—perhaps by providing services, additional drop-in facilities, and so on. They suggest the sorts of things that could be done to tackle antisocial behaviour. We should involve young people in the solution and not just brand them as the problem. As the hon. Members for Castle Point and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, it is only a minority who are causing the problem. It is up to us to deal with it through effective use of the laws that we have.

As has been mentioned, 31 ISOs were made between their introduction in May 2004 and the end of September 2005. We analysed the cohort of potential recipients, and although we accept that interventions might already be in place for many young people, the figures remain much lower than we would have expected. The low take-up by antisocial behaviour practitioners is disappointing. I am therefore grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport for highlighting the issue and providing the opportunity of this debate, which I hope will challenge people to make more use of ISOs.

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