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I have also received an e-mail came from another excellent, civic-minded resident who helps to run a residents’ association in the Grange part of the town. His e-mail to me of 15 June said:

Those two e-mails highlight many of the problems and challenges that too many of my constituents face daily. I see in my constituency a small number of people, often no more than a single individual or family in a street, having an absolute disregard for the wishes
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of the decent majority and, without prompt early intervention, that attracts further elements of antisocial behaviour. Those people tend to be housed in properties owned by private landlords, who often have no connection with the local community, or even with the town, and who do not really care as long as they continue to receive payment. Tenants move around, often from private landlord to private landlord, very often in the same street, with no definite action carried out either to deal with the underlying problems or to provide some degree of respite to the decent people in the street who are suffering from their mindless and yobbish behaviour. Complaints to agencies by residents are not backed up with swift, decisive and tangible action, which makes people in the local area even more disillusioned and depressed. There is a vague awareness from residents that this Labour Government have put in place extra powers to tackle such criminal and antisocial behaviour, but they are not seeing them being used on in their community.

Only this week, the person who runs my constituency office in South road, Samantha Mowbray, was working late in the office—at about 7.45 pm—when the back window of her car, which was parked outside, was smashed by a group of kids. The police came to the scene quickly, but the gang that did it was defiant, and instead of fleeing from the area, stood firm and said, “We know our rights—prove which one did it”. Such people are fully aware of their rights, but utterly ignorant of their responsibilities.

The criminal justice system is in danger of failing in Hartlepool, not only because decent people are losing faith in its ability to administer justice, but—perhaps most disturbingly—because people who commit crime and behave antisocially do not fear or respect it. A central purpose of a criminal justice system should surely be not necessarily to punish—although I think that that is an important aspect—but to ensure that the prospect of reoffending is reduced. But that is not happening.

Let us consider a recent example that was brought to my attention. A man was arrested in Hartlepool town centre for disorderly behaviour and received an £80 penalty notice. He was arrested for the same crime within a few weeks, and was sent back to court. That time, he received a £40 fine. There is no consistency, and no regard for, or recognition of, the fact that that individual took up the court’s time a matter of weeks earlier for the same offence. The revolving door policy in Hartlepool magistrates court is all too common, and I am keen for the Minister to suggest how that can be stopped.

I am also concerned that this problem perhaps occurs more frequently in Hartlepool than in other areas. The Safer Hartlepool Partnership crime disorder and drugs strategy 2005-08 acknowledges that

That being the case, I would expect to see greater use of the powers provided by this Government, particularly antisocial behaviour orders. In fact, the reverse is true. Home Office figures show that 86 ASBOs were issued in the Cleveland police area in the period between 1 April 1999 and 30 April 2005. The vast majority—some 51—were in the Middlesbrough borough council
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area, with 22 issued in Middlesbrough in 2005 alone. Hartlepool had only 10 ASBOs issued in that six-year period, and three were in 2005—well below the figure for our neighbours not only in Middlesbrough, but in Stockton, Redcar and Cleveland. We should not issue ASBOs as if we are in a competition to see who can issue the most; equally, I do not think that 10 ASBOs issued in six years accurately reflects the level of antisocial behaviour that residents in my constituency have endured.

Agencies in Hartlepool are far too reluctant to use the powers provided in a swift and efficient manner, which is having a detrimental effect on the lives of ordinary and decent residents. The district commander of Hartlepool basic command unit recently informed me that the process in my town is like, in his words, “running in treacle”. He cited a case in which he is trying to get an ASBO through the courts. It is not a particularly exceptional or unusual case, but the police have been requested by the council’s legal team to make more than 100 changes to the original case. The first meeting to discuss proceedings in that case took place in January. Such situations, which are not unusual, have an adverse effect on the morale and determination of police officers, let alone the residents. Can the Minister suggest anything that could be done in Hartlepool to speed up this process? Neighbouring areas can do it, so why cannot my town?

I have asked the Minister for some solutions, but I am keen to explore one in particular at this stage. I am a massive supporter of the Government’s policy to provide services for people, rather than “at” them—to consult, and then devolve and design public services that are most appropriate to their local needs. That has been successfully done in health, and it has been seen in regeneration in my town through the new deal for communities. It is also being seen in neighbourhood policing. Why can it not be developed in community justice?

I am not suggesting that mob rule should be put in place, but Hartlepool has a sophisticated and developed residents’ association network, reflecting the strong community and civic-minded ethos of most of its citizens. Will the Minister consider putting a measure in place that allows formally constituted and properly-governed residents’ groups, in conjunction with local councillors and other agencies, to administer and monitor community-based sentences? Such an approach seems to be working in the Red Hook community justice centre in Brooklyn, New York, and—a little closer to home—in the community justice centre in north Liverpool. I think that that approach—focusing on the underlying problem and working to prevent offenders from coming back, rather than just seeing a case as something to be got through the court process as quickly as possible, regardless of whether the offender might return the following week—would work in Hartlepool. It would reassure the public about justice and sentencing, just as neighbourhood policing does. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Minister to consider establishing one or more of those community justice centres in my constituency.

Residents have identified the fact that many of the problems stem from irresponsible private landlords, who do not seem to care about the state of the neighbourhood where they have investment, because
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they are often physically removed from the trouble. Often, they continue to be paid, regardless of the antisocial behaviour of their tenants.

The Housing Act 2004 provides some hope, in that I understand that it will introduce mandatory licensing and give local authorities the ability to designate that an area with an antisocial behaviour problem can be more centrally managed. The recent announcement that the Government are considering housing benefit sanctions for those problem families who fail to take up offers of help is welcome, but I want more. The Government have increased powers to close down crack houses, and I believe that properties where antisocial behaviour originates should be closed down in a similar way. The respect action plan is welcome in that regard, but I should like to see it go much further. For private landlords whose properties have antisocial tenants, a closure may initially be temporary, so that some sort of agreement can be reached. However, a second complaint should result in the permanent closure of a property, or its confiscation. That would allow some respite, and its use for the good of the community.

Changes to the licensing laws and the role of directly-elected councillors in granting liquor licenses have been a success, and that approach should be extended to people who want to be private landlords. We need a licence to drive a car, and vehicles require an MOT certificate to ensure that they are not a risk on the road. Something similar should be in place for landlords, with the community—perhaps through the auspices of a community justice centre—playing some part in granting licences.

Such powers would be welcome, but I am concerned that Hartlepool borough council will not give tackling housing problems and bad private landlords the priority that it deserves. At the moment, the council's landlord accreditation scheme has only one full-time member of staff, Ken Natt. He does a great job and has some support from other departments, but the fact remains that he is essentially on his own. That level of resource is neither sufficient nor adequate.

As well as being Hartlepool’s MP, I also chair the local strategic partnership. I am frustrated at the current state of affairs, and I know that my frustration is shared by residents and ward councillors in the areas affected. Given the executive mayoral system that we have, what steps can my hon. Friend the Minister suggest that we should take so that we can convince the local authority of the importance of this matter?

As I said, I believe that swift intervention and action helps to prevent antisocial behaviour problems from escalating. Issues such as poverty, low educational attainment and poor parenting skills are being tackled through economic prosperity. The amount of money spent per pupil has doubled since 1997, and Government initiatives such as Sure Start have had real success in my constituency, but more could and should be done.

Swift intervention as soon as antisocial behaviour begins is important. The 101 project, for example—formerly known as the Dundee project—shows that very early intervention, and support to address specific and individual problems, can produce real success. That has worked in Scotland: will the Minister consider piloting something similar in Hartlepool?

I am in favour of a multi-agency, partnership approach, providing clear and simple lines of accountability and
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responsibility. That approach has worked in Hartlepool before on a whole range of problems, including crime, but it needs a much bigger push. In response to a Parliamentary question from me this week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government stated that the local strategic partnership was the overarching body that would bring all relevant service deliverers together. He said that it would provide scrutiny of the performance of all those agencies, including the ones charged with tackling criminal and antisocial behaviour. As chair of the Hartlepool partnership, I am personally keen to do a lot more to take that approach further, for the good of Hartlepool’s residents.

A lot of good work has been done in Hartlepool, on a range of issues, but I am really ambitious for the town and want to do a lot more. My hon. Friend the Minister is a good constituency Member of Parliament, and he will be acutely aware that decent residents deserve better. I should be grateful for some guidance from him as to how that can be achieved.

5.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) on securing the debate and on a speech that showed his dedication to his work and to the people of Hartlepool. He made a number of interesting points, and I shall try to answer them as well as making some general comments about the Government’s attitude to tackling antisocial behaviour in Hartlepool and across the country.

Antisocial behaviour affects too many people. The great majority behave in a way that does not cause alarm, harassment or distress to others, but a small number’s normal behaviour is to intimidate those around them. People from all generations and all backgrounds in Hartlepool are united in wanting antisocial behaviour to be tackled head on as it has such an effect on their quality of life. There has been a huge response from practitioners including the police, local authorities and local communities in taking a stand against such behaviour.

I am glad to say that the Government have provided the tools and powers, through Acts such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, to tackle antisocial behaviour. In many cases, those powers are being used widely and wisely. It may help the House if I remind it of the powers available to practitioners: crack house closure, housing injunctions, parenting contracts, parenting orders, fixed penalty notices, acceptable behaviour contracts, antisocial behaviour orders, dispersal orders and curfew orders. As my hon. Friend said, quite powerfully, it is all very well to have such powers on the statute book and available, but we all want to see more of them being used in more areas of our communities. The Government, too, are very keen to see that happen.

The 2003 Act also contained increased powers on and greater penalties for the misuse of air weapons. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington, East (Mr. Kemp) has spent a long time campaigning on air weapons in his constituency, where he has tried to have antisocial behaviour tackled, and
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has put pressure on the Government to do something, too. There was a firearms amnesty in 2003. We keep such things under review, and air weapons are part of that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned that 86 antisocial behaviour orders were issued in the Cleveland police force area, and 10 in Hartlepool, between April 1999 and September 2005. Additionally, 24 acceptable behaviour contracts were agreed in the Hartlepool crime and disorder reduction partnership area between October 2004 and September 2005. It is clear, however, that more are needed, and the Government call on all the responsible agencies to consider more use of ASBOs.

My hon. Friend spoke about the need to speed up the process. I can give him some information that he might want to share with people in Hartlepool, such as the independent mayor. The Government have taken a range of measures under the Police Reform Act 2002, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 and the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to improve the effectiveness of ASBOs, enabling the courts to protect communities more quickly.

If my hon. Friend looks across the country, it is clear that some councils and agencies use antisocial behaviour orders much more than others and find no problem with the existing system. We need to spread that best practice so that all local authorities in all areas of the country use ASBOs much more quickly.

Interim orders can be made at the same time as an ASBO application. Orders on conviction and county court orders can avoid the need for a separate court hearing. In addition, the Home Office is currently updating its ASBO guidance to practitioners to spread best practice. That is due to be published in the near future.

The Crown Prosecution Service has established a team of specialist antisocial behaviour prosecutors, again to try to speed up the process. There is also a network of specialist antisocial behaviour response courts, which are better able to respond to antisocial behaviour.

We are taking action throughout the country to tell the responsible agencies that they can do more and to encourage them to use the powers to protect the communities at and the individuals who want to see the powers used. My hon. Friend’s example of the two e-mails that he had received show exactly the sort of behaviour that we want to be tackled. Some of the activities are criminal and deserve criminal prosecution as well as ASBOs.

Since penalty notices for disorder were introduced in 2004, Cleveland has issued a total of 4,353, of which 834 have been issued in Hartlepool. Penalty notices for disorder can be given for a range of behaviour, including dropping litter, being drunk and disorderly or throwing fireworks. We are encouraging agencies and local communities to break down barriers and to tackle, not tolerate antisocial behaviour.

For example, the Cool Football project has been successful in my hon. Friend’s constituency. It was set up to deal with children playing football in residential streets. I know that it involves making various school football pitches available during the evenings and weekends so that children have somewhere to play, and I commend such projects. Again, we want more of them to be set up.

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