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I hope that I have given a broad perspective on what we are doing to tackle antisocial behaviour in its wider context, and I hope that Members will bear it mind that little, if anything, was done about these problems before the introduction of ASBOs and the various other tools and powers. Given that a lot of Members want to speak and that we had a statement earlier today, I have deliberately curtailed my remarks, while still generously taking interventions, which is why my speech nevertheless lasted for 27 minutes. I hope that the debate on this young and growing public policy area, which matters to all our communities, will be
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conducted in a reflective and mature spirit. When they say that they will no longer put up with such behaviour, they now have a framework to deal with it. That will improve the lot of our communities throughout the country. I want to thank the Youth Justice Board, the youth offending teams and everyone involved at local level in the eradication of antisocial behaviour, which can only be in the best interest of every Member of this House.

1.34 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Antisocial behaviour is of enormous and growing concern to the public and to this House. In a survey conducted by University College London last May, the UK was thought by respondents to be Europe’s worst country for antisocial behaviour, with more than three quarters of them believing that Britain had a “big or moderate problem”. The cost of responding to reports of antisocial behaviour in England and Wales is £3.4 billion a year, and approximately one in five people now perceives a high level of antisocial behaviour, according to the British crime survey. A count of antisocial behaviour conducted by the Home Office in September 2003 came up with a total of more than 66,000 reports of antisocial behaviour in one day. That is equivalent to 16.5 million incidents a year.

A number of official indicators of antisocial behaviour show an increase. Of the seven strands that make up the measure, three have shown an increase since 2004-05—teenagers hanging around on the streets, people being drunk or rowdy in public places, an issue to which I shall return, and noisy neighbours or loud parties. This is primarily, but certainly not exclusively, an urban problem. The British crime survey found that people living in urban areas were twice as likely as those living in rural areas to perceive high levels of antisocial behaviour. Social renters were almost twice as likely as those in owner-occupied or private rented accommodation to experience high levels of perceived antisocial behaviour. However, the key point is surely that antisocial behaviour affects the poorest in our society the most, and disproportionately. In addition, the fear of youth crime is rising. Nearly a third of people now believe that young people hanging around on street corners represents a serious problem; significantly, that is an increase from the approximately one quarter who believed that as short a time ago as 1996.

Antisocial behaviour can be nuisance behaviour, but much of the time it is neighbourhood crime and should be dealt with accordingly. The use of abusive or intimidating language and drunken behaviour are crimes, and our concern about the Government’s response is that too much of it involves keeping such offenders out of the courts, while failing to tackle the offences that are taking place. Let us consider the essential part of the Government’s toolkit: antisocial behaviour orders. The National Audit Office report shows that more than half—55 per cent.—of ASBOs are breached. Of those breaches, more than a third— 35 per cent.—occurred on more than five occasions. In my county of Sussex, there are four breaches for every ASBO that has been issued. Some 79 per cent. of those who receive an ASBO have previous convictions, and
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the average number of convictions for those with previous convictions is a staggering 26.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): In pointing out the number of ASBOs that were breached according to the NAO report, will the hon. Gentleman also highlight the fact that 41 per cent. of those breaches were committed to custody? That shows that there is a very real sanction if people breach their ASBO.

Nick Herbert: I am interested by the Minister’s intervention, but the truth is that those were cases in which other offences were committed, which is why a custodial sentence was given. [Interruption.] He should know that, which is perhaps why he is smiling. The truth is that the custodial sentence rate for offenders who breach ASBOs alone is, the Home Office admits, just 2 per cent.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman is getting to the heart of where the real problem lies, which is with the courts, which are too soft. The police take such people to the courts, which then take a sympathetic view and do not give the custodial sentence that is needed. Does he agree with me that the courts have got to get tough and protect the victims?

Nick Herbert: Well, there are a number of problems. First, it may be the case that the courts are not being tough enough, but they are of course under pressure not to produce custodial sentences because the Government have not planned for sufficient prison places. Secondly, there are many offenders who should have been dealt with in the courts in the first place, rather than through this remedy. Nevertheless, it is unacceptable that such a low number of breaches are dealt with through custodial sentences, and I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

The Youth Justice Board report, published in November last year, claimed that

The report also found that nearly half of the young people whose case files were reviewed had been returned to court for failure to comply with their order. It is also clear from the report that young people do not understand the antisocial behaviour regime. It showed that many young people did not understand the details of the orders that were placed on them.

Given the level of breaches, it is not surprising that MORI research shows a lack of public confidence in ASBOs. An Ipsos MORI research report, published in June last year, six months after the launch of the Respect action plan, found that nearly half of people think that ASBOs are not effective at stopping antisocial behaviour. In December, the Minister said:

In that case, what constitutes success? Is it a failure if an offender breaches parole? Is it a failure if a suspect
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jumps bail? Is it a failure if a prisoner absconds? Why then is it a success if someone breaches an ASBO? That is plainly nonsense.

The Permanent Secretary at the Home Office told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that

But it is not, as we have just heard. There are a minimal number of custodial sentences for ASBO breaches. The National Audit Office report pointed out that more than half of those issued with ASBOs engaged in further acts of antisocial behaviour during their order.

It is the same story with acceptable behaviour contracts, which are broken by more than 60 per cent. of those under 18. The NAO report states:

The credibility of the Government’s flagship policy to deal with antisocial behaviour is severely undermined by the failure to enforce the orders.

Secondly, there is the problem of evaluation, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) has already raised. That is surely fundamental to the effectiveness of the regime. The NAO noted:

In December 2005, Baroness Scotland said in a written answer:

In November 2006, the Minister in the other place said:

So there has been a delay of well over a year for the promised evaluation of ASBOs.

Extraordinarily, neither the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office nor the head of the Respect taskforce, Louise Casey, knew about that study when they were questioned by the PAC on Monday. Sir David Normington said:

Louise Casey said the same. We know that the head of the Respect taskforce has a dislike of evidence-based policy making. She once infamously said that there is an obsession with evidence-based policy in No. 10. We are certainly getting used to the collective amnesia in the Home Office, but we should be able to expect that the Permanent Secretary and the head of the Respect agenda know that an evaluation of ASBOs is being conducted. That evaluation is fundamental to the ability of this House and the wider public to judge whether or not ASBOs are a success and its absence is a fundamental weakness in the Government’s case.

The third concern that we have about ASBOs is whether it is right that they are applied as a civil
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instrument to deal with persistent offenders who should be dealt with by the courts. The NAO noted that a small core of people repeatedly engaged in antisocial behaviour. Around a fifth of its sample received more than half of all the interventions and that group had an average of 50 criminal convictions. The report also said:

It is clear that ASBOs are an ineffective and inappropriate instrument to deal with hardened criminal behaviour, and that a minority of offenders should be dealt with in the courts and properly sentenced, so that victims can be assured that action has been taken. But the Government’s approach is the opposite. It is increasingly to develop what they call summary justice, so that such cases are not dealt with in the courts. That summary justice is, increasingly, soft justice.

The Sunday Telegraph recently reported that a woman who falsely accused a man of raping her was released with nothing more than a penalty notice for disorder and an £80 fine. If her story had been believed, the man she accused could have been jailed for life. If that woman had been taken to court, she could have been jailed for six months for making false rape allegations. How can it possibly have been appropriate to impose a penalty notice for disorder and an £80 fine in such circumstances?

Destroying or damaging property, which in court could incur a fine of up to £2,500 or three months in prison, can now be punished with an £80 fine. Whether the fine is £80 or £100—the proposed increase—it is simply not high enough to deter a persistent criminal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) has revealed, penalty notices for disorder are increasingly being used to punish shoplifting of goods under the value of £200. Nearly 22,000 penalty notices for disorder were issued for shoplifting in 2005 and nearly 17,000 in the first six months of 2006. Even if the maximum penalty is increased to £100, a shoplifter has only to get away with one in three thefts to break even or one in two to make a £100 profit. That allows shoplifters to make a substantial profit by achieving only a 50 per cent. success rate with very low risks.

Paying a penalty notice for disorder is not even an admission of guilt. If a defendant pays within 21 days, they do not even get a criminal record. They are, in the words of my hon. Friend,

A spokesman for the British Retail Consortium said:

Just as ASBOs are regarded as a badge of honour, some yobs, in the words of Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, see penalty notices for disorder as

To them, an instant fine is far more attractive than being taken through the court system. What is more, each penalty notice for disorder costs £91 to administer, meaning that the Government actually lose money on each one.

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In September last year, the sentencing policy and penalties unit in the Home Office even suggested that

could be made punishable by a penalty notice for disorder to keep hundreds of thousands of offenders out of court. Not surprisingly, those plans did not make it into the Government’s consultation paper on antisocial behaviour, published in November. But the suggestion alone indicates just how out of touch the Home Office is with the public. It has a strange notion of what constitutes proper justice.

Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the cost of penalty notices. Would he rather see those offenders go through the expensive and long-winded court process, in which the decision is made a long time after the event and at greater expense? Is that his party’s policy?

Nick Herbert: I do indeed suggest that serious offenders should go through the court process. They should be properly convicted and sentenced, because that is what the victims want. If the hon. Lady is on the other side of the argument, I am happy about that.

Mr. Hoyle: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the best way to prevent antisocial behaviour is to have a visible force on the streets? Does he agree that community partnerships, neighbourhood wardens, beat managers and more visible police are important?

Nick Herbert: I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I shall deal with exactly that point in a moment.

A report from the centre for crime and justice studies at King’s college showed that from March 2004 to March 2006, the proportion of offences brought to justice that resulted in a successful conviction fell from just under 70 per cent. to 53 per cent. By that measure, the true justice gap—the failure to bring offences to justice—may have increased over the past two years because, if penalty notices for disorder involve no admission of guilt, can they really be considered to be true justice? The Government have taken hundreds of thousands of quite serious cases out of the courts and punished criminals with little more than a slap on the wrist.

The Government’s latest idea, outlined in the November consultation paper, is a deferred penalty notice for disorder. The proposal would mean that a fine would not be payable for up to six months, or might even not be paid at all. In effect, the notice would be a warning that the offender would receive a warning. I wonder whether the Government plan to count those deferred penalty notices for disorder as offences brought to justice. That would certainly help their detection rates.

Summary justice increasingly means soft justice. In the words of a chief Crown prosecutor, it amounts to

Summary justice can also lead to injustice. The Minister knows, because I have raised this matter with him before, that a stallholder at the royal Norfolk show in July 2006 was fined £80 and given a penalty notice
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for disorder by the police. His offence was that he displayed a T-shirt that the report in The Times said bore the slogan “Bollocks to Blair”.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman about the use of parliamentary language. He has not been in the House very long, but I think that he knows that that is unacceptable.

Nick Herbert: Yes. I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for reading out The Times report of the phrase that was used. Perhaps I should paraphrase, and say that the T-shirt bore the slogan “Testicles to the Prime Minister”. The prohibited phrase epitomises a sentiment that is probably shared by 80 per cent. of the general public. It is almost certainly shared by the occupant of No. 11 Downing street, but it apparently constitutes an offence meriting a fine of £80. That is plainly nonsense. If there had been any attempt to take the case to court, it is inconceivable that a sensible magistrate would have convicted the man for wearing the shirt. That shows another danger arising from the increasing use of penalty notices for disorder—that they can lead to injustice, with improper decisions being taken by the police and people effectively being coerced into accepting a ticket rather than run the risk of a prosecution.

The prohibited phrase would be an apt description of the Government’s Respect action plan. I have it here. The House will remember the plan, as it followed the Together plan, which has been dropped. The Together website is closed, and the hotline does not ring. The Together plan has fallen apart, but a new catchphrase has been adopted—“respect”.

The new action plan is full of profound advice, of which I am sure that the Minister is justly proud. On page 20, it states:

On page 24, it states:

On page 36, it states:

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