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2.37 pm

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Thank you for calling me in this debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I propose to talk a little about the scope of the problem, and then to discuss the party political dimension, because I know that that has been contentious in the past. After that I will perhaps discuss possible solutions.

On the scope of the problem, like many other Members, including no doubt the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), I regularly go out into the constituency, knocking on doors and talking to people, and I ask them, “What causes you the most concern? What is the greatest issue that you face in your community?” A number of issues come up, but three do so routinely. One of them is development in the area—house building, traffic congestion, and issues of that sort. Another is the council tax. Unsurprisingly, that issue comes up a lot when the bills start arriving through people’s doors. However, the issue that comes up far more often than any of the others—in fact, more often than every other area of Government policy combined—is the wide, amorphous problem of antisocial behaviour.

Different people mean different things by antisocial behaviour. I accept the point made by the Conservative
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spokesman, the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert): sometimes, when people describe antisocial behaviour, they are really talking about crime, pure and simple. They are talking about criminal acts. However, the term includes vandalism, graffiti, late-night noise and behaviour that is inconsiderate but that may not be regarded as criminal. It undoubtedly blights the lives of millions of our fellow citizens.

It is fair to say that if the House’s priorities reflected people’s priorities in my constituency and, I suspect, every other constituency, we would discuss the matter not just this week, but every single week that the House sits. I am grateful for the privilege of speaking on behalf of my party, as there is no greater Liberal issue. We must make sure that people do not feel so insecure in their own home or so unsafe in their neighbourhood that they dare not venture beyond their front door after dark. At this time of year, they are effectively under voluntary house arrest for 12 hours a day, so it is imperative that we address their concerns.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman takes pride in speaking on behalf of his party, will he explain why the Liberal Democrats opposed every measure introduced by the Government to tackle antisocial behaviour, including dispersal orders?

Mr. Browne: I am extremely flattered that just over an hour and a half after the debate began the hon. Gentleman rushed into the Chamber as soon as my name appeared on the monitor. I anticipated that the Labour Whips Office would be able to provide briefings for Members who did so, but the hon. Gentleman is right. Many hon. Members no doubt entered politics as a result of their experiences growing up or because of their parents’ party preferences, but that is not true in my case. When I was old enough to take an interest in such matters, I tried to make a cool, dispassionate assessment of which political party offered the best prospects for our country. Anyone who undertakes such a task intelligently would conclude that the Liberal Democrats offered the strongest future.

It would be difficult for anyone who, like me, grew up in the 1980s to adopt the Conservatives as their preferred party, because the Conservative party presided over a doubling of crime, which is a truly astonishing record. Crime did not rise by 5 or 10 per cent., or even by monstrous figures such as 15 or 20 per cent., but by 100 per cent. We have paid for that under successive Governments, including the last Tory Government, as billions of pounds in tax have been spent on Home Office legislation and policing. We therefore had the right to expect crime to fall under the previous Government, but instead it went up by 100 per cent., so the lives of millions of our fellow citizens were blighted as a result of the Conservatives’ period in government and the way in which they exercised power for 18 years. Any rational person would object to the Conservative record so, instead, I shall consider the Labour party’s record on crime and its critique of Liberal Democrat policy.

The Labour party’s approach to the Home Office cannot be regarded as a manifest success. In the 60-year period between 1925 and 1985, Governments
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of different parties introduced six criminal justice Acts. Roughly speaking, there was a criminal justice Act once a decade. Under this Government, the introduction of criminal justice Acts has become more frequent than an annual event. Such is the frenzy of legislation that the Government often plan the next criminal justice Act before they have implemented the previous one. So many Home Office Bills making legal changes have been proposed this Session that I cannot remember them all, and I have to refer to my notes. They include the Fraud (Trials without a Jury) Bill, the Legal Services Bill, a criminal justice Bill, an asylum and immigration Bill, the Offender Management Bill, a counter-terrorism Bill, the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Bill and, just this week, the Serious Crime Bill.

Too often, the Government mistake legislative frenzy—it is called “eye-catching initiatives” by the Prime Minister, and it secures a quick hit for Ministers in the newspapers—for effective action on crime. For the first few years after Labour came to power, that was quite seductive, because Ministers were busy with new initiatives and legislation. They seemed to care about the problems and wanted to crack down on them. Then, after a period, people started to think, “Wait a second. We keep reading in the newspapers about all the crackdowns and the other tough measures that are being taken, but where I live—on my estate, or even in my village or small town—they do not seem to be having any effect. We still seem to be blighted by antisocial behaviour.”

The Government’s big litmus test in this area is antisocial behaviour orders. The Liberal Democrats have been criticised by the Labour Government for not embracing antisocial behaviour orders as enthusiastically as they would wish, so I took the opportunity to look into the matter. For clarification, the Liberal Democrats supported the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. We had questions to ask about antisocial behaviour orders, and rightly so.

If the Minister wants to intervene and say that antisocial behaviour orders have been perfect in every regard, or if any other Member thinks that there are no criticisms to make of the implementation of antisocial behaviour orders, I am happy to give way. I am willing to take an intervention from any Member who can say that they have been perfect in their constituency. I suspect that that has not been the experience of most right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman says that the Liberal Democrats supported the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, but in Committee they opposed ASBOs. They opposed dispersal orders. They opposed measures in the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. There is a long litany of measures introduced by the Government that the Liberal Democrats have opposed. Can the hon. Gentleman answer my earlier question and explain why he is criticising the Government, having opposed everything the Government have done to try to crack down on antisocial behaviour?

Mr. Browne: As the hon. Gentleman has only just come into the Chamber, he will not have heard the Minister’s opening remarks, when he said how constructive he wished to be about these matters. The
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hon. Gentleman may be out of tune with those on his Front Bench. I shall answer the question in considerable detail, as I know how much it interests Members.

In 1998, the Liberal Democrats supported the Crime and Disorder Bill. We asked legitimate questions, as any Opposition party would, about whether the Government had thought through every detail of ASBOs. The other example that Labour Members, in particular, cite is the Anti-social Behaviour Bill in 2003, which my party voted against. As we made clear throughout, there were measures in that Bill that we supported—for example, the powers to close down crack houses—but it is fair to say that there were aspects, particularly to do with dispersal orders, about which we had reservations. In a free society, it is right for opposition parties to have reservations about the power of the state to restrict people’s freedom of association. That is what we argued in the House.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I fully accept that in Committee Opposition Members and Back-Bench Government Members will ask questions, but that was not what the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked. He asked the hon. Gentleman to explain why the Liberal Democrats voted in Committee against ASBOs and dispersal orders. We would be interested to hear the answer.

Mr. Browne: I shall take the questions from the Labour coalition with the Conservative party as one amalgamated question. Let me run through some of the Bills in this area that the Labour party opposed when it was in opposition. It is instructive and helpful for everyone to understand. The Criminal Justice Act 1982—Labour opposed it. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984—Labour voted against it. The Public Order Act 1986—by their own rationale, some hon. Members might want to intervene and tell me why they are in favour of public disorder or public anarchy.

Meg Hillier rose—

Mr. Browne: I shall give way shortly to the hon. Lady, who might want to explain why the Labour party voted against the Public Order Act 1986, and why we should not rightfully conclude, to judge by the arguments made by those in her party, that she is in favour of public disorder.

Meg Hillier: I remind the hon. Gentleman that some of us were still at school during the ’80s. We are talking about ancient history. We want the answer to why you have not voted for legislation to introduce these changes in this Parliament and previous Parliaments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Let me intervene to bring an element of calm. The hon. Lady must not say “you”, because that implies that she means me, and I have nothing to do with it. It might help the general flow of the debate if we were to talk more about the present day than too much about the past.

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Mr. Browne: I was at school during that period as well.

Let me return to the legislation opposed by Labour Members. It is a rather long list, and this debate is scheduled to finish at 6 o’clock, so I will skip through it. It includes the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice Act 1988, and the prevention of terrorism Acts in every single year from 1983 to 1993—and, after the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) had become leader of the Labour party, in 1995 too. Labour Members voted against all those pieces of legislation here in the House of Commons.

Mr. Burns rose—

Mr. Browne: I want to finish this point.

Labour Members must face the fact that voting against a Bill in its entirety when one is given a black and white, yes or no option does not necessarily mean that it does not contain aspects that may have merit.

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 was not about ASBOs as such but contained only a minimal extension of ASBOs to housing trusts? Will he also confirm that, following opposition in this House to dispersal orders, the other House introduced an important amendment whereby the senior police officer would have to consult the local authority before issuing a dispersal order, which dealt with our concern that it is no good just moving people from A to B without their having something to do?

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I repeat that in a free society it is reasonable to have reservations about the state curtailing freedom of association. That goes over the heads of many Labour Members, but it worries me.

Mr. Burns rose—

Mr. Browne: I will come to the hon. Gentleman in a moment; he has the opportunity to make a speech if he wishes.

For many Members, the crux of the debate appears to be antisocial behaviour orders, which are held up as the great litmus test of whether one has an interest in resolving this issue. For me, they are important—they are one club in the bag, to use a golfing analogy—but they are not the entire solution. There are many other ways in which to address the problem. Liberal Democrat councils have been notably at the forefront in offering many constructive alternative measures. For example, when Islington council was under Liberal Democrat control, its leadership pioneered acceptable behaviour contracts whereby the police, the local authority and, importantly, the individual and their family came to a conclusion about what would be an acceptable way for them to conduct themselves. Many people regard those as highly successful, and they have been taken up by many other local authorities.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Browne: I will give way to hon. Members shortly when I have finished this section.

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There is an interesting National Audit Office report that compared different types of intervention. It started with the warning letter, saying that the cost of issuing such a letter was £63 and that the success rate was 63 per cent. Then it moved on to acceptable behaviour contracts—as pioneered by typically innovative and imaginative Liberal Democrats in local government. They cost £230, but are marginally more successful than the warning letter, with a success rate of 65 per cent.

Now we get to antisocial behaviour orders— [Interruption.] Let me finish my National Audit Office point. The Government and some of their friends on the Conservative Benches are hanging their hat on ASBOs. The cost is not £230, like that of acceptable behaviour contracts, but £3,100—more than a dozen times greater. Anyone who is concerned about efficient public spending will follow my argument. One would believe that, for all that extra money and the claims that Labour Back Benchers make, the success rate would be 90 or 95 per cent. However, instead of being even 65 per cent. successful, like the acceptable behaviour contracts, the success rate is 45 per cent. That is telling.

It is no wonder that the previous Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), said on 3 March 2005 on BBC television that antisocial behaviour contracts were “better” than ASBOs. The latter have an important part to play, and one would be happy if one were among the 45 per cent. whose problem was resolved through them. I am happy for those people and I believe that ASBOs can make a contribution. However, when the Minister, Labour Back Benchers and some of their keener supporters on the Conservative Back Benches claim that the ASBO is the defining issue, and none of the cheaper, more constructive and more successful measures have a part to play, they do their constituents a disservice.

Mr. Burns: I am a simple seeker after facts. Twelve minutes have now passed since the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) asked the hon. Gentleman why the Liberal Democrats voted against ASBOs in Committee. Will he please answer the question?

Mr. Browne: I have spoken about ASBOs to the point of testing the patience of hon. Members who wandered in recently, let alone those who have been present for the duration of the debate.

Mary Creagh: The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. It is important to note for the record that Councillor Derek Sawyer, who was a Labour member of the Metropolitan Police Authority and former leader of Islington council until the tragic death of Councillor Milton Babulall in November 1999, when the Liberal Democrats took over, invented and pioneered the use of acceptable behaviour contracts in Islington. The new Liberal Democrat administration continued with them.

Mr. Browne: It is often said that success has many parents and failure is an orphan. On that basis, it is no wonder that the Minister is so often lonely.

Meg Hillier: The hon. Gentleman has indeed been generous in giving way. He highlights Islington under
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the Liberal Democrats as a beacon of great activity in tackling antisocial behaviour. Does he realise that the Liberal Democrat administration in Islington, which is my neighbouring borough, opposed the use of CCTV on a mobile police van? Perhaps that contributed to the Liberal Democrats losing seats and Islington becoming a hung council.

Mr. Browne: Do hon. Members want to go through every council in the country in an attempt to score points for the benefit of their local newspapers?

I share the view of the hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs that the Government’s top-down, “we know best” approach is rarely effective. I have seen much good practice in many areas of the country and I do not necessarily claim that only the Liberal Democrats put forward good ideas. We simply seem to devise many more than our numbers would suggest.

Mr. Wilshire: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I did not rush in when I realised that he was speaking. Indeed, much more of the sort of thing that we are hearing and I might be tempted to rush out. I also assure him that I have not been put up to intervening by the Labour or the Conservative Whips. However, he sought some help with local authority matters and press releases. He probably does not know that I am restoring a farmhouse about a mile outside his constituency. I therefore know a little about Taunton Deane, South Somerset and Somerset. It might help his press release this weekend if he could tell hon. Members why, given that those three councils have, in the course of recent history, been controlled by the Liberal Democrats, I discover antisocial behaviour—vandalism, graffiti, the lot—every time I am there.

Mr. Browne: Where do I start? Taunton Deane borough council is the dominant local authority in my constituency. About 96 per cent. of the people in my constituency live there. When the council was under Liberal Democrat control, it installed CCTV in the town centre and pioneered the support of neighbourhood wardens and many other measures that have been extremely effective. Much to my regret, however, the council has been controlled for the past three and a half years by the Conservative party, although I hope that that will be rectified in May. If, besides improving his farmhouse outside my constituency, the hon. Gentleman wishes to make complaints about issues in my constituency, I am afraid that I shall have to refer him to the Conservative leadership of the council.

Annette Brooke: Does my hon. Friend agree that when we have a national telephone number on which to report antisocial behaviour, as has been promised, it will be much easier for people who have second homes and the like to report such behaviour in the various localities?

Mr. Browne: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The issue of the national phone number was raised earlier. Certain straightforward measures could be taken to alleviate public concern in this regard, and it is extraordinary that the Government are unable to take those measures much more quickly than they are.

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