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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Students of my speeches will know that they are normally noted more for their length than their brilliance. The Minister bears the scars of some of that. He can also probably
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testify to the fact that they are sometimes more partisan than most. On this occasion, however, I want to try to avoid both of those characteristics. In fact, I regret joining in the jollity earlier, because it might undermine the approach that I want to take. I can only plead that I was provoked beyond endurance and apologise to the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne).

I want to say a few words about the issues that lie beneath and beyond the obvious manifestations of antisocial behaviour. I want to focus on the causes of antisocial behaviour rather than the symptoms, because it is the symptoms that are regularly discussed in the House. I am conscious that I am not an expert and that my constituency probably suffers less than many from antisocial behaviour. However, my mailbag, like everybody else’s, bears testimony to the fact that large numbers of my constituents are concerned and some of them are genuinely fearful. They need speaking up for just as much as others.

Antisocial behaviour is routinely defined as a specific range of unpleasant activities. The Government statistics, if I understand them correctly, use just six categories: vandalism and graffiti, litter, teenagers hanging about, drugs, alcohol and rowdy behaviour, and noisy neighbours. Yes, those things are antisocial, but they are just the obvious and more extreme examples of something that goes much wider. They are examples, but only a few examples, of what the legislation on ASBOs says can cause “alarm, harassment and distress” to individuals. It is unhelpful to limit our thinking to a short list—anybody’s short list, not just the Government’s—or a narrow definition. It does us well on these occasions to reflect on the fact that none of us is perfect. All of us, whoever we may be, do things that, to quote the legislation, cause “alarm, harassment and distress” to other people. It is not just yobs and layabouts who are antisocial. It might be worth thinking quietly for a moment about whether those yobs, vandals and layabouts learn their behaviour from us all, rather than inventing it on their own.

To date, much of our response to the behaviour that we do not like is to seek treatment for the symptoms. There have been quite a lot of attempts to treat those symptoms. Like Gilbert and Sullivan, I made it my job to produce a little list. I have discovered: ASBOs, dispersal orders, local partnerships, fixed penalty notices, support and sanctions packages for parents, banning the selling of spray paints to under-16s, powers to close noisy pubs, conditional cautions, community payback, on-the-spot fines, the national parenting academy, the Minister for respect, the national respect squad, intervention orders for drug addicts, and respect zones. I imagine that I have missed some things out. Somebody is welcome to add to the list. This afternoon, I mean no criticism. I do not want to go into whether those measures are good or bad. I simply want to ask: how well has that, or any, list worked? It does not appear to have prevented a rapid growth in antisocial behaviour a little while ago. The best that it might have done is to stop that increase in its tracks.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that endorsing the driving licence of a convicted yob, or imposing a driving ban on them, even
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when the offence has nothing to do with motoring, has proved to be highly effective in the United States of America in deterring antisocial behaviour? Should we not try that over here?

Mr. Wilshire: I am sure that my right hon. Friend is right. Such measures are worth implementing. However, I hope that he will forgive me for not going too far down that road, apart from by agreeing with him, because although we have tried a lot of measures and we can try more—they can have some success—I get the message that that approach is not curing the underlying problem. The message for a Government of any party is that while simply trying that approach might help, it will not bring about a cure, because that lies somewhere other than such lists of measures.

The way towards the cure lies with serious thinking, rather than hyperactivity. We need long-term thinking. Although we can learn lessons from looking back at what we have tried, which has not been perfect, we must also look forward towards tackling the problem in a different way. Antisocial behaviour is not a short-term problem that can be dealt with by a short-term fix. Our thinking must be wide-ranging. Antisocial behaviour is not just the troublesome activities on that short list that are carried out by a few. Although being self-centred and disregarding others do not appear on anyone’s list, they are just as antisocial as anything on a list that any Government have come up with. Our thinking needs to switch so that it focuses on the causes just as much as, if not more than, on the symptoms.

Antisocial behaviour does not just happen, but develops over time. Paradoxically, society itself has helped to create the antisocial behaviour that we are trying to tackle. The behaviour of all individuals, including everyone in the Chamber, owes a huge amount to the values, standards, attitudes and priorities of the society in which they were born and grew up.

Meg Hillier: We all recognise that we must take account of past decisions and past behaviour. However, let me cite the words of Christine Boyd, a councillor in my constituency. She said:

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that if there are problems from the past, we need to tackle them, but that practitioners on the ground say that these measures are making a difference?

Mr. Wilshire: I agree with the hon. Lady. That was why I stressed that the thinking needs to look back. My analysis of the problem is not an attempt to rubbish what anyone is doing, irrespective of whom that is. I am trying to get across my view that always taking more action in government to address the symptoms will not bring about the ultimate cure, even though it might reduce some of the problems.

I argue that society might have contributed a lot to its own problems because it is not just the shortcomings of any society that can give rise to such behaviour. The problems seem to have been partly
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caused, albeit not wholly, by well-intentioned activities. Let me give the House two examples. I have deliberately picked controversial examples to find out whether they will persuade people to do a bit of the thinking on which I am keen.

Let us consider society’s championing of human rights. Of course it is proper to protect individual freedom—that is what we are here for. We must protect minorities against any abuse by the majority. I do not dispute any of that; it is right and proper, and we all sign up to it. However, if we take that too far, might it not end up with me believing, when I listen to all that, that I am entitled to do whatever I like and to behave however I like? We need to consider the fact that there is a downside to even the best of intentions.

I accept that my second example is controversial. We all accept that we must work to provide decent housing for all. Of course, homelessness and poor housing play a big part in creating the symptoms that we are concerned about, but ought we not to consider, even for a moment, whether even the nicest separate home can lead to problems of isolation for the single-parent family who are in that ever-so-nice house all on their own? The problem is the lack of role models, and the time that the children spend unsupervised, in that house. Might there not be a downside to all the things that we think are good? One could go through the whole list of good intentions, saying, “Let’s think for a moment. The outcome is not always 100 per cent. good.”

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman has developed an interesting point, but although he mentions exceptional housing, I cannot think of any place that provides quality housing for single-parent families—far from it. I think that the problem is due to poor housing, in which people are pushed together, and the fact that such people have no other opportunities. I am pleased if he can say that quality housing is provided in his area, but I do not know of anywhere else where that is the case.

Mr. Wilshire: I said that I would be controversial. I am not arguing for any particular type of housing; I simply observe that although we all aspire to the situation that the hon. Gentleman would like, we need to reflect a little as we go. We should say to ourselves, “There could be downsides to the good towards which we are working.” That is my only point; I am not seeking to criticise anybody or anything.

My thesis is that we should not focus so much on the symptoms, but try to understand the causes in a broader and deeper way, and then consider how we can cure the problem. I owe it to the House to try to explain what I think needs to be done if we are to get to the causes, and then the cure, of antisocial behaviour. As I have hinted, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that it might just be society itself that has brought about the problem. Even if I am only half right in that conclusion, the solution can come only from society—from local communities, and the individuals and organisations within them. The other side of the conclusion is that the solution will not come from a Government of any party. The solution will only come from within communities.

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Many aspects of society cause me concern, but the list is long and the hour is late, so I shall not burden the House with a long list. I shall mention just four aspects. They are all issues that relate to the example that we in society set for other people. The first aspect is that I sense a serious breakdown in social structures in society. I do not intend any criticism of anybody involved in that breakdown; I just observe that it has happened and is happening. I shall use the same example that I used earlier—the growth in one-adult households—but I do not criticise people for that growth. I do not want to go down that route.

In one-adult households, there are children who have very little contact, or less contact than others, with adults, particularly older adults. Should we then be surprised when people growing up in that sort of environment have less respect for a group of people that they have never lived with, or grown up among? We should be concerned about that, and about the large amount of unsupervised time. Of course the one parent has to work and provide for those children. I do not mean any criticism, but having tried to bring up children myself, I am persuaded that unsupervised time for the young is near the heart of trouble. If anyone wants to invite trouble, let a young child loose on its own for any length of time, and I can guarantee, from bitter experience, that they will find trouble.

Poverty is pointed to, but we should be concerned about poverty of experience, as well financial poverty. However, the problem is not just the financial situation of the one-adult household, but the lesser range of experience that can all too easily be found there. Again, I must underline the fact that I am not seeking to criticise anyone, but I shall do so in my second example. Role models have been touched on, and modern technology has made it easier for the super-successful to influence more and more people, not only in our own society but in the world at large. Am I wrong to worry about loutish behaviour on the football pitch by role models, because when I read the paper or talk to other parents I learn that such behaviour is copied on school playing fields? Role models are important, but I worry about the hedonistic lifestyle enjoyed by film stars and pop groups. Young people look up to them and idolise them so, inevitably, they will be copied. People have tried to argue that there is not any evidence that violence in the cinema and on television creates violence elsewhere, but I am not persuaded. If television does not influence people, why on earth do advertisers spend so much money trying to do so? The position of role models is crucial, and I am worried about the image that they project.

Thirdly, we must look at the individual attitudes and behaviour if we are to get the bottom of antisocial behaviour. Are other hon. Members as worried as I am about the contribution of irresponsibility to the spread of antisocial behaviour? In my constituency work, more and more people tell me that someone else is to blame or is responsible for their predicament. They say that they have a problem, but it is the duty of the state, local government or someone else, to solve it. If that is the attitude that we pass on to the young, should be surprised by their antisocial behaviour?

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Finally, I raise with trepidation the collapse of social values and standards. I am conscious of the fact that any politician who attempts to talk about values and standards is on dangerous territory. Those of us who were Members of Parliament in the days of the back to basics campaign do not need to be reminded of the trap that awaits us if we are not careful, but values and standards are important. Ultimately, they are a matter of faith and belief, and I do not have any intention of approaching those subjects. However, successful and stable societies are all based on clear values and standards, without which we cannot define antisocial behaviour. How can we do so if society has not staked out what it expects of its members?

I urge the House to bear with me as I pose one more question. Am I alone in wondering whether the “anything goes” attitude of some Christian denominations and clerics has something to do with antisocial behaviour because, if anything goes, people can do what they like? I have taken longer than I intended, but I have done my level best to try to avoid being partisan. If there is one message that I wish to leave with the Government and Conservative spokesmen it is that we can, and must, do what we can to limit antisocial behaviour. We can and we must protect other people from it. But the cure will not come from us. The cure will come from society, via local communities and individuals. If I am right in that analysis, might it not be a little antisocial of us and of the Government of the day, whoever forms it, to say, “Leave the problem to us. We will sort it out for you”?

4.5 pm

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) for giving us thoughtful, considered and non-partisan insights into his views about antisocial behaviour.

I am grateful that the House has the opportunity to discuss the extremely serious issue of antisocial behaviour. With the possible exception of social housing, it is the subject about which constituents most come to see me at my weekly surgeries.

I warmly thank the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). I have had a bad day, and he gave me a real laugh. He cheered me up. His comments confirm that Liberal Democrat antisocial behaviour policy is ill-considered, ill-thought through and hilarious. However, there is a serious side to this. My constituents are affected by antisocial behaviour, and the hon. Gentleman offered no meaningful solutions for tackling it. I hope that at the elections constituents throughout the country will remember that.

Far too many individuals and communities in Hartlepool, as in other places, have their quality of life affected by nuisance neighbours, problem families, yobbish behaviour, drinking in the street, and gangs of youths intimidating decent people—not only older citizens, but making other young people feel threatened as well. Reduction of crime has been a great success over recent years in Hartlepool, with examples of true partnership working to achieve significant results.

By coincidence, I had an e-mail this morning about crime figures in Hartlepool from the district commander of Hartlepool basic command unit, Steve Ashman. I will quote what Steve said in his e-mail.

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Given that December is traditionally a high point for crime, with more people being drunk because of Christmas and new year, and more burglaries because of Christmas presents, that shows a remarkable achievement. I pay tribute to Steve and all his staff in Cleveland police for their work in helping to reduce crime in the town.

The success in crime reduction is not mirrored in attempts to deal with antisocial behaviour, which have faltered in recent years. There has been a belief in some organisations in Hartlepool that antisocial behaviour was difficult to define and so difficult to address. I was concerned that that followed the principle of “It’s too hard so we won’t try”, which is of no use to my constituents.

In June last year I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on the subject of antisocial behaviour in Hartlepool. In that debate I expressed my frustration that agencies, particularly the local council, were not being as proactive in both prevention and enforcement as agencies in other areas. The tools provided by the Government to tackle antisocial behaviour, such as ASBOs and acceptable behaviour contracts, were not being used as much as I or, more importantly, residents believed they should be. Hartlepool had seen 10 ASBOs issued in a six-year period, well behind neighbouring authorities such as Middlesbrough and Stockton-on-Tees.

In that debate I quoted letters and e-mails which expressed constituents’ concerns about, for example, loud music being played at 3 am, antisocial tenants being evicted only to turn up again in a different house in the same street, and gangs fighting in front of frightened residents. One of the e-mails from a constituent concluded:

Among decent residents there was a growing loss of faith in the ability of agencies to tackle the problem.

I find that suffering from antisocial behaviour is not confined to a particular area or a particular class of people. I receive many complaints from people in the most prosperous part of my town about underage drinking in Ward Jackson park. Youths congregate, causing disturbance and intimidation. They move around frequently in order to trick the police, but tend to be in the affluent areas of Seaton Carew, the Fens estate and the picturesque village of Greatham.

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