Previous Section Index Home Page

I am particularly interested in acceptable behaviour contracts. There is often a competition about which authority has issued the greatest number of ASBOs, which is silly. As the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby said, ASBOs are sometimes used when other measures have not even been tried. The NAO
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1010
report refers to Labour-controlled Hackney council, which has made enormous use of acceptable behaviour contracts—effectively, I assume, because the proportion of ASBOs is smaller. I am proud that acceptable behaviour contracts were pioneered in Islington.

I want to talk about the impact of ASBOs on young people. As the debate has shown, we are sometimes in danger of equating all young people with yobs. That is sad, because the majority of our young people are excellent and will grow up to become good citizens. There is a danger of stigmatising and of targeting antisocial behaviour measures on the young; much of the data show various interventions in respect of under-18-year-olds. At a sitting of the PAC, someone put a good question to a Home Office civil servant. They asked whether it would be possible to have a breakdown of the figures for antisocial behaviour, because there is a big difference between a 17-year-old and 10 or 12-year-olds. Further breakdown of the statistics would be helpful for monitoring and evaluation.

One of my particular concerns is vulnerable young people—not because I am soft about antisocial behaviour, but because I am genuinely concerned about the unintended consequences of measures. That is why effective scrutiny in Committee is so important; far too much legislation has unintended consequences. I hope the Minister will reflect on and respond to the following point, which I raised at the PAC without receiving a satisfactory answer. The British Institute for Brain Injured Children conducted a survey of youth offending teams and antisocial behaviour co-ordinators between April 2004 and April 2005. It reported that 35 per cent. of children made subject to ASBOs had a mental health problem or recognised learning disability. It found that 3 per cent. had autism or Asperger’s syndrome, while 42 per cent. had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

I am really concerned that children and young people who may have complex conditions are getting caught up in the action against antisocial behaviour. Clearly, other measures could be used more appropriately in those particular circumstances. It is easy to say that the evidence is just anecdotal, but there is rather a lot of it, so I would ask the Minister to take the matter away and check out the evaluation and monitoring. Surely it is not a sign of a civilised society to impose punitive measures or conditions on a child with Asperger’s who may be quite unable to meet those conditions. Surely it is a strength to recognise that individual cases may need to be treated rather differently. In those circumstances, we need a proper assessment from children’s services so that children at risk are protected rather than wrongly given an ASBO. There should really be a legal requirement—I have proposed amendments in various Committees in this respect—for any order against a child to be preceded by a children’s service assessment.

I welcome the introduction of individual support orders, but I would like to point out a time lag. ASBOs were introduced in 1998 and all along the Liberal Democrats said that supportive measures should be in place. It is no good just having stop measures, because if we are to make real progress, we need to change people’s behaviour. We had to wait until 2004 before
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1011
individual support orders were introduced. As Liberal Democrats, we question the priorities and the balance that the Government have implemented. We welcome the introduction of ISOs, but we do not welcome the fact that only 1 per cent. of ASBOs on children presently appear to have support orders attached.

It would be good to hear the Minister’s reassurance that more work will be done on encouragement and education. I think that the Youth Justice Board report made the point that the majority of sentencers appeared to be unaware of the support orders. It also noted that out of the £500,000 of ring-fenced funding made available in 2005—I congratulate the Government on making it available—only £62,000 was applied for by youth offending teams to provide the input necessary for individual support orders. It is important to build on this and ensure that young people with ASBOs have a support package wrapped around them.

I would like to comment on breaches. Acceptable behaviour contracts are discussed in the audit report and there is a lot about young people not understanding the conditions. Clearly, we need to work on that aspect, as full communication and understanding are necessary. We have to make these measures work better. In respect of breaches of ASBOs, there are questions about whether all the conditions are reasonable, so a full input from the local youth offending is necessary to ensure that they are reasonable. A young person has to have some interaction with others.

I believe that an individual support order can have conditions attached to it and that a breach can also happen there. It is a matter for a bit more concern, as the support order is surely supposed to be supportive and it does not seem terribly helpful if someone ends up with a criminal record. I realise that we are back to the carrot and stick, but it remains a bit of a problem.

Some people have mentioned naming and shaming and they have seen it in a positive light. I understand some of the arguments that are put forward. However, I am concerned about the naming and shaming of the vulnerable children that I have mentioned, and the potential consequences. My attention has been drawn to the guidance that is issued by the Home Office and I have read through it. Is the Minister sure that it goes sufficiently far? It requires factual information. I am not sure that it has the full common assessment that we need.

Parenting measures have been mentioned by many previous speakers. I questioned parental orders during the Committee stage of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 —[ Interruption. ] I did indeed. I did not vote against them, but I questioned them, because that is my role as an MP: to question in Committee. I could not see how we could make people do what they did not want to do. Being a former teacher, I made the point that, if one tries to make kids do something that they do not want to do, they sit there with folded arms and do not participate. However, parental orders have apparently been successful and I have said on many occasions that I am pleased that that is so. There are parents who have said, “I wish I’d had parent classes a long time ago.” I am prepared to admit when I have
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1012
questioned something—it was right to question it at the time—which evidence later shows to be useful.

Shona McIsaac rose—

Annette Brooke: I am really short of time.

It has to be better to have parental classes on a voluntary basis, as part of a change of culture. We all acknowledge that parenting is an incredibly hard job. There should not be a fear of being stigmatising or of being seen as a failure when it comes to seeking help. I have often said: if someone has a bad headache for a week, they go to the doctor, so if they are having issues with parenting, why on earth is it not the norm to seek help? I would like to see lots of parenting classes readily available right across the board.

As other Members have mentioned, the key to the issue is adequate policing in the local community. I cannot let this opportunity slip without mentioning that we have real concerns in Dorset. At this time, it is the second lowest funded police authority in the country. The chief constable is really concerned. It is an incredibly high performing police authority, which we are proud of. However, with the new demands on the force, there is no slack to cope with everything. Along with not having all our community support officers, the fear is that perhaps we will not be able to have all the resources that are needed in neighbourhood policing. I emphasise the importance of partnerships. I will give one example. With our local police station and local police force, a motor vehicle dealership recently provided quite a large vehicle for the police and the community wardens. It is used to take young people to activities. That is a fantastic partnership. There are many more examples.

Finally, I draw attention to an important point in the National Audit Office report: are we giving enough support to victims of antisocial behaviour and to potential witnesses? There is more that should be done. I echo the point made by previous speakers that we should be doing much more with restorative justice. That system has been used in Scandinavian countries for years and we need to roll it out much faster than we are. All in all, we have a big problem. We need to work at partnership level in our local communities, but we need adequate funding for our neighbourhood policing.

5.9 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): It is great that so many people have joined in the debate. That shows how much store people put by the fact that antisocial behaviour is a big problem in constituencies. I have to agree with that. Where do we start in a debate about antisocial behaviour? The issue is about getting funding across in certain areas. Home-Start in Chorley is a good group that gives families support when they need it. The problem is that we could lose Home-Start in Chorley because of a lack of funding. We need to try to find new funds to ensure that we do not lose such schemes; otherwise we will pay the price somewhere down the line through antisocial behaviour.

Where do we go from there? Other groups are important, too. We must try to challenge antisocial behaviour, so I am pleased that we can do that through
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1013
ASBOs. ASBOs are successful, but they are good only if strong magistrates are willing to back them up and if the court is willing to push through the problem people who will not respect the terms of their ASBOs. If that does not happen and the court is weak, police and the victims feel let down, although that might be due to not the magistrate, but the advice of a clerk that the matter should not be pursued, or that the person should be given another chance. Unfortunately, victims do not understand that. We have to put victims first, and the sooner we start doing that, the better.

I am pleased to say that the number of police has gone up in Lancashire—may it continue to increase. A uniformed presence on the streets can make a real difference to fighting crime. The police community support officers back up that presence and operate with the beat manager to play an important role. The PCSOs are as effective as anyone I know. They can rightly call on the local council, and council wardens have a role to play with PCSOs because by working together, they can fight antisocial behaviour. They are committed to making our streets safer. We must not shy away from keeping a uniformed presence on the street.

When people break their ASBOs and continue to be a problem, we must deal with that. An effective way of doing so would be to change the rules for court sentences. The sentences give should be not maximum sentences, but minimum sentences, so that victims will know the exact time that people will serve. At present, someone who gets a maximum sentence might serve only 50 per cent. of it, with good behaviour. If minimum sentences were given, victims would understand exactly how people were being punished. If those people misbehaved in prison, the sentence would be extended. A minimum sentence is important to victims, and we must continue to ensure that victims’ voices are heard and that they are first in the justice system. I am pleased that we are getting that message across.

We must give alternatives. Young people need support, but when the council tax comes round, we always see a cut in the youth budget. That is always one of the first cuts to take place, yet we wonder why there is no funding for alternatives for young people. Our area does not have the pleasure of having a unitary authority; we have a two-tier system and are reliant on the county council. However, when the county council sets its budget, Chorley gets a poor settlement for youth provision, which leads to a cut in its youth service and problems on the street. We must change that and realise that the youth budget is important because it funds some of the ways of tackling antisocial behaviour. We must make it a priority that councils understand that they have a part to play. We need preventive measures—not just a stick, but a carrot as well.

I am pleased that there are people such as Tom Watson, who looks after Tatton community centre in Chorley. He has ensured that the community centre is available for all people in the area. The youth service on a Monday is provided by volunteers, so the people who live in that area are putting the youth club on and making a difference.

We need to join everything up. Neighbourhood watch is not about people twitching behind curtains
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1014
and trying to be nosey. People involved in neighbourhood watch are trying to make their communities safer. Tom Watson has worked well with Keith Warren, who looks after the Lancashire neighbourhood watch and has been advising the Government on best practice and the way in which neighbourhood watch can work with authorities to bring about safer streets in Lancashire. I am pleased that those people are on board.

I am pleased, too, that the Government have ensured that closed circuit television has a role to play in Chorley. I am pleased that there is a safer car park scheme, so that when people go to their cars and see youngsters hanging around under the floodlights, they understand that there is some protection, and that there is someone looking after them. We need to join up all those measures. I would like CCTV to be rolled out to all the rural villages in Chorley, as that would make the villagers safer. We have a big role to play in making our streets and communities much stronger and safer for all of us. I am sure that the Minister takes his job seriously, and I know that he cares passionately about ensuring that people are safe on the streets. We must fight antisocial behaviour, and we can do so by working together.

There is a responsibility on off-licences, too. They are the cause of a lot of antisocial behaviour, because they provide the drink that fuels it. Usually, it is not youngsters who go into the off-licence, but someone over 18, who buys the drink to pass on or sell to youngsters. They then go to the recreation ground, have far too much to drink and cause vandalism, using spray-paint cans to spray their names everywhere. That behaviour has an effect on people’s lives, and it is a misery for people who have to put up with it, night after night. We must try to ensure that off-licences are policed, and that can only be done by bringing all the organisations together. We must be firm with anybody who breaks the code on selling alcohol.

Of course, after alcohol there is usually a next step: drugs. People start off with cannabis and go on to harder drugs. I do not care what people say—there is a definite link between soft drugs and hard drugs. We must be tough and reclassify cannabis. There has been a trial, and the results show the consequence of being soft on cannabis. Whatever people might say, it is a dangerous drug with long-term health effects, and we need to tell people that it is dangerous. It is time to re-categorise it, because drugs are a blight on young people, and a major part of antisocial behaviour. Drugs and drink fuel young people in a way that causes misery, not just for the young person, but for the family that they go home to and the families that live in the neighbourhood. Drugs are a real challenge. We have to be tough on the dealers, and we must make sure that the sentence fits the crime. Dealers should be put away for a long time, so that they are not allowed back on to the streets to deal again. We must make sure that there is lifelong protection for the people who live in the areas that are affected. Of course, we must make our voice heard.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con) rose—

Mr. Hoyle: I understand that the hon. Gentleman will speak next. I have nearly finished, and I think that
18 Jan 2007 : Column 1015
it is only right that we all get to speak. We have all waited a long time to do so. I finish by saying that the Government want to be tough on crime, but we must keep proving to the people that we will be tough. We must stand up and be counted when people ask it of us, because it is easy to talk tough and vote weak; we see that now and again on the Opposition Benches.

5.18 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) for an excellent speech, and I share a number of his views, including his concerns about antisocial behaviour orders, the need to focus on victims, and his passion about the problems of drugs. He spoke with authority, passion and commitment about his constituency, and for that he should be congratulated.

It is interesting that we have had such a fantastic debate. As we are coming to the end of it, it would be useful if I mopped up and responded to some of the views expressed. We had an interesting debate last week on social exclusion, and there is an overlap between the two subjects.

The definition of antisocial behaviour is a good place to start. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 describes it as behaviour

To put it another way, it is a line that is breached when expressing public emotion, either in celebration or in anger. To understand the causes of antisocial behaviour is to understand the limits of opportunities in our society, the shortfalls of Government policy, and the decline in moral and social values.

Hardly a day goes by without our hearing about an incident on a train, in a town centre or a residential area in which people were disturbed by antisocial behaviour such as a fight, a tussle, someone letting off fireworks and so on. We live in a complex, interdependent, integrated social community, whose excesses and imbalances are enthusiastically exposed by the media, so differences in opinion and jealousy invariably arise. It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that any resulting antisocial behaviour is dealt with correctly, whether by tackling it long before a situation develops, by limiting the conditioning of the aggressor, who comes to realise that they are out of order, or by allowing the police to deal with the problem.

There has been a flurry of activity since the Government came to office. More than 30 criminal justice Acts have been introduced since 1997 including, most notably, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. ASBOs were introduced in 1999, and the Antisocial Behaviour Act was passed in 2003. Recently, in January 2006, the respect action plan, which has been mentioned, was introduced, and last June, the national respect squad was formed. Last month, on 27 December, the respect tsar announced that 40 areas would be designated as respect zones and receive extra cash. There has been a huge number of initiatives but, as we heard from my good and hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), the Government are failing, which is reflected in the huge sum—some £3.4 billion—that antisocial behaviour costs every year.

18 Jan 2007 : Column 1016

The 2005-06 British crime survey showed that the number of kids hanging about on street corners has risen, as has the number of people getting drunk and engaging in rowdy behaviour. Complaints about noisy neighbours, too, have increased. The Government’s response to antisocial behaviour is largely reactive, as hon. Members have said, not preventive. The National Audit Office says that about 50 per cent. of ASBOs are breached. The ASBO is regarded as a badge of honour and, because of the pressures on the police, its conditions are not enforced. The police play a pivotal role, and I take my hat off to the Dorset constabulary, which is one of the best performing in the country but, unfortunately, one of the worst funded. It looks after Bournemouth town centre and keeps it relatively safe, but about half the police on duty on a Friday or Saturday night look after an area about half a mile square, so the rest of Bournemouth does not receive the coverage that residents expect their taxes to provide.

Much has been said about the role of police community support officers. I hesitated to welcome their introduction, as it appeared to be a case of policing on the cheap. CSOs have a role to play but, unfortunately, they have limited powers, so the role of special constables should be bolstered. I come from an Army background— [ Interruption. ] I urge the Minister to bear with me, because I very much value the role of the Territorial Army in helping the regular Army when required to do so. In Bournemouth, people do not sign up to become police specials, because there is no money involved. Instead, they sign up to become CSOs, whose salary almost equates to that received by a full police officer. CSOs’ training does not approach the training given to specials, and neither are their powers of arrest comparable. I urge the Minister to shift the emphasis so that specials are paid a sum comparable to that received by members of the TA who work with the regular Army.

Last year, a bizarre formula change meant that nightclubs and tourism destinations were reclassified in the funding package that determines police manning levels. Elements nightclub in Bournemouth, which has the capacity to accommodate 3,000 people, and the Dog and Duck in Weymouth are both classed as one unit, which is unacceptable. We have 30,000 visitors on a Friday or Saturday night, but those numbers are not taken into account in the manning levels for Dorset and Bournemouth, so I urge the Minister to reconsider them.

Next Section Index Home Page