Previous Section Index Home Page

6.21 pm

Hazel Blears (Salford) (Lab): I am pleased to make a contribution in what is an important debate, as evidenced by the number of hon. Members in the House on an occasion when a vote is not likely. That indicates interest from all parties in what are very significant and serious issues for our communities.

I am particularly pleased to contribute because I represent Salford-one of the most deprived communities in the country, although the area has been transformed in recent years-and I want to commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the energy, enthusiasm, tenacity and determination that he has shown not just in tonight's debate, but in his personal commitment to tackling antisocial behaviour, because he and I appreciate that the poorest people in the poorest communities often suffer disproportionately from antisocial behaviour. For many years, that fact went unacknowledged and unchallenged, and there was a failure on the part of all parties in local and national Government to recognise that those people who very often did not have a voice, power or influence in our society were subject to some pretty horrific actions in their communities. That was certainly the case in Salford 15 or so years ago. In the past few years things have changed, but there is still a great deal more work to do.

Nationally, the figures for antisocial behaviour have reduced from 21 per cent. of the population feeling that antisocial behaviour is a big problem to 17 per cent. In my community, the figure is still just over 30 per cent., so this is a big and important issue for our communities. I am sad that some of the comments so far-I hope that other contributions will strike a balance-seem to have drifted into the analysis that this is about either enforcement or support. The purpose of every policy undertaken by the Labour Government for the past decade or so is to ensure that a twin-track approach is adopted.

Of course there must be enforcement. The communities that face a range of problems need respite, support and the backing of the police, local councils and public agencies. Underneath that, there must be the polices mentioned on many occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen): early intervention, support and prevention. Those things are not mutually exclusive, and if we characterise the debate by simply saying that all the regulations and orders- whether ASBOs, ASBOs on conviction, parenting orders
2 Nov 2009 : Column 629
or parenting contracts-do not matter and that we need to shift our investment to early intervention and prevention, we will be doing a disservice to some of the people still in poor communities who experience antisocial behaviour every day and, in many cases, are still under attack. I am happy to say that those families are perhaps fewer in number than some years ago and that there has been a great deal of success in tackling antisocial behaviour, but the problems are still there.

David Taylor: Of course my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that there are social and economic reasons why such neglect should not be allowed to continue. Does she agree that the alienation, despair and neglect sometimes felt in those poorer communities have made them more susceptible to the political activities of extremist parties and that tackling those would be a beneficial side effect of an increased focus on poorer communities?

Hazel Blears: My hon. Friend makes an important point and, again, one that I hope will be supported right across the House. When people feel disaffected and excluded from opportunities that other people take for granted-whether in education and housing or, indeed, in their safety and security-there is ripe and fertile territory for the poisonous and divisive messages of extremists. We must do everything that we can, whatever shade of politics we adopt, to ensure that those people have the same rights, ambitions and opportunities as people in more affluent communities.

I hope that hon. Members will acknowledge that there are two sides to policy on antisocial behaviour: enforcement and support. I should like to commend my own local authority-particularly its leader, Councillor John Merry, and the deputy leader, Councillor David Lancaster, who takes the lead on these issues-for doing what the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) was saying does not happen. Our city council-a good Labour council-takes the lead and drives on a range of issues. We have been a pilot area for every initiative that anyone would care to name. Our council is absolutely committed, and our police service takes extremely good action. I spoke to my chief superintendent, Kevin Mulligan, this morning, and he said, "Hazel, there's a lot of debate about antisocial behaviour orders. People have been cooling on them in recent times. I'll tell you this: I'm not one of them. I'm a chief superintendent, and I want the whole range of tools at my disposal-ASBOs, parenting orders, contracts and dispersal orders." He is a hands-on cop, and he is determined that he will protect the people of Salford.

John Hemming: Perhaps the right hon. Lady will agree that another aspect of the problem is that human behaviour is often habitual, rather than necessarily rational, that people need to develop good habits, and that one way to enable them to do so is for us to ensure there is better discipline in schools. In my constituency four or five years ago, a child was excluded from school for assaulting a classroom assistant, yet that child was forced back into school. Does the right hon. Lady agree that that is not helpful to good discipline?

Hazel Blears: I certainly agree that discipline is essential and that it is important at school, but I will be frank with the hon. Gentleman: many of these problems start
2 Nov 2009 : Column 630
at home. The primary responsibility lies with parents. About 90 per cent. of the public say in all our surveys that parents must take more responsibility. I agree that schools have a major role to play, but it is not simply down to them. If people learn the boundaries and standards of behaviour at home, they will take them with them through the rest of their lives.

Mr. Allen: Does my right hon. Friend agree that a small child who develops social and emotional capabilities will be a better student, will listen and learn, will have an aspiration to work and will, in turn and above all, become a good parent? We cannot start early enough in offering the support that she mentions to ensure that children grow up that way. Every public sector servant-whether her chief superintendent, her council leader, a teacher or a doctor-will give the same message: if we can get to those youngsters early, they will not become offenders or spend a lifetime on benefits. That is the core of early intervention philosophy, which, of course, must be balanced by dealing with those people who ultimately transgress. We must have more time to deal with those who transgress-

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced Member; interventions are getting lengthier and lengthier, and several hon. Members hope to speak.

Hazel Blears: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about early intervention. I saw some research recently that analysed the reasons for antisocial behaviour and talked about children at the very early stages of their lives. It said that many of those children, if they were not loved, had no idea about empathy and simply did not realise the effects of their behaviour on other people because they had not had a bonding experience with their parents at an early age. My hon. Friend is right to say that we need to intervene early.

John Hemming rose-

Hazel Blears: I will press on, because other hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.

I want to say a little about motorbikes and scrambler bikes. As a motorcyclist, I am obviously very keen to make sure that people use their motorbikes properly, but I am afraid that far too many people use them to cause an absolute nuisance to other people. I have been out and about in every part of Salford over the past few months. A few weeks ago in the Claremont and Duchy areas of my constituency, people told me that scrambler bikes, quad bikes and mini-motos were a menace to them and their communities. I am delighted to say that some 40 of those motorbikes were confiscated over the summer, and on Friday last week a public crushing ceremony was conducted in Buile Hill park.

That is not complicated, it is not detailed policy administration, and it is not based on a huge amount of research, but I can tell the House that that kind of visible, simple, tangible action where something has been a nuisance, the police and the council have acted, and there has been a visible crushing of the bikes in the park, has done more to raise public confidence in the community than many other things. I commend Chief Inspector Mark Kenny, who is responsible for our operations, for doing something that can be seen and is important to us.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 631

Far too many decent people in our communities have to put up with intimidation, harassment and unacceptable behaviour. I am sorry to say that there are people who do not give a damn about the effect of their behaviour on others. That is why it is important that the police use the whole range of tools available.

I asked Mark Kenny on Friday, "Do you need any more legislation, Mark, in order to tackle these issues?" He said, "No, I don't, Hazel. We've now got a whole range of tools at our disposal. I don't have to turn up at an incident and say there's nothing I can do. There's always something I can do." As a police officer, he also wanted the freedom to be out there on the streets, showing that he was on the side of decent people.

There will be a range of operations this week. It was Hallowe'en on Saturday, and it is bonfire night on Thursday. These occasions ought to be the opportunity for families to have fun and to go out to enjoy themselves, but all too often many communities live in dread of such events. Many, many families have suffered incidents such as having eggs thrown at their windows, or being terrorised with fireworks. Again, I am delighted that this week in Salford we have Operation Treacle-not quite operation treacle toffee-and Operation Staysafe, which are major operations being undertaken not just by the police but by the local council, the youth service and trading standards-a range of public agencies determined to keep people safe over the next few weeks.

This week a roadshow is going to 10 areas of our city, asking local people, "What more do you want us to do to tackle antisocial behaviour in your neighbourhood?" Agencies are not simply saying what they are going to do, but are asking people, "What are your priorities? How can you help to drive our agenda?" I want to see more of that. The hon. Member for Hornchurch spoke about active citizens. If we give active citizens the right to set the priorities for the police and for their councils, they will be far more likely to join us and to stand shoulder to shoulder with us because they have been able to influence that agenda.

Mr. Allen: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. She is very generous, and I will not interrupt her again. Does she agree that one of the most important developments over the past 10 years has been the development of uniformed services other than the police-for example, police community support officers, community protection officers and wardens-uniforms on the street at different levels whom people can interact with and trust? That has been extremely important. Does she hope, as I do, that Governments in the future will ensure that all these levels of security on the streets continue?

Hazel Blears: When we meet police community support officers, all of us as constituency Members of Parliament have huge regard for them. They are out 90 per cent. of their time, patrolling. They have time to build relationships. They meet the head teachers and the shopkeepers, and they protect the public. Any political party that seeks to make cheap points about PCSOs needs to think again.

I was pleased to be the Minister in charge of the Respect action plan when the family intervention projects were first commenced. They are one of the most significant
2 Nov 2009 : Column 632
things that we have done to tackle the antisocial behaviour agenda, which is what people would call a wicked issue. It is not susceptible to normal approaches through the criminal justice system. That is why it is so controversial. The family intervention projects are innovative and exciting, and they are the way forward for us. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has announced a massive expansion of the projects so that we will, I hope, be able to turn around the lives of the 50,000 most dysfunctional families in this country. If that is not a transformational act, I do not know what is.

When family intervention projects were first proposed, when I was the Minister responsible, they were characterised to me as "muscular social work". I thought that was a lovely description. They were put forward as projects where, if necessary, a muscular social worker would virtually live with one of our most chaotic families. They would make sure that the family got up in the morning, that the children got dressed, that there was a hot meal on the table in the evening, and that they went to bed at a decent hour. Some people thought this was the nanny state gone mad, but for the most chaotic and dysfunctional families, getting a routine into their lives was almost the basic starting point in tackling antisocial behaviour.

An extensive evaluation has been carried out by the National Centre for Social Research. I was very taken with the way families described this muscular social work approach. They said that the intervention staff would

Such sustained intervention has been key to the family intervention projects' success.

The evaluation identified eight key factors in the family intervention projects. I shall mention a couple of them. The first is that there was a dedicated key worker, who worked with the family intensively for as long as it took to make a difference. That sustainability is key. There is no point in intervening for six weeks or three months if that family needs 18 months or two years of intensive attention in order to change their behaviour.

The second key factor is that as well as support, sanctions were key to success. Most of the families in the projects were facing the possibility of eviction from their homes for antisocial behaviour. Having the ability to say, "Either you change your behaviour or there will be consequences," and the fact that there are sanctions in the system, has been fundamental to changing the behaviour of many of those families. It is important that there is this element of enforcement, as well as support. With this whole family approach, and with a sustained, dedicated key worker intervening for long enough, it is possible make a huge difference.

Nadine Dorries: The right hon. Lady talks about sanctions, such as families being removed from their homes if they do not comply. Were those sanctions enforced? If so, in how many cases, and how effective were they? I have trouble understanding how it improves the situation if someone is evicted from their home.

2 Nov 2009 : Column 633

Hazel Blears: I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Lady that in 85 per cent. of cases, the behaviour changed sufficiently that those families were no longer facing the threat of eviction for antisocial behaviour because they were no longer a nuisance to their neighbours. Many of them may not have become the neighbours from heaven, but they certainly stopped being the neighbours from hell. It was therefore tremendously successful in 85 per cent. of cases.

The Salford project, which is run by Action for Children, was one of the early pioneers. We have been going for three or four years. It is coping with up to 60 families, and I hope that with the Prime Minister's announcement of the expansion of the projects, we could double that number to just over 100 families. Then we would start to reach people who are not yet in crisis, but for whom we have identified a range of ways they need to be helped.

The family intervention projects in Salford have been a tremendous success. A lady told me this morning about a mum who had a serious alcohol problem, was facing domestic violence, was causing noise and criminal damage, was facing the prospect of eviction, and whose children were out of school. Within 18 months-these things do not happen quickly-that mum has reduced her alcohol consumption, she is on the user group for the project, she is interviewing staff, her children are back in school, and there has not been a report of antisocial behaviour for the past five months. That is real evidence of the success of this way of working.

The family intervention projects illustrate a whole new way of working that could be really useful for our public services generally. It is about integrated working by a range of agencies, and about saving money and using it more effectively. Most of those families cost about £250,000 a year, having had a multiplicity of public sector interventions that did not change their behaviour. We have probably saved about £200,000 per family, because we have brought together services, given the families a key worker, given the key worker sufficient influence to change the way the way those services work and changed behaviour. If that is not smarter working, I really do not know what is. In the years to come, money will be tight whichever Government have to make the decisions. Therefore, by learning the lessons of the family intervention projects, we can use our money more wisely in the long term, and that will be hugely important.

Other aspects of the antisocial behaviour agenda have made us think differently. The co-location of services, for example, has brought together police and probation officers and debt and drug counsellors, and Salford was the second pilot area for the community justice approach, which was trialled in Liverpool. We have trained every one of our magistrates in restorative justice and antisocial behaviour, and ensured that we use our housing powers to the utmost in order to make that difference.

We have found housing injunctions to be incredibly important. We have issued 100, and, when they have been breached, we have been prepared to go to court for committal to prison. There have been four prison sentences and five suspended sentences; again, we have shown that we mean business. If someone has a housing injunction, their behaviour needs to change: if they behave well, of course they will be left to live in their home and carry on in their community; but if they breach the injunction,
2 Nov 2009 : Column 634
consequences will follow, and that is very important, indeed. At Salix Homes, we have a very driven Better Neighbourhoods officer, Sue Sutton, who has just rewritten all our tenancy conditions to place a heavier emphasis on tenant responsibility. She is absolutely determined to ensure that that works.

We need integrated services, with councils, the police and a range of agencies working together, but we also need the determination to protect the decent people in our communities. I say to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism that much good work has been done, and I welcome the Home Secretary's announcement on breaches of ASBOs, publicising ASBOs and giving more support to victims. However, I still believe that there is a great deal more to be done if we are to protect the most vulnerable people in our poorest communities.

That agenda has driven me ever since I entered Parliament, because I live in my community and know the problems that people face daily. I see them for myself, and I see many people who are harassed and intimidated through no fault of their own. It is the personal responsibility of every Member, including me, to speak up for people who do not have a voice, and to exercise power for people who are powerless. I therefore ask Members from all parts of the House to support the use of enforcement powers where necessary. Of course we should practise early intervention and try to prevent problems from happening in the first place, but for goodness' sake let us not shy away from the fact that we have a responsibility to protect people and ensure that they can lead their lives in peace and go about their business without the fear of harassment and intimidation. Such behaviour still occurs all too often, but it occurs less often, and for that I am grateful.

I believe that our Labour Government are on the side of the people in our communities, and long may they remain so. I also welcome the conversion of Members from other parties, although I have yet to hear from the Liberal Democrats-it will be very interesting to find out whether they have changed their minds on antisocial behaviour. I shall be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) has to say about the national picture, but I know that locally, in Salford and in many other places throughout the country, Liberal Democrat councillors have consistently opposed the use of dispersal orders and antisocial behaviour orders. Their record locally is very poor indeed.

This Labour Government, however, will continue to be on the side of the people who need our protection. I am absolutely delighted about that, and long may it be the case.

Next Section Index Home Page