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6.44 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I was about to compliment the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears)-before she finished with that outrageous slur on my party-on a thoughtful and interesting speech. I very much agree with her central thrust, which, as I understand it, is that we need to deal with the problem by using a set of agencies across the Government and locally. I recently visited the Liverpool community justice experiment and was very impressed by it. I know that there has been a similar effort in Salford, too, but it depresses me that the Ministry of Justice has decided not to roll out the
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scheme, because it seems that there has not been a holistic appreciation of the cost savings to other Departments. The MOJ has looked at the costs that its own budget would incur, but it has not taken into account the savings elsewhere. Our inability to join up government in a way that makes the most effective contribution is an enormous problem.

I welcome the debate, which is a valuable opportunity to discuss a serious issue, and I shall discuss two main aspects. First, I shall consider the scale of the problem and outline why the measures being used to tackle it are not working; and, secondly, I shall outline my party's position on antisocial behaviour and make it clear how we believe that it can be effectively challenged by considering the evidence of those policies that work and those that do not.

Antisocial behaviour is one of the greatest challenges that our society faces, and I agree with the right hon. Lady not least on her point that it affects those who are most vulnerable in our society-not just young people, as many people think, but those living in low-income and deprived areas. In 2008-09, the police recorded more than 3.5 million incidents of antisocial behaviour-more than 10,000 a day. The Home Office estimates that responding to antisocial behaviour costs the taxpayer £3.4 billion a year. Some 17 per cent. of the population believe that there is a high level of antisocial behaviour. That is an improvement on previous recorded findings, but the figure is still far too high, particularly in low-income areas, where it rises to 32 per cent. when people in so-called "hard-pressed" areas are asked. They are typical of the area that the right hon. Lady represents.

However, knee-jerk and punitive measures that are applied indiscriminately and in isolation do not work well. The most infamous of those is, of course, the antisocial behaviour order, and such orders are now routinely breached, as the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) said. Almost 15,000 ASBOs were issued between 2000 and the end of 2007, according to the latest available figures, and more than half of all ASBOs were breached. Among children, the breach rate was 64 per cent., and, of the almost 15,000 ASBOs issued in England and Wales, 40 per cent. were given to children.

Penalty notices for disorder are scarcely better. Almost half those issued in 2007 were not even paid. As a result, almost 1,000 children were sent to prison for breaching an ASBO between 2000 and 2006. That represents 42 per cent. of all children who breached an ASBO in the period. By the end of 2007, more than 1,000 children had received a custodial sentence for breaching their ASBO. Half those sentences were for periods of more than five months, yet we know that there is no evidence that custodial sentences act as a deterrent to such offending. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The figures for 2007 show that 75 per cent. of 10 to 17-year-olds reoffended within one year of being released from custody, and the reoffending rate for a young man serving his first custodial sentence is 92 per cent. The result is that we have criminalised a generation of young people-particularly young men, and particularly those from ethnic minorities. That has become a matter of concern, even to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

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Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab) rose-

Chris Huhne: I will happily give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Howarth: The evidence that the hon. Gentleman offers is debatable. Would he not accept that while a young person is in prison-and the offences for which they are imprisoned are usually serious-they will not, at least, be available to reoffend in the communities from which they come?

Chris Huhne: I am astonished, because I was recently at a youth offending institution in west London where a large number of the children were on remand-admittedly for serious issues, in many cases, but not for any offence.

I have cited the Government figures on reoffending rates. Some 73 per cent. of antisocial behaviour is perpetrated by males, and almost half were under 18 years of age. The Youth Justice Board found that 22 per cent. of young people given ASBOs are black or Asian-two and a half times the proportion of people from ethnic minorities in the population as a whole.

Siobhain McDonagh: My experience in my constituency suggests that it is often only when police officers, council officers and a relevant organisation are thinking about issuing an ASBO that all the other services get involved. The approach towards an ASBO often enables the support that should have come much earlier. It is the ASBO that triggers that support.

Chris Huhne: I recommend that the hon. Lady does what I have done myself in such circumstances: try, as the local MP, to get together a case conference involving the agencies and knock heads together. That actually works. If we have to wait until the police are at the point of issuing an ASBO, the people who have been suffering from the antisocial behaviour will have been doing so for far too long. Later, I want to develop some of the ways in which one can try to be a bit more effective earlier on.

Research carried out by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children suggests that 35 per cent. of all ASBOs issued to people under 17 were to children with a diagnosed mental disorder or a learning difficulty. Nearly a third of all people say that teenagers hanging around on the streets are a big problem and, as we know, antisocial behaviour is predominantly perpetrated by children. Yet rather than giving young people a real and attractive alternative, we too readily give them an ASBO.

ASBOs are extremely punitive-sometimes, frankly, to the point of being ridiculous. Take 13-year-old Zach Tutin, who was served an order banning him from using the word "grass" anywhere in England and Wales for six years. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Luke Davies was forbidden from using the front door of his home until he reached the age of 21. It seems to me that such sanctions can never change a young person's behaviour for the better, never make them accept responsibility for their actions and never engage them with the victims of their behaviour.

The current approach has not been working well, yet as usual the Government have flip-flopped on what to do about it. When the 2006 ASBO figures were released in 2008, the right hon. Member for Redditch
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(Jacqui Smith), then Home Secretary, asserted what we Liberal Democrats had argued for some time: that alternative methods of early intervention are far more effective than ASBOs. However, in July 2009, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the new Home Secretary, announced measures to revive the use of ASBOs, admitting to Government complacency on the issue. What approach do the Government believe in? Are they merely chasing after tabloid headlines or looking at the evidence for what actually works?

Despite some of the remarks from the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire), I am afraid that the Conservatives are offering only more of the same. They have criticised the Government for headline-grabbing gimmicks, but, frankly, their ideas are no different from the current solutions. They have suggested confiscating the mobile phones or iPods of young people who behave antisocially. The hon. Gentleman suggested that young people could be grounded out of school hours for up to a month.

Such schemes are slow to implement, and continue to criminalise children, rather than diverting them away from antisocial behaviour at an early stage. What really work are community-based punishments and solutions. The Liberal Democrat council in Islington pioneered the use of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are more rehabilitative for the offender and more beneficial to society. A National Audit Office study has shown that they were highly effective in combating antisocial behaviour precisely because they get buy-in from the people involved. Some 65 per cent. of the people stopped behaving antisocially after one intervention, 86 per cent. after two interventions and 93 per cent. after three interventions.

Mr. Malins: The hon. Gentleman mentioned grounding orders, the concept of which I am not yet wholly familiar with; that is my fault. Does he agree that it would be good to impose a grounding order on the child via the parents rather than through the panoply of the courts?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the need for support from the family. One of the issues with ASBOs has been the lack of application of support orders to ensure that they are backed up. If that is the hon. Gentleman's point, I entirely agree with him.

The same National Audit Office study found that on average acceptable behaviour contracts cost £230 and were 65 per cent. effective. That compares with ASBOs, which cost a frankly staggering £3,100 yet were only 45 per cent. effective.

James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman is praying in aid the National Audit Office report. Will he comment on the fact that that report also said that

having received an acceptable behaviour contract? What are his comments on the breach rate for those young people?

Chris Huhne: I just gave the actual breach rates for acceptable behaviour contracts, and they are on the record. I pointed out that breach rates go down substantially
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at the second intervention and that at the third intervention, there is 93 per cent. effectiveness. That was in the NAO study. Sadly, no solution operates as a magic wand; I am not saying that one does. I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Hornchurch seems to believe that a magic wand can be waved. Does he think that any particular measure can solve the problem on its own? Acceptable behaviour contracts are certainly more effective than ASBOs. However, contrary to the myths peddled by some Labour Members, we Liberal Democrats have never been against antisocial behaviour orders; we have always said, however, that they need to be seen-

Siobhain McDonagh rose-

Chris Huhne: I will happily give way and happily trade Hansard references with the hon. Lady, if that is what she wants.

Siobhain McDonagh: I have been fortunate enough to have served on the Public Bill Committee of every bit of recent legislation relating to antisocial behaviour. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) opposed antisocial behaviour orders during our discussions of the first Anti-social Behaviour Bill.

Chris Huhne: I have looked back at the record very carefully, and I assure the hon. Lady that we were on the record in this Chamber supporting ASBOs as a last resort. When we voted against the Third Reading of that Bill, for all sorts of other reasons, we were accused of voting against everything in the Bill. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is entirely free to go on making such claims, but they are simply incorrect.

John Hemming: I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware of the research done by the university of Groningen, which identified that it is absolutely critical that rules should be enforced, and that unenforced rules undermine the whole concept.

In Birmingham, we have supported a limited number of antisocial behaviour orders as well as acceptable behaviour contracts. We are particularly keen that offenders who create graffiti should be forced to remove it from the walls. Does my hon. Friend not share my regret that the Government would not support proposals for community fixed penalty notices, which are a way of enforcing the rules so that those who create graffiti are forced to remove it?

Chris Huhne: I agree with my hon. Friend, fundamentally so on his initial point that if we are to have such law it must be properly enforced. The real problem with ASBOs is that the Government's periodic attempts to use them have not been matched by the necessary back-up. If they were used as a last resort at the end of a whole series of measures that were able to bring gradual pressure to bear, we would be providing a much better back-up for ASBOs and there would be fewer breaches. In reality, in some areas where they have been overused they have unfortunately become a figure of fun because they have not been properly applied.

Research by the Audit Commission has found that a young person in the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer more than £200,000 by the age of 16, whereas
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one given support to stay out of the criminal justice system costs less than £50,000. Those costs, together with the evidence on the effectiveness of community measures and community sentences, should be enough to tell the Government that a resurgence in the use of ASBOs cannot and should not be the way forward. Yes, they are a last resort, but they should not be something that we reach for as a panacea. Acceptable behaviour contracts are drawn up in consultation with the offender and so provide a greater chance for young people to voice their concerns and agree on what is acceptable. Those young people are far more likely to comply with a contract because they are more engaged in the process, which imposes positive rather than negative conditions on them. Liberal Democrats would expand the use of acceptable behaviour contracts, integrating them with alcohol and drug treatment where necessary.

However, community measures and community sentences alone are not enough. A study by the Prison Reform Trust published in October 2009 found that the reoffending rate for young people involved in restorative justice schemes was 38 per cent., compared with 52 per cent. for community sentences alone and 71 per cent. for custodial sentences. By confronting the offender with their victim, restorative justice highlights the consequences of the crime or the behaviour, and the emotional engagement can lead to genuinely heartfelt changes in behaviour. We have seen that in the interesting recent report on the use of restorative justice in Northern Ireland. We would engage a wide range of public services-councils, the police, schools and care homes-in restorative justice schemes and ensure that restorative justice panels were set up to co-ordinate the process.

The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who is no longer in her place, stressed the importance of prevention and mentioned her recent experience with her local street pastor scheme. I, too, have had experience of two street pastor schemes in my constituency-in Fair Oak and in Eastleigh itself-and I can testify to the positive effects. In the case of the Eastleigh scheme, it is too early to tell, but in Fair Oak there was a clear fall in antisocial behaviour in the years following the scheme's implementation. Street pastors' engagement with young people has been effective and commendable.

Above all, young people need to have alternatives to antisocial behaviour. The old adage that the devil makes work for idle hands to do is true. We would create a youth volunteer force to make engagement with the community more attractive to young people. Activities could include the restoration of sports facilities or environmental projects, both of which could provide people with skills they can use again in future. The emphasis must be on encouraging positive behaviour rather than penalising negative behaviour. A 2009 report by the Audit Commission concluded that sport and other organised recreational activities run by local authorities can provide cost-effective solutions leading to reductions both in antisocial behaviour and in the use of the police.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman is talking about being cost-effective. In Nottingham, for about £700,000 we were able to help more than 100 teenage mothers to get their children set on the right way with the right life
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skills and personal development, and the empathetic behaviour mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). That is about the same as the cost of three people going into a secure unit for a year at the age of 16, two of whom will, statistically, return to it later on. Will the hon. Gentleman commit his party, as I invited the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) to commit the Conservative party, to doing some serious analysis on cost-effectiveness and evidence-based projects so that such early intervention becomes the common reality?

Chris Huhne: I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman -he is absolutely correct. We need much more serious assessment of the costs and savings across Government agencies, particularly if any Government are going to persuade the hard-nosed men and women at the Treasury that it is something worth doing. If someone from a Department goes in to the Treasury saying, "I want to spend more on this," particularly given the likely fiscal environment in the next 10 years, they will need to have some pretty hard evidence that savings will be made elsewhere. As I said in response to the thoughtful speech by the right hon. Member for Salford, time and again we have seen a lack of joined-up government in the failure to assess, overall and holistically, the budget impacts of many measures. That is crucial if we are to make real progress.

Individual programmes need to be combined with measures to allow local authorities to tackle unacceptable behaviour on the spot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) noted. A 2008 study found the first hard evidence, to my knowledge, that the mere presence of graffiti, broken windows or litter in an area more than doubled the likelihood of people littering and stealing there. The broken windows theory has been extremely controversial, but it is now getting enough support to suggest that it needs to command cross-party consensus. One solution, which the Liberal Democrats tried to introduce in the Policing and Crime Bill, would be to allow local authorities, as well as the police, to order people to clear up their own graffiti or littering. I will not go into that any further at this point.

I am surprised that we have not heard more about the effects of alcohol, which fuels much of the antisocial behaviour in our town centres. Responsibility for the control of alcohol falls largely within the remit of other Departments, and not enough is being done. Under-age drinking is a huge problem. We know from a Home Office report that 40 per cent. of more than 2,600 licensed premises surveyed in 2007 failed to check for identification and happily sold alcohol to minors, yet very few licensees are being prosecuted for selling alcohol to under-age children, particularly in off-licences. The Government have created alcohol disorder zones, but to date, not a single council has decided to use those powers. The Government need to focus on the basics, which include conducting test sales to ensure that children are not being sold alcohol and prosecuting those who sell it to them. We need to work across government effectively, and the focus should not just be on policing and repressive measures but on early intervention and tackling alcohol misuse. The family intervention project is an interesting idea. We will see how effective it can be when the evidence comes in, but over time it looks promising.

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I do not for one minute want to suggest that ASBOs are inappropriate in all circumstances-that is certainly not so. They are a last resort that should be used sparingly, and when all other options have been exhausted, but they must be properly enforced. We need to re-engage with our young people and give them the opportunity to improve their behaviour, to take responsibility for their actions, and to have a productive future that is not blighted by a criminal record. Only when we do this will we be some way towards tackling the antisocial behaviour that we all want to combat.

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