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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has placed a limit of 12 minutes on all Back-Bench speeches, which applies from now on. I call Mr. Michael.

6.42 pm

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) spoiled what seemed in some respects to be a serious speech with some petty knockabout. It is almost inevitable that he will criticise both other parties--that is virtually written into the script before he starts--but the self-indulgent knockabout, whereby he caricatured sensible proposals with a soundbite, was disgraceful.

For example, the proposal for fixed penalties would be quick and effective, it would avoid red tape and time in the courts, and it would teach a lesson. It is a sensible proposal which should not be caricatured. The hon. Gentleman then argued that the right, as it is described, of people to choose where they are to be tried is fundamental. He was blown out of the water by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg).

The court should decide where either-way cases should be tried. That is a balanced approach. Magistrates would be required to give reasons for their decision about where the trial takes place. That would allow cases that ought to go to a higher court and be subject to a stronger penalty to be dealt with appropriately. The comments of both the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey and of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) were inappropriate. The safeguards are in place, including the right of appeal to the Crown court against the magistrates' decision.

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I am pleased that, having considered the arguments, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary changed his view on the matter, and I am glad that he is pushing forward with the policy. It is ludicrous to argue that the court in which a case is decided should be settled on the whim of a defendant, by the gamble of a defendant who knows that he is guilty, or possibly on the basis of the quality of legal advice that he gets, rather than being decided objectively by the court.

I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to persevere with the sensible enabling measure on curfews. Again, the caricature of that by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey did him no credit. Of course, civil liberties need protecting. The civil liberty of young people, as well as that of older people, to walk the streets at night safely needs to be protected.

We frequently hear complaints that children and young people are out on the streets way after the time when that is reasonable and are causing nuisance and problems. What is the response? The police say that their hands are tied and there is nothing they can do. The measure will give them the capacity to tackle such nuisance. For example, when I discussed that type of nuisance with the local community on a housing estate in my constituency, a woman stood up and said, "I know that that is a real problem. My son is one of those causing the nuisance." Several other people said, "Oh, no. Your son is a nice lad." She said, "He is a nice lad, but he is over 6 ft. His dad left home four or five years ago. I can't stop him if he wants to go out at night. He says to me, 'Why should I stay home when everybody else is out on the street?'".

Let us look at the process of consultation set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. First, the local authority has to propose a scheme, which must be approved by the Home Secretary. Then, the area and the problem must be defined. The problem must be discussed not just by the local authority and the police, but by the local community. There should be an opportunity to listen to people like that mother, who wants to be given back the authority to set reasonable limits for her child, and to listen to the community, which wants to set limits in respect of children's behaviour, rather than allowing those children to run amok, out of control.

Mr. Garnier: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not want to discuss with him right now the merits of the curfew scheme, but he appears to be proposing a penalty without a trial. Does not that conflict with the convention?

Mr. Michael: Here we have another lawyer trying to wrap us up in words, instead of considering the problems that affect people in the streets and on our housing estates. We are discussing giving authority back to parents and the community. Of course, if no problem exists, the measure will not be used. Communities will take back control where yobs are creating misery for local people, but local authorities are not obliged to act on the measure, and nor are the police.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Mrs. McKenna) gave the example of Hamilton, which shows that where a problem exists and such a scheme is used in a targeted way, it can be beneficial.

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The scheme does not have to be used if warnings and co-operation with the local community do the trick. It would be marvellous if it were never used and nuisance were reduced on our estates, but the power will be available. There will be no excuse for the police, the local authority or anyone else saying that there is nothing that they can do.

I hope that it will be recognised that the child curfew scheme has a dual purpose. As well as protecting residents' interests, it is also intended to protect the interests of children. Often, horrific things happen because children are out on the streets at night, when they should not be. The figures from the Hamilton child safety initiative are stunning: 87 per cent. of parents of children returned home by the police approved of the initiative. That shows the extent of support from parents. Crime and public complaints about disorder fell by 23 and 22 per cent. respectively, and crime associated with juveniles, such as theft and vandalism, was down by 49 per cent.

I say to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, let us look at the facts before we ignore the civil liberties of those who are disturbed by groups of youngsters behaving in a yobbish manner, and let us make sure that we target that problem.

Mr. Bill Tynan (Hamilton, South): The Hamilton initiative was a child safety initiative. We should rid ourselves of the notion of curfew. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the success achieved in Hamilton and the extent to which neighbourhoods and communities are asking for the scheme to be extended prove the worth of such initiatives?

Mr. Michael: Yes, absolutely. Partnership with the community is central. That is provided for in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 with respect to the younger age group. We have listened and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has rightly responded to the request for the age limit to be increased. Such schemes can tackle the problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) said.

The programme in the Queen's Speech keeps faith with those who backed Labour in the belief that we would be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. From police resources to the banning of hand guns, from cash to crime reduction and the strategic developments in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Government have delivered.

It would be easy for the Home Secretary to sit back, after three years of frenetic activity, and relax for a while. Instead, the Queen's Speech shows the Government intensifying the battle against crime and the fear of crime.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is tackling some of the scandals that the previous Government left behind. I remind the House that the Conservative Government ignored the strong advice of the Select Committee on Home Affairs about the urgent need to regulate the private security industry. The Committee's report was debated in Back-Bench Opposition time because the previous Government were afraid of tackling the issue. The previous Home Secretary gave not the slightest glimmer of hope that he would tackle the problem, whereas my right hon. Friend is grasping the nettle. I shall tell the House why.

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When I undertook a review of the issues on behalf of the then shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who is now Prime Minister, I found an appalling situation. A senior police officer said:

Another senior police officer, referring to a new security firm, said:

That sounds a fine team. These are the sort of people who need to be controlled.

The previous Government neglected the problem and refused to respond, whereas my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has responded. I accept that the strategic issues involving the Crime and Disorder Act, for example, had to be put in place first, but we are tackling the scandal in the first Parliament of a Labour Government. I am delighted to welcome the news from my right hon. Friend.

I also welcome the promise to regulate wheel clamping, which can be a real nuisance and a danger, especially for women drivers, if it is done in the wrong place at the wrong time. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) for campaigning for a change in the law. Clamping is of course a useful mechanism in the right place at the right time.

I challenge Conservative Members to put their constituents' safety and peace of mind above the temptation to make petty party political points. They should support the use of antisocial behaviour orders instead of threatening to abolish them. Those of us who have seen the misery created on a housing estate or in an inner-city area by one or two families or two or three individuals running amok, often committing a series of low-level crimes that create nuisance and intimidation, know that the ASBO was a much-needed measure.

The order is designed to prevent such activities. There are about 30 known breaches of ASBOs, the penalties for which have ranged from fines to imprisonment. I urge the courts to use their powers well. The message must go out from the courts that breach of an ASBO is no trivial matter. It is meant to be a preventive measure, and the courts must support the intention of the House that people should be warned, on the basis of their past behaviour, to stop antisocial behaviour so that others feel safe in their homes.

I urge my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to maintain momentum on two fronts. The first is the crime and disorder partnership. Next year, every local authority and every police division will have to have regard to the crime and disorder audit in their area. There are good examples of the way in which that was done the first time round. The outcome must be much better the second time round so that real problems can be targeted. The second front is youth crime. I commend the work of Lord Warner and the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales and local youth offending teams in getting the necessary

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measures into place. I am pleased that the courts are succeeding in reducing the time that is taken to get young offenders before them.

Many of the measures in the Queen's Speech will help us to continue the success of the past three years, which have shown a reduction in crime. I endorse what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said about the success of the Cardiff scheme. We need to learn from that, and ensure that safety and freedom from violent crime is the success of the next three years so that people can walk the streets in safety. It can be done, and it must be done throughout the country.

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