Criminal Justice and Police Bill

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Mr. Bailey: I shall curtail my remarks, because we do not have injury time in Committee. Most local authorities and police forces have well-established mechanisms by which particular processes may be determined without any increase in bureaucracy. The Government's funding policies mean that police numbers are rising—they are certainly rising in the West Midlands force—so I do not anticipate the strain on police manpower that concerns Opposition Members.

Jackie Ballard: The hon. Gentleman asked why the child curfew order clauses received such derisory opposition on Second Reading—only one amendment was tabled. The Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to both clauses and would have considered an amendment to remove them, which would have been unacceptable. I want a vote on clause 43, which I shall vote against. I will also vote against clause 44 if there is a Division.

We opposed the imposition of the original child curfew orders for under-10s and—along with other members of the Committee—we are unaware of any occasions on which they have been used. We were concerned by the wide-ranging nature of the powers. Those concerns are increased by the proposals to extend the orders to age 16 and to allow their imposition by a chief of police acting alone, rather than by a local authority. In terms of civil liberties, the extension to age 16 is far worse. Although most reasonable people would argue that a 10-year-old should not be out on the streets after 9 o'clock in almost any circumstances, it is clearly unreasonable to argue that a 15 or 16-year-old should not.

Our major concern is that child curfew orders target geographical areas with blanket bans on the activities of young people instead of on individuals who are causing problems. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) that the police may find it difficult to identify the perpetrator. That is not an excuse to blame everyone.

4.30 pm

We expressed concern about the impact of the Human Rights Act on the previous legislation, and whether it was compliant. I suspect that no orders have been applied for because local authorities have felt unable to show that such orders would be a proportionate response to a problem or necessary in a democratic society. I also suspect that the Minister will refer to Scotland and the Strathclyde scheme, because that has been prayed in aid when the matter has been discussed in the House. However, there is a fundamental difference because, in Scotland, curfew orders are not imposed in isolation but are part of a wider scheme that includes investment and activities for young people so that there is less motivation and need for them to hang about on street corners causing trouble.

We are worried about the practical effect of blanket curfew orders. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to police availability and time. If the police are available to enforce sanctions and curfew orders, surely they would be available to deal effectively with young people who are breaking the law. Imposing a blanket curfew order could prevent innocent young people who are out on legitimate business from entering the curfew area. They may stray into a curfew area unknowingly, because they could not be expected to know what part of a city or town is subject to a curfew. If they were aware of it, they might decide to go home by a different route, which could be less familiar and perhaps more dangerous.

I strongly believe, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, that strategies should be encouraged to allow the police and local authorities to deal with individual young people who cause problems, but not to cover a whole area and to add to the bad name that teenagers are often given. I am distressed if elderly people feel intimidated by the presence of teenagers, but that is not a reason to lock up those teenagers if they are doing nothing wrong.

I recall, in the dim and distant past when I was a teenager, that teenagers enjoyed just hanging about. I enjoyed hanging about on the steps of the cenotaph in the middle of the small town where I lived just to see who else was hanging about. Hon. Members will remember that hormones are rampant during teenage years and teenagers are often interested in seeing which members of the gender to which they happen to be attracted are hanging about at the same time. For many teenagers, that is the main purpose of hanging about, and I should hate us to be killjoys and decide that that is not a legitimate activity for teenagers.

A blanket curfew order on a geographical area because some teenagers have been causing a problem is similar to keeping the whole class in after school because one or two pupils have misbehaved. I want to press the amendment to a vote. I may be on my own on this, but that does not mean that I am wrong.

Mr. Charles Clarke: I shall be brief because our time has been curtailed by the Division. This debate is more political than some of our previous debates and I want to deal quickly with the main points.

My very good friend, Fred Broughton, has never, to my knowledge, said that there were too many police officers in Britain. Whenever an issue arises, he and the Police Federation reasonably say that they need more police officers. I shall not rehearse the debate and the fact that police numbers are rising for the first time since 1993--between a third and a half of forces already have more police officers than in March 1997, and that process will continue--because that is not relevant to this debate.

On the impact of the curfew, I want to emphasise that a two-pronged approach is required to deal with youth disorder. One prong is a range of activities, such as the youth improvement programmes under the youth justice scheme, out-of-school schemes and genuine activities for young people so that they do not just hang out at cenotaphs and so on. The other is an exceptional range of sanctions that can be applied to young people who are disorderly in their behaviour and cause misery for other people, because that is not acceptable.

The political points made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West were a bit ripe. He put his arguments exceptionally powerfully. I recall visiting him during his election campaign and meeting a group of ethnic minority community leaders in his constituency to discuss various issues. They raised the problems that their communities were experiencing from precisely that type of youth disorder. Labour won the by-election convincingly, even though the Conservatives were expected to do so. The electors of West Bromwich, West are extremely fortunate to have my hon. Friend as their Member. It was because they were concerned about those issues and they believed that the Labour party had policies to deal with them that he was elected in that critical by-election. The political point needs to be understood in that context.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke: No.

The question of sanctions is important in relation to the bureaucracy argument. I saw a most interesting presentation from Chief Inspector Ron Hope, the commander of the Islington borough, with the housing department of Islington Council, about acceptable behaviour contracts under which young people are required to sign up to behave in an acceptable way, with the housing officer, the police, and the parent. The sanction against them is the application of such orders. The existence of the sanction has led to children ranging in age from eight to 19 following the terms of those contracts. That scheme has been running over the past few months and has been extremely effective. It has now been taken up as a standard form of contract with the Metropolitan police.

We need sanctions to deal with the situation. It is not a question of building on a foundation of failure. We inherited the ``no such thing as society'' generation from our predecessors and we are seeking to put back the strong communities and strong society that we need.

I hope that the official Opposition will put their votes where their mouth is on the clause. We have heard from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and others a great string of weasel words on curfews, and general cynicism and undermining. They are entitled to express themselves in that way, but they should have the courage to vote against the clause and stand with the Liberal Democrats, though for different reasons. The Liberal Democrats' position is based on their view of civil liberties, and I understand that, but the official Opposition should have the courage to vote as they feel. They should stop their mealy-mouthed words and decide that they are either for or against the measure. Let us see where the vote is and what the people think.

I urge my hon. Friends to vote for the clause.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 1.

Division No. 19]

AYES
Bailey, Mr. Adrian
Brinton, Mrs. Helen
Clark, Mr. Paul
Clarke, Mr. Charles
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Smith, Miss Geraldine
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Thomas, Mr. Gareth R.

NOES
Ballard, Jackie

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 44

Power for police to make schemes

Jackie Ballard: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 34, line 21, leave out subsection (2).

I am surprised that the official Opposition do not have a position on the extension of child curfew orders to teenagers under 16. I have made clear my position and I shall not take up much of the Committee's time in moving the amendment, because we do not want either clause to be in existence. However, accepting that it was likely that clause 43 would be passed, we decided to try to improve clause 44.

The idea of the measure is that the public should not be subject to intimidation from large groups of young people, but when the Government talked initially about the provision for under 10-year-olds, they said that child welfare was the key issue. Local authorities were to make child curfew orders, because they have to provide for the education and welfare of children, through social services, youth services and a whole raft of measures that may give young people alternatives to hanging about on street corners. To say, as the clause does, that the police can also have the power to make local child curfew orders, independently of local authorities, which are reduced to the level of consultees, is to move away from any pretence of considering child welfare and into the sphere of criminal sanctions.

 
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