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8 Apr 2003 : Column 177—continued

Chris Grayling: As a former teacher, the hon. Lady has experience to bring to bear on this aspect of the debate. However, does she believe that an ability in her professional life to issue a fixed penalty notice to a parent at a parent's evening would have helped or hindered her relationship with that parent? Would it have improved the situation that she describes?

Liz Blackman: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; if he will be patient I shall deal with that precise point in a minute.

Parenting contracts and the levering-in of support builds on the experience of parenting orders and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Youth Justice Board parenting programme ran 42 parenting projects in partnership with other local agencies. The feedback from the evaluation was extremely positive, and Members will doubtless agree that what matters is what works. The effectiveness of the support to be provided to parents who sign these contracts voluntarily will be key, and should be based on best practice learned from these parenting projects.

Parenting orders are already granted to parents for convictions for truancy, and this measure has been extended to include exclusion. That is a positive development, but unlike contracts, such orders oblige parents to meet certain conditions, and offer support. Of course, youth offending teams can also apply for such orders because of antisocial behaviour, and it would be helpful if data-sharing protocols were evolved for police youth offending teams, local education authorities and schools.

On fixed penalty notices—the issue mentioned by the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling)—in principle I am very much in favour of firing a shot across the bow of a parent who is condoning truancy. I have no problem with that, but I have grave concerns about who issues those fixed penalty notices, as do many other Members. I believe and hope that putting the onus on teachers to issue such notices will be examined in greater detail in Committee. I am prepared to accept reasoned arguments in Committee that justify that initiative. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked all Members to flag up areas in which bureaucracy might interfere with implementation, and I do think that that initiative will lead to some bureaucratic nightmares.

Simon Hughes: Does the hon. Lady also agree that all the teachers' unions have registered their unhappiness

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with that proposal, saying that it would turn teachers into police officers, which is the last thing that they are asking to happen?

Liz Blackman: Given the implication of what I have just said to my right hon. Friend, yes, I understand that there are major concerns about this issue. I am therefore sure that it will be examined very carefully in Committee.

My local registered social landlord is extremely positive about the provisions in the Bill dealing with housing. So am I, because like many Members, I get regular complaints about antisocial behaviour in the context of housing. Transparency is a good thing not just for tenants, but for the broader public. It is important that such policies be clearly understood, so that appropriate demands can be made of the authorities to do something about the problem. The requirement for landlords to have regard to relevant guidance issued under the Secretary of State or the relevant authority should help to establish best practice across the sector. Barnardo's, to which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) referred, believes that a requirement should be included in the policy to map out steps to be taken to resolve disputes, where they arise. That suggestion is worthy of consideration. Mapping out steps in order to resolve such problems is a good idea, given the principle of "a stitch in time", which I believe in.

The provision relating to injunctions is very welcome. I agree that we need a measure to catch those situations in which antisocial behaviour is known about but neighbours are too frightened to make a formal complaint. I am thinking of cases involving domestic violence, and racial and other forms of harassment. My local housing authority also regards as positive injunctions to assist landlords in dealing with antisocial behaviour occurring outside the vicinity. However, it points out that clarity is again needed in the sharing of information with the police, and the police themselves have suggested that these protocols need further development. I deliberately flagged up this issue with the Home Secretary, because information sharing and the development of protocols creates some of the infrastructure necessary to improving partnership working.

I am certainly in favour of the provision concerning demoted assured short-term tenancies. However, I am mindful that between 80 and 90 per cent. of problematic tenants have rent arrears. That is why the clause, suggested by Barnado's, that deals with intended support should be written into antisocial behaviour policy. Where appropriate, agencies should make early interventions and work with such tenants.

I recognise that there is great concern about children being caught by the poor behaviour of parents. However, parents cannot use their children as an excuse for carrying on behaving badly. Longer-term work with parents has to be undertaken; otherwise, the cycle will simply repeat itself. There does, however, come a point when removing a family is right and fair for the surrounding neighbours.

I have other issues that I should like to air, but I am sure that I will get an opportunity to do so later during the Bill's passage through the House. Let me finish my

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contribution by saying that in general I very much welcome the provisions in the Bill, which will serve Erewash extremely well.

3.20 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Antisocial behaviour is the social disease of our era. It feeds fear among victims, and it destroys communities. If it is left untreated, it allows the perpetrators to slide naturally into even more serious crimes.

At surgery after surgery in my constituency, I hear the most pitiful tales. A couple of months ago, two separate delegations—each unknown to the other—came to see me to talk about the absolutely hideous behaviour of one family. There is a child at risk involved in the case, so I cannot be too specific about it lest the child might be identified. However, such cases involve children bullying other children, and people threatening their neighbours and urinating through letter boxes. In more than one case, such incidents have built up to people firebombing their neighbours—a very serious crime that started from relatively small, but repetitive and ugly, beginnings. Other cases involve families unable to sleep at night because of the noise from next door.

The House should be in no doubt that I strongly support any measure seriously designed to tackle the problems of antisocial behaviour. I listened to the Home Secretary when he originally announced the Bill. My heart leaped: the Bill seemed to be full of good ideas but, once I came to examine the small print, I could not believe how little substance there was.

In the next four or five minutes, I want to look at a couple of the principles behind the Bill's aims that seem to me to be right, then at some examples that show how the Bill will not deliver anything. Finally, I shall make a suggestion of my own.

Two underlying principles ran through the Home Secretary's speech. If they were implemented they would be absolutely sound, and they have been enunciated repeatedly, at one time or another, by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field). One principle is that we have to shift from a criminal approach to a civil approach in connection with behavioural patterns of the sort that have been described. The other is that we must adopt a multi-agency approach, and not simply leave the matter to the police, although my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, is right to say that we need more policemen.

Those two principles are sound, and they are fine. However, what is the Bill trying to achieve? One example is perhaps the most dramatic. People have pointed out already the flaw in the proposal regarding the closure of crack houses. I have several crack houses in my constituency, and they are known habitats of drug dealers. I thought that I was really going to be able to welcome the proposal to close crack houses. It struck me as an excellent way forward, using magistrates courts rather than Crown courts, the balance of probability, and the civil law. I believed that the police would be able to go and take action, and that the provision would make a big difference. However, several hon. Members have pointed out already that the problem is that the police do not merely have to establish, on the balance of probability, that illegal drugs are being handled on the

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premises. They also have to establish that there is a public nuisance, which completely torpedoes the measure, as I shall spell out.

What makes dealing with such activity so difficult is that witnesses are frightened to come forward. The Bill would be a good measure if it were properly drafted and did not require witnesses. Police on their own can provide evidence of a physical nature that should be enough to support other evidence to the effect that, on the balance of probabilities, a property is being used for such purposes.

The Bill shifts the requirement on the police. Instead of merely having to prove that a property is being used for drugs, the Bill will require them to prove as well that it is causing a public nuisance. In that way, the Home Secretary is virtually guaranteeing that it will be necessary to produce witnesses. Proving a substantial public nuisance inevitably requires victims who are willing to speak out. The additional requirement therefore ensures that the Bill is almost completely torpedoed, and I suspect that very few closures will take place.

Several similar examples could be offered. There is not enough time to go into them all, but I want to talk about demotion of tenancies. No one supports more strongly than I the proposition that antisocial tenants must be got rid of. I have introduced two, or even three, ten-minute Bills that have looked at different elements of the problem, such as the eviction of violent husbands and partners. I strongly support such a measure, but what is the concept of demotion of tenancy trying to achieve? Surely, the same evidence will be required to achieve a demotion of tenancy as would be required to secure an eviction?

The evidence would have to be brought before the Crown court, as is the case at the moment. A demotion of tenancy is the stage that comes before an eviction, but a real change would involve more than simply changing the name and then having the same debate. A much better way would be to let magistrates courts handle such cases, as they involve local people who are aware of local conditions. Alternatively, the eviction decision could be taken away from the courts, and provision could be made to ensure that conviction for certain categories of crime would end a secure tenancy automatically. The tenant would automatically be served with a notice to the effect that he or she was in the hands of the local authority, which would then be able to make the decision itself. The matter could be handled in a variety of ways, but it is certain that the approach adopted by the Bill will make very little difference.

As I listened to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, I was struck again by the fact that the Government have failed—yet again—to act on a measure that he proposed. I and other Opposition Members welcomed it and, had it not been for the pathetic behaviour of the Liberal Democrats, it would have been accepted by the House. However, the Government have chosen not to take this opportunity to adopt the right hon. Gentleman's proposals.

In the final minute or so of my speech, I should like to offer one last thought to the House. It is something that would make a real difference. Why do we not cut down on the paperwork involved in arrests? That is what discourages the police from dealing with the smaller

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offences that can do so much harm in society. The best way to do that would be to amend the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 so as to give back to police the traditional habeas corpus power that they had until 19 years ago. The American police still have it, and holding people overnight is often the best way to deal with antisocial behaviour.

3.28 pm

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