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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Young people-believe it or not, I was once one myself-want to be able to play football, or to get involved in a
gang in a positive way. I was involved in a gang when I was a young person. They want to have the freedom to do things in a reasonable way and to enjoy the community, and we need to look at where their activities split and start to do damage to the community and become a negative force. The work that we are trying to do, in enforcement and in prevention, has that aim. Yes, the youth crime action plan, the diversionary activities and the support that we are giving to communities involves Government money-taxpayers' money-going into those areas, but that is all being done in a positive manner to ensure that we can provide local alternative activities.
I have spoken for some 40 minutes now, and I want to give colleagues from across the Floor an opportunity to raise issues on the subject. The Government have a strong story to tell. We announced new measures in October this year, and we are committed to tackling antisocial behaviour. Every citizen has the right to enjoy their life, free from the burdens of antisocial behaviour that can damage communities. I look forward to hearing the debate, and to hearing my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary winding up later this evening.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): I welcome this debate on antisocial behaviour-a problem that blights too many communities across the country and one that has a marked impact on the quality of people's lives, the confidence people have in their own communities and their sense of safety. The Minister himself mentioned these factors in his opening comments.
I need to take the Minister to task, however, over what he said in that opening statement about the Government's sustained or continued approach. Given that on the Home Secretary's own admission, the Government have been "coasting on" for some time, that amounts to a serious indictment of their record on an issue that we were told-we have been told again this afternoon-was a priority. It all seems a far cry from the promise of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) when he said:
"We should and will be unremitting in our efforts to drive up standards of behaviour and enforce a culture of respect, for the benefit of all."
Yet we know that the Government's own neighbourhood crime adviser, Louise Casey, acknowledged that the Government had "let people down" on crime and antisocial behaviour. If today's newspaper reports are true, Sara Payne, the Government's victims champion, will warn later this week that the Government need to take antisocial behaviour "a lot more seriously".
Apparently, the current Home Secretary believes that tackling antisocial behaviour has been a good idea that the Government had simply stopped talking about-hence today's debate about antisocial behaviour. It puts me in mind of the comments in the "Respect Handbook", which notes:
"Communicating action taken is as important as taking action".
Hazel Blears (Salford) (Lab):
If the hon. Gentleman is so keen on action, why does he propose to cut the Home Office budget by £160 million, getting rid of
3,500 police officers, which will mean far less action on the streets of Britain under a Tory Government than under this Labour Government?
James Brokenshire: It is fairly typical of the right hon. Lady to come up with a point like that, when she well knows that there are plenty of savings to be made in the Home Office's budget-on ID cards and all sorts of other things, but not on front-line services. That, I think, is the key part of our policy to ensure that we deliver those front-line services for the benefit of our communities and secure the safety that they rightly deserve.
It is interesting to hear the right hon. Lady approaching the issue in that way when her own Prime Minister has hardly shown leadership from the top. As Prime Minister, he has made only one significant speech on crime and antisocial behaviour. In that speech, given during the summer, he made the carefully considered suggestion that the law-abiding, rather than the law-breaking, should be accompanied to cash point machines by the police-a new twist on what Tony Blair had said previously. The Prime Minister also provided the remarkable insight that
"we face new kinds of crime-especially knife crime"
"we face new causes of crime-including binge drinking, youth gangs and problem families".
"I can tell the British people that between now and Christmas, neighbourhood policing will focus in a more direct and intensive way on anti-social behaviour."
The costs of antisocial behaviour-both to society and to the Government as a whole-are significant. According to the National Audit Office, the cost to Government agencies of responding to reports of antisocial behaviour in England and Wales is approximately £3.4 billion a year. In 2008-09, 3.7 million incidents of antisocial behaviour-equivalent to more than 10,000 every day-were recorded by the police in England and Wales. On average, as the Minister said, even according to the Government's figures, 17 per cent. of the population perceive high levels of antisocial behaviour in their area, with the young and the less well-off being disproportionately affected.
Siobhain McDonagh: I may be mistaken, but is not the hon. Gentleman the same MP with whom I discussed antisocial behaviour orders and the whole attitude to antisocial behaviour in an interview on Radio 4? In that, he appeared to mock the Government's attempts to deal with what he said was a particularly difficult issue, so has he been converted to the cause of dealing with antisocial behaviour and, if so, when did that happen?
James Brokenshire: Conservative Members have always been committed to dealing with antisocial behaviour. The hon. Lady is keen to talk about antisocial behaviour orders, and we will deal with those later, because there is plenty to say about them.
Hazel Blears: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman and his party have experienced a damascene conversion to tackling antisocial behaviour, but I am afraid that his actions are not always as strong as his words. If he believes that antisocial behaviour orders constitute effective powers to tackle antisocial behaviour, will he explain why his party wanted to reduce their length from two years to three months?
James Brokenshire: Antisocial behaviour orders can be effective. We need to subject them to analysis, and to bear in mind the complete lack of focus on them that the Government have displayed. The National Audit Office was very clear about that. If the right hon. Lady will allow me, I shall develop my argument a little further and explain how antisocial behaviour orders may not have lived up to her own expectations, and may not be as effective as they could and should be.
Let me return to the human impact of antisocial behaviour which matters so much-the vandalism and graffiti that make neighbourhoods threatening and unsafe, the abuse and intimidation that put people in daily fear in their communities, and the noise and other acts of selfishness that can even prevent a home from being a place of refuge. The tragic case of Fiona Pilkington, who killed herself and her daughter Francesca, could not provide a more distressing and dark parable to illustrate what it all means.
What was worrying in that case was the fact that Fiona Pilkington's concerns were not responded to. Leicestershire police suggested that low-level disorder was not the responsibility of the police, but that of the council. They were fundamentally wrong. Issues of antisocial behaviour, criminal damage and threatening or abusive behaviour are absolutely a police responsibility. Those are precisely the matters that community policing should be confronting and helping to address, and it is deeply disturbing that responsibility for public protection-providing community safety-could be construed in any other way.
Mrs. Moon: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that what he has cited is the failure of a particular police force rather than the failure of legislation? South Wales police in my constituency are working proactively with all the care agencies that are dealing with young people to prevent developments from reaching the point at which an antisocial behaviour order is required. Once an order has been issued, so many other interventions have clearly failed. We should be focusing on earlier intervention rather than on antisocial behaviour orders.
James Brokenshire: The hon. Lady has made an important point about the steps that should be taken to prevent antisocial behaviour from occurring in the first place, and it clear that some good partnership work is being done around the country. However, we should consider the context. In response to the very point that the hon. Lady has made, the Police Federation argued that the adoption of initiative after initiative was having a negative impact on policing functions and was, perhaps, causing the police to lose their way when it came to priorities.
I suggest that the Police Federation meet my community safety partnership in Bridgend, which is so proactive and so keen to ensure that it develops partnerships and alternative approaches that the
incidence of antisocial behaviour in our area is declining. Where there is success, we should focus on replicating it elsewhere.
James Brokenshire: I am sure that, if the Police Federation follows our proceedings, its members will note what the hon. Lady has said. There is a case for sharing and applying good practice more effectively than is being done at present, and I shall say more about that later. However-this also relates to the hon. Lady's point-I think that we should consider what we mean by antisocial behaviour, as opposed to criminal behaviour, and whether describing behaviour in that way potentially plays down its significance. The term suggests that such activity is selfish and inappropriate, and that it is not the sort of conduct of which society approves, but it also blurs the line between what might be characterised as an annoyance and serious, sustained criminality. The Government's chosen definition of antisocial behaviour brings together a disparate group of seven strands of activity, which leads the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies to suggest that
"it is hardly surprising that anti-social behaviour means whatever the government says it means. This has undoubtedly given ministers enormous scope to target whatever problem they consider to be of interest at any given point in time. Whether such a subjective and amorphous category provides the basis for robust, informed and evidence-based policy is a very different question."
Against this backdrop, serious abusive, threatening and violent activity could be construed as simply antisocial-as something that might have to be put up with and as someone else's problem. It is more than antisocial, however. It is utterly unacceptable; it is criminal and it should be dealt with accordingly.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept, however, that antisocial behaviour often starts over low-level issues? One obvious example is people falling out over a hedge. That sounds like a ridiculous issue to fall out over, but in my area it has often led to very difficult situations with people doing all sorts of awful things to each other. It then becomes a case of genuine antisocial behaviour. We cannot prejudge causation, therefore.
James Brokenshire: Causation is a pertinent issue, and also a very complex one. A whole range of interventions and support are needed to deal with these situations. There is, however, clearly a need for early action to be taken because, as the National Audit Office report and various other studies demonstrate, such situations can quickly escalate into becoming cases that involve much more serious offending. Addressing situations early is therefore likely to be much more effective than trying to deal with them later when the activity or behaviour has become more engrained.
This comes down in part to effective policing. The police cannot do their job when the Home Office is always breathing down their neck, controlling their actions from the centre. The police spend more time form-filling than feeling collars out on the streets. Just 14 per cent. of all police officers' time is spent on patrol, while 22 per cent. is spent on paperwork. Although the Government have sought to change their command and control structure somewhat, it is interesting to note that
the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy, highlighted the following:
"There is every indication that the centre is struggling to overcome its addiction to central control through statistical approaches and one-off initiatives."
James Brokenshire: The interesting question here is what exactly the Minister means by that, because if we think about targets, inspection and the policing pledge, we realise that there is a whole range of issues on which the police are measured under a specific target-driven approach. Therefore, it is still interesting that- [Interruption.] The Minister claims from a sedentary position that there is only a limited range of targets, yet it is clear from the quote I have given that the police themselves think that the Government's command and control driven target approach is still very evident. The police still strongly feel that.
Siobhain McDonagh: I take on board the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but does he not agree that we often need to direct when we want large public sector bodies to become involved in a new area of policy, such as in law and policing? Over the last 10 years, I have found that the police have often been resistant to getting involved in antisocial behaviour situations and that what is required is encouragement and the concerns of the public to be expressed. Every public body should be adaptable to people's feelings and perceptions.
James Brokenshire: That is interesting, because the hon. Lady suggests that the power should come from the people-that it should come from the ground up, rather than from the top down. Therefore, she is making a case against her other point about the need to direct from the centre.
There is a need to create greater discretion across policing as quickly as possible, and our approach is based on two clear and simple principles: scrapping needless paperwork by giving more discretion to the police, and giving officers the power to innovate and stay on the beat. We do not need a whole host of targets, reviews, reports, key performance indicators, investigations and toolkits to meet the simple goal of reducing crime and antisocial behaviour. We need officers to be on the streets, not behind their desks. That is why we would cut the targets, the bureaucracy and the central control to allow police officers to get on with the job. That is also why we would abolish statutory charging for all summary offences and some offences triable "either way", as we want to cut the pre-charge police paperwork that currently has to be given to the Crown Prosecution Service and wish to help restore morale among custody sergeants.
Chris Huhne: Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from the issue of getting more police on to the front line, may I ask what commitment his party is prepared to give in respect of putting more officers on the streets?
James Brokenshire: We have made a very clear commitment to keeping officers on the streets. Our approach is that we must ensure that front-line policing is supported because the public want to know that they have police officers there-there to protect and support them and to deal with the issues that matter to communities. That is why we are proposing these practical measures to address that by getting officers back on to the streets and ensuring that police officers have more time to deal with the problems that communities are concerned about. That is also why we would simplify processes, such as recording stops and searches by radioing in the basic details rather than filling out a form at the scene and another form back at the station, and why we would trial specially designed mobile custody suites-or mobile urban jails-to enable officers to process offenders on site without having to go back to the station.
Instead of improving and promoting good practice, inspection has become a stifling burden almost with a life of its own, with different agencies, different requirements, and different, and potentially conflicting, outcomes measured-and there is more and more to inspect.
Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that, because of such inspection and the attempt to meet targets, many policing priorities have become distorted at the local level, so that whereas police may be available in some areas they are often directed to focus on issues that do not directly benefit the people living in their communities?
James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend makes an important point about localising priorities. Some aspects of the culture that has been created have not supported or helped in that regard, nor have they ensured that the concerns of communities have been adequately addressed. This underlines why we must have a bottom-up approach and why communities' needs and concerns must be respected.
We now have the policing pledge. On the face of it, its purpose is to set and raise standards, but adherence to it will be inspected. Therefore, we will have a further range of inspection of performance against the police pledge. It was introduced as a message to the public, not as another set of metrics by which to judge performance. If we keep on inspecting and inspecting, we will lose more and more police from the streets and spend more and more time on people in offices.
In addition, there are the tools and sanctions available to those in authority to deal with unacceptable behaviour. The Government have emphasised one particular order above all others: the ASBO. In the "Respect action plan", Tony Blair claimed that the ASBO
"is now a household expression-synonymous with tackling anti-social behaviour."
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