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7.9 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): The debate has indicated how complex dealing with antisocial behaviour is. One complexity that underpins it is that, unfortunately, there is not a blank sheet or the same starting point for all those involved in antisocial behaviour. We seem to agree about the need for early intervention, and I say to the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) that everything he suggests we should be doing, we are doing very well. However, some people in our community-adults and young people-have been involved in antisocial behaviour for some time and sucked in the energy of many different agencies and services, and in those cases firmer action needs to be taken.

John Hemming: The right hon. Lady says that the Government are doing everything that we suggest they should. We suggested both in Public Bill Committees and on the Floor of the House having fixed penalty notices for community service orders, but the Government did not accept that.

Caroline Flint: As far as I am aware, a number of fixed penalty notices are available for use by local authorities for dealing with graffiti, litter and all sorts of things. On many occasions we were criticised for introducing them, but in the right circumstances they are of huge benefit to the community.

John Hemming rose-

Caroline Flint: I shall make a little progress, if I may, because I am in the first paragraph of my speech.

It would be fair to say that in most of the Don Valley communities that I represent, antisocial behaviour is still one of the biggest concerns that my constituents raise with me. We have heard again this afternoon about its impact on our poorer communities, but it crosses communities and it is not only adults and young people from poorer backgrounds who cause problems. I spent some time with safer neighbourhood teams in my constituency this summer and was told by police officers, as I was by those in other parts of the country when I was a Home Office Minister, that one thing that they find galling is parents turning up to a local park and unloading their kids from their 4x4s with alcohol to amuse themselves for the evening. That is not acceptable, and the need for parental responsibility applies to all parents, no matter what their level of income.

In Don Valley and Doncaster, I have seen some real progress compared with 10 or 11 years ago, when it seemed that the criminal justice system did not really care about or understand the impact of antisocial behaviour. Some 13, 15 or 20 years ago, the police were short-staffed
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and ran from crisis to crisis. If a neighbourhood had a community police officer, that officer was pretty much on their own. In the police service, that sort of policing was not seen as valuable to future career prospects. Now we have seen some positive changes.

At that time, antisocial behaviour went largely unrecognised and the police often did not have the time to come out and deal with complaints about youth nuisance, harassment or intimidation. Even when members of the public reported incidents of antisocial behaviour, the reports were not collected and often went into a black hole. The police would then say, "Well, nobody's complaining to us", and the community would say, "We are complaining, but nobody is gathering the intelligence and using it effectively."

That failure to address antisocial behaviour undermined public confidence in local police, but it was also a failure of Governments past. It was a failure of leadership, resources and the will to address the underlying causes of such behaviour. It became clear, particularly to Labour Members, that we needed to respect the families who faced harassment and intimidation outside their front door day in, day out. We needed to take on a criminal justice system that did not understand and was not really interested. Tackling antisocial behaviour is an example of a public policy originally advocated not by the professionals but from the grass roots in our communities, and supported by elected representatives who were determined to get action. The Labour Government got it, and sought to improve the situation.

New resources have been provided to rebuild communities such as mine-coal mining communities savaged by the loss of traditional employment-and a focus on education standards has meant that we have gone from only 34 per cent. of young people getting five GCSEs at A to C in 1998 to 71 per cent. in 2009. There have been extra community funding, home security initiatives and youth funding. There are more police officers-13,500 more nationally-and new police community support officers to supplement their work, which has been central to turning the antisocial behaviour problem around.

I am pleased to say that across South Yorkshire, like many parts of the country, we now have dedicated safer neighbourhood teams, with police officers, PCSOs and community wardens working with other agencies and accountable to the neighbourhoods that they cover. We have identified the power gaps and bureaucracy that got in the way of action, and we are putting the situation right.

There is always room for improvement, and policies and practices are always worth reflecting on and changing if necessary. There is no doubt that the Government have got a lot right in tackling crime, but there is more to do. We are the only Government to have reversed the rising trend of crime not for one year but year on year for more than a decade. Crime is now a third lower, and in Doncaster it has fallen by 10 per cent. in each of the past two years.

Chris Huhne: Does the right hon. Lady realise that crime has fallen in every western European country except Belgium? Does that reflect on anything that she is saying?

Caroline Flint: We are all doing something right, then, and well done to all those countries too.

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New powers have been important, and we have spent considerable time talking about ASBOs. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that any power that is provided should be used in the best way possible, but it is interesting that he talks about using antisocial behaviour powers as a last resort. That approach is too constricting, because people involved in such activity are often extreme in their behaviour and wilfully disregard what is acceptable in communities. That is one reason why using such powers only as a last resort results in breaches-by then, the problem and the individual concerned have got out of control.

There are other orders available, such as youth referral orders for young first-time offenders, which build into the system restorative justice, reparation and apology to victims. In my experience, those who try to act big when served with an ASBO end up behind bars. If that is a badge of honour, it is one that is welcomed in most communities. In Doncaster, the council's legal services staff have pursued 55 ASBOs since 2003. Four have been extended and a further 16 are currently being progressed. I am grateful to them for the support that they give our safer neighbourhood policing teams.

A number of the new powers have been vital in giving those on the ground the tools they need to restore public confidence. The confiscation of alcohol in the street, the power to close crack houses, the breaking up of gangs in designated areas and the power to escort young children home after 9 pm have all proved popular and, if properly targeted, are highly effective. I spent some time with safer neighbourhood teams in my area this summer, and I was pleased to see that when we came across young people with alcohol, even when the one holding it was over 18 and could provide proof, the alcohol was confiscated if younger people were present. That power is important, effective and quick.

However, I say to Ministers that in the past couple of years I have been a little worried about the moving of responsibility for antisocial behaviour from the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice to the Department for Children, Schools and Families. In August 2008, an interview in the New Statesman with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families was prefaced with the comment:

In my view, that policy shift was misguided and wrong. Moving the Respect unit and responsibility for youth crime and antisocial behaviour to the DCSF did not make any sense. Tackling those problems should be firmly the responsibility of the Home Office, whether it involves young people or not. The Respect unit should have stayed with the Home Office, and I am glad that it has now been put firmly back where it belongs.

For a period, searches for information about antisocial behaviour on the DCSF website produced pages of press releases about the children's plan and playgrounds. I do not think that anyone in the Commons would vote against more youth facilities or playgrounds, but we do not stop intimidation or harassment just by providing swings.

Labour is the political party that most people identify with to tackle antisocial behaviour, but we are in danger of losing ground. Thankfully, that does not reflect the good work that was happening on the ground in Doncaster
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and elsewhere. To that end, the current Home Secretary has my full support in turning things around, because rhetoric matters. It does not matter as much as what is happening, but it sets the tone, which is important when the public are listening.

We should never be complacent about antisocial behaviour. It is a contributory factor to neighbourhood decline; it makes people feel powerless and makes them stay indoors more; it makes parents more worried about their children playing out; and, let us not forget, the largest group of victims of antisocial behaviour consists of children and young people. Often, they cannot go to the youth club because there is a gang outside intimidating them, they cannot use the playground because glass has been scattered across it, and they cannot enjoy the services that are in the community because they are preyed upon by young people and sometimes adults. Antisocial behaviour makes people fear their own neighbourhoods at certain times of day and night. It is absolutely corrosive and eats away at the quality of life.

The problem of antisocial behaviour is local. It may happen in a particular gathering place, an off-licence, or a couple of streets, or it may be to do with a particular family. Each problem requires a local solution, but to make such solutions effective, we have needed better teamwork between councils and police, new powers to deal with the problems, and particularly local policing and community liaison.

As I said, I spent three shifts on duty with the safer neighbourhood policing teams that operate in my constituency, and I am very grateful to Sergeant Richard Vernon and his Doncaster West team; Sergeant Russell Higham and his Doncaster South team; and Sergeant Richard Barnes's team, whom I accompanied in the Hatfield and Dunscroft parts of Doncaster East. They would not let me get away without mentioning them. It was good to see how they were making a difference. They worked very closely with the council's neighbourhood wardens, and PCSOs make a valuable contribution to those teams. One told me that they extend an open invitation to Richard Littlejohn, who described PCSOs as "plastic policemen", to visit Doncaster to see the important contribution that they make.

PCSOs respond to community feedback to shape their operations, use local intelligence from the public and others to task their operations, whether that is to do with roads where traffic speed is excessive, an off-licence where young people gather or a churchyard drinking spot. They organise night-time operations to tackle motorbike nuisance and burglaries, visit victims of crime and are involved in drugs raids.

What lessons did I learn from that experience? First, on parenting orders, we need to hold parents to account. When Doncaster truanting cases are taken to court, it is standard practice to request a parenting order, but when children and young people are involved in antisocial behaviour, that does not happen. I think that that is wrong and I am campaigning locally to ensure that the loophole is closed. That is certainly one of the clear comments that were made by the three safer neighbourhood policing teams that I was able to work alongside this summer.

Secondly, on communication, as a local MP, I know how much is being done to tackle antisocial behaviour and of the success stories that arise from that, and the police and others hold regular meetings-monthly, I
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believe-to listen and provide information. They are getting better at communicating success through community newsletters, websites and the local media, but many residents are still not aware, and tend to believe only the negative stories in our national media, which rarely cover the positive action and change on the ground.

Delivering immediate, cheap but topical information to the most affected households about what is being done could give an enormous boost to residents' sense of well-being and should be encouraged. Likewise, MPs have a key role in providing information on constituents' concerns and communicating to them the powers that exist. I did a survey of constituents, and it became clear that although they knew about safer neighbourhood teams, they did not know how to contact them. I was able to feed that into the process and help to put it right.

Thirdly, justice is important to the public's sense of safety and fairness. For a number of criminal offences, the public would support non-custodial sentences if they had faith in such an alternative. For too long, the professionals have argued against visible community sentencing. Sometimes, professionals, Ministers and Opposition Members have been squeamish about the idea of an offender wearing a bright jacket when undertaking activities in the community where they have committed crimes. Thankfully, that has changed, but I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we need go further and apply the same conditions to under-17s, who need to be seen to be facing the consequences of their behaviour. Too often, they are taken off to do worthwhile activities remote from the community they have harmed.

I recognise the need for a variety of actions to move a young person away from a life of crime, and to show them that there is understanding of how they became what they are, and support for them to take control and turn their lives around. However, that should not be at the expense of facing up to the consequences of their actions and the debt they owe to the community.

Fourthly, the Home Office is undertaking a pilot whereby communities can bid for the return of the proceeds of crime. I think that that is very worth while. I am very proud that I was the Minister who took the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 through Parliament. Crime should not pay. However, I would like my hon. Friend to look at the possibility of further decentralisation, so that the assets of crime that are collected can be used more locally and so that there is a greater opportunity for direct involvement in decisions on how that money should be spent.

In my final comments, I shall focus on the horrendous and brutal attack on two children in my constituency earlier this year. The attack in Edlington was all the more shocking because it was undertaken by two boys aged 10 and 11. The attack was exceptional in its severity, for Edlington or anywhere else, and the malicious injury of children by other children is always shocking. Given that the two attackers were under the supervision of Doncaster children's services, it is no surprise that an inquiry is under way.

A lot has been written about Edlington, much of it unfair to the former pit village. Photos used in one newspaper showed a street with derelict houses that was demolished years ago-a new health centre stands there today. The village has gone through tough times, not least in the years following the closure of the mine in the
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mid-'80s, but that is not the Edlington of today: crime has fallen steadily; there are fewer offences and victims; there is better local policing and good community organisation; and there are improving schools. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it is far from broken.

I am sure mistakes will come to light during the inquiry. The people in the services are human and make mistakes, and we always say, "Never again." When children die or are terribly injured, there is quite rightly a huge amount of publicity and debate, but what we do not talk about enough are the children who survive early childhood but who are so damaged that their futures is bleak, and who could become a danger to themselves and to others. Those wider issues need to be addressed alongside the question of why the victims in Edlington could not have been better protected.

Sadly, some families are badly dysfunctional. No parent is perfect, but some are hopeless and cruel. When parents are heavy drug users and live in an atmosphere of selfishness fuelled by addiction, how can a child be fed, cared for or emotionally supported? I have met many young adults who are caught up in crime who have drug or alcohol problems or sometimes both. Their life stories often involve a lot of intervention from social services and others, and large amounts of time spent in foster care or residential homes.

We have heard how the Government are supporting earlier intervention on our most challenging families, which I support, but I believe, as does Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo's, that in some cases, children should be removed sooner rather than later. For a number of reasons, over several decades, keeping children with their families appears to have assumed priority status.

Coram, a charity devoted to the welfare of children, partners prospective adoptive parents with children under two whose future is being decided by the courts. If the birth family can demonstrate to the courts, often after drug treatment and support, that they can meet the child's needs, the baby can return to their care. If not, the carers can proceed to formal adoption. All the adults take the risks and, above all else, the child's needs are paramount.

The great advantage of that process for the children is that it will speed up planning for their lives without having to suffer moves of placement and delay. Coram is holding a conference today to promote that adoption model, which they call concurrent planning. Only four local authorities have worked with the organisation, and most are sticking to the old methods.

I realise that that matter would most appropriately be dealt with by Ministers in the DCSF, but I am trying to address how we can save some of those children from becoming the problems that they may become in their later lives, as we have seen in our communities. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister takes my points on board and that the Children's Secretary will seriously look at that model and assist a wider debate on its use.

7.30 pm

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): I do not believe for a second that we would be discussing antisocial behaviour orders today in Government time had it not been for the tragic deaths in my constituency in 2007 of Fiona Pilkington and Francecca Hardwick, and the
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subsequent coroner's report, which came out in October. The two tragically died in a fire in a car, and the coroner returned verdicts of suicide and unlawful killing. That case has forced the whole antisocial behaviour issue up the agenda, which is why we are discussing it today.

The small community of Barwell has been distressed by these events, as has the larger community of my constituency. Indeed, it has shocked the nation, and we have had the arc lights of the national media focused on Barwell. On behalf of the community that I have represented for more than 20 years, I make the point that Barwell is a good community. It has a great carnival in the summer. The people are hard-working, they work together and they like each other. The problem is a tiny number of people. As other hon. Members have said, it is a tiny number who cause the problems, and they have to be the focus. Whatever measures we take, we have to focus on the ends of the normal distribution-those few people who cause all the problems.

I attended the memorial service for Fiona and Frankie on Tuesday last week in Barwell at Newlands primary school, organised by the Reverend Andrew Murphy and all the churches in Barwell and Earl Shilton, the next-door village. It was a very moving ceremony conducted with great dignity. Fiona's mother was there, as was Francecca's brother. The community-a good, solid Leicestershire community-came together. So to those who have rubbished Barwell and its people, I say stop. It is a problem caused by a tiny number, and it is being worked on.

The coroner criticised the three main agencies-the police, Hinckley and Bosworth borough council and, to a lesser extent, Leicestershire county council. Given the statement earlier about the firing of the drugs tsar, how can the crime tsar, Louise Casey, have survived, when she has criticised the Government so vociferously. She has said:

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