Clause 29 — Dispersal of Groups and Removal of Persons Under 16 to Their Place of Residence

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 24th June 2003.

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Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 53, in page 24, leave out lines 35 to 37.

Amendment No. 54, in page 24, line 38, leave out subsection (2).

Amendment No. 55, in page 25, line 6, leave out first 'relevant' and insert 'immediate'.

Amendment No. 58, in page 25, line 6, leave out second 'relevant' and insert 'immediate'.

Government amendment No. 38.

Amendment No. 56, in page 25, line 10, leave out first 'relevant' and insert 'immediate'.

Amendment No. 57, in page 25, line 10, leave out second 'relevant' and insert 'immediate'.

Government amendment No. 39.

Amendment No. 59, in page 25, line 25, leave out 'in the relevant locality'.

Amendment No. 76, in page 25, line 31, leave out

'if removed to that place' and insert

'if that person remained in that place to which he was removed to'.

Amendment No. 60, in page 25, line 36, leave out Clause 30.

Amendment No. 83, in page 26, line 28, leave out Clause 31.

Amendment No. 84, in page 27, line 1, leave out Clause 32.

Amendment No. 85, in page 27, line 25, leave out Clause 33.

Amendment No. 86, in page 28, line 1, leave out Clause 34.

Government amendment No. 40.

Amendment No. 87, in page 28, line 11, leave out Clause 35.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

As well as amendment No. 82, which is in my name and the names of my hon. Friends, in this selection there is a group of other amendments in our name—amendments Nos. 83, 84, 85, 86 and 87. There is one amendment that is jointly in our name and that of Conservative Front Benchers—amendment No. 60. Amendments Nos. 53 to 59 are Conservative amendments that I will leave to Conservative colleagues to address specifically. There are, by my calculation, three Government amendments in the group—amendments Nos. 38, 39 and 40—which are relatively minor amendments to do with locality. The last one is a drafting amendment. Amendment No. 76 is a Conservative amendment that addresses one of the matters that was picked up in the report published by the Joint Committee on Human Rights the other day.

As Ministers will know, this is a significant part of the Bill for my colleagues and me. Indeed, it is significant by any definition, and was flagged up as such in the report on the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. We give thanks to the Committee for its work and for its 13th report, which has helped inform this debate.

There might be time for three debates in the next hour and a half, and I hope that we do, indeed, have time for all of them. The first deals with clause 29, which is in part 4 of the Bill, under the heading "Dispersal of groups, etc.". Whether, at the end of the day, we have to have the word "etc." in the title is a matter that we can no doubt debate; part 4 deals with the dispersal of groups. The title of clause 29 is fairly categorical in terms of the issue that we are debating: it is "Dispersal of groups and removal of persons under 16 to their place of residence".

There was some uncertainty on Second Reading but, to be fair to the Government, it is now clear that the measure contains two proposals. One relates to a power to disperse groups of two or more people, who can be of any age, in certain circumstances. A separate power relates to the removal of under-16s. I want to discuss both those powers, and to signal to the House that we have strong reasons for believing that they are unnecessary and inappropriate; that they go far too wide; that they probably break the law; and that they will be positively unhelpful in trying to deal with antisocial behaviour. I should say that there is a point of common agreement in all parts of the House that, when behaviour becomes threatening, intimidating or harassing, and when people of any age intervene in the lives of other people to make their lives a misery, it is unacceptable.

Like me, the new Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety represents an inner-city seat. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and for Ludlow (Matthew Green)—who served on the Standing Committee—represent very different seats. One has a large seaside resort with a rural hinterland; the other has a beautiful rural area with a large county town and smaller towns and villages. None of us, however, is immune to the fact that there are people of all ages—although they are generally under 40—who can behave in an antisocial way from time to time.

There is a question as to what antisocial behaviour is, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights has suggested that we should be careful about how we define it. The Liberal Democrats have a fundamental objection to the way in which the Government have drafted this part of the Bill. In Committee, my hon. Friends sought to persuade the Committee to amend the Bill. Had they been able to do so, our fundamental objections would, to be honest, have gone away, because we should have taken out the great iniquity of the drafting. I hope that I can now persuade the House that, as presently drafted, the Bill goes much too far in two respects.

I shall deal later with clause 29(6), which relates to the power to remove young people. Clause 29(1) states:

"This section applies where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a) that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed"— those are the four conditions that a person can be judged to be in—

"as a result of"— the precondition that—

"the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more persons in public places in any locality in his police area . . . and"— there is a second precondition that—

"(b) that anti-social behaviour is a significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality."

There must, therefore, have been a finding that antisocial behaviour was a "significant and persistent problem".

That will immediately lead to the difficulty—although it is not the biggest difficulty—of determining what the locality is. Could it, for example, be the whole of the London borough of Southwark, in the case of my constituency, or the whole of the metropolitan borough of Salford, in the case of the Minister's? Could it be one of the places in a borough, such as the Poole part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole, or a ward, a council estate or a street? That has not been sorted out. There may be guidelines, but if there had been persistent antisocial behaviour in part of the London borough of Southwark, which I know best, that may be enough for someone to be covered by the second precondition.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

Let me make the case, and I shall give way in a second.

My judgment is—I am being absolutely honest about this—that it is probably possible to find enough antisocial behaviour to get over the first threshold in any constituency in the United Kingdom. Most constituencies contain areas in which there are problems, and if they occur more than once or a few times, they could be said to be persistent. The difficulty comes when there is a trigger that can suddenly have a consequence for a wide area even though the problem has an impact on only a small area.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

The hon. Gentleman is making a reasonable point about defining an area, but there should be guidance. Area crime prevention partnerships could identify problem areas. As well as the police, other agencies and individuals that make up those partnerships could define the locality when there is a particular problem in their area, and they could give community constables the power to act.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

That is true, although we do not have those definitions as yet. The hon. Gentleman will remember that the Labour Government introduced, and Parliament legislated for, the power to place curfews over areas designated either by the local authority or by the police. As we know, no such curfew areas have yet been designated, although the powers have been available for some years

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

It is different, but it is the same concept. Authorities were given the power suddenly to intervene on anyone who came within the designated curfew area. Under this Bill, once the area has been designated, the authorities will be allowed suddenly to act in relation to people in the area. The arguments do not stand on their own: they stand together. The major objection to this provision is that, because of some previous behaviour by some, we will be punishing what may be perfectly respectable behaviour by many. By acting on the situation in the past, when there may have been antisocial behaviour by a few, we may infringe the civil liberties of a large number of people.

I shall explain why that would be the consequence of the Bill and why the hon. Gentleman, on reflection, may decide that he should not support this provision. Once the location issue has been sorted out, what does the Bill provide? It says that all that is needed is for a relevant officer to have reasonable grounds for believing that any members of the public—it could be a member or two members—have been alarmed or distressed as a result of not just the behaviour but the presence of groups of two or more people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow put the point clearly in Committee. If members of the public have been intimidated, harassed or alarmed as a result of the behaviour of groups of people, action could reasonably follow, but it is not reasonable to provide that when any members of the public may have been alarmed or distressed, however unreasonably, by the presence of two or more people, the authorities can go in.

4.15 pm

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman why the provision is completely unacceptable. It means that, if someone who for no good reason does not like people hanging around at the bus stop, gets into a state about people hanging around the park bench or is troubled and anxious—distressed—because a group of people come with their bikes, mountain bikes, motor bikes or scooters and gather at the village pond or at the bottom of the stairwell, that is sufficient—[Interruption.] Yes, it is. It is sufficient that members of the public are distressed or alarmed as a result of the presence of groups of two or more persons. There does not have to be any behaviour at all, let alone antisocial behaviour. They just have to be there.

My colleagues and I will not sign up to legislation that allows the perception of one person, the views of one person or the reaction of a group of people to determine who shall be on our streets, in our parks or at our bus shelters. The reality is that the provision will most often be used—not necessarily always—by groups of adults who do not like young people hanging around outside somewhere near them. Sometimes they may go further than that. They may use it because of prejudice, because of the hairstyles of a group of people, or because of what they do, or because of their colour—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I will in a second but I hope that the hon. Lady and everyone else will put it on the record that it would be unacceptable, in a country that prides itself on civil liberties, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights makes clear, to legislate to prevent people from being present in our public places if their presence alone causes distress to someone else. I hope that she will endorse that.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, for the provision to apply, not only must people be alarmed and distressed, but antisocial behaviour must be a significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality, as designated by a senior police officer? Does he accept that the provision is not about moving on people who are doing nothing wrong but about dealing with areas that are plagued by antisocial behaviour? He wishes to delete the provisions that deal with that issue.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I am sorry that the hon. Lady cannot read the Bill well and did not listen to what I said clearly. She must take away her prejudices and address the legislation that the Government have put before the House. I have dealt with the issue clearly and if she just listens she may be able to correct her views and we may reach some agreement. As I made clear about five minutes ago, there has to be a significant and persistent problem of antisocial behaviour for the provision to apply, but just because there has been such behaviour before, that is not a reason for people whose mere presence causes alarm or distress to others to be dealt with in that way. They could be sent to prison for three months if they contravened a direction from the officer to move on.

I know the hon. Lady's constituency quite well. I was on holiday in Cleethorpes a couple of summers ago. Let us imagine that in a park in Cleethorpes, or in Grimsby, there had been some persistent antisocial behaviour. Let us imagine that there had been some trouble in those places, that a week or two later the authorisation was given, that there were some young people hanging around and that people kept on phoning the police from houses across the road from the park, saying that they were troubled, distressed and concerned that those 16-year-olds were hanging around in the park. That would be sufficient for the police to be able to disperse that group, and that would be unacceptable. One should respond to behaviour, not presence, and on the basis of what people do, not of what others think that they might do. Nor should one respond on the basis of the reactions of others to the fact that such people are present.

That is why the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which is chaired by a colleague of Shona McIsaac and does not have a Liberal Democrat majority, asked the House to consider whether these provisions breach our international legal requirements in law. If the hon. Lady has taken the trouble, as I hope she has, to talk to bodies such as the National Youth Agency, she will have discovered that they are strongly opposed to these provisions.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

Not just yet. If the hon. Lady had talked to the coalition of people who deal with children's and young people's issues—the National Children's Bureau and various other organisations—she would have discovered that they are strongly opposed to these provisions. If she had talked to the Association of Chief Police Officers, she would realise that it, too, has significant concerns about them. If she had talked to the Youth Justice Board, she would realise that the way to deal with the sort of people whom she may want to prevent from continuing to be antisocial—if that is what they have been—is not through this approach at all.

Will coming in heavy with police officers and seeking to move on youngsters—particularly youngsters—who are doing nothing wrong, just because others have been doing something wrong, improve relations between the police and young people? It certainly will not. Will it improve respect for the police? It certainly will not. Will it improve behaviour in the community? It certainly will not. Will it improve respect from young people for those who made the complaint? It certainly will not. The hon. Lady should know that the alternative provisions and proactive, positive work with young people that the Youth Justice Board has been largely responsible for initiating have been far more effective in dealing with antisocial behaviour and youth crime, as I hope Ministers realise. If she does not know that, I invite her to talk to that body—a body that her Government set up. And I commend unreservedly the work done by Lord Warner, the former chairman of the Youth Justice Board—he is now a Minister in the Lords—and his staff.

I have sheaves of paper in front of me that set out the successful schemes that are a result of initiatives taken by the hon. Lady's Government. They have reduced antisocial behaviour and crime in many of our communities. One example is the summer splash programme in Avon and Somerset.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

Yes, in a moment. Figures for summer 2002 show a reduction in street crime and robbery of 31 per cent. in those parts of the police authority that ran the scheme. That compares with an increase of 56 per cent. in areas where the scheme did not run. In south Yorkshire, the police authority of the Under-Secretary, Caroline Flint, this type of crime fell last summer by 17 per cent. in areas that ran the scheme. That compares with an increase of 62 per cent. in areas that did not run it. Across all 10 summer splash areas, there was an overall reduction in the local crime rate of 5.2 per cent. between July and September.

Colleagues and I have asked many questions on this issue, and the figures make it abundantly clear that what reduces antisocial behaviour is positive, proactive intervention with troublemakers and young people, not the heavy hand of the law in dealing with those who are doing nothing wrong.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way—at last. I have followed his argument with some interest. If the police receive complaints from local residents about a group of young—or not so young—people with a known record of antisocial behaviour congregating in a particular area, I cannot understand why they should not have the right to disperse them, thereby relieving the prevailing tensions in the local community, just because those people happen not to be doing anything at that specific moment.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

If the hon. Gentleman does not understand that, he does not understand the Human Rights Act 1998, implemented by his Government, which enshrined a right of assembly in this country's domestic law that can be upheld in the courts. It applies to 16-year-olds as much as to the hon. Gentleman, and it applies to people who are not doing anything wrong.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I am not giving way for a second time. The hon. Gentleman needs to understand that, under this legislation, the police are not restricted to picking up people who have been convicted of offences before or people who may have been guilty of antisocial behaviour. No such restrictions can be found in the Bill. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will stick up for people's rights to behave normally, as they choose and with their own freedom of expression, even if sometimes their presence causes other people some distress or alarm. The test should not be whether the hon. Gentleman is alarmed by three 17-year-olds coming down the street towards him; it should be whether there is a cause—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I have already given way once and I am still dealing with the intervention of Mr. Bailey.

The question should be whether those people are, because of their behaviour, causing the hon. Gentleman reasonably to be distressed or alarmed. If that is the case, having the power to intervene may be necessary. However, the police already have acres of legislation—passed by the present Government, the previous Government and the Government before that—to give them the power to deal with those circumstances. The police have a variety of crime and disorder legislation, common law—indeed, a bookful of legislation, which I shall give the hon. Gentleman to read over the weekend—at their disposal. The police already have preventive powers under public order legislation that allow them to intervene if they suspect a breach of the peace, if there is harassment or a threat. There is no need for more powers, when the current powers are not being used to the full.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that no proof of evidence of previous behaviour is required of any suspected groups of people before a police officer or group of officers can come along and designate a place to be one of persistent nuisance, which then gives them the right to disperse the group?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Like me, he represents an inner city constituency where there are tensions, which sometimes lead to antisocial behaviour. However, we really cannot act on the basis of people's prejudice, or personal response to others. To take a controversial example, if a group of young middle eastern people walking along a street saw a gathering of some young Jewish people on the corner, it might be sufficient to trigger concern because they might feel distress or alarm. The young Jewish people might not have done anything, but the others could be distressed or alarmed because of their gathering—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

No, the hon. Gentleman has not read his legislation, and he should not go through the Lobby voting in favour of legislation that does not say what he thinks it says. If the hon. Gentleman wants to go to his constituents and defend people being taken off the streets and, if they do not agree with it, being regarded as committing a criminal offence that could result in their going to prison for three months when they have done nothing wrong, let him defend it! We on the Liberal Democrat Benches will not defend that. We defend punishing the guilty, but not punishing the innocent. We defend combating prejudice, not pandering to it.

The hon. Gentleman must not go down the road of believing that going in, clearing the streets, moving people on and using the police to do it is the way to build good community relations. It is not, and anyone who knows what they are talking about knows that it is not. If the hon. Gentleman believes that that is the way to build a responsible next generation, I have to tell him that he is sorely misguided.

I commend to the hon. Gentleman—and hope that, over the weekend, he will read—the public order digests that present all the current laws. I hope that he will tell us why, if it is such a good idea, a law on curfews has never been implemented. If he thinks that it is such a good idea, why do the police say that they would prefer to use existing crime and disorder legislation? Why do people who are involved in the splash projects, youth inclusion projects and many local schemes say that curfew law is the wrong way to deal with the problem? Why do people who deal in the frontline with young people's behaviour on the streets also say that it is the wrong way?

I just want to make two more points on this proposal. I attended a meeting this morning at which officers from my local authority were making a presentation on developing the athletics track in Southwark park. One of the people from the national organisation representing athletics said to me—I did not prompt him to do so—"Go and tell people that the most useful thing that we can do for antisocial behaviour is to provide more sport, such as athletics and swimming." [Interruption.] Well, I give the Government credit, because they have done a lot, but they should do those things that the evidence proves work, not those things that risk only breeding resentment.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West 4:30 pm, 24th June 2003

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way after all this time. I also have meetings in my constituency and the last few have been to open two sure start schemes designed to create supportive families and combat antisocial behaviour in the long term, and to open a Connexions office designed to help those in the 13 to 19-year-old age group. For him to pretend that the Government are using a one-club approach to this problem is a gross misrepresentation. These provisions will be a useful addition to all the other measures that the Government have instigated to combat antisocial behaviour, and he should acknowledge that.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I just wish colleagues would listen to debates. I spent the first five minutes of my speech acknowledging the work of the Youth Justice Board, which was created by the Labour Government in their first term, including the work of the board's first chairman and the projects it has implemented. I have given credit for the good things that the Government have done, that have worked and that been shown to work.

I have never argued that the Government take a one-club approach. I have never even used the phrase. The hon. Gentleman did not hear me say that, because it was not part of my argument. What I object to is a Big Brother power to take people who have done nothing wrong, deprive them of their liberty and punish them just because they say, "I am sorry, but this is my street. I want to stay here, at this bus shelter or in this park. This is my place. Life at home in my flat on the 16th floor is not great, my parents don't look after me very well and I'd rather be here, with my mates in the fresh air. You tell me not to watch the television so much, and this is where I'd rather be."

The argument is about standing up for young people. It was Edgar in "King Lear" who said, "stand up for bastards". I am standing up for young people. We should ask them what they want and whether they think that this would be a helpful power in the hands of the police. We should also ask those people who deal with young people every day and who work for the projects that the Government have funded. They will say that it is a bad idea. [Interruption.] Well, I have spoken to them and that is what they think.

If hon. Members are not yet convinced, they should consider the report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. It states, at paragraph 33:

"We accept that these are important problems"— by which they mean antisocial behaviour—

"in some areas. However, when we initially examined the Bill we wondered how the measures would in practice make it easier to deal with the problem than it is at the moment. The police already have extensive powers to deal with public order problems. There are many statutes conferring such powers, including the Public Order Act 1986, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. In addition, there is the common law power to take such steps as are necessary to prevent a reasonably apprehended and imminent breach of the peace. If the measures were of no more practical assistance than existing powers, it would be hard to say that they are necessary in a democratic society for the legitimate purposes."

Those are not my words, but the words of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has a Labour majority.

The report also states:

"When we raised this question, the Government replied that the proposed powers would not be dependent on the commission of a criminal offence by any individual in the group, or on the apprehension of an imminent breach of the peace.

These powers would be entirely directed to allow potentially threatening situations to be defused before any harm or disorder becomes imminent.

We are concerned by this response in so far as it is used to justify the introduction of new powers which engage Convention rights. It suggests that the proposed powers are not intended to be a response to threats of serious disorder, but rather to"—

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

No. I am in the middle of quoting the report by the Human Rights Joint Committee, which has a Labour majority. The hon. Gentleman may not want to listen to my arguments, but he might listen to the Committee's unanimously approved arguments. The Committee stated:

"It suggests that the proposed powers are not intended to be a response to threats of serious disorder, but rather to allow the police to manage people in public spaces in such a way as to prevent any more remote risk of minor disorder. It is true to say that this power does not currently exist in the law. There is a reason for that: it has heretofore been regarded as an unnecessary intrusion on the liberty of the individual to allow a constable to give orders to someone where there is no threat of crime or danger to safety. We consider that the potential intrusion on private life and liberty is so extensive and the benefits in any case likely to be so speculative that it might be difficult to establish (either in general or in specific cases) that the powers granted under clause 29 of the Bill will or would be used only when it was proportionate to a pressing social need."

The final sentence in that quotation is printed in bold type in the report.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

I hope that the hon. Gentleman has been listening this time.

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West

Is the hon. Gentleman trying to say that anyone who has been dispersed by the police in such circumstances will be able successfully to challenge the legislation on grounds of human rights?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman has not been listening. It is pathetic.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

It is frustrating that some hon. Members do not yet understand debate. The answer is that that is not what I said. If I had said it, the hon. Gentleman would have heard me say it. The answer is that the Joint Committee concluded that the proposal in the Bill could breach the law. Let us take the example of a person who has not committed an offence or done anything wrong and who refuses to comply when the police try to move him on. If that person were subsequently charged, convicted and sent to prison, he could succeed with a case against the Government.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is proud of the finding that the Government are in breach of the human rights convention, as he will support the proposal in the Lobby. However, I should prefer him not to be proud of it. He should understand that civil liberties are precious, as are the liberties of the individual. We should not give power to the authorities unless those powers are clearly justified.

My final point has to do with clause 29(6), which deals with young people under 16. It states:

"If, between the hours of 9pm and 6am, a constable in uniform finds a person in any public place . . . who he has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a) is under the age of 16, and

(b) is not under the effective control of a parent or a responsible person aged 18 or over, he may remove the person to the person's place of residence unless he has reasonable grounds for believing that the person would, if removed to that place, be likely to suffer significant harm."

That is a separate provision. It allows the police to take young people aged under 16 at any time after 9 o'clock at night and before 6 o'clock in the morning away from where they are. I understand the motivation for the proposal, but it is not a necessary or proportionate power, as the evidence given to the Human Rights Joint Committee shows. Young people under 16 are no more likely to be badly behaved than older people. In fact, most young people are well behaved. Many people over 16 behave much worse.

The Government, rightly, have made a big deal about the rights of children, and we are under pressure to sign up to the UN convention on the rights of the child. The Government announced yesterday that the Minister for Children will also have responsibility for young people. We must take care that we do not tar young people with the brush of calling them troublemakers.

Antisocial behaviour is a serious problem in all constituencies, and the pressure to deal with it is great. However, the responses to it can be either proper or improper. The responses in clause 29 are improper.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

I am pleased to be able to take part in the debate. Like Simon Hughes, I believe that this is one of the most important sections of the Bill, so I am astonished that the Liberal Democrats want to delete all the provisions that give the police powers to deal with persistent and significant antisocial behaviour in our communities.

We know that antisocial behaviour is a problem the length and breadth of the country. Every day hon. Members receive complaints from their constituents about such behaviour perpetrated by gangs—except in Ludlow. The Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Standing Committee, Matthew Green, told us that there was no antisocial behaviour in Ludlow, so perhaps we should not be astonished that the Liberal Democrats want to delete clause 29. Their spokesperson told us that antisocial behaviour did not exist. Liberal Democrat councillors throughout the land who are calling for increased powers to deal with antisocial behaviour and the dispersal of groups should pay attention to those remarks. Many Liberal Democrat councils back the Government's measures on the issue.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is the hon. Lady confident that all the existing powers to deal with antisocial behaviour are being used in her area?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

No, antisocial behaviour in my area is not being tackled as well as I should like; it is a persistent problem, which is why we need additional legislation to support the existing provisions. The Bill should not be considered in isolation because its powers will interlink with others; they will weave together different aspects so as to tackle that most serious of problems in our communities.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in every year, under every Government, there is a crime Bill because that issue exercises our constituents? Sometimes, Governments get the measures right; sometimes, they get them wrong and some of the powers that we had hoped would work do not work in practice. However, the clause includes some practical provisions, which are certainly welcomed by the Police Federation; they will be used in moderation, in extreme cases where people want an end to horrendous and persistent yobbish behaviour.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

My hon. Friend makes some pertinent points. He is right to draw our attention to the comments of the Police Federation. I notice that the Liberal Democrats conveniently glossed over those comments. In its response, the federation stated:

"The power to be able to disperse unruly gangs is seen by the Police Federation to be particularly helpful for situations where a Section 5 Public Order offence is inappropriate, but where loutish, intimidating behaviour needs to be tackled and youngsters moved on. The provision of a power to deal with such situations, in a simple manner, would not only have a positive effect in practical policing terms but also assist communities that suffer from such problems."

Perhaps the Liberal Democrats should pay attention to that submission.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Obviously, from time to time, every Member has problems of antisocial behaviour among groups in their constituency. However, constituents also come to us because they feel that they have been wrongly treated by the police and wrongly tarred with that brush. Is not it of legitimate concern that the powers given to the police under the clause would require no serious proof of evidence, but would allow the police unfettered control over people?

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

The Bill will not give the police unfettered control. My hon. Friend is basically saying that we should do nothing about antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Labour, Cleethorpes

That is how my hon. Friend's comments will come across to our constituents. They will think that he does not want to tackle the issue. His use of the phrase "from time to time" said it all. Antisocial behaviour does not happen from time to time; it is persistent and significant, as is stated in the Bill.

It is important to be able to give people the powers to take action against such groups, which can hold whole communities to ransom and terrorise everyone, from the young to the elderly. They cause problems across the board. I have found from discussing the issue with my constituents that some of the people who are most concerned about what they call gangs are young people themselves. They are often the victims of antisocial behaviour by gangs of youths gathering outside schools and attacking each other. Young people are often the ones being bullied, harassed and intimidated. In paying attention to young people, we must acknowledge that they are too often the victims of antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour should not be seen as an issue of the young versus the old, as the Liberal Democrats try to portray it.

Like all hon. Members, I support youth projects—the Splash projects and so on—that try to find meaningful activities for young people. Those projects will continue, but they do not tackle all the problems. They certainly do not tackle problems that occur at 11.30, 12.30, 1.30 or 2.30 in the morning. No one will take young people along to a football match at 2.30 in the morning, when they are jumping on car roofs, making a racket and perhaps throwing bricks into people's gardens.

We must have powers to deal with those situations when they occur, and the powers in part 4 are proportionate because of the inbuilt safeguards. The police will not be allowed to do whatever they like. The problem must be persistent, significant and occur in a designated area. That will provide safeguards. If used, the powers will reassure our communities that action is being taken to deal with an increasing and significant problem.

The Liberal Democrats have completely missed the point today. I do not know what world they live in, but most of us live in the real world. I hope that we will resist the Liberal Democrats' foolish amendments, which would delete any extra power that the police could have to deal with the significant problem of antisocial behaviour in our communities.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office) 4:45 pm, 24th June 2003

I almost hesitate to intervene in the somewhat heated exchanges that have started to develop. I confess to the House that, when Simon Hughes said he would be brief, I suspected that we were doomed, and my self-prophecy proved right. The hon. Gentleman wanted to ensure that we reached the other two groups of amendments today and then took more than a third of the time allocated to make his opening speech.

A large number of the amendments in this group are in my name and those of my hon. Friends. Although, as the hon. Gentleman said, one amendment has both our signatures, I hasten to assure him that that is pure coincidence because we are addressing the problem from completely opposite directions. We take the view—as we did in Committee—that it is not necessary to constrain the use of such powers in the way that the Bill proposes.

I agree that a requirement for reasonableness in people's reactions is absent. If the hon. Gentleman has read the reports of the proceedings in Committee, he will know that I moved an amendment to that effect, so that the officer could assess whether he felt that people had reacted reasonably. The Government rejected that, and we shall seek to return to the issue when the Bill progresses to the other place.

It is right that the police should have the powers to move people on and to disperse a group—not just young people under 16, as seemed to be the impression, but any group of people who are causing a nuisance. What I do not agree with the Government about is that it should be in a "relevant locality", with all the bureaucracy and paraphernalia that goes with designating that relevant locality. When there is clear evidence that a group of people are causing nuisance and annoyance and behaving antisocially in a particular location, the police should have the power, then and there, to do something about it. It is not necessary to go through all the bureaucracy of clause 30 to designate the area as a relevant locality.

The majority of amendments that I tabled—I shall not detain the House by listing all of them—are designed to get rid of the concept of a relevant locality and simply to free up the police to use their discretion as they think fit if a problem arises in a particular area. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey referred to various youth projects, many of which are notable and have been developed through Government and voluntary initiatives for a long while, and I am sure that all Members support those in their constituencies. This is not, however, an either/or issue. My right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin has spoken vividly in public about the excellence of these projects and the need for more of them, but whatever the project, pretending that they will somehow completely prevent any group of people gathering and causing a problem anywhere is wishful thinking in the extreme. We also need the powers to back up all the excellent work that provides activities for young people as well as others.

We oppose totally the Liberals' attempt to remove this clause from the Bill. We do not pretend that it is perfect—we seek to amend it to give the police far more freedom and discretion. As I said, we believe that the Bill should include a test of reasonableness, which we tried to insert in Committee and which we shall seek to do again in the other place. Speaking for the Liberals in Committee, Matthew Green said:

"We do not oppose the clause"—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 8 May 2003; c. 143.]

We should not be a bit surprised that by now the Liberals have changed their mind and want to remove it.

The issue of relevant locality and the need for police discretion goes beyond democracy and designating a particular locality as relevant. Our amendments seek to address the problems that will arise for areas that are not designated as relevant localities. We all know that the types of people who in many cases gather and cause nuisance and antisocial behaviour will know full well what the law is, where the relevant locality is and where it is not. Ms Taylor is nodding in agreement, so I hope that she agrees with the logic of my argument, which is to remove the provision on relevant locality from the Bill. What concerns me is that if the police officers come along, after they have gone through the paraphernalia—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stockton, South is now shaking her head; the Whips have got to her remarkably quickly. If the area has been designated through the bureaucracy of clause 30, and along comes a police officer who disperses a group of people, that group of people will immediately get wise to the fact that all they have to do is go down the road or across the street.

Jonathan Shaw shakes his head, but the fact is that a relevant locality could be anywhere. If he reads the report of the Committee's proceedings, he will discover that Mr. Ainsworth suggested that it could be just by a cash point. The concept of a relevant locality—whether it is a few square yards or a few square miles—is not defined in the Bill.

I suggest that young people, or anyone who would be affected by the provision, might well know the area of the relevant locality and continue their behaviour outside it, which might be in a different part of the borough or down the street—we do not know. It would depend on the part of the locality in which they committed the offence in the first place. The whole measure will quickly fall into disrepute if they are able to evade it, which is why I maintain that we should remove all the paraphernalia and simply give the police the power and discretion to disperse groups, subject to a test of reasonableness. Indeed, the Local Government Association's submission—I expect that all hon. Members have received it—said that the proposals might simply displace problems from one area to another, as I have said.

Although the majority of our amendments seek to address that problem, I want to speak about one or two other issues. Amendment No. 76 stands alone and does not directly relate to any other amendments in the group. In Committee, I asked about police officers' ability to remove young people aged 16 to their place of residence unless such removal would be likely to cause harm. My worry, which is why I tabled the amendment, is that it is unclear from the Bill that if an officer took a young person back to their home, the officer would have complied with the removal. If, after reaching the home, the officer believed that the young person was at risk, perhaps because a parent or step-parent might exact retribution, I am not convinced that the Bill makes it clear that the officer could take him or her away again. The amendment would provide clarification that if an officer perceived that a young person might be at risk after removal to his or her place of residence, the obligation would be removed from the officer. The amendment is an attempt not to alter the Government's intention, but to provide clarification, because I am not sure that the Bill addresses the issue.

I do not have specific concerns about the Government amendments in the group and we do not intend to oppose them. I think that they will extend slightly opportunities to use the powers and I shall be interested to hear how the Minister describes them. The provisions do not seem to be especially draconian.

I return to the fundamental proposition behind the majority of our amendments: we support the principle that the police should be able to use dispersal orders, but we do not think that they should be so constrained that they cannot use them as and when problems arise. Shona McIsaac told us what happens at 10.30 or 11.30 pm. If such problems arise, the police should be able to do something then and there, rather than having to decide whether they are in a relevant locality under clause 30 and saying, "Oh no, we're not. We can't do anything about it." The police might have to tell people affected that they could use dispersal powers only if the problems were occurring in the next street.

The Government have produced pretty dramatic proposals—I accept the remonstrations of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey—but they are nevertheless necessary, as I am sure the Minister will say.

However, the Government have also tried to hamper and constrain the proposals by creating the paraphernalia that surrounds the designation of relevant localities, and I fear that they will either fail to work or quickly fall into disrepute because people will find ways around them.

Amendment No. 53 is not the lead amendment, so it has not been moved, but if no other amendment in the group is put to the vote, I shall move it formally. However, if the Liberal Democrats pursue their amendments to delete the relevant part of the Bill, not only can we not support them, but we will oppose them completely because their proposals go against what most of us find in our constituencies.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety) 5:00 pm, 24th June 2003

The clauses to which the amendments are tabled form an important, significant and central part of the powers available to police in such circumstances. I fundamentally disagree with Simon Hughes in his analysis of the powers. As my hon. Friend Shona McIsaac said in her passionate contribution, it is vital to take the powers, the Bill and our strategy and policy on tackling antisocial behaviour as a complete set of integrated measures. To single out the powers of dispersal as a fundamental attack on civil liberties does the hon. Gentleman no credit. If he is seriously saying to his constituents that he does not think that the powers are needed or requested by the people in his community, then I am astonished. It is yet another example of the Liberal Democrats willing the ends but not being prepared to will the means, in this case to tackle antisocial behaviour and disorder in our communities.

The hon. Gentleman knows well, as he demonstrated in his contribution, that this Government have embarked on a series of investments to ensure that young people are diverted from crime and disorder. We are engaging them in youth projects and ensuring that they have educational and leisure opportunities. The Government have spent millions of pounds setting up an infrastructure to ensure that young people in particular have access to some of the opportunities that others take for granted. The powers of dispersal are designed to deal with those circumstances in which the presence or behaviour of a hard core of individuals intimidates, alarms, distresses and harasses people in our communities.

We recognise that as the powers are important and significant, it is right that they are constrained by a series of conditions before they become operable. Those conditions are set out in clause 29(1)(a) and (b). It states that an officer has to have

"reasonable grounds for believing . . . that members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence or behaviour" of people in the locality, and

"that anti-social behaviour is a significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality."

It is certainly not a case of the Government rushing to give powers without a framework or constraints. Significant hurdles have to be overcome before the powers are triggered and kick in, which is the right way to proceed.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I have two concerns about clause 29(1). The first is what legitimate proof of evidence is required on the persistent participation of the same people in an assembly at a particular point. The second is how a place is defined. Is it an immediate locality, a street, a neighbourhood or a whole town? That is unclear. Will the Minister explain?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

My hon. Friend raises important points. The provision is for a senior officer to designate a locality, which is the right thing to do. That designation triggers the powers of the constable to make directions on dispersal.

That locality could be an area covering a basic command unit, a borough or a ward. It is right that that matter should be subject to discussion with local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and community safety partnerships, as that would enable us to engage with the local community to find out where there is a problem and where the powers need to kick in. My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn will notice that Government amendments Nos. 38 and 39 provide for the constable to make a direction in relation to part of the locality. If there is a problem in a parade of shops, a playground or a smaller part of the designated locality, there will be flexibility for constables, senior officers and the local community to use the provision as part of an armoury of tools. Members need to understand that this is not a one-club approach—it is part of a range of tools available to local communities to combat antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman but, as his contributions took up three quarters of an hour, I am loth to do so.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

If the locality proposal is such a good idea, why has the Government's only other proposal of a curfew in a specific locality not been used anywhere at all?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

The aim of the Bill is to make sure that we have a straightforward way to tackle antisocial behaviour. The hon. Gentleman will know that, in relation to previous legislation, the local authority had to make an order, which had to be agreed between it and the police, then submitted to the Secretary of State for approval. That was a complex and bureaucratic way to proceed, but the Bill allows for a much simpler way to proceed, as the superintendent can designate the locality, then the constable can go in and exercise powers under the Bill. That is a much more appropriate way to proceed.

Photo of Siobhain McDonagh Siobhain McDonagh Labour, Mitcham and Morden

Is my hon. Friend aware that much of the Committee's time was spent looking at proposals that could easily be made effective? Taking on board the points made by Liberal Democrat Members, we were aware that there was a raft of legislation, but the problem was that powers under that legislation were either not being used or were not working. I am willing to do a poll in the constituency of Simon Hughes, and I am sure that the overwhelming majority of his constituents would support our suggestions.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who played an extremely constructive and helpful role in Committee by seeking to make the Bill's provisions effective. She has made an important point, and it is one of the reasons for the introduction of a regime of fixed penalty notices. We want to make sure that sanctions can be implemented quickly, easily and without bureaucracy so that they have an immediate effect.

I find it quite strange to be in a position where, on the one hand, the Liberal Democrats are seeking to remove all the relevant provisions from the Bill, leaving us with no powers whatsoever to tackle the congregation of groups and, on the other, the Conservatives are seeking to remove all safeguards, constraints and hurdles that we have introduced to prevent an arbitrary exercise of powers. In those circumstances, we have adopted a third or middle way, which is the correct way to implement the Bill's powers.

We need to get the balance right. The Bill deals with rights and responsibilities. It deals both with the rights of the community and the rights of individuals—that should always be uppermost in our mind. Up and down the country, communities are concerned about groups congregating and causing intimidation. I had an opportunity to read the debates in Committee, but I am afraid that I have not had the chance to visit Much Wenlock, where there is zero crime and disorder, although I hope to do so in future. However, I must tell the Liberal Democrat spokesman that his experience is very much a minority one. Thirty per cent. of respondents to the British crime survey said that groups congregating together, causing intimidation or distress, were either a big problem or a fairly big one in their communities. The Government are therefore seeking to address a significant issue.

Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire

At the weekend, I went to a public meeting in Moira in north-west Leicestershire at which hundreds of people expressed serious concern about the activities of a group of adolescent youths who lived in the area. Yes, what my hon. Friend is promoting may be a useful add-on to existing powers, but the community there believe that it is the availability, visibility and sensitivity of local policing that might tackle and draw the teeth of some of the concerns that they expressed to me in a tense and heated meeting at the weekend.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

Many of us in our capacity as constituency Members of Parliament have attended such meetings, where people are rightly angry and feel powerless to do anything about their circumstances. Many of the powers in the Bill are designed to enable those communities to reclaim their streets and their neighbourhoods for the decent people who live in them. The massive numbers of extra police that the Government have funded, together with the community support officers who are increasingly visible on our streets and the neighbourhood wardens funded by local authorities, are providing a greater degree of visible reassurance to the people whom I represent and to many communities throughout the country. I acknowledge that the situation is not resolved, but we are making significant progress.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I return to the core of clause 29. The Minister is right to speak of the hurdles that are in place when a senior officer designates an area—he must have reasonable grounds, and the antisocial behaviour must be significant and persistent. However, once the area has been designated for up to six months, and the constable is dealing with it, the condition of significant and persistent antisocial behaviour no longer applies. The condition is only that two or more people are gathering and might alarm somebody. They may well not be the people who caused the original problem. Does not the Minister understand that? How does she seek to ensure that the police will not use the powers against people who were not the cause of the problem in the first place?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

Clause 29(1) makes it clear that the officer must have reasonable grounds for believing both that there is intimidation and that antisocial behaviour is a significant and persistent problem. I advise the hon. Gentleman to read the words of the clause carefully. No doubt they will be tested at some point.

The powers are aimed at specific spots. I want to deal with the point raised by Mr. Paice about that. We have not sought a once-and-for-all power nationally. We recognise that problems spring up in certain localities. He referred to the constraints around them as paraphernalia. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the constraints and hurdles are an important framework within which the powers operate, and they are sufficient to satisfy genuine concerns about civil liberties, balanced by the rights of communities.

I shall address the points raised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. That important Committee considered the matter carefully. We responded to the Committee's original concerns, it accepted many of our reassurances on various parts of the Bill, but as we have heard, it still has some concerns about the establishment of the power. We do not share the Committee's concern that it will be difficult to establish that the powers would be used only when there was a proportionate, pressing social need.

When we think about pressing social need, we must put at the forefront of our mind communities that are currently prevented from using facilities in their area, such as the cash point or the shops. Young people may be prevented from using parks and leisure facilities because they are excluded from them by the attitude of the people who are causing mayhem and distress in their community. There is a series of safeguards, which I hope will reassure the Joint Committee. Authorisation must be given by a senior officer. The local authority must be consulted. The authorisation does not last for more than six months.

When we come to make the code of practice under clause 33, it is important that it sets out the conditions in which the power can be operated. We should consider issues such as the grounds for authorisation having an objective basis. That is an important issue. I read the entire debate about reasonableness and when reasonableness applies to the considerations.

Other important issues include seeing whether we can assess the sort of behaviour that the constable wants to prevent when he is making the direction; the degree of intimidation that might be appropriate for consideration; at what stage parents should be notified and brought into the process; and how to determine the geographical areas and locality involved—an issue raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire. We want to clarify a range of issues in the code of practice, taking on board the important and serious matters raised by the Joint Committee. We feel that those provisos will certainly be sufficient to satisfy the human rights position. Human rights and responsibilities relate both to individuals and the communities that we are seeking to protect.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford 5:15 pm, 24th June 2003

In defining the locality, will not the police often say that crime is a responsibility not only for them, but for the entire community? In seeking to engage people in the process, does my hon. Friend agree that they are more likely to feel well disposed towards it and feel that it is worth while if they have some powers, and if they can see cause and effect in terms of discussion with the police and agree on a locality to deal with a persistent problem in their neighbourhoods?

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which relates to the desire to enable communities to reclaim their neighbourhoods. That is possible if they feel a sense of ownership and believe that people are taking notice of what they are doing. If they feel that they are making significant steps on the basis of real power to make a difference in their communities, they will be much more likely to participate in a community safety or crime and disorder reduction partnership and feel that their time is well invested and that what they are doing is worth while. If people do not see any action, they will feel that it is pointless for them to be involved, so such provisions can increase the community involvement that we want to secure.

We do not want to burden the police with a huge set of bureaucratic requirements. That is why the powers are different from some of the other powers that have been introduced in the past. We want to make the arrangements as simple as we can. It is important that the police feel confident about exercising their powers. The code of practice will be key in that respect. We want to ensure that the constables or community support officers who are making the directions feel confident about their powers. That is why we tabled amendments about choosing a part of the locality; I think that such flexibility is extremely important. I feel that the powers are necessary and proportionate, and that they will have a significant impact.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred to removing a child from the area. The powers allow young people who are under 16 to be taken back to their homes. If the constable thinks that they will be at risk of significant harm, he can alert social services and engage the child protection machinery that is available. This is not a case of penalising young people and saying that they are the perpetrators. They can be just as much at risk as anybody else of crime and of being drawn into prostitution or other exploitation and becoming victims. It is therefore appropriate that constables should have a power to decide that, as a child is out late at night, they are not supervised and their parents are not acting responsibly, they will take them home.

Constables have considerable experience of assessing significant harm. They are all engaged with the local child protection procedures, and I do not anticipate that they would have any difficulty in assessing whether a child was likely to be at risk of significant harm. I therefore do not anticipate that any of the problems outlined by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire will arise. The powers to take children back to their homes are important in ensuring that we can protect children who may be out and about at 1, 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, entirely inappropriately.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office)

The Minister is right in everything that she has said and I do not disagree with her comments, but she has not dealt with the point that I am trying to make in amendment No. 76. As the Bill is currently drafted, it states that a constable

"may remove the person to the person's place of residence unless he has reasonable grounds for believing that the person would, if removed to that place, be likely to suffer significant harm."

The point that I was trying to make is that, once the officer has taken the young person home, he will have carried out the removal, which will be in the past. The phrase "if removed to" is in the future tense. I want the Bill to be clear that, exactly as she says, when a constable sees the circumstances of the young person's home once he has taken them home and believes at that stage that they might suffer significant harm, he should be able to say to the young person "I have carried out the removal, but I am going to take you away again."

It is not adequate simply to say, "Yes, I now think that he is going to suffer significant harm so I'll ring social services." That might be too late. I want the officer to have the discretion that he rightly says that he should have.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety)

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. The provision is designed to indicate that if the child would be at risk of significant harm, it is inappropriate to return them to that place. The duty is on the constable to assess the situation. Having taken the child to remove him to the home, if he finds circumstances there that could result in them being at risk of significant harm, he is under a duty to take steps to ensure that that does not happen. Under the general child protection provisions, we would expect constables to alert the duty social worker and to get in touch with the local authority social services department. I can therefore give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he seeks that the child will not be at increased risk.

The powers are necessary, proportionate and will provide another flexible tool in our armoury to tackle antisocial behaviour. They will be broadly welcomed by communities, although they are not supported by the Liberal Democrats. I ask the House to reject the wrecking amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats and to reject the Conservative amendment, which takes the libertarian argument a little too far. There should be some constraints on these serious powers. The Government have got the balance about right in the interests of the communities that we represent.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

I agree with a great deal of what the Minister said. I would gently say to her, however, that the key element of the power is that it should be used sufficiently in practice. The test will be of how much practical use it is, especially to communities that are besieged by antisocial behaviour.

The provision will be warmly welcomed by my constituents. In recent months, I have attended several meetings in which constituents have complained about problems caused by groups of youths misbehaving. At one well-attended meeting, there were a number of Liberal Democrat councillors who were anxious that something should be done. If I had been minded to make a point about the locality in which the problem was occurring, I would have tried their patience, given their long-standing experience of problems in their neighbourhood.

It is entirely legitimate for Liberal Democrat Members to question new legislation and new powers for the police and to judge whether they are compatible with civil liberties. It is sometimes unpopular to plead the civil liberties cause, but I recognise that it is necessary to do so. However, I have to say to Simon Hughes that on this occasion they have got it wrong. Their attitude towards the clause is misguided. It is proportionate, and it is not objectionable in principle to give the police this power. My worry is that it may not be used sufficiently in practice. I remind the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey that we are not talking about arrest, loss of civil liberties or the acquisition of a criminal record, but the power of police officers to disperse groups of people, subject to certain conditions. I wonder whether too many conditions have been hedged around the power: there is a formidable list to be gone through. If problems of the kind described in clause 29(3) are occurring—that is, if a police officer

"has reasonable grounds for believing that the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed"— it is not out of proportion to give the police the power to require that group to disperse.

When the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey was asked earlier what he thought should be done about such people, he whispered under his breath, "Nick them." That is an entirely misguided approach to take. The activities described in subsection (3) would probably be an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, so the police would already be entitled to arrest somebody, bring charges against them and haul them up in court for such behaviour.

Would it not be better from everyone's point of view to give the police the power to disperse the group first, to prevent any of those consequences from arising? Would it not be in the interests of the young people themselves to be dispersed rather than arrested and hauled before the courts, where they could get a criminal record? I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he is utterly misguided.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey

The comment that I made earlier was that if the people in question, young or old, were committing an offence, they could indeed be arrested. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, if the power contained in clause 31(2) were put into the legislation, someone who

"knowingly contravenes a direction given to him under section 29(4) commits an offence", could be arrested and sent to prison for up to three months?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

One would hope that they would obey the direction given to them by the police officer. That would certainly be better than the police officer arresting them there and then for an offence, and taking them to a police station for charges to be brought. It would be better for the person concerned, because they would not acquire a criminal record under public order legislation. The hon. Gentleman talks about circumstances in which an offence has been committed, but I strongly believe that this would be the same offence as exists at the moment under that legislation. This Bill gives the police an additional power to require people to be dispersed. I do not think that that is out of proportion. Indeed, I think that it will be a help, but I have to say to the Minister that I wonder whether there is an overload of conditions in the clause.

The key is whether the provisions will be used in practice. Curfews have been mentioned. They, too, were put forward as an important part of the Government's armoury, but, as we know, they have not been much used. The Government have introduced other legislative measures that have been more successful. It is important to keep an eye on powers such as these, to design them so that they are easy to use and readily available to the police, and to ensure that they are actually used. That is what our constituents want. My constituents are crying out for action on law and order, particularly on antisocial behaviour. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey might have noble motives but, in this case, he is totally misguided. Removing the clause would send entirely the wrong signals in our attempts to tackle antisocial behaviour. He is wrong on this, and I hope that he will reconsider his position. If anything is out of proportion on this, it is the attitude of the Liberal Democrats to this fairly modest measure.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I will be brief, as I realise that we have only a couple of minutes left. I do not necessarily want to make myself unpopular with my own Front Bench, but I have serious concerns about the powers in this clause. That is not because I am in favour of antisocial behaviour—quite the opposite. My constituency, like many others, suffers from all kinds of totally unacceptable antisocial behaviour. Like many others, I have attended public meetings at which people make all kinds of allegations about groups of young people. Some are true and justified; some are untrue; and some are based on misconceptions or misperceptions.

I have also spent some time talking to groups of young people who hang around the place in large numbers looking intimidating. They often tell me that they are broke and bored, and that the youth club has been closed. What are they supposed to do? Last weekend, I found a group of people hanging round a park. They could have been deemed to be antisocial. They told me that they were unemployed, broke and bored. They were not really presenting a threat to anyone. We need to keep a sense of proportion in these matters.

I would also suggest to the Minister that the power to designate an area is far too general and broad. One could imagine an over-zealous senior officer simply designating a whole borough as the "relevant locality". What, then, would happen whenever people assembled? What would the police actually do? Surely we should rely on intelligent co-operative policing.

My final point is on the proposals for under-16s to be taken home after 9 o'clock at night. What is the reaction of the young people in the rest of the community going to be to a group of 15-year-olds who are out on a Friday evening being taken home by police officers? Can we not just think this through a bit more?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Liberal Democrat, North Southwark and Bermondsey 5:30 pm, 24th June 2003

My hon. Friends and Conservative Members tabled amendments in Committee. We wanted to amend the Bill, but we were unable to persuade the Government to do so. At that stage, we did not seek to delete the clause, but we tried to improve it. We failed to do that. We had an honest debate. Mr. Clappison made a reasonable point about what powers are needed. We have a different judgment, because we believe that plenty of powers are available. The Association of Chief Police Officers was clear that this clause may lead to

"confrontation, disengagement and isolation of some elements of the communities we police."

The Police Federation, although supportive in general, was against these powers being available to community support officers.

If the Minister reads the Bill carefully, she will see that my hon. Friends were right. There has to be the precondition of persistent antisocial behaviour, but it allows the authorities to intervene on someone who has never been involved in that.

We have an honest difference of view. We think that plenty of powers are available, that the clauses in part 4 are not necessary and will, on balance, be unhelpful. We want to deal with antisocial behaviour, but we strongly believe that this is a step too far. We hope that the House of Lords will substantially amend the Bill, but that, in the first place, hon. Members will join us in rejecting clause 29, thus signifying that part 4 is not the answer to the problems that many of us experience.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 48, Noes 415.

Division number 251 Anti-social Behaviour Bill — Clause 29 — Dispersal of Groups and Removal of Persons Under 16 to Their Place of Residence

Aye: 48 MPs

No: 415 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.

It being three and a quarter hours after the commencement of proceedings on the programme motion, Madam Deputy Speaker proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day.]