Antisocial Behaviour (Cambridge)

– in the House of Commons at 9:57 pm on 8th March 2004.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Vernon Coaker.]

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell Labour, Cambridge 10:04 pm, 8th March 2004

I am grateful to have secured the debate. Antisocial behaviour is of grave concern to many of my constituents. I am pleased to have the opportunity to air those concerns publicly.

For some time, I and Labour councillors in Cambridge have been working hard with the police and council officers to try to combat some of the worst effects of antisocial behaviour. We have had moderate success in the Arbury area, where I worked with councillors such as Mike Todd-Jones and Ian Kidman to identify locations where drug dealing was taking place and, in one case, where a council flat was being used for prostitution. That has now stopped, which has brought some relief to my long-suffering constituents. However, there are other locations in the city where drug dealing is taking place, and the problems still need to be tackled.

Earlier today, I heard about a number of massage parlours in the city that are being used as brothels. They cause immense nuisance and intimidation to residents living nearby. I regret that the police find it difficult to collect the evidence necessary to close them down.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I recently organised a big conversation event on antisocial behaviour in Kings Hedges, an area of the city that has been blighted by antisocial encroachment in recent months. Residents tell me that they want quite simple improvements such as lists of telephone numbers so that they know how to report antisocial behaviour easily. They want street lights repaired promptly. They also want broken glass swept up quickly so that it does not become a hazard to children and animals. In addition, they want a sympathetic response from their local council housing office when they report noisy and antisocial neighbours.

Residents warmly welcome the extra police officers, the new community police officers and the street wardens. They recognise that the Government's antisocial behaviour legislation can lead to improvements in the quality of their lives. We have a good set of community beat managers in Cambridge, who do a magnificent job when they are allowed to get on with it. I have recently spoken to the chief constable of Cambridgeshire about the problems that occur when community beat managers are pulled out of their neighbourhood to other neighbourhoods to solve burglary and car crime incidents. I and Labour city councillors believe that community work that addresses antisocial behaviour has much more beneficial long-term effects.

I single out for particular praise two local community beat officers—Constable Nick Percival and Constable Mark Rabel. Nick Percival was allocated to the East Chesterton ward in Cambridge as community beat manager about 18 months ago. The ward was experiencing severe problems with gangs of children breaking windows, starting fires and stealing cars. The area has been transformed. Nick is known by all the children in the area as PC Nick, and they like and respect him. Although the area is by no means problem free, it has become a much more pleasant place to live.

A few months ago, PC Mark Rabel was appointed as an extra police officer—funded by the city council—specifically to deal with street-life people. He has served two antisocial behaviour orders for aggressive begging. He has spoken to and profiled 200 people living on the street in the city. He has made a number of arrests for aggressive and intimidating behaviour. The action taken by Mark has had a significant impact on one area of the city where aggressive begging and drug taking is a big problem. He has been hampered, however, by the city council's reluctance to implement appropriate legislation to deal with antisocial behaviour. Although there is an improvement in the situation, local residents and traders are concerned that with the return of the warmer weather and the lighter evenings, they will once again be plagued by large groups of aggressive street-life people drinking and shooting up outside their homes and businesses.

Of course, many people who cause us such anguish have serious problems, and I am not unsympathetic to their plight. I have met the National Treatment Agency for Substance Misuse, which says that a drug addict can receive treatment within one week of making a request. In Cambridge, addicts have to make their way to the drugs centre on Mill road for supplies of methadone. I am told that that does not provide the same buzz as heroine and cocaine, so a top-up drink of Special Brew is often taken as well. Following my complaints, the police have prosecuted one shopkeeper who was selling Special Brew illegally, although the problem continues. I should be glad to hear from my hon. Friend whether there are plans for more alcohol rehabilitation centres, as that is a major issue, quite apart from drug rehabilitation. Another problem in Cambridge is that there is no wet centre where addicts could go to drink during the day or at night.

Most street-life people have council flats, and accommodation can be found for those who have recently arrived in Cambridge by one of the excellent homelessness agencies in the city. Local people have always responded compassionately and sympathetically to the problems of homelessness but compassion has been eroded in recent months by sheer numbers and by the way in which groups collect regularly on street corners to drink, quarrel, shout abuse and inject themselves with drugs. There is also a problem with used needles, which are discarded in bushes and alleyways, and left at the roadside. Although there is still sympathy and willingness to help, local people believe that street-life people must behave in a way that is compatible with the needs of society and that much of their behaviour at present is simply unacceptable. There is also concern that because Cambridge is an attractive location, with no drinking ban in force, with many good agencies to support and counsel street-life people and with easy pickings for anyone prepared to beg, it is a target for street-life people. Certainly, numbers have increased markedly on those of a year ago.

In October, I was invited to attend a meeting organised by former superintendent John Fuller, who had been brought out of retirement by the Cambridgeshire police to tackle the specific problems of antisocial behaviour in three different areas of the city. There were about 90 residents and traders at that meeting, all very angry about drinking and aggressive begging in Mill road, a problem that had arisen since the police decided to get tough with people begging in the city centre. Several arrests had been made in the city centre, which had displaced the problem to Mill road and Mitcham's corner.

At that meeting, I launched a petition asking for a city-wide designated public places order to be put in place. We asked for a city-wide order, not realising the full extent of the legislation at the time, to try to stop the displacement from the city centre into Mill road and Mitcham's corner. It is obvious that many of my constituents agreed, because in a short time, we had more than 2,000 signatures. Labour city councillors called for a special meeting of the city council on 19 November to discuss the matter.

I am sorry to report that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council overruled Labour proposals for a designated public places order—DPPO—and decided instead to introduce its own byelaw. Its stated reasons were, first, that

"a city-wide ban was preferable to action on specific streets", but was not possible with a DPPO. That is probably correct, and I hope that my hon. Friend will confirm that it is. The second reason, which I find rather surprising, was that the Liberal Democrats

"regarded the DPPO powers as unacceptable in principle", and drew comparisons with the "sus" laws of the 1970s and 1980s. They referred to a particular case in Oxford in which they believed DPPOs had been applied inappropriately. The leader of Cambridge city council has referred to the Oxford example on numerous occasions, and cites the case of a young man celebrating his successful graduation by drinking champagne at a table outside a pub. It is claimed that he was told to stop drinking by the police because of the existence of a DPPO, which led the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council to believe that DPPOs are draconian, and that it is not necessary for people to behave in an antisocial way for the police to stop them drinking.

At that meeting, Labour councillors pointed out that urgency was the most significant issue for people who were suffering from the antisocial effects of street drinking, and that the DPPO could be put in place before Christmas. They said that the debate about whether the ban should be city wide should not be used as an excuse for delay. I offered to meet Ministers with council leaders to discuss the way in which rapid progress could be made. In the meantime, on 17 December, I received from my hon. Friend the Minister a reply to a letter that I had sent her. She said:

"While section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972 enables councils to make byelaws, this is not applicable where there are express provisions in other legislation to deal with the subject matter. It is therefore not an option for the council to make a byelaw dealing with the consumption of alcohol in public places."

I passed that information on to the city council, and asked what it proposed to do. The answer was not very much, and three months later, when the Liberal Democrats appeared not to have made any progress and had not bothered to use my offer of assistance, I arranged to meet the Minister for Local and Regional Government on 4 February, along with council representatives. Councillor Ben Bradnack, acting Labour leader, and Councillor Catherine Smart, who stood in for council leader Ian Nimmo-Smith, attended that meeting, together with two city council officers. My right hon. Friend repeated the advice given to me by my hon. Friend the Minister, and explained that in Cambridge's case, the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 makes provision to tackle antisocial drinking in the form of a DPPO. He went on to say:

"Indeed, the Council agree that a DPPO could be used to tackle the problem in areas like Mill Road where there is clear evidence of anti-social street drinking. In relation to those areas therefore it is simply not an option for the First Secretary of State to confirm a byelaw".

Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I read in the local paper the next day that Councillor Catherine Smart had said that grave concerns remain over the DPPO and that she continued to favour a byelaw.

Earlier today, I spoke to PC Paul Phillips, a police officer working in Oxford, where a DPPO was introduced 18 months ago. He said that the specific areas that had been causing problems were tackled first, and another section was bolted on later, so the DPPO now covers the whole central area of Oxford. He was very enthusiastic, and described it as a cracking piece of legislation. There has been a significant reduction in crime in the city since the DPPO has been in place. I have to report, however, that there is desperation about the issue in Cambridge. Residents associations in Petersfield, Romsey and West Chesterton are angry and frustrated at the delays. In just over four days, Labour councillors collected another 500 signatures for a petition requesting that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council hold a special meeting to discuss a drinking ban. That meeting will take place on Thursday 11 March, and I hope that the council will be made to see sense.

Before that meeting, however, it would be helpful if the Minister spelled out the answers to some of our questions. First, could a byelaw or DPPO be used in areas where the police believe that incidents of antisocial drinking may be displaced? Secondly, is it possible to use a byelaw in cases where a DPPO presents a viable alternative? Thirdly, is it possible for people to be arrested for drinking in a designated public place when they are not committing a nuisance to anyone else? Fourthly, what are the relative police powers under DPPOs and byelaws, and which would my hon. Friend consider preferable? Finally, will she give her views about the degree of responsibility of Liberal Democrat-controlled Cambridge city council and the council's prevarication? I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could advise me and the hundreds of people in my constituency who, I know, will be watching the debate.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety) 10:20 pm, 8th March 2004

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mrs. Campbell on securing the debate, and commend her for organising the big conversation that took place in her constituency. It is vital that we not only listen to the concerns of our constituents, but are seen to be acting on those concerns and making a difference on the ground. I intend to deal with the issues that my hon. Friend raised in relation to street drinking. As she said, we have been in correspondence about the matter for some time, but first I shall say something about the background to the antisocial behaviour powers that the Government put on the statute book, and about the action plan and the Together campaign, which help to set the scene.

Antisocial behaviour affects far too many people. It is true that the great majority of people behave in a way that does not cause alarm, harassment or distress to others, but in some communities there are a small number of people who do exactly the opposite. It is the norm for them to behave badly and to intimidate those around them. Consulting communities about these issues is vital to identify the problems that are damaging our public spaces, and to find solutions to help the community reclaim our towns, cities and rural areas.

Antisocial behaviour issues recognise no limits. It is important that immediate action be taken to deal with problems such as begging, prostitution and street drinking. People want to be able to see and experience the difference it can make when the powers are used. It is important that that action should be incorporated in a wider long-term strategy to address problems on the streets and improve the environment.

We need a new drive and new commitment to turn the words into action, and we need to do far more for the victims of antisocial behaviour. That is why the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I recently launched the Together campaign and an action plan to tackle antisocial behaviour. We are backing that plan with £75 million over the next three years. There will be an antisocial behaviour co-ordinator in every crime and disorder reduction partnership in the country. We want to make sure that there is a single point of contact to which the community can refer a range of antisocial behaviour issues that affect them.

There will also be help and support for frontline practitioners—housing officers, environmental health officers, wardens, social workers and police officers—to help them tackle antisocial behaviour. We have just set up the Together academy, which will provide hands-on training for all the practitioners involved in dealing with these issues. We had the first regional event in Birmingham last week, which went extremely well. Over the next couple of months, we will train some 3,500 practitioners in how to use the new powers that the Government have put on the statute book.

That is a key difference in relation to the legislation. We have not simply passed an Act and issued a traditional Government circular. We have the action plan and the academy staffed by expert practitioners who can advise people on how to use the powers, how to get the evidence and how to use the law. My hon. Friend raised some interesting issues about the law, particularly in relation to street drinking.

As well as the academy, we have the action line—a telephone line staffed by experts, whom people can contact with their problems and get on-the-spot advice about how to take action. We have new powers to disperse groups. I understand that these powers are currently being considered in Cambridge. It is rather ironic that the local council administration, which is Liberal Democrat-controlled, is considering the dispersal powers, when those powers were opposed vigorously in Parliament by the Liberal Democrats as being far too much of an incursion into the civil liberties of people who choose to congregate in groups. Those powers of dispersal are important to enable communities to reclaim the streets from intimidation and antisocial behaviour. In the places where dispersal powers are used, both police and community support officers will have the power to disperse groups where their presence or behaviour has resulted, or is likely to result, in a member of the public being harassed, intimidated, alarmed or distressed.

We have also brought in new powers to issue penalty notices for disorder to people making excessive noise and participating in drunken behaviour in the evening. Environmental health officers now have the power to shut down, with immediate effect, establishments that persistently create noise nuisance; and there is a new offence of selling spray paints to young people under 16, as well as more robust powers for local authorities to deal with fly-tipping, graffiti and fly-posting.

I know that my hon. Friend is particularly concerned about street drinking. City and town centres should be clean and safe, and make everyone feel welcome in using the facilities that are available. People have a right to feel safe in their communities, and we simply cannot have situations in which people are afraid to use our public spaces and facilities such as cash points or shops because they feel threatened by individuals and groups hanging around. In too many areas, local surveys have shown us that large numbers of people are now reluctant to use their city centres and to go out and enjoy themselves, using the facilities, because of intimidation.

The Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 provides the police with a much more consistent set of powers, including the power of arrest, which was not available in the previous byelaws, for enforcing designated public places orders. The measures contained in the 2001 Act have been widely supported by local authorities, police and crime reduction agencies to tackle antisocial and under-age drinking, which is also an increasing problem, not least in the areas identified by local authorities where there has been evidence of alcohol-related nuisance. Since the introduction of those powers in September 2001, almost 100 authorities in England and Wales have introduced designated public places orders to tackle the problem, which makes me feel somewhat at a loss as to why the difficulties are so acute in Cambridge. Some 98 authorities have introduced the powers.

I have written to my hon. Friend about Cambridge city council's proposal for a byelaw to control street drinking in Cambridge. As she said, under section 235 of the Local Government Act 1972, byelaws cannot be made for a purpose for which provision has already made under another enactment. I understand that that advice has been confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government, in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

I would also draw to my hon. Friend's attention the provisions of section 15(3) of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001:

"In so far as any byelaw made by a local authority and to which this subsection applies still has effect at the end of the period of 5 years beginning with the day on which this subsection comes into force, it shall cease to have effect at the end of that period in relation to any public place."

In ordinary language, the provision means that where there was a byelaw purporting to regulate street drinking, it will have expired five years after the Act came into play. Clearly, the intention is to ensure that the legislation to designate public places is used in future instead of byelaws, which were traditionally a difficult, time-consuming and lengthy way for local authorities to proceed.

I believe that the designated public places order legislation is providing an extremely useful tool for local authorities and the police. Unlike the old Home Office byelaw, the arrangements include a police power to confiscate alcohol from people who are drinking and causing a nuisance in a designated place. The police have the power to require a person in such a place not to drink alcohol there when the officer reasonably believes that the person is doing so, has done so or intends to do so. He can also require them to surrender any alcohol or alcohol containers in their possession. It is not an offence to drink alcohol in a designated public place, but failure to comply without reasonable excuse with an officer's requirements in respect of public drinking or surrender of alcohol is an arrestable offence.

With the introduction of section 155 of the Licensing Act 2003, the confiscation powers now relate to both sealed and opened alcohol containers. The police find the power extremely useful, and I am sure that they would find it useful in Cambridge. I understand that local police would prefer to see a DPPO imposed, which would enable them to require people to stop drinking and to hand over any sealed or opened containers of drink, as that removes the problem, which is the alcohol. Rather than using the dispersal powers, the police can use a straightforward power to confiscate the alcohol and stop the problem quickly, which is what local residents want. My hon. Friend will be aware that a DPPO can be implemented within 28 days.

My hon. Friend asked about alcohol rehabilitation centres. She will know that we have been working on the alcohol harm reduction strategy for some time, and publication is imminent. It will certainly deal with questions of treatment and referral. Wet centres are operating successfully in some areas. I recently designated a wet centre as a place to which the police can take drunken people rather than holding them in custody. That is a worthwhile use of such centres.

My hon. Friend asked whether displacement could be taken into account in designating an area under a DPPO. I confirm that that is a relevant issue for local communities. Before designating an area, local authorities should make an assessment of all the areas to which nuisance or disorder may be displaced, ensuring that everyone affected by the designation is appropriately consulted. That is to allow consideration of the consequences of the order on a neighbouring authority. It might be appropriate for a local authority to designate an area beyond the site of the immediate problems caused by antisocial drinking if police evidence suggests that the existing problem may be displaced when the DPPO is in place. In that case, the designated area could include the area to which problems might be displaced.

Again, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has offered assistance from officials in drafting the order, in the light of the experience of the other 98 authorities that are already operating the system successfully. Unfortunately, the offer has not so far been taken up, but it remains open.

My hon. Friend asked whether someone could be arrested if they were drinking and no problem was caused. A constable may ask for the alcohol to be surrendered, and if someone refuses to do that without reasonable excuse, they can be arrested. Clearly, it will be for the courts to determine the facts.

My hon. Friend mentioned the balance between using DPPOs and using the appropriate byelaw. The DPPO is a simple and straightforward piece of legislation, carrying strong arrest powers that have proved very useful. The powers under any byelaw would depend on how it was drafted and how it was interpreted. I hope that she feels that there is sufficient information for local people to decide on a way forward. The offer of assistance from officials remains open.

I know that dispersal powers are being investigated in Cambridge. The police view is that the power of dispersal under section 30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, while better than no power at all, would simply displace the problem to other areas, whereas the DPPO removes it entirely, by requiring people to cease drinking immediately and hand over their alcohol.

It was right of my hon. Friend to raise this issue. The approach that I have outlined to tackle antisocial behaviour generally provides a good foundation on which to rebuild a civic culture of respect in our communities. We are absolutely committed to developing local people's skills and confidence to tackle the problem themselves and to reclaim local areas on behalf of the decent majority. In my view, too many people have put up with the problems of antisocial behaviour for far too long. It is time that we used the powers to tackle—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.