Antisocial Behaviour (Cambridge)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:04 pm on 8th March 2004.

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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.