Antisocial Behaviour (Cambridge)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:20 pm on 8th March 2004.

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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.