My Lords, there is much to welcome in this Bill. The strengthening of the laws on firearms and on forced marriage, for example, are obvious steps forward. The measures for prevention of sexual harm, while raising important issues about the need for caution in restricting the freedoms of unconvicted people, will make possible swifter and more effective action to protect potential victims. The College of Policing has made an encouraging start. I am pleased to welcome the draft code of ethics. It sets a strong, ethical and I would say spiritual basis for law and its enforcement, which is a key concern for us all.
The emphasis on communities—people working together for the common good—has run through the long gestation period of these proposals. The principles of restorative justice and restorative practice, especially in local communities, are built into the efforts of churches in every part of this country to serve their local communities and especially those who are most vulnerable. In my part of the world, 80% of young people typically reoffend in the first two years after their sentence. However, with those who are taken on board by church monitoring and mentoring groups, even with the more difficult cases, the rate of reoffending is less than 20%.
If that can work with young prisoners, I suggest this kind of community mentoring could also work for lower-level criminality. It is at this local level that community remedies, community triggers and other measures which the Government has largely drawn back from prescribing in detail, but has left to be worked out in response to local conditions, can be made effective and constructive rather than simply becoming another layer of bureaucracy. On the same theme of practical attention to local need, I am glad to support the proposal of a requirement on courts to consider the immediate care needs of the children of those committed to prison, and I commend the Families Left Behind campaign for pressing this point.
As with a number of other noble Lords, I suspect, the notes of caution which I wish to sound relate chiefly to the measures on countering anti-social behaviour. Noble Lords will recall the four aims set out in the White Paper which began this process: to focus the response on the needs of victims; to empower communities to get involved in tackling anti-social behaviour; to ensure professionals are able to protect the public quickly; and to focus on long-term solutions. These were and are sound aims, and there is much in the early parts of this Bill which supports them. I hope that we shall keep these four aims clearly in view as we steer a course between tolerating bad behaviour on the one hand, and on the other hand taking an overly punitive and controlling approach to those whose behaviour can just be annoying. I am not here thinking of street preachers or those who sing hymns very loudly—though a balance has to be struck even in those instances—but chiefly of young people and the more vulnerable among adults.
The very broad definition of anti-social behaviour, as has already been noticed, as that which is,
“capable of causing nuisance and annoyance”,
doubtless has its place in the social housing context to which it applies in the 2003 Act, but it could easily be used to make too many aspects of the “public square” fall silent; and perhaps more importantly, it would be likely to restrict unreasonably the normal activities of young people.
The net is further widened by the reduction in the standard of proof to the balance of probability. The impact on those under 18, or people vulnerable through mental-health and other issues, would be aggravated by the presumption in favour of naming the individual and the threat of imprisonment in case of breach. An injunction to prevent nuisance and annoyance becomes potentially so severe as to be capable of driving its recipient further into anger and a sense of grievance and exclusion.
I began by welcoming much, indeed most of this Bill. If the emphasis on helping communities to resolve problems and restore relationships drives our approach to anti-social behaviour, and enables us to temper some of the more heavy-handed provisions of this Bill in bearing down on such behaviour, then the judgment of history may well be kind to it.