Clause 43 - Extension to older children

Criminal Justice and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 1st March 2001.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

We referred earlier to the problems faced by those at the sharp end—police constables and sergeants. There are particular worries about the Government's failure so far to introduce an effective curfew regime. When Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, was asked recently what he thought about curfews and the Government's proposals, and whether he had the numbers to enforce the curfews, he said:

``No, we have not...We have insufficient people patrolling and don't have the people with time to devote to this particular problem...At the moment, the current law applies to the under-10s. Whilst there are some out-of control nine-year olds, and we do encounter nine-year-olds who are burgling at night, causing major problems in their community, intimidating people, committing damage and being generally unruly, the larger, problematic group is the under 16s.''

That is obviously why the Government are talking about older age groups. Fred Broughton said that that was originally the Police Federation's suggestion, but that the Government rejected it. They have now learnt some sense as a result of their existing law being unworkable. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire and I both told the Government that that would not work when they came up with their original proposals.

Fred Broughton went on to say:

``But a larger group will require more police resources. Curfews are also highly bureaucratic and forces have been telling me they can't break through the bureaucracy to implement them in the first place.''

The Government may have learnt a lesson in terms of the age group and realised that we and the Police Federation were right when we objected to the original proposals. However, they have not learnt a lesson about bureaucracy. It may help the Committee if I say that, although we will certainly return to this subject on Report, I shall not invite my hon. Friends to vote against clause 43, but I shall invite them to vote against clause 44 because that is entirely over-bureaucratic.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is bad enough being bureaucratic by introducing a proposal that would not work in respect of local authorities. If the Government want to extend the age, so be it, but to impose such bureaucracy on the police would be wrong.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

My hon. Friend is right. What he said reinforces how misleading the Government's spin has been on the matter, as it has been on so many other subjects. In March 1999, the Home Secretary told the Association of Local Government and the Metropolitan police that the Government's original proposals for child curfews would

``serve the dual purpose of protecting the community and young children.''

The proposals have patently failed and the Police Federation are reporting from forces thoughout the country that they have failed.

In June 1996, when Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister told the national press that child curfews were ``eminently sensible'' and that they would tackle

``young children wandering the streets at night, getting into trouble, growing into a life of criminality.''

He went round the country making such statements. However, when the Labour party came into power, it produced something that was bureaucratic and unworkable. Unfortunately, it has not learnt its lesson. I do not want to take up much time of the Committee. I just wanted to raise a matter of general principle. While we do not oppose the clause, we think that the Government are not learning lessons from the failure of their policies. While we shall return to the matter on Report, we will definitely formally reject the following clause.

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

Given the level of opposition and the derision that the clause received on Second Reading, I was surprised that no amendments had been tabled to it. Opposition Members have made their position clear to a certain extent, although I am not sure that it is consistent.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this clause and clause 44 build on the foundation of failure? What is the purpose of trying to amend such a failure?

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

Supposedly building on the foundation of failure, I find it odd that the Opposition do not intend to oppose clause 43.

Uniquely among the members of the Committee, I am still a serving councillor and have been so for the past eight years. During that time, I have seen the great majority of complaints at my surgeries and the telephone calls to my home change from issues related mainly to housing to issues relating to youth behaviour and neighbourhood problems with which the clause deals.

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

No, the past eight years since 1991. I appreciate that Opposition Members have not had the benefit of the literacy and numeracy hours that were introduced by the Government. [Interruption.]

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

May I continue? Comments have been made about the so-called failure to take any action on the legislation that is based on the 10-year deadline. That is because, while 10-year-olds can be and, indeed, often are involved in group antisocial activity in certain locations, it is rarely solely 10-year-olds. Unless the age limit is extended, the opportunity for the proposals to be effective is limited. Happily, the proposals deal with the problem.

My experience of complaints is that there are hotspots in certain localities. Sometimes, young people take an exception to groups of elderly persons and find them easy to intimidate and, on occasions, terrorise. Sometimes, the construction of a certain site causes problems. A convenient wall or a specified area within a housing estate may lend itself easily to young people's congregating there. At other times, empty premises can provide a convenient squatting area plus an opportunity to vandalise and pick up materials that can be distributed throughout the area, to the dismay of all the neighbours. Sometimes, the location of shops may be the problem; any shop that stays open at night provides a convenient pool of light in the dark and is a magnet to young people who want a place to congregate. Other members of the public have to make their way through a barrier of young people, which may add an extra intimidatory factor. We want to remove the opportunity for young people to intimidate others in those spots.

Previously, complaints have been made to the police, who are often overworked and cannot get to the area in time to deal with the problem. If they manage to turn up, it is difficult for them to discover the main perpetrators and distinguish between them and the hangers on. They are also limited in their powers to move groups on. Groups can be intimidatory simply by virtue of being a group; they may not be engaged in anything identifiably antisocial. Elderly people are intimidated by large groups of young people in closely defined locations.

When the police are unable to do anything, they may pass the buck to the local authority, which may then say that it is really a matter for the police. That means that no action can be taken, to the increasing frustration of local residents.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I am worried by the implication of the hon. Gentleman's comments. He seems to mean that, because the police cannot deal with the problem of young people in numbers who intimidate other people in the community, a geographical blanket curfew should be enforced. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that that is an appropriate response to the situation that he has described?

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

No. I am saying that this legislation may be appropriate for dealing with identifiable hotspots.

As for the alleged bureaucracy, it was implicit in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that local authorities, the police and the community had to work in tandem. The legislation will not be successful unless those parties work together. The police and local authorities are unlikely to respond unless there is a problem in an area, defined by the complaints made by local people.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West 4:27 pm, 1st March 2001

I shall curtail my remarks, because we do not have injury time in Committee. Most local authorities and police forces have well-established mechanisms by which particular processes may be determined without any increase in bureaucracy. The Government's funding policies mean that police numbers are rising—they are certainly rising in the West Midlands force—so I do not anticipate the strain on police manpower that concerns Opposition Members.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

The hon. Gentleman asked why the child curfew order clauses received such derisory opposition on Second Reading—only one amendment was tabled. The Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to both clauses and would have considered an amendment to remove them, which would have been unacceptable. I want a vote on clause 43, which I shall vote against. I will also vote against clause 44 if there is a Division.

We opposed the imposition of the original child curfew orders for under-10s and—along with other members of the Committee—we are unaware of any occasions on which they have been used. We were concerned by the wide-ranging nature of the powers. Those concerns are increased by the proposals to extend the orders to age 16 and to allow their imposition by a chief of police acting alone, rather than by a local authority. In terms of civil liberties, the extension to age 16 is far worse. Although most reasonable people would argue that a 10-year-old should not be out on the streets after 9 o'clock in almost any circumstances, it is clearly unreasonable to argue that a 15 or 16-year-old should not.

Our major concern is that child curfew orders target geographical areas with blanket bans on the activities of young people instead of on individuals who are causing problems. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) that the police may find it difficult to identify the perpetrator. That is not an excuse to blame everyone.

We expressed concern about the impact of the Human Rights Act on the previous legislation, and whether it was compliant. I suspect that no orders have been applied for because local authorities have felt unable to show that such orders would be a proportionate response to a problem or necessary in a democratic society. I also suspect that the Minister will refer to Scotland and the Strathclyde scheme, because that has been prayed in aid when the matter has been discussed in the House. However, there is a fundamental difference because, in Scotland, curfew orders are not imposed in isolation but are part of a wider scheme that includes investment and activities for young people so that there is less motivation and need for them to hang about on street corners causing trouble.

We are worried about the practical effect of blanket curfew orders. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire referred to police availability and time. If the police are available to enforce sanctions and curfew orders, surely they would be available to deal effectively with young people who are breaking the law. Imposing a blanket curfew order could prevent innocent young people who are out on legitimate business from entering the curfew area. They may stray into a curfew area unknowingly, because they could not be expected to know what part of a city or town is subject to a curfew. If they were aware of it, they might decide to go home by a different route, which could be less familiar and perhaps more dangerous.

I strongly believe, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, that strategies should be encouraged to allow the police and local authorities to deal with individual young people who cause problems, but not to cover a whole area and to add to the bad name that teenagers are often given. I am distressed if elderly people feel intimidated by the presence of teenagers, but that is not a reason to lock up those teenagers if they are doing nothing wrong.

I recall, in the dim and distant past when I was a teenager, that teenagers enjoyed just hanging about. I enjoyed hanging about on the steps of the cenotaph in the middle of the small town where I lived just to see who else was hanging about. Hon. Members will remember that hormones are rampant during teenage years and teenagers are often interested in seeing which members of the gender to which they happen to be attracted are hanging about at the same time. For many teenagers, that is the main purpose of hanging about, and I should hate us to be killjoys and decide that that is not a legitimate activity for teenagers.

A blanket curfew order on a geographical area because some teenagers have been causing a problem is similar to keeping the whole class in after school because one or two pupils have misbehaved. I want to press the amendment to a vote. I may be on my own on this, but that does not mean that I am wrong.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 4:30 pm, 1st March 2001

I shall be brief because our time has been curtailed by the Division. This debate is more political than some of our previous debates and I want to deal quickly with the main points.

My very good friend, Fred Broughton, has never, to my knowledge, said that there were too many police officers in Britain. Whenever an issue arises, he and the Police Federation reasonably say that they need more police officers. I shall not rehearse the debate and the fact that police numbers are rising for the first time since 1993--between a third and a half of forces already have more police officers than in March 1997, and that process will continue--because that is not relevant to this debate.

On the impact of the curfew, I want to emphasise that a two-pronged approach is required to deal with youth disorder. One prong is a range of activities, such as the youth improvement programmes under the youth justice scheme, out-of-school schemes and genuine activities for young people so that they do not just hang out at cenotaphs and so on. The other is an exceptional range of sanctions that can be applied to young people who are disorderly in their behaviour and cause misery for other people, because that is not acceptable.

The political points made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West were a bit ripe. He put his arguments exceptionally powerfully. I recall visiting him during his election campaign and meeting a group of ethnic minority community leaders in his constituency to discuss various issues. They raised the problems that their communities were experiencing from precisely that type of youth disorder. Labour won the by-election convincingly, even though the Conservatives were expected to do so. The electors of West Bromwich, West are extremely fortunate to have my hon. Friend as their Member. It was because they were concerned about those issues and they believed that the Labour party had policies to deal with them that he was elected in that critical by-election. The political point needs to be understood in that context.

Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office

No.

The question of sanctions is important in relation to the bureaucracy argument. I saw a most interesting presentation from Chief Inspector Ron Hope, the commander of the Islington borough, with the housing department of Islington Council, about acceptable behaviour contracts under which young people are required to sign up to behave in an acceptable way, with the housing officer, the police, and the parent. The sanction against them is the application of such orders. The existence of the sanction has led to children ranging in age from eight to 19 following the terms of those contracts. That scheme has been running over the past few months and has been extremely effective. It has now been taken up as a standard form of contract with the Metropolitan police.

We need sanctions to deal with the situation. It is not a question of building on a foundation of failure. We inherited the ``no such thing as society'' generation from our predecessors and we are seeking to put back the strong communities and strong society that we need.

I hope that the official Opposition will put their votes where their mouth is on the clause. We have heard from the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and others a great string of weasel words on curfews, and general cynicism and undermining. They are entitled to express themselves in that way, but they should have the courage to vote against the clause and stand with the Liberal Democrats, though for different reasons. The Liberal Democrats' position is based on their view of civil liberties, and I understand that, but the official Opposition should have the courage to vote as they feel. They should stop their mealy-mouthed words and decide that they are either for or against the measure. Let us see where the vote is and what the people think.

I urge my hon. Friends to vote for the clause.

Question put, That the clause stand part of the Bill:-

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 1.

Division number 19 Adults Abused in Childhood — Clause 43 - Extension to older children

Aye: 9 MPs

No: 1 MP

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause 43 ordered to stand part of the Bill.