Clause 30

Policing and Crime Bill – in a Public Bill Committee on 12th February 2009.

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Directions to individuals who represent a risk of disorder

Question (this day) again proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

We had just made a start on clause 30, which includes a new provision relating to directions to individuals who represent a risk of disorder. The clause will amend section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006. Currently, an individual aged 16 or over who is in a public place can be given a direction to leave that locality and be prohibited from returning within 48 hours. There are two trigger requirements: first, that the presence of the individual in that locality is likely, in all the circumstances, to cause or to contribute to the occurrence of alcohol-related crime or disorder, and secondly, that the giving of a direction is necessary for the purpose of removing or reducing the likelihood of there being crime or disorder in that locality. Clause 30 will reduce the minimum age from 16 to 10.

I understand the concept behind what the Government are trying to do. We heard from the police during the Committee’s evidence sessions why they felt that the power would be helpful. However, it was interesting that they felt that it was at the top end of that age range—I think they mentioned 14 and 15-year-olds—that the power was most likely to be used. In all genuineness, because it will extend to 10-year-olds, the provision makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable because of the clear relationship between criminal law and child protection issues.

The clause as it stands speaks only of the requirement to prohibit someone from being within an area for 48 hours and the removal of that person from the area, but we know that the police have other powers to take children to a place of safety, their home or where their parent or guardian might be. I want to understand properly how the provisions are intended to fit together. For example, in clause 28, the Government give the police an additional power to take a child home in circumstances where alcohol has been confiscated. I accept that alcohol may not be confiscated in the circumstances contemplated in clause 30, although there may be some overlap, and that the police have other, general powers to take children back home if they feel that they are at risk or in danger. I am still trying to understand clearly why there is a power in the Bill to move children on, particularly young children, rather  than a requirement to take them to a place of safety or ensure that appropriate child protection arrangements are being followed through.

On the question of 10-year-olds, if there is a risk to their safety—section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006 specifically contemplates a risk of crime or disorder—do we think that it is acceptable simply to move the child on and displace them in those circumstances? It is important that we hear from the Minister how the power is intended to relate to other police powers as well as to social services and everything that goes with them. Certain agencies have picked up on the issue. The YWCA said in its briefing notes to the Committee that it

“has serious concerns about reports from some young women that they have been ‘moved on’ by the police under existing legislation, but not always to an established place of safety. This has meant in some circumstances that young women have been put at risk by being moved to unsafe places like unlit parks or by having to find their own way home. This can put young women into extremely vulnerable positions.

We believe that an approach of providing a package of support for young people is the best way to ensure that they do not get locked into a cycle of offending. Any ‘Direction to Leave’ to young people that does enter legislation must include a requirement for young people to be taken to an agreed place of safety.”

Obviously the YWCA is highlighting its specific concerns, but there is something worrying about the extension from 16 to 10. It is horrifying to think that a 10-year-old would be out late at night at risk of offending and getting into disorder. Sadly, that reflects some of the difficulties, problems and challenges faced by many of our communities up down the country, which is why I understand the Government’s belief that a simple power of removal may not necessarily be appropriate in isolation. The police may feel that they are constantly taking children back to their home or elsewhere. In those circumstances, as we discussed this morning, some parents simply let the child back out again. There is no parental responsibility. The Government are trying to say that we need an additional trigger or lever to get parents to take their responsibilities seriously, albeit that it is now through something that is almost a criminal process.

The real question underlying all of this is what options have the Government explored to avoid going down the criminalisation route? Clearly they must have examined other options, some of which we touched on this morning. The Government have formed the view that it is necessary to go down a criminal justice route. It would be helpful to know what their rationale was, what the evidence was and what their thoughts were in trying to balance the issue of child protection and parenting with the issue of criminal justice. Why do they think it appropriate to take this approach rather than seeking to trigger support from social services or child welfare, which I wholly accept are not mutually exclusive? Clearly something has gone on for the Government to feel that escalation to this level is required.

In that context, and because I think there is a need for interlinkage, will the Minister explain why, according to my reading of clause 3, there is no requirement to notify the parent or guardian of a child issued with a notice under section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act? That may happen, but I should be grateful if the Minister considered that. If a child is at risk of offending and is in a situation where the police feel strongly that this power needs to be invoked, there should be a requirement for notification to go to the parents or the guardian.

It would be interesting to understand what protocols and procedures are envisaged. If a child is in receipt of that notice, would the police notify children’s social services in the local authority concerned? There are child welfare issues and risk and danger issues if a child as young as 10 is issued with this sort of notice. As we know, some of the problems that many young children face are linked to their home environment, behavioural issues, mental health issues and drug addiction. Their parents may have similar issues too. We need to ensure a more co-ordinated and strategic approach once an at-risk child has been identified through this mechanism and a notice has been issued. I understand some of the rationale behind the direction that the Government are taking, but in isolation, it is difficult to understand and appreciate how the provision is intended to operate in practice. This is a sensitive clause, because of the age of the children concerned.

I have a question for the Minister arising from the youth alcohol action plan, which includes in its summary of actions the issuing of

“guidance to the police, health and children’s services to strengthen their approach to dealing with young people drinking in public places.”

That relates to our previous debate, and the action plan says that the timing of the provision is subject to the parliamentary timetable. The Bill deals with a number of the aspects of the action plan. If we are to gain a better understanding what sort of response is intended to deal with children in such situations, what has happened to the guidance contemplated in annexe A of the action plan? If parliamentary approval is required, or if it is still envisaged that it will be required, why is such a measure not included in part 3, which seems to encompass the main aspects of the guidance? Perhaps it has been published already or dealt with in another way. However, it would be helpful to understand clause 30 better, because of the significant and sensitive nature of the additional powers that the Government seek to give to the police.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I have three brief points to make. First, I am sure that the police would say that the existing powers are too limited. However, it can be argued that there is a battery of existing powers that could be used in the situations envisaged in clause 30. Under section 46 of the Children Act 1989, the police can, under certain circumstances, remove children for their own safety. Under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, under certain circumstances, children under 16 can be removed to their place of residence. Under sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, action can be taken if anyone—children, in this case—is using

“threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour”.

A group of 10, 13 or 15-year-olds under the influence of alcohol might well fall under the provisions in the Public Order Act in respect of their language, behaviour and so on. Why are all those existing powers in legislation deemed so inappropriate that we need a blanket provision or catch-all so that all children between the ages of 10 and 18 can be dealt with as stated in the Bill?

My second point concerns a matter that we have already touched on. Is it suitable simply to say that we can move people on? Let us imagine a group of 10, 11 or 13-year-olds in a public place, perhaps on a dark winter’s evening: the police believe that there is a problem  and that they need moving on. Is it really appropriate simply to move a group of 10-year-olds from one spot to another, rather than taking them back home, for example, or taking some other action? There is a question about the suitability of moving very young children around and whether we are simply displacing their behaviour.

The police will say that in some cases the issue is not clear-cut. A group of children might well be causing what the neighbours perceive as a public order problem, but are not actually breaking the law. At 9.30 pm one evening, I was with a police community support officer in Duckmanton, a pit village on the edge of my constituency. Three 13 and 14-year-old lads were riding around on their bikes, hitting each other over the head with a huge lump of polystyrene. No offence was being committed, although some litter might have resulted and they were shouting very loudly. However, the neighbours would certainly have been unhappy about it. If the police had a word with them and they would move to another area and repeat the performance. In what way is existing legislation inadequate and why is it suitable simply to move the problem around, especially when dealing with particularly young children—the Bill proposes to amend legislation to cover children as young as age 10?

My third point concerns the attitude in this country towards age and criminality and the way in which we treat children. Rod Morgan, former chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said about eight days ago that we have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe, although it is even lower in Scotland at eight years old. However, we lock up twice as many young people as we did in the early 1990s, and we are criminalising many more. When we lock them up, it costs £200,000 a head to keep them in secure accommodation: money which might be better spent on adopting—the Government are fond of this—the Finnish example of strict liability.

In Finland, the age of criminal responsibility is 15, and the emphasis is on trying to rehabilitate young children aged 10 to 15, working with them through psychological approaches or rehabilitation programmes—whatever is appropriate for them and their families. That would cost much less than £200,000 to lock them up, as we tend to do. In Finland, only three children in the 10 to 18 age range are in confinement, as opposed to the 3,000 here. Statute that allows us to experiment with the Scandinavian route already exists, but with clause 30, we seem to be looking more at a punitive approach rather than tackling the problem at its source.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:15 pm, 12th February 2009

I shall make a brief contribution to raise a specific point. I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, that it is incredible that children as young as 10 should roam the streets of our towns and villages, particularly at night, unsupervised by their parents. Sadly, as he alluded in his contribution, in certain circumstances that is a sad reflection of society but it is a fact of life at present.

The issue that puzzles me, which is connected to the clause, is the reverse of that situation. Notwithstanding what the Government are seeking to do, which basically is to grant powers to be used on the streets against groups of young people who need to be moved on, why  are they not also looking at the other side of the coin? It came as a considerable surprise to learn, as a parent of teenage children, that in most cases in law, if a young person in that age group wishes to leave their home at night, and their parents say no, the parents have no legal right to stop their children from disobeying, except in certain narrow circumstances. If parents seek to bar the exit of the home for that young person because they do not think that it is appropriate for their children to go out on their own at night, and if they take action forcibly—in the peaceful meaning of that word—to stop their children, they are liable for prosecution. As a parent, that case came as a surprise to me—it is staggering. Why have the Government not looked at the problem from that angle to deal with what they are seeking to achieve in the clause?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

It is a rare occasion when I hope that no young people read the record of the Committee and discover the power that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford tells us that they have; I will return to that point in a moment.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield asked whether the power is necessary, because all existing powers are—I think he said—superfluous, but that is certainly not the case. The power should be seen for what it is, which is a power to plug a particular gap that has been flagged up to the Committee during the evidence sessions by the police, who complain of a situation where a mixed group of young people might be having alcohol and causing trouble, or have the potential to cause trouble. There is a clear power for those aged 16 and over, but it might be a mixed group we are talking about, so what do we do with the younger members of that group? Just because they might be younger, it does not mean that they might not be the most serious perpetrators of disorder or trouble among that group—that is what the clause is about.

The hon. Gentleman states that it might be more suitable just to move children on, and there is nothing in the Bill that would prevent a police officer from doing that. It takes us back to the point raised throughout our deliberations in this part of the Bill about allowing the police to use their discretion and ensuring that they have the power that they need. In their view—a view that we share—it is a power that they may need to use in some circumstances, but it is a power that they do not yet have.

Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Liberal Democrat, Chesterfield

I was in fact asking whether it is suitable just to move the children on, or move the problem round the corner, rather than tackling it as a wider issue. On the previous point, if there are children aged 10 to 16 with a group of older children and they are intoxicated on the street, why are the existing powers not allowing them to be taken back home or referred to social services? If the children are on the street with a gang of intoxicated youths, what exactly is the gap that this is filling?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I had written down the point and then misinterpreted it, so it is my fault and not the hon. Gentleman’s. The point that I am trying to make is that it might be entirely suitable for a police officer simply to  move children on. In other circumstances it might be suitable for the officer to take the child to a place of safety. The police must have the ability to make that judgment. We must not be too restrictive and second-guess what they must do in every circumstance. We had little, if any, debate on clause 28. Clause 30 should be seen only in the context of clause 28 because that clause deals with the issue of child safety. Again, it depends on the circumstances.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield went on to argue a point about the age of criminality. That is a bigger debate than this particular measure has the time or inclination to deal with. But it is not about criminalising young people. It is a preventive measure to be used when the police officer thinks that it is proportionate and useful to do so. It is not about a quick escalation.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

Does my hon. Friend agree that the measure is a response to the common-sense observation that a lot of people make, which is that when the younger kids cause a nuisance the police do not have any powers to do anything? They can get social services and do all kinds of things, but simply getting them to go home, which might be some distance or just round the corner on the same estate, is a useful power to deal with a problem that everybody knows exists with the younger kids on their estates.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

That reminds me of a recent visit to South Tyneside where very good work by the local partnership has been successful in tackling youth disorder, and problems with alcohol too. One part of the solution was to build a shelter for young people on the other side of a field rather than at the side where they were congregating. It certainly moved the children on, but in the view of residents it helped to tackle the problem. It was not a case of out of sight, out of mind. As far as the residents were concerned, the problem was removed.

I do not underplay, however, the point about child safety that the hon. Members for Hornchurch and for Chesterfield raised. In an emergency the police have the powers to bring in social services and other agencies that the hon. Member for Hornchurch was talking about. But that is not what this is about. As my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North said, it is about giving the police a particular power to move children on, and if used in conjunction with clause 28, the opportunity to take them to a place of safety too.

The example of a young woman complaining that she may be put into a more dangerous situation by being moved on is something that a police officer would need to consider. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford made a point about 10-year-olds in the dark at night. I do not think that that is incredible. It is incredibly sad that that should happen, but we acknowledge and the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that in some circumstances that can happen. Of course, the existing legislation applying to 16-year-olds has a time scale on it. We are not talking only about tackling problems in the dark of night. If we do not put a time scale on the measure, we could be talking about situations that the police might encounter at 5 pm or earlier, say on a school holiday or weekend. I hope that that helps to explain things.

Why are parents not notified of the powers? We have to be proportionate. We have a very good scheme in my constituency called Child Safe to take children back to  their parents. That is how to notify the parents. We must be careful not to make the measure too burdensome. The police want a power specifically to move children that are younger than those that they are currently able to move on. I am not sure whether a detailed recording mechanism or having conditions applied would be helpful, particularly when we are conscious of the time and energy that the police already have to spend on such matters.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch asked where the measure fits in the overall scheme of things and in particular why parents are not involved. This measure is part of a range of measures. There is an element of escalation, so we could be talking—at some point in relation to the same child—acceptable behaviour contracts and ASBOs. However, we could also be talking about parenting contracts and parenting orders. We have to see the measure for what it is, but we must also put it into the context of the measures that are available at the discretion of the police.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I rise to remind the Minister—this may be in his pile of papers—that I asked a specific question on the youth alcohol action plan and the proposal for a more partnership-based or collegiate toolkit. I do not think that he has addressed that.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Forgive me; I do indeed have a note on that. The guidance that the hon. Gentleman mentioned has not yet been published. The decision has been made not to do so until we have the new laws on the statute book and see how they fit into the overall picture of what needs to be done regarding young people. He may have a view on that. [Interruption.] He looks bemused.

Photo of James Brokenshire James Brokenshire Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am bemused only about the parliamentary timetable. I suppose the Minister is saying that he needs the Bill to be on the statute book before the guidance for all the agencies can be issued, and no more than that. However, I am sure he appreciates that the guidance that is referred to is quite important in the context of fitting all the different aspects and tools together to ensure that we get the necessary cohesive approach.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The guidance is important, and I do not by any means underestimate its importance. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right on why we have taken the decision.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

Will the Minister respond to the point that I made in the debate?

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

My point was that parents have no legal powers to prevent their children leaving home if they want to go out.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

Again, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. That is an interesting point, which I suppose touches on the measure we are discussing. However, if a child leaves home, the parents can call the police if they think that they are not safe. In that case, presumably, the child could be taken to a place of safety.

Photo of Simon Burns Simon Burns Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the Minister, but that is not what I was asking. I was asking this: as part of solving or minimising the problem, are the Government going to consider taking such an approach, and why have they not already done so?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

That is an interesting question. I will reflect on it and perhaps write to the hon. Gentleman.

Ms Keeblerose—

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation

Before the hon. Lady intervenes I should say that the question of parental controls goes rather wider than the clause itself. The Minister said that he will respond to Mr. Burns, and I am sure that he will circulate the letter to other Members. The hon. Lady should therefore seek to ask him about another matter.

Photo of Sally Keeble Sally Keeble Labour, Northampton North

I had not realised that parents do not have that power—I hope nobody tells my son. If the Minister is going to respond, perhaps he would also say how any such measure could be enforced. It seems difficult to do.

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 1:30 pm, 12th February 2009

I must give the Minister the last word and then he may have some concluding remarks.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I think that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford is seeking not simply the enforcement of the power, but a clarification of the situation now. Parents do have the power of reasonable chastisement, and I am confident that if they took reasonable steps to prevent the situation that the hon. Gentleman talked about, no court would prosecute them.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 30 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.