I have been looking forward to this debate, because the dispersal of groups has been the subject of some consideration and public debate. We now have the proper parliamentary opportunity to reflect and to decide on the matter.
We have never claimed that dispersal powers are the only answer or that they will cure all the problems of disorder on our streets and in our open spaces. We have always made it clear that they are but one part of our approach. However, we will not shy away from doing something to address the real fears and problems that exist among young and old alike in communities throughout Scotland. It is incumbent on the Parliament to ensure that it comes up with solutions, instead of just criticising. Too often, I have heard the fears of local communities trivialised. That is at best irresponsible and at worst downright insulting to those who suffer day and night from antisocial behaviour.
Bill Aitken tried to remove section 16 at stage 2—he failed then and I sincerely hope that he will fail again today. Throughout consideration of the dispersal powers, we have on every occasion sought to emphasise that they would come into effect only in an area where there is clear evidence that antisocial behaviour is an ongoing problem and there is a need to offer those who live in or around that area a period of respite.
I will now tackle the criticism that section 16 will simply create no-go areas. The harsh reality is that we already have many areas that are effectively no-go areas because so many people experience harassment and intimidation and cannot walk their own streets. There are more young people who are frightened to walk down their streets than there are young people who commit antisocial behaviour and it would serve us to ally ourselves with those young people who are afraid. We have to do something to restore calm in their communities and to give those areas back to the people who want to live in peace and quiet and without fear. That applies to communities throughout Scotland—in my constituency, in Bishopbriggs, in rural areas and, I say to Mr
There are those who continue to say that people innocently going about their business—whether they are young or old—will be moved on by the police and find themselves subject to criminal sanction based simply on the opinion of a member of the public who does not like the look of them. Such talk is not only irresponsible and belittling of the real problems that many communities face; it is fundamentally wrong.
We have emphasised all along that the dispersal powers must be seen in the wider context of the local strategy to tackle antisocial behaviour. That strategy—in fact, those action plans drawn up by local authorities and the police in partnership with community groups and others—will cover prevention and diversion as well as enforcement and will be backed up by the resources required to turn strategic plans into action. I say clearly to the Parliament and to the communities who might be listening, that if we introduce dispersal powers we will not only be curing antisocial behaviour, we will help to prevent it. The powers will do much more for communities and young people than anything that the Tories or the Scottish Socialist Party have ever suggested.
I will be clear about what the bill proposes. Section 16 makes it clear that, in any circumstance, a senior police officer can authorise the use of dispersal only if antisocial behaviour has been a persistent problem and is having a significant effect in an area. The bill also sets out that the authorisation will last for a specific period not exceeding three months. The section refers appropriately to times or days in that period, for example, a Friday or Saturday night. Therefore, the powers will not be employed at the drop of a hat, they will not be used without proper consultation and they will be tightly targeted, time limited and based on evidence of significant, persistent and serious antisocial behaviour.