If I am fortunate enough to secure another debate in this Chamber in the future, Sir Nicholas, I hope that by then I will be able to address you as Mr. Deputy Speaker again. That day cannot come too soon. I also thank whoever decides which debates are chosen for giving us the opportunity to examine what is, for many of us, the single most important issue facing our constituents. I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh, who is normally present at these debates. She has an engagement that was put in her diary long before we knew that we had secured the debate, and, quite rightly, she has kept her engagement.
This is the first time that I have debated this subject with the Minister, whom I am immensely glad to see here. I know how committed she is to examining the issue of antisocial behaviour in different ways. I shall later explain how I would like Government policy to develop. I am also pleased to see other hon. Friends present.
In developing policy further, we need to think about immediate redress for antisocial behaviour. I make a plea for the Government to think outside the box of the criminal justice system in dealing with the problem, and I shall explain why. I shall talk about the root causes of the plague of antisocial behaviour, and I shall end by saying that we require not only the lead that we are getting from the Home Office, but a concerted effort across Government.
I want to stress why this issue is the new politics. Next year, I will have been a Member of this House for the constituency of Birkenhead for 25 years. During that time, my role as an MP has changed dramatically. My role can best be summarised as one that has witnessed and tried to respond to the movement from class politics to the politics of behaviour.
When I became an MP the issues that I dealt with for my constituents may have been complicated, but usually they either had an answer or they did not. If one examined the various pieces of legislation assiduously enough, one could usually, if not always, find redress for one's constituents. There were queries such as, "Why am I not eligible for this benefit?" and, "Why have I been denied that benefit?" and constituents might want to transfer from one house to another. There were employment questions, as well as the big questions with which all Members on both sides of the House have become familiar as Britain has lost its manufacturing base, despite the noble efforts that you, Sir Nicholas, and others have made to try to reverse the tide.
About nine years ago, a group of very respectable working-class constituents came into my surgery and described the life that they were experiencing. They had young lads running across the roofs of their bungalows, peeing through their letterboxes, trying to break their windows when they were watching television, and jumping out of the shadows at night to see whether they could give someone a heart attack. Those elderly residents explained to me that of course they had been to the police, but that the police knew the limitation of their powers, as did the young culprits. After conversations with the police, and again with my constituents, I realised that a pattern was beginning to emerge from what I had previously wanted to see as isolated incidents of appalling behaviour. That was when my interest in the politics of behaviour began, and I started to try to discover how we as politicians could respond to this new area of politics.
Because this is a new area, it is difficult for us to deal with. It is not like passing Acts to nationalise or denationalise whole industries. For most of our history, Governments have not had to be involved with behaviour. Other great powers in the land have determined how people behave, and the character each of us has. Since at least the 1950s, we have been living off capital put in place by previous generations, which emphasised what common decencies were and how they were learned in families. Because people learned in their families, they were provided with the map and compass to negotiate the wider world beyond the family successfully.
In a growing number of families, that has ceased to happen. In Birkenhead—and, I am sure, in other Members' constituencies—there is a rise in dysfunctional families who do not see any place for trying to teach their members about how the group can get along together, despite the fact that each member is stained with original sin and thinks that the world centres around them. It is not possible to run a family—or a society—if everybody thinks that they will be the centre of the world all the time, and how their behaviour impacts on surrounding members is of no importance to them.
In the past, families taught their members that they were the most important people in the world, but that they were also surrounded by other people who were also the most important people in the world. Happy families know how to negotiate that frontier between people. We have taken it for granted that families will do that, but increasing numbers of them have ceased to do so.
This is a new area both for constituency Members and for the Government, and I make a plea for the Government to continue the approach that they have begun. They should not simply come out with the politicians' hackneyed phrase about being in listening mode—although that is necessary. As we cannot draw on any previous experience from politicians about how to negotiate this new area, it will be down to luck—and only sometimes judgment—if we get all our measures right in the first instance.
Our constituents are not asking the impossible from us, but they do ask us to try. When some measures to deal with antisocial behaviour do not work as we wished them to and thought that they would, or if they have consequences that we did not foresee, we need to change our approach quickly. There ought not to be any stigma attached to politicians, including Ministers, saying, "I honestly got this wrong." Our constituents would cheer us if they heard that from us more often. In an area in which politicians have never before had to be involved—the politics of behaviour—it is inevitable that in our first attempts to get things right our batting average will be lower than usual.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a fascinating and compelling argument. Does he agree that the problem may be aggravated if society and its forces, which are represented by the Government, councils and other people in authority, are not seen to care and respond? Might that not give rise to vigilante action—as it has in certain cases—which none of us would wish to see?
I agree with the first part of that. In the past, there were what are euphemistically called strong community ties, which included clear knowledge about what happened to people if they crossed certain boundaries. Many of us led more peaceful lives then, because we did not investigate too carefully how those common rules were enforced. Of course, I would not wish to go on the record as giving any support for, or making claims for, vigilante groups. It is significant, however, that in my constituency, and perhaps in other constituencies, too, the common decencies upheld by local force—if need be—generally ceased. Even some of the youngest members of the community know their rights under the law and what aid they will get under the legal aid scheme should anybody box their ears—that is what would have happened in the past, and it would have been helpful in guiding their actions.
In Birkenhead and elsewhere we have also lost the role that heavy industry played in disciplining people. People could not misbehave in the steelworks or the shipyard, because although they might have damaged themselves, the likelihood was that they would endanger one of their workmates too. Tough discipline operated regarding people who played around and risked other people's lives or limbs. Sometimes disputes in the town got settled in the shipyard, with the result that there was a more peaceable community. We know that we cannot create that world again, but there has been a loss, and it needs to be taken into account when we are trying to understand the behaviour we are now seeing. If all the checks built up over centuries are quickly stripped away, people should not be surprised if the bag of potatoes takes on a different shape.
I shall mention four issues to my colleagues and the Minister: the need for immediate redress, the need to think outside the box of the criminal justice system, root causes, and a plea for the Government to respond across Departments.
I ask the Government to think further about how we might devise means that bring redress to our constituents much more quickly than we have done so far with antisocial behaviour contracts and orders, or curfews. Nobody in the debate today has more praise than me for what the Government have done. However, although we all know from our constituencies that we are just beginning this great initiative, sadly we are not seeing the end of it.
One of the problems for our constituents is that it takes time to use the galaxy of measures that the Government have properly introduced. Even if the Government have not realised it, the subconscious model for many of their counter-measures against antisocial behaviour is the criminal justice system, which quite properly takes time, is careful, collects and weighs evidence and weights it in favour of the person who is accused, rather than those who are making the accusations. I question whether that is the right approach to antisocial behaviour.
Our constituents are crying out for immediate action. In a little book that I published recently, which I called "The Politics of Behaviour" but the publishers retitled "Neighbours from Hell", I defined antisocial behaviour as separate from criminal activity. Generally speaking, antisocial behaviour, on the odd occasion that it occurs, is a nuisance but no more than that. However, peeing through people's letterboxes is too much. When such nuisances are perpetrated by large numbers of people hour upon hour, day after day, and recipients of that viciousness never know whether they will get respite from it that particular night, that uncouth behaviour moves into the category of antisocial behaviour. We need measures to act quickly against that, because our constituents need redress.
From observing what is happening it is clear that some—maybe many—of those who indulge in antisocial behaviour not only get a buzz from it, but want an increasing buzz. If such behaviour goes unchecked, it encourages people to think of more uncouth and wicked ways of behaving to get more thrills next time than they did last time. Sometimes, that behaviour acts as a recruiting sergeant for people to get a criminal record. At all costs, our counter-measures should prevent people from coming to court, becoming part of the criminal justice system and getting a record.
Because the root cause of antisocial behaviour is the failure of a small but growing number of families to teach their offspring what I call the common decencies, or social virtue, we need to consider who could act in the place of parents when the real parents cannot or will not. The police are the one body that can do that. I have advocated that they should have powers like those of a football referee. They should be able to warn people, and if they did not stop their behaviour, the police would have the power immediately to impose a contract or an order, which individuals could challenge only if they went to the courts. The police would not have to go to court to get the order in the first place, because they need it quickly.
Above all, we do not want people in the courts—although there are those who might go to court, because in any institution people abuse their power. The check against that would be that some people would go to the courts, and chief superintendents and chief constables could see whether there was a pattern, with one or two police officers being too regularly involved in cases of people challenging decisions.
Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that there is a sufficient uniformed presence, whether that is police, neighbourhood wardens or community support officers, to provide that support and help?
I hope that the Home Affairs Committee will do two things soon, and one of those is to examine how the police spend their time. I must tell the hon. Lady that when it was respectable in the Labour party to attack the police, I did not—I supported them. That does not mean that I am not anxious for them to perform better. In London, each police officer gets on average three convictions a year—one every four months. Outside London, that figure is about one every two months. I am interested in what the police do with their time. I am not suggesting that they are sitting at home playing cards, but it would be interesting to have a proper audit.
We might be able to use existing resources better, but I hope the Home Affairs Committee will address the fact that we need more police. In an age where no one can get elected by advocating a rise in direct taxation, we need to determine how we can create contracts so that local people can pay more to see more police on the beat. I agree with the hon. Lady that that is required. I am looking for people who will behave as surrogate parents.
Of course, we need to think about the longer term. If some families are failing to teach the common decencies, why does that happen? Last year, I spent part of the summer attending practically all the reception classes for four-year-olds. Two things struck me above all. First, there are pupils who cannot sit still, but run around madly all over the place. How can one begin teaching anything unless the children can sit still? Secondly, when children were collected or brought to school, it was deeply shocking to note that some four-year-olds already knew how to bully their parents. It is not therefore surprising that by the time the offspring are as tall as their parents, the parents find it rather daunting if their children decide that they will not do as they are told and will not abide by the common decencies.
I found a note of hope in the most difficult school. When I was discussing the school contracts that pupils would like to see, and how they would draw them up, there was a demand for parenting classes as part of the national curriculum. One could not describe what 40 per cent. of those young people had received as parenting, yet they wanted to be good parents themselves.
I make a plea for thinking across Departments. There is a need for extraordinary co-ordination when trying to intervene in different ways and at different points of people's lives if we are to be successful with the new politics. Because I have touched on other themes—I got slightly carried away with what I was saying, but I am very mindful of the time—I wish to emphasise before I conclude why we are in the present position.
This is a new area for politicians. My constituents started me thinking about the question nine months ago. I wanted to find out why we had originally become a peaceable kingdom. What were the causes, and in what ways could that success be replicated in the new millennium? I could not but agree with what Noel Annan wrote in his great book on Leslie Stephen. He said that the evangelical revival changed Britain, and that almost nobody was untouched by it. What it did, among many other things, was give people a real sense of self-respect and responsibility. No one could properly be a self-respecting person unless he or she equally and willingly gave self-respect to other people as well. In the areas that the evangelical revival did not touch or where it needed strengthening, a welfare state grew up from friendly societies, trade unions and mutual societies, through which rules about behaviour were ruthlessly enforced because of the risk that if they were not enforced, misbehaviour would bring the whole welfare initiative down around the ears of the contributors.
The values of those two great forces imbued families, and the standards of behaviour of those two great revolutions were taught to offspring. For the past 50 years, we have been living off the social capital that families somehow knew how to teach their children the common decencies, but we have never applied ourselves to the question of how that capital should be replenished. Therefore, part of my plea to the Minister is about how we can act more quickly to nip antisocial behaviour in the bud and prevent it from escalating, so that other people do not join in because they see it as the norm. We also need to think about the fact that there will not be another evangelical revival. Sadly, we will not have a welfare revolution that puts responsibility back on groups rather than the state, either.
We must therefore look elsewhere for great teaching forces. It is clear that schools are one great teaching force that we all have in our constituencies. We cannot put yet more pressure on our schools without taking some pressure off the national curriculum. After Christmas, I shall start to engage much more seriously with young pupils in Birkenhead about the contract that they wish to see in their schools. It will be interesting to see how many wish to see their abilities as parents developed, whether they believe that such skills can be achieved by osmosis and whether some practical knowledge can be taught to them.
Welfare, although it is largely nationalised, is the other great teaching force in our society. As a Government we need to begin a conversation—indeed, we have already begun it—aimed at moving away from the false system of welfare that is rights based to contract-based welfare. Each time we claim, it should be clearly spelled out what society is doing for us, and what society expects in return.
In the first world war, practically everybody who was sent to France had been baptised, but of the thousands of troops sent to the recent war in Iraq, only one third had been baptised. For two thirds of children, there is no public ceremony whereby we welcome them into our community and say, "Welcome. You are now part of something wider than your family." I therefore hope that the Government will consider making the registration of birth a public ceremony and a public event, in which we as society say, "Welcome. This is what we are going to provide for you, with Sure Start, medical help, day care and nursery education, and this is the framework within which we expect your parents to operate." That is not because we want an interfering or bullying society, but because most of us respond better when we know the rules of the game and the framework within which we should operate.
I am pleased to have opened this lengthy debate, and to see my colleagues in the Chamber ready to participate in it. I hope that I have put over the reasons why I see this as the beginning of the new politics that will dominate our lives as politicians, as the old class politics dominated for 50 or more years in our neighbouring Chamber.
Of course we need for our constituents to consider immediate redress; we also sometimes need to use such debates to reflect on why behaviour is going wrong in so many areas. What are the root causes and what can we do, however limited, as politicians to reverse the tide of disorder that our constituents feel? They feel that disorder and, consequently, they do not make a clear distinction between antisocial behaviour and crime.
One reason why the Government find it so difficult to get over their message that crime is falling in most areas is because people see growing disorder in their neighbourhood and they equate it with crime. If we begin to get on top of that issue, the issue of crime will also settle into a better perspective.
Order. It is my intention to start the winding-up speeches at 3 o'clock, so simple arithmetic indicates that there is about 30 minutes for the three Back-Bench Members who wish to catch my eye. That means that there is about 10 minutes each, if hon. Members need to take that much time.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this debate on antisocial behaviour. I begin by thanking and congratulating my right hon. Friend Mr. Field on securing the debate. As always, he showed himself to be extremely thoughtful, if a tad provocative, when dealing with social issues, which is to his credit. To take on board his comments and debate them properly is a matter worthy of Parliament and this Chamber.
I shall make some brief remarks on how we could do better in tackling antisocial behaviour in our communities. That is not a criticism of the local police, the crime and safety partnerships or the local city council, but I think there is room for improvement in all our public services. It is on those aspects that I should like to focus attention, and I look to the Minister for guidance and support where appropriate.
Worcester is not the crime capital of the west midlands; it never has been and I hope it never will be. However, as with every other community up and down the land, there are issues relating to antisocial behaviour that cause my postbag to bulge and which cause utter misery on some of our estates. The relatively low crime rate in the city as a whole brings antisocial behaviour more sharply into focus, because that is what people can see day in, day out, as crime in their local community.
I fully understand that incidents of antisocial behaviour will not rank highly for emergency response from the police, nor would I expect them to be compared to the assaults and burglaries that are committed in my area. However, a problem that my constituents can have is the long response time from the police to a reported incident. A report is made and a number given, but it may be one or two days or even a week before the police get round to talking to that constituent about the incident. There is no immediate response, a point that my right hon. Friend made. Someone affected by antisocial behaviour wants an immediate response. Improvements could be made locally in dealing with that, which may require extra resources. I hope that the Minister takes keen note of any plea for resources that I make later in my contribution.
Antisocial behaviour orders are, without doubt, one way in which we can get a grip on the antisocial behaviour in our communities. However, in Worcester they are the fourth and final stage of an approach that tries to nip antisocial behaviour in the bud with early intervention. That involves providing distraction and alternatives, and dealing with parents to explain what the behaviour of their youngsters has been and why it is unacceptable in the local community.
An example of an area where that has taken place and come to prominence in Worcester is a local playground at the back of Barley crescent in the Long Meadow estate and Warndon villages. It is designed for primary school children. The estate has matured and grown up, but the playground is still geared towards the children who are not on the estate any more, and it has become a focal point where young people gather. Although I do not wish to condone the actions of those young people, what starts as boredom leads to mischief making and moves on to antisocial behaviour. That is when misery for local people begins. It might take the form of cars being vandalised in the neighbouring streets and closes, eggs or stones being thrown or fires being lit in the playground deliberately designed to draw attention and to show what mischief the young people are getting up to. That is the behaviour that needs to be tackled, ideally through early intervention and moving the young people into something more fruitful and positive.
When talking to my colleagues about ways of tackling such problems, I have seen that there is some good practice in dealing with antisocial behaviour in this country. One idea that came up in a discussion that I had with my hon. Friend Andy Burnham is a system that works in Wigan with the co-operation of the Greater Manchester police. There, a leaflet was printed and distributed to the local community containing a picture of four youngsters who had all been given antisocial behaviour orders. The leaflet described what those young people had done and set out the conditions of the antisocial behaviour order. The final page of the fold-up leaflet explained what residents should do if they saw young people in breach of their antisocial behaviour orders and gave telephone numbers and so on.
That is a positive way of involving the local community and empowering people to do something within the law to tackle what they know is a problem in their area. I am keen to see the scheme move forward and I would like West Mercia police to embrace it. They have promised to consider the data protection and human rights issues, and I would welcome the Minister's clarification of whether local police could produce and distribute such leaflets.
All that got me thinking about how to involve and respond to local communities when positive action has been taken on antisocial behaviour. I have raised with the local city council issues concerning young people—for example, the Barley crescent playground—and it has asked its detached youth team to investigate the problems and to discuss with young people why they become involved in behaviour that causes a nuisance to everyone. I have had full responses from the city council and they have been warmly welcomed when I have passed them on to my constituents. Occasionally, I have had a letter back saying, "Thank goodness someone has told the parents," or that action has been taken and it is good to know that people are listening. That feedback from constituents suggests that there is a real need for local police, through the Safer Worcestershire partnership, to let constituents know more formally and more regularly what is happening in their neighbourhood.
Whenever people are asked what they want, they say that they want more bobbies on the beat, but police officers are rarely seen on the beat because people must be outside or in the garden when the officers walk past to know that they are in the neighbourhood. That will not always happen, but one way in which the visibility of the police presence can be improved is to provide regular information to constituents, perhaps in a newsletter, about issues that they have reported, such as antisocial behaviour orders. That would overcome the visibility issue and provide information about what the police are doing. One of the great problems facing the police is that they feel Joe Public does not value them or their work, and that is one way of moving forward.
Without doubt, one way to deal with antisocial behaviour is with positive distractions for young people. We have seen a decline in youth service provision in our communities over a number of years, but I saw it in operation on Friday evening at the Angels in Exile in Worcester, which is a centre where young people can congregate and the police can distract them and involve them in doing something positive. Funding is an issue because the youth service has never been a statutory service, and when finances have been tight the youth service and facilities have been squeezed. It is time that society took on board the important role that youth facilities provide in our communities. If we want to tackle antisocial behaviour—people always say that they do—we must improve the facilities that we offer to our young people.
The final way we can help to improve how we tackle antisocial behaviour in West Mercia is to examine police funding. The Minister moved smartly to attention at the mention of that topical matter. West Mercia as a whole—it covers the city of Worcester—has a low crime rate and no one would argue with the statistics. My fear is that that means it does not trigger the same police resources as some higher crime areas do. I fully understand the importance of tackling more serious crimes, but a debate will crop up on whether we should provide an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to deal with the emergencies or funding for a fence at the top of the cliff to prevent people from falling over the edge. It is the preventive side of tackling antisocial behaviour that I think will lead to fewer resources being used up in dealing with the emergency aspects of police work.
So, there is an issue with police funding but, having said that, West Mercia has record numbers of police—the most since the constabulary was formed in 1967. That has to be good news, if people can feel that the police are dealing with the antisocial behaviour on their doorstep.
We need a big conversation on finding other ways of financing and resourcing the police. An example would be to consider placing a levy on nightclubs to pay for the extra police time and effort that we know nightclubs use. Anyone who has been to somewhere such as Worcester on a Friday or a Saturday evening knows that extra resources go to such places. While those resources are being used in Worcester city centre, they are not available in the suburbs for dealing with the antisocial behaviour issues that crop up.
Finally, over a number of years, there has been a change in police housing. One idea that I have discussed with the West Mercia branch of the Police Federation is the impact that police houses would have on some of our tougher estates, and the impact of police being seen, even just going to work and coming back. I have discussed whether such a police presence and having someone in the local neighbourhood as a port of call for information would help deliver a safer community and one less blighted by antisocial behaviour.
I hope that I have made a couple of contributions that are of use to the Minister. I would welcome a few comments on issues such as the newsletters and leaflets that I have mentioned, because the issue will not go away, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead said. It will be a measure of us, as Government Members and as politicians generally, to see how we tackle the issue, which is individualised but affects communities across Worcester.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Field on securing the debate. He made a thought-provoking contribution. He was way ahead of the times when he said that the Labour party needed to confront its Trotsksyist entryist problem in the 1970s and 1980s and when he talked about the need for welfare reform, and I think that he is ahead of his time in posing solutions to the serious problem of antisocial behaviour, which we all face in our constituencies.
I take a slightly different line from my right hon. Friend: I believe that everyone should have the right to enjoy social order and security. Everyone should have the right to sit in comfort and safety in their home, to feel safe when walking down the street, and not to feel intimidated by people lurking on the street corners. It should be safe for children to go out and play, and for people to park their car outside their house and expect to go out in the morning and find it undamaged where it was left.
My right hon. Friend is right that we need a contract. In return for rights, everybody—and it has to be everybody—has responsibilities. Everyone has a personal responsibility to their neighbours and a responsibility to ensure that their children respect the neighbours and the neighbourhood. Everyone should also have a responsibility to join others in the neighbourhood in confronting problems, through organisations such as neighbourhood watch or tenants or residents associations, and a personal responsibility to report problems to the authorities, including the police. Too often, that is a difficulty. People come to me complaining about the breakdown of order in their neighbourhood, yet they feel intimidated or unable to approach the police. Rights and responsibilities need to go together.
It takes only a very few shirking their responsibilities to create a serious problem for the many. That is why antisocial behaviour is a problem in so many parts of the country, not just in run-down estates and inner-city areas. It is because so few people can cause so much trouble for so many that antisocial behaviour is a problem in places such as Worcester and my constituency. I cannot hold a surgery or open my postbag in the morning without receiving complaints from constituents about the problems that we are discussing.
York's tourist industry benefits from the city's reputation as a beautiful, historic city, and the city centre is safe and clean, but in some ways York also suffers from that reputation. People forget that it is also a northern city with low wages and some serious social problems, as Seebohm Rowntree documented 100 years ago. There have been two drug-related murders in York in the past fortnight. To deal with those problems, we need more help, not just for services funded by the Home Office, but for other services, such as education. Two weeks ago I called a public meeting in Tang Hall. In common with estates in other parts of York—Clifton, Foxwood and the Groves—Tang Hall faces quite serious problems of criminal and antisocial behaviour. We gathered together the police, the Safer York partnership, magistrates, the probation service, councillors, council officers, residents associations, neighbourhood watch groups and churches.
In passing, I should say a special word of thanks to the Home Secretary, with whom I discussed the problems when he came to York early in November. He sent me a detailed letter responding to the queries that had been put to me by my constituents. Those attending the meeting were impressed by a hands-on Home Secretary who not only responded constructively to their questions and complaints but did so quickly—speed of response is of the essence.
At the meeting, we identified some good practice. In the past year, magistrates in York have issued 11 parenting orders. Magistrates issue such orders, and supervision is carried out by York city council—a good partnership is working between them. The parents who are the subject of those orders usually respond quite angrily. They say, "I have got enough problems with my children already without the courts coming down on me like a ton of bricks." However, after they have been through a parenting course, they support the system. They find that they are better able to communicate with their children to resolve conflict situations and to do things that might be second nature to some parents, such as praising their children when they do something well. Such behaviour does not necessarily occur naturally in society, and some people need help to find ways to be a more effective parent.
However, some powers that Parliament has passed in legislation are not being used locally. A common complaint made to me is that children under 10—the age of criminal responsibility—brag that the police cannot touch them. That is no longer true, because of legislation that passed through this House. Children below that age can be taken to court and made subject to a child safety order. If a child's parents are unable or unwilling to enforce the terms of a child safety order, it can be coupled with a parenting order. That coupling has yet to be used in York—so some additional powers are available.
Although police numbers in York are at an all-time high and the police have a new communications centre, when people phone up to report incidents, the response time is often far too slow. I know that there are technical problems with the new control room, but I hope that the Minister will have a look at what is happening in North Yorkshire, and ask what targets for response times are being set locally and when the police think that they will be through the teething problems and able to meet them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead is right to emphasise that this is a problem not just for the criminal justice system. In view of the time, I want to touch briefly on one set of agents for change that need more support—schools. At the meeting that I called, the head of a primary school said that it was easy when children come into the nursery at the age of three to identify which will become problem children in years to come. There are children who display a lack of socialisation—those who cannot sit down and who run about and disrupt activities for others. Getting support urgently for those children and their parents is extremely important. A local education authority, such as York's, which performs extremely well in the league tables, does not get the education resources that allow for sufficient educational social workers and other specialist support to be provided to schools.
I am particularly grateful to one head teacher who wrote me a long report after the meeting. He highlighted the fact that schools are both victims of antisocial behaviour and stand in the front line of the defence against youth offending. In the past week, that school has faced two assaults, four bicycle thefts, a gang fight outside the youth club, the site manager being threatened by a group of children aged between eight and 13, the head being threatened by intruders, verbal abuse from many trespassers, criminal damage, theft, intimidation, threats from unsupportive parents, and many phone calls from other parents and community leaders asking it to do more to help them in the fight against crime.
This is not a question of burdening schools with additional responsibilities; it is a question of putting in resources to help them deal with the problems that they face. Schools need both additional educational resources—an educational social worker, or perhaps an additional member of the school leadership team to deal with these day-to-day crises so that the head teacher can focus on the strategic direction of the school—and better liaison with the police. Perhaps we need a special police-school contact service, which could deliver a quick response. I cannot go into details because of the time, but there was a serious incident involving a bit of stolen property. The police were called and could, had they responded in time, have apprehended the child responsible. A number of police officers or community support officers could be attached to schools to provide direct support.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Field not only on securing the debate, but on the imaginative way in which he has yet again perceived a problem and applied intellectual rigour to analyse it and look for a solution. As we all know, antisocial behaviour is a huge problem. There is simply no need to describe how it impacts on the people of Redcar every day—it has an impact there, just as it does in Birkenhead, York and other places. He presented an interesting model about welfare being part of a contract, where the other part related to enforcing social duties on people.
I have read some publicity attached to my right hon. Friend's recent book, and I would be a very happy Christmas recipient of a signed copy. He says that
"crucial to any success on this front is the removal of the so damaging belief that no matter how badly the person behaves the right to welfare is inviolate. This link has to be broken whereby continual offensive behaviour leaves that individual's right to benefit untouched."
He gives an attractive example, which is also cited in the publicity, of a contract shaped so that the registration of a child's birth becomes a public event or initiation ceremony into the wider society beyond an individual family.
The contract would outline society's duty to provide support, and the registration would become the gateway to child benefit. The contract would detail the rights that parents had to natal care and other NHS care and to Sure Start, nursery and school facilities. It is attractive to set out what people can get and its purpose, because that could help a person be a responsive and complete member of society. As an educational process that is attractive because it breaks down the enforcing of social duties by removing welfare benefits. We have only to look back to the contract that my right hon. Friend set up to see which welfare benefits we are going to remove when somebody does not behave.
Let us consider Sure Start, which is not a welfare benefit in a financial sense, but a benefit primarily for poorer people who, through no fault of their own, are not likely to be able to give their children the best start in the world. People can be taught such diverse things as literacy, parenting skills, speech therapy, ways to deal with difficulties with children, and breastfeeding. There are many sorts of support and assistance to try to enable the kids who come from such homes to overcome the innate deficiencies that poverty, perhaps, puts into their background.
So what are we going to do? Should we take Sure Start away if people break that contractual responsibility, which is the logical consequence of what is being suggested? If not, why not? We do not want to do that, because we want our citizens to have such things to improve and support them and to help with the next generation. We do not want to say, "All right, there is no logic to it, but we will confirm this enforcement through a welfare contract to remove financial support." Of course, in doing that we would increase poverty at a stroke. People get financial support from the state to keep them out of poverty. Immeasurable damage would be done, even if the logic were lost and the financial support removed.
The model that has mostly been considered by the Government, and cited by my right hon. Friend, is the removal of housing benefit, which shows three problems with the notion of enforcement through a welfare contract. First, which benefits are removed and who, outside a court, decides when they are to be removed? Secondly, how is the punishment to be confined to the individual, when most people live in families and have dependants around them? Thirdly, however wide the model of welfare benefits is cast, there are people outside it who cannot be punished in that way. How can we avoid a two-tier system of administrative justice?
I recognise that the threat to withdraw housing benefit is designed primarily to deter people from antisocial behaviour, and I accept that it is capable of succeeding with some people. However, research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Chartered Institute of Housing on tackling antisocial behaviour found that two thirds of people involved in such activity have special needs of one kind or another, which is no surprise. Some 18 per cent. had mental illness; 18 per cent. had experienced physical or sexual abuse—that figure only reveals those who talk about it—9 per cent. had a physical disability; 23 per cent. had drug and alcohol problems; and in 15 per cent. of cases kids were out of control and parents did not have the skills to deal with them.
Many households had been evicted before, but they were not able to change their behaviour or control that of their children. Such households need intensive, specialist support to encourage them to challenge their behaviour. When people have received such support, their conduct has improved. If the Dundee family project were made available to anyone facing a housing benefit sanction of the kind mooted in the Government's consultation paper and frequently mentioned by my right hon. Friend and the threat of such a sanction were accompanied on every occasion by intensive support and counselling of the kind available in very few families projects, I should have a less rooted objection to it because the threat of removing housing benefit would be a lever to push people into taking on more support. However, the resources are not available—they are very few.
What are we to do? We are to take people off housing benefit and cast them into poverty. The obvious outcome of withdrawing somebody's housing benefit is likely to be rent arrears—although the consultation paper minimised that—eviction and homelessness. I suppose that a good deal more poor women would be engaged in crime. A lot of women who are already engaged in necessity crime would get pushed into crime in an attempt to hold their home together.
Housing benefit is only paid to those who cannot meet their housing costs in any other way. Even if we are talking about a reduced rate of deduction, we cannot say that that would not inevitably cause hardship. There will be times when that cannot be done—
Order. I must interrupt. A Bill is being discussed in the main Chamber and a vote has been called. May I suggest that we break for only 10 minutes? If Members co-operate, we can return at 10 minutes past 3, when the hon. and learned Lady can continue her interesting speech.
I think that I was discussing the inevitable consequences of removing housing benefit, which is given only to people who cannot pay their housing costs in any other way. There will inevitably be eviction, homelessness and the intolerable burden on a local authority of having a duty to support people even when they are intentionally homeless, which it could find impossible to fulfil.
On the question of where those people go, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead has frequently said that his constituents do not care where antisocial behaviour families are moved. I understand that, and I would probably share that sentiment if I were suffering antisocial behaviour. As legislators, however, we have an obligation to be fair, and if there is no positive input to help the antisocial behaviour families change their behaviour, it is not fair to impose them on another community that is just as vulnerable as the one from which they have been removed.
There are problems with the administrative enforcement of a welfare contract of the kind that has been conceived. First, which benefits will be removed? How does one marry them up? I hope that I have demonstrated that benefits in kind, such as Sure Start, could not conceivably be removed. If one discusses financial models, such as housing benefit, however, one is in danger of throwing poorer people further into poverty. No one should present a solution without presenting a matching positive input at the same time.
Secondly, how is such a solution confined to the individual responsible? The consultation document on removing housing benefit discussed doing so only where the antisocial behaviour was caused by the individual or by someone whom people could reasonably expect to control. It is a very difficult model and it is not the kind of decision that should be taken by a local authority officer on an administrative basis or by a 22-year-old police constable who has trained for different duties. It requires not so much speed as the careful consideration and evaluation of evidence, for which the courts are primarily intended. The question of who takes the decision is extremely difficult in that kind of welfare contract.
I will leave an unanswerable question in the air: how do we deal with the inequity that there are people who are not on welfare benefits who cannot be punished in such a way? How do we avoid one justice for the poor and one for the rich? Although the suggested model is attractive as part of a programme for educationally and socially cementing progress and as a method to enforce acceptable behaviour, it needs a good deal more thought.
I congratulate Mr. Field on securing the debate, because this has been a fascinating discussion. It has not quite taken the route that I expected, but that makes it all the more interesting. All of us would agree that antisocial behaviour and its effect on others is the most frequently raised issue in our constituency postbags. I too have come across incidents of climbing over roofs, such as those that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, and although I might not agree with his conclusions, I am passionately committed to tackling antisocial behaviour. The question is: what is an effective way of dealing with it?
I am committed to the idea that we should have respect for others, and that we should value them. Early intervention has been mentioned this afternoon, and that is important. We must consider antisocial behaviour at different levels. If we consider it at a societal, community and individual level, we will see that what has emerged from this debate is that enforcement measures against the individual will never be enough. We have heard the analysis of how society has changed, and few of us would fundamentally disagree with it. What we must take from this discussion is the fact that some solutions have to be used at the societal level.
I concur with others that if we are to make changes in society, education is the most important feature. Every time I speak about antisocial behaviour, I congratulate the Government on Sure Start, which has been an excellent innovation. However, it is a pity that some very deprived areas are missing out until it is extended over a wider area to cover the next tranche of the most deprived communities. Within, let us say, the bottom 15 per cent. of deprived communities, there are pockets of extreme deprivation that Sure Start is not getting to yet. Doing things is going to take a long time, but doing anything at societal level takes a long time. Although we are all impatient, the Government do not have unlimited resources.
I asked earlier whether there was sufficient uniformed presence. I use the term "uniformed presence" rather than the word "police" because my constituency is probably similar to others in that its antisocial behaviour is not often serious enough to need fully qualified police to deal with it. We must give more credit to the Government by recognising that we have a record number of police. However, there is a lack of uniformed presence, and communities need that, because without it nothing can really work.
Some valid comments were made about communication involving the police and the community. That is a two-way process. Like everybody else, I frequently get complaints: people say, "I rang about that behaviour but nothing happened; nobody bothered to get back to me." Surely we can sort that out with better use of civilians, antisocial behaviour hotlines, and people understanding which telephone line to use out of hours. People do not like to dial 999, but they do not know what to dial to deal with the less serious troublesome situations.
We need to give leadership. The only way in which we can change society and values is by giving political leadership; that is incumbent on us all. We live in a more caring society than we did 10 years ago, but we have a long way to go to overcome basic selfishness and individualism.
I like the idea that the community should be involved in the solutions. People should know what is happening. A parish council could determine what reparations should be made in the community, or whether something useful could be done involving area committees. If that were made very local and based on the community, some societal problems could be overcome.
As Vera Baird said, we are dealing with individuals who have their own characteristics. They often have serious needs. The roots of what we call antisocial behaviour often lie in many factors that we have not addressed for years. We know that there is not enough investment for autism, for example, and that child mental health care has been terribly neglected. Those are long-term problems that we need to put right.
At the individual level, we ought to be thinking of changing behaviour. A real change can come about only through a voluntary contract and a genuine understanding. We must have the supportive measures that other hon. Members talked about. We have some tough measures, which I question. I accept that we need enforcement, but I worry about the counter-productive elements. I support antisocial behaviour orders, but I am wary about naming and shaming people. For example, three teenagers in Kent had ASBOs put on them for life; it may or may not be related, but one has committed suicide. That individual clearly needed support, as well as the ASBO. We must all agree with that conclusion, and we must not forget those supportive measures.
There is so much that can be said in this debate, but I planned to talk about housing and antisocial behaviour, probably because I thought that the question of cutting housing benefit would emerge. The hon. and learned Member for Redcar made a strong case, arguing that cutting housing benefit is not the answer. That would only scratch at the surface and not tackle the underlying problems. It is surely most important to have supportive measures alongside the demoted tenancies that have been introduced, which involve the ultimate threat of losing one's house. We have heard about the Dundee project, and there is an excellent scheme running in Rochdale, as well as other examples around the country. How much of that work to support and change behaviour is going on—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but I have to remind the House that we must finish the debate at 3.41 pm. The shadow spokesman has yet to speak for the Conservative and Unionist party, and the Minister will need time to reply. I am not in any way seeking to short-circuit what the hon. Lady is saying, but I am sure that the House would be grateful if she appreciated the time factor.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas; I was conscious that there was not quite 10 minutes for me to speak. The record of the supportive measure schemes for families undergoing them is excellent. I conclude by saying the same as the antisocial behaviour unit. We must, for goodness' sake, spread best practice across the board—best practice with housing and young people, for example—and ensure that we herald and celebrate the successes. Before we introduce draconian measures that could make things much worse for everybody and make society a worse place, please let us get it right.
I, too, begin by congratulating Mr. Field and all those who have participated. Without exception, they have made thoughtful contributions. Antisocial behaviour clearly affects us all; it is a universal problem. The town of Daventry, the largest town that I represent, has greatly expanded since the 1960s. There are, within those early developments, areas of significant social pressure where, as the right hon. Gentleman said, the infrastructure is run down. Their community spirit and community capital have run out, and require refreshing. The problem also arises in rural areas, where transport is difficult, particularly for young people, and access to leisure and sports facilities is extremely limited. Sometimes a group of troublemakers from the town goes out to one of the villages some miles away, and creates trouble there. It is clear from my regular constituency surveys that my constituents feel strongly about that.
Many hon. Members, including the Minister, will be familiar with the American experience, and the famous "broken windows" theory of Wilson and Kelling. Some of us, including myself, were lucky enough to hear William Bratton—the former police commissioner of New York, now commissioner for Los Angeles—lecture on the subject in London last week. Untended, unrepaired and unloved assets signal an erosion of local values, which is soon followed by the kind of behaviour that afflicts our constituents. The areas and the perpetrators are not typecast, and neither are those who have to put up with them. The problem affects not just the affluent, but significant numbers of poor and young people. Almost half of students report that they have been the victims of theft during their time at college.
The diagnosis of the right hon. Gentleman and others, and the Government's concern, are entirely appropriate; I would not argue about that. I am less happy about the efforts to find a solution. The Home Office initiatives, characteristically described by the Prime Minister as "eye-catching initiatives", do not necessarily bear the weight of expectation that has been laid on them. The ASBO system, even to my relatively inexperienced eye, is bureaucratic and clumsy, as is borne out by the figures. Ministers were talking in terms of 5,000 ASBOs a year—but although we had the first of them in Northamptonshire, there are still only 12 in the county. If we applied a percentage test, that would suggest that they are running at about a quarter of the number projected. Undoubtedly aided by the work done by all parties—such as my hon. Friend Mr. Hawkins, who is speaking in the Chamber today, and former Labour Home Office Ministers who have expressed concern—the Government have tightened the system with the new legislation. I hope that the Minister will have time to tell us about progress in that area.
At the same time, it is becoming clear that there must always be reservations, and limits on legislation that relies on restraint orders and naming and shaming, or the possibility of moving on to welfare sanctions directed at behaviour that, although recognisably offensive to the ordinary citizen, is difficult to tie down legally. In a largely positive article about ASBOs in the December edition of Youth Justice Board News, Paul Horrocks, the editor of the Manchester Evening News, made it clear that his colleagues do not trawl through old orders naming and shaming people, and they do not write about people who have not appeared before the courts. Those are proper restraints. I suppose that—the Minister might wish to comment on this—there is always the possibility of clever legal challenges to orders within the scope of the Human Rights Act 1998. There must be restrictions on the ready recourse to those.
In any event, ASBOs by themselves are not going to solve the problem. There have been a number of other constructive suggestions. They might help, and it would be useful to hear where the Minister thinks we are going. However, there must be reservations about whether what has happened so far has had any discernable impact on the wider issues of behaviour and culture that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead spoke about.
To help the Minister, I shall finish after making two general points. The first is that a great deal of this is about public reassurance. We need to convince the public that somebody is on their side, and that they are not unloved or uncared for. A visible police presence is important, particularly in areas of difficulty such as town centres on a Friday night. Five police officers have had to be taken from the western area of my county to parts of Northampton that the chief constable judges to have greater crime problems. That has gone down very badly. We need more police officers. My colleagues on our home affairs team have suggested a way of securing a further 40,000, as that is a major area of complaint.
The second issue, which is more a matter of culture, is that of rights and responsibilities. A strong message has emerged: both are required. If people are to be offered rights, there should be matching responsibilities or understandings. Those do not come automatically; they have to be fostered. It is clear to me that there is no chance of securing improvements without offering young people something constructive and interesting to do, and there is no question of rebuilding participant communities without some positive gear on the motor. Community policing and law and order cannot be improved from the outside without an equivalent commitment, fostered in the community, from local people. The two have to go together, and the problem will not go away until they do.
I, too, thank hon. Members for restricting their speaking time. A huge number of issues have been raised that go to the heart of the dilemmas that we as politicians face; some are deep and complex, and some very practical. I hope to be able to respond to them all.
I thank my right hon. Friend Mr. Field for securing what, as has been illustrated by the standard of the contributions made by every Member today, is a vital debate. We all consider this to be an important issue in our communities.
My right hon. Friend made a plea to the Government to consider specific areas, such as immediate enforcement and root causes, and to look across the whole of government to see what we can do. That is what we are doing with policy making, the legislation that has been enacted, the launch of the Together campaign, the action plan and the funding. Everything happening in government is designed to address that agenda.
It is right that, so as to have immediate enforcement, we have introduced fixed-penalty notices for disorderly behaviour. That was a controversial step, but it provided an immediate sanction for disorderly behaviour, intimidation and harassment. We have been piloting the use of fixed-penalty notices in six forces. Today I saw an evaluation of how that trial has gone, and we shall trial further powers in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds after Christmas. A new area of policy is being developed, in which there can be immediate sanction without going through the whole panoply of court prosecution, which sometimes takes far too long for the community to see results.
I hope that hon. Members accept that root causes are being addressed through Sure Start, the many other schemes that have been put in place and the new parenting fund that we have brought into being. Some £25 million has been set aside for parenting orders, to try to ensure that parents get support and learn skills. Unfortunately, far too many parents have not had the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of bringing up a family. Money is in place to help with that process. That is essential, in terms of cross-Government effort, which is why the antisocial behaviour unit, although situated in the Home Office, has a complete cross-Government brief.
Unless we engage with the Department of Trade and Industry—as with the fireworks menace, when we worked closely with that Department for robust proposals and legislation to clamp down on fireworks—and with the Department for Education and Skills on what we can do in schools to change attitudes, simply having enforcement tools will not be enough for our campaign to change the way we live so as to reduce antisocial behaviour.
I ask hon. Members to put the situation in perspective. We have made considerable gains over the past few years in reducing crime, which is down 25 per cent. I entirely take the point raised by hon. Members, however, that convincing people that crime is down is a bigger issue, because they do not necessarily feel safer when they are out and about in their communities on their lawful business. That is why tackling antisocial behaviour and increasing reassurance are the key. We can keep driving down the volume of crime—burglary is down 40 per cent., vehicle crime is down 30 per cent., and robbery is down 17 per cent.—but, unless people feel safe going about their day-to-day affairs, they will not connect that with their real lives. That is why this agenda is central to everything we do.
The agenda is not just about crime or intimidating behaviour, it is about graffiti, fly-tipping, fly-posting, and all those things that lead to neighbourhoods looking run-down, and to people feeling threatened. Mr. Boswell mentioned the broken windows theory. Dealing with the whole range of such environmental crime is vital to our proposals. That is why the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 contains innovative new powers to deal with graffiti, fly-tipping and other such environmental problems. That is also why I am working closely with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on the liveability agenda, which underpins our policies.
It is important that we give our public services the tools to do the job. That is why we brought in antisocial behaviour orders as long ago as 1998, and why we listened to people who said that it was difficult to get them through the courts initially, when the use of ASBOs was a new tool. It was a new discipline, and people were not used to such powers. We have streamlined the process dramatically—and I can say that from personal experience. There are 50 ASBOs in my constituency, and 25 of those have been granted since last December, when we brought in the power to make ASBOs on conviction. The new procedure is much simpler. People do not have to listen to two sets of evidence, and the order can be made at the same time as the conviction. That has been a tremendous help to the police and the local authority, and has ensured that the orders are obtained and enforced.
For the first time, magistrates are agreeing to sentencing guidelines in relation to the breach of such orders. The inconsistency of sentencing has been a real problem, and people have been given a caution or a conditional discharge when they have breached the order. Getting sentencing guidelines in place so that breaches are taken seriously helps to build the confidence of the community that it was worth while coming forward and giving evidence because the order has been obtained and will be enforced.
The big issue is the confidence of the community, which brings me to a question that several hon. Members have raised about the publication of the fact that orders have been obtained. I acknowledge that Mrs. Brooke has reservations about—as she puts it—naming and shaming. I think that it is absolutely right that communities should know when orders have been made and what the conditions are. My hon. Friend Mr. Foster made a clear case for that. The community can then take action and feel empowered in connection with what is happening on their doorstep, in their local area. That publication should be proportionate and should not demonise people. It is a question not of humiliation, but of letting the community know that when it is prepared to take a stand against antisocial behaviour, the orders will be made.
I do not know whether any of the hon. Members here were present at the "Taking a Stand" awards that we introduced in the House two weeks ago. We brought together people from all over the country who had taken a stand in their communities. They had been prepared to go to court and give evidence. We acknowledged their contribution and rewarded them with a small amount of money that they could spend on community project to ensure that we repair some damage done to them and their neighbourhoods by antisocial behaviour. We shall do that annually, and I am sure hon. Members will want to make nominations for future awards from their own areas.
One of the interesting political debates that we have had this afternoon concerns changing how people view the state, so that we can move from a dependency culture to a welfare state that enables people to help themselves. That has been reflected in the contributions from several hon. Members. We have embarked on that big political change throughout government. How do we involve local people in coming up with solutions and empower them to take action in enforcing the standards of the common decencies—to use the phrase used by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead? I have no doubt that that debate will run and run throughout many of our policy areas.
The other fascinating issue that emerged was reflected in the comments of my hon. and learned Friend Vera Baird about the extent to which conditionality can be part of our welfare system. She made the point that some people would comply if conditionality was introduced. I attended a fascinating seminar a few months ago, full of academics, learned lawyers and all sorts of knowledgeable people from different backgrounds. We took part in an enormous exercise about conditionality, examining where the cost benefit was, and debated whether it would punish the most vulnerable and the poorest.
The idea was that if we got as many people as we could to comply, there would always be a group of people who did not comply. What would be the effects of that? I posed the question to my colleagues, who had worked out a big empirical method, but their only answer was, "That's a matter for politicians to decide." That is a stark and graphic way of illustrating some intensely difficult issues that we have to deal with when we think about how far to put tools in place to shape people's behaviour, and what are the implications of doing so. Hon. Members have raised a complex issue, and we shall be directing our minds to it during the coming months and years.
I want to say a little about spreading good practice, a subject that has been raised by hon. Members. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and I launched the Together action plan a couple of months ago, which shows how far up the political agenda the issue is. A key part of that action plan is the setting up of the Together academy, in which we shall bring practitioners together in the new discipline of coping with antisocial behaviour. They will examine how to use the legislation and the tools, how to get ASBOs in place and how to use the acceptable behaviour contracts in a more flexible way. The Together academy will bring people from the front line together and train them to use the tools that we have provided through legislation.
The Together action line will be a hotline, so that people who have a problem in their area can get immediate help from the antisocial behaviour unit. I recently visited Kendal in the Lake district. That is not a place that we would naturally associate with antisocial behaviour, but in one estate there one family was causing huge problems for people in the community and no one had a clue where to start. If they were in Salford, they would know and would have the skills and experience to deal with the problem. We can help that to happen through the antisocial behaviour unit. If my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has a problem with his local authority or police being reluctant to act, the antisocial behaviour unit can empower them to use the tools that we have put in place. I certainly commend it to him.
I accept the support of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole for dealing with antisocial behaviour. However, I say again that it is a great pity that her party did not support the Government's legislation to tackle such issues, which is essential to people in our communities. I hope that even at this very late stage she might repent of her party's decision and support the methods that we have introduced.
My hon. Friend Hugh Bayley spoke about child safety orders. He will know that we are actively considering the matter. I am grateful to him for his contribution on an important subject for children of 10 and under—