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"Everything about this approach to the question of how to make society safer is wrong. The problem isn't that most people are potential abusers of children or adults; it's that a tiny and determined minority are. Vetting millions of people is not only horribly intrusive; it's a waste of time. It will create a false sense of security. Even if all the rumours and accusations the ISA received were accurate, and even if it got a remarkable 99 per cent. of decisions right, that would still mean that hundreds of abusers would be cleared, and more than a hundred thousand innocent people would lose their jobs or their reputations by being ISA-barred."
I had a message today from the twinning association in Sandy in my constituency. The mayor of Sandy, Geoff White, passed on to me a letter from the twinning association that says, "You'll no doubt have read in the newspapers during the last week that the independent safeguarding agency is now demanding that anyone who comes into touch with children that are not their own offspring will now need to have a CRB check. This includes those who are giving a lift to their own children's friends to football practice and other clubs etc. and it also seems designed to stop foreign exchange students or children on normal twinning trips from visiting unless the hosts and probably the entire committee have been checked. The current situation with youth groups such as scouts, guides, sports groups etc. is that all leaders and helpers should be CRB checked before being allowed to work with the youngsters, but now the Government wishes to include anyone who comes into contact with children." We have created a situation in which those who-
I was seeking to make the point, which the community in Sandy was making to me, that the involvement of adults with youngsters in a series of societies and groups gives those youngsters the opportunity to be mentored, to do something and to become engaged in community activity. The youngsters who need direction most are often those who will be most disadvantaged if adults feel that they can no longer take part in such activities and feel squeezed out of the role that they play as leaders in society. The damage being done, and the separation being created between adults who wish to be involved and those whom they can look after, is becoming too great and is threatening to create more antisocial behaviour as an indirect consequence.
"criminal's justice system",
"public justice system".
"The public need to know that people who break the rules face consequences, otherwise they give up hope".
In her contribution, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) said that the debate was sometimes polarised between those who spoke about intervention and those who spoke about justice. She is correct to say that it is a mixture of the two, but I do not think that anyone in the debate or anyone who has spoken seriously on the subject has tried to polarise it. We need early intervention, and we need the engagement of adults when children are young and as they get older. Of course, as in the case referred to by my local parish council in Little Staughton, we need to know that justice works and is effective. One of the failures of the Government over the past 12 years is that the public are not convinced of that, or Louise Casey would not have said what she said.
Mr. Heath: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with the conclusion that I am rapidly coming to-that one of the problems is continuity in the judicial system? A single sentencer should see cases through beyond the point of sentence and have feedback on whether that sentence is effective in reducing crime, which is what the system is all about.
Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. It is all a matter of greater accountability and making sure that once boxes have been ticked, a case is not pushed off to someone else and does not disappear from sight. A number of colleagues have made reference to that.
I close with one final issue. It is an old chestnut, but the older I get, the more true I think it is. Once we start to deconstruct authority, what do we put in its place? Not long ago there was an automatic assumption that the teacher was always right, the head was always right, the policeman was always right, and the adult was always right in any situation where there was a conflict of opinion with a child. It was rough justice, but there was certainty.
Now we know that adults are flawed and make flawed decisions, but we have so deconstructed authority that we have taken away the certainty that the old system provided and put nothing in its place. Instead of certainty with a bit of rough justice, we have uncertainty with a lot more rough justice, and a lot more people losingout because that authority and that sense of certainty have gone.
There is a continuum in the deconstruction of authority that leads to people feeling, "I can do what I like, because I can challenge anyone I like and I will get away with it. It will take the system so long to catch up with me that I can do what I please." That is how people feel that a sense of justice has slipped out of the system. It has been cumulative over a long period. From what Labour Members have said, it seems that they have not quite been able to deal with that. It will thus fall to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench to do so when they get the chance.
Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I was delighted this afternoon to hear the Minister, in his introduction, emphasise the right of everybody to enjoy their life in peace. The sentiment was echoed by the hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick). The other thing that has pleased me is that I do not think I have ever seen quite so much nodding from those on the Government Benches to contributions from Opposition Members, and vice versa. There is a huge degree of consensus across the House.
I shall not speak about young people and alcohol abuse, because that topic has been covered. Instead, I shall echo the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) and speak about single examples of neighbourhood harassment. I welcome the comment from the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) that these troubles occur across all social backgrounds.
The two cases to which I shall draw the House's attention both involve articulate, intelligent families who live in their own properties. In the first case, the family own two houses in a terrace, and the alleged problem involves the house in between those two related
properties. There has been physical and verbal abuse, foul language and intimidation of the elderly parents, in particular-so much so that they are frightened to walk alone across the neighbour's property to their relatives' house. That abuse culminated in actual assault, first of the elderly father, and the assaulter was given a five-year caution. The second assault took place on the elderly mother, even though the caution was still in existence. The perpetrator was arrested, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided against prosecution, as the only witness was the husband, and that was inadmissible. So the family continue to live, in their words, as prisoners in their own house, and their quality of life has plummeted. They have given me 55 pages of evidence documenting intimidation and abuse, including many communications with the police and the CPS. Yet those intelligent, articulate people are still terrified to walk between their two houses.
The second case again involves privately owned houses at the end of a very pleasant and quiet cul-de-sac in one of the best areas of my constituency. Although two of the most deprived parts of the west midlands are in my constituency, those are not the areas to which I refer. There are about eight dwellings at the end, and again, two constituents from the same family live nearby and are separated by the alleged troublemaker. There are not many other complaints, because one of the eight houses is empty; one couple are frequently away; one elderly couple are in poor health and too frightened to complain; and one property is on the market, so the owners cannot get involved because they do not want to jeopardise their sale. We are therefore left with just the two houses occupied by members of the same family, and another lady elsewhere.
The harassment has been going on for seven years, involving physical obstruction, verbal abuse, obscene gestures, spitting, rubbish thrown into gardens and trespassing. Some events have been recorded on CCTV; again, there have been many police visits; and, again, the CPS has felt unable to prosecute. I have taken up the matter, and I have a copy of a letter from the CPS, but it just has the matter down as allegations of behaviour not amounting to crimes, and it claims that it has no evidence of concerns from other people. That is incorrect, and I shall take it up with the CPS.
"The whole situation is becoming a very dangerous farce, anti social bullies and thugs are being allowed to rule our communities... It is high time that the law was sorted out to put the police back in control and make penalties commensurate with the offences and not just a derisory slap on the wrist."
Since the very sad Pilkington case and the case in Lichfield, where somebody was actually killed, constituents have written to me, saying much the same as that letter. They say, "Put the police back in control, give them the powers and make the penalties fit the offence."
We have probably all heard this old proverb, "Good fences make good neighbours." In these days of open-plan living, open estates and very few barriers between houses, we cannot have good fences to make good neighbours, because it is just not possible. So we must somehow give the police and other authorities more weapons to be more effective.
Like many other Members, I should like to address the Minister with some advice based on anecdotal evidence. Having been a Member of Parliament for the past four years, I have had experiences like those of many other Members, and I hope that what I say will help the Minister to come to some sort of solution to the problems that many of us have addressed.
I want to begin by congratulating not only Essex police as a whole, but my local police in Braintree and Witham; I am thinking not only of full-time police officers, but of specials and police community support officers. Against the backdrop of there being an attack on individuals every 30 seconds in this country, we have seen locally a reduction in the number of incidents of antisocial behaviour. My local police are to be congratulated on that.
The problems, however, are numerous. I have five children, and I would not bring any of them into Braintree town centre on a Friday or Saturday night. I would rather take them to the cinema in Freeport, which is at the edge of Braintree, because the town centre has almost become a no-go zone-whether because of the binge drinking or the youths congregating and looking aggressive. It all becomes intimidating, not only for people wanting to bring their families to the town centre, but for the elderly as well. That is the first problem.
The second problem is the 24-hour drinking culture that has developed. I had a meeting with my local police chief in Braintree recently, and he commented on the fixed-price, all-in drink promotions. He said that they did not bode well for a reduction in "antisocial behaviour"; he actually used that phrase. The police are very cognisant that the drinking culture, including the cheap alcopops and 24-hour drinking, is a major cause of antisocial behaviour.
Youths congregate not only in the town centre, but in the estates and villages, and the problem is not only the fact that they congregate. A number of times, particularly last summer, I have gone out to talk to the young in the town centres and estates, asking them what the problems are. The problems are twofold. First, there are no community centres for them to go to any more. There were community centres in Braintree 10 or 15 years ago, but now they just do not exist; all the areas have been developed as a result of the pressure for house building and so on. There are not even simple things such as shelters. My council did build a wooden shelter, but a week later the whole thing was torched and it was there no more. The council is now trying to build shelters out of metal, which cannot burn down.
Village greens have become centres for drug dealing. During the 2001 election-sadly, I did not win a seat-I distinctly remember speaking against my Labour opponent in Silver End. We were discussing antisocial behaviour and the drug culture, and the audience started laughing because through the window at the back could be seen a youth on a moped dealing drugs with kids from the local village. Village greens also face the problem of antisocial behaviour.
There is also the issue of disruptive vehicles. When it is otherwise empty, in the early hours of the morning, Freeport becomes a go-cart centre-people skid their cars around there. The right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears) mentioned motorbikes. I had a meeting up at Cornish Hall End, a small village at the north end
of my constituency. On Saturdays and Sundays people there have problems, and not only with young people. Mature adults race their motorbikes through the village. Motorcyclists read that if they zoom through Cornish Hall End and on to Finchingfield, they get a very good run. That is highly disruptive and antisocial to people in those villages.
Then there is the major issue of schools. As I am sure that many of us hear when we go to meet our local headmasters, a small minority of children are disruptive and antisocial and cause problems for the vast majority of children.
The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) talked about noisy neighbours. Every single week when I hold my surgeries, I get at least one or two people who come in and talk about noisy neighbours. That becomes very frustrating, whether it relates to loud music or arguing and shouting. What about the concept of neighbourliness? I say, "Can you talk to your neighbour?", and they say, "Yes, we do, but they simply won't listen, and the noise and abuse goes on."
When I meet elderly people, including members of Braintree pensioners action group, they often say that fear of crime, not necessarily crime itself, is a major issue in terms of antisocial behaviour. I live in a semi-rural area with isolated village communities where many people live alone, including elderly people, and this issue is brought to me time and again.
The town centre of Braintree, in particular, and Witham, to a certain extent, have become no-go areas at the weekend. That takes up a great deal of police time. The police keep telling me how much time they spend on form-filling and transporting drunks and people who are behaving badly. It is similar to the situation in schools, where a few badly behaved children can impact on the learning of the many.
So what are the solutions? Locally in Braintree we have a mixture of community initiatives and enforcement. We have hard-line policing policies at closing times. We have two alcohol-free zones. We have street pastors on Friday nights who work independently of the police; I congratulate them on the work that they do. We have a term-time roadshow that interacts with children of all ages. In the past year, there has been a reality show attended by about 1,500 children aged 13 and 14 to try to equip them to deal with the problems that they will encounter. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). We have had Operation Marple, whereby the police go around not only confiscating alcohol from minors but trying to provide solutions by finding alternative activities for them. It is not merely a question of punishment but of trying to figure out ways to engage with and help the young children in our community.
The schools in my area have done a tremendous job in improving behaviour. I congratulate those at Maltings academy and Rickstones academy in Witham, Tabor school, Notley school and Alec Hunter college, including the heads, for the excellent work that they have done, particularly in the past couple of years, in reducing antisocial behaviour in their schools.
When I have gone out with the police, they have targeted hot spots. When I meet small community groups, I tell them that they must report it to the police when
there is a problem because the police can then target those hot spots over time and reduce antisocial behaviour in those areas. Most important of all, there is a need for greater police visibility, especially on the estates and in the villages. I congratulate the PCSOs on the excellent work that they do in trying to reduce the fear of crime and on interacting with the community.
On a national level, the police must be freed up from at least the perception, if not the reality, of red tape and bureaucracy that keeps them off the street: we want them on the street, as we have heard from many Members on both sides of the House. The police should have the power to remove, not just to disperse troublemakers. As the Conservative Treasury team have said, the price of alcopops should be increased as a way of reducing antisocial behaviour. There also need to be tighter curfew orders against persistent offenders.
Most important of all, parents have to take responsibility. That was stressed by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins). If no other message comes from today's debate, we must point the finger at parents and say, "You have a responsibility for your own children."
Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the good work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) and the Centre for Social Justice on tackling the causes of antisocial behaviour and the breakdown of Britain today.
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