Mark Hunter speaks on the need for more effective policies to reduce anti-social behaviour

June 28, 2006 12:00 AM
By Mark Hunter in Westminster Hall

I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing this morning's debate. I shall be speaking as one of my party's spokespersons on home affairs, but I also speak as a neighbouring Member of Parliament to the hon. Lady and a fellow Stockport borough MP.

I also compliment the hon. Lady on what we probably all thought was the thoughtful and considered approach she took in the speech while outlining her concerns. I do not think she will find much substantive difference between us as I support her general contention. I sympathise with her concerns over the issue for various reasons.

First, I am all too aware that in the hon. Lady's constituency and in mine issues relating to antisocial behaviour are a key quality-of-life factor and local people care passionately about them throughout the borough of Stockport, which in addition to the her constituency includes both the Cheadle and the Hazel Grove constituencies and, indeed, part of the Denton and Reddish constituency. It is true to say that although the borough itself is a relatively safe place in which to live and work, we still have some way to go before any of us can be totally satisfied that we have the problems fully under control.

Secondly, I sympathise with the hon. Lady because, in her efforts to find and promote better ways of dealing with antisocial behaviour and people who participate in those activities, she has tacitly recognised the limitation of many Government policies in that area. While ASBOs, around which so much Government policy and rhetoric seem to be based, have their place, it is clear that there is a problem with the huge failure rate-just under 50 per cent.-and continuing public concerns that they are at best a limited weapon in the fight against the nuisance of antisocial behaviour.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and agree with that comment. We all need to do what we can to support parents to take more responsibility for and interest in the activities of the children when the children are not at home.

I shall take this opportunity to clear up an urban myth that has been cultivated in certain places, namely that the Liberal Democrats have never supported and still do not support ASBOs in principle. As I have said, they have their place and the hon. Member for Stockport will be aware that if we did not support them the local Liberal Democrat-controlled council in her area would not have issued over 40 in recent times.

We have argued consistently as a party that ASBOs should always be used selectively and in conjunction with other methods of intervention to tackle the causes of the offenders' behaviour. I fully support the hon. Lady's position and support orders and the theory and rationale behind them. My party and I have been arguing for some years that Government policy has not adequately addressed the underlying causes of antisocial behaviour and that it has not dealt with the long-term issues. That is precisely why we have advocated, and indeed used, alternatives to stand-alone ASBOs, in particular acceptable behaviour contracts, commonly known as ABCs.

The hon. Lady will know that her local council has issued well over 100 ABCs, and in Stockport and beyond they are proven to have a higher success rate than ASBOs. I believe this success is down to the fact that they address, or at least attempt to address, the causes of antisocial behaviour. They are a more genuine attempt at rehabilitation than ASBOs and that is why they are more effective in dealing with offenders' patterns of behaviour.

It is important that the full range of these measures is utilised as and when appropriate. My point is simply that all these measures have a place, including ISOs, which I support. I am also talking about the attitude that prevails in certain councils-happily, not the one encompassed by my constituency and that of the hon. Lady-where there is almost an instinctive reaction to reach for ASBOs as the first measure to introduce in these situations. That probably is not terribly helpful.

It is in that respect that I believe Stockport has succeeded-at least partially-in tackling these issues. Indeed, the key reason that our local council has not applied for funding for ISOs is because it never issues an ASBO without also putting in place measures to deal with the underlying causes of an offender's behaviour. I would, however, welcome the opportunity to join the hon. Lady in a campaign to try to ensure extra funding for Stockport's community safety unit so that it can put into practice an even more comprehensive package of measures to intervene with offenders, particularly young people, to deal with the root causes of these problems.

It is both interesting and sobering to note that only around 30 ISOs have been issued nationwide so far, despite being launched with the usual Government fanfare. The hon. Lady has probed the reasons why take-up has been relatively poor and she is right to do so. All the evidence I have seen, though, points to the fact that for ISOs to be more widely used, they should be applied to all types of ASBOs. Again, we are in substantive agreement there.

Early intervention is absolutely crucial and I support efforts being made to that end. In addition to early intervention, it must be clear to all agencies involved in the process that ISOs are an option that should be seriously considered and I would welcome any ministerial assurances this morning that magistrates, police, local authorities and social services are all aware of the possibility of putting orders like this in place.

However, we should not confine ourselves either to ASBOs or ISOs. Schemes associated with mentoring, involving members of the wider community in some sentencing, and more effective ways to combat bullying and truancy are all vital if we are serious about making a difference to our communities.

If we are serious about dealing with antisocial behaviour and social exclusion, it is vital to tackle all the issues I have mentioned. By offering a less prescriptive minimum curriculum entitlement, as my party has suggested, schools could develop more imaginative programmes for young people, who would then remain within the school system, rather than being excluded from it and thus being tempted by antisocial and, in some cases, criminal activities.

For too long, youth services in local authorities have been treated as Cinderella services. We are now reaping the results of that neglect. We need to work more closely with young people to develop the right services for them and not concentrate solely on excluding them, as the Government sometimes appear to do.

If we are serious about reducing the fear of crime in our communities, we need a greater commitment to visible policing and more police officers on the beat. The hon. Lady will be all too aware of the funding crisis afflicting Greater Manchester police. According to the chief constable, we face the prospect of losing front-line officers. Our local situation highlights the fact that all the legislation in the world, including positive schemes such as the one we are talking about, is meaningless without the officers to enforce the laws.

I have not referred to PCSOs, but as the subject has been raised I will say that I recognise their valuable role. It is only one part of the core debate, but I say to the Minister that in the eyes of the community at large there is a credibility issue about PCSOs compared with straightforward police constables whom people know and recognise in the traditional sense. The Government need to do more. in my constituency residents seem to have no problem distinguishing between traditional police constables and PCSOs, as they wear distinctive badges on their uniforms. The frequent cry of some local residents is, "Well, we might see those"-PCSOs-"but we never see proper policemen." As I am sure other hon. Members do, I try to explain that PCSOs are proper and legitimate officers making a valuable contribution.

All the evidence points to early intervention and support as key factors in ending the destructive patterns of behaviour in young people. ISOs can play an important role in that respect and I wholeheartedly welcome moves to extend their use.

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