Entry: "Youth Disorder and Anti-Social Behaviour - 11 September 2003"

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Youth Disorder and Antisocial Behaviour: Speaker's Choice Adjournment Debate

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow): First, I want to thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to initiate this debate in the House. It could not be at a more topical time, as the Government's Anti-Social Behaviour Bill is being debated at this moment in the House of Lords. Antisocial behaviour and youth disorder are complicated words to describe a well-known fact. People's lives are being made a misery by the irresponsible, antisocial and often criminal behaviour of their neighbours. In this debate, I will set out some of the problems facing Tower Hamlets and some of the solutions.

As a Tower Hamlets resident, I modestly believe that it is the best place in Britain. Many of my constituents would disagree, however. One constituent wrote to me to say that residents are growing weary of home burglary, dangerous and ugly burnt-out cars and streets that do not feel safe, where gangs of teenage boys gather every evening on corners, trading drugs, having fights and alienating any sense of community and mutual responsibility. I know what she is talking about. I have seen it. I have turned down a back street in my constituency and come face to face with 40 young men wielding baseball bats, chains and knives. I have waded through the rubbish left behind by drugs misusers: foil, plastic bottles, discarded syringes, invariably vomit and occasionally human faeces. I have seen the half-drugged prostitutes looking for business at 11 am, some of them as young as 12-years-old.

It is not what I have seen that illustrates the problems—on the whole, I still feel safer in Tower Hamlets than in most other parts of London—but what I have heard. I have listened to hundreds of Tower Hamlets residents and have asked them to fill in a questionnaire on antisocial behaviour to illustrate how it affects their lives and what they believe the best solutions could be. The following responses about experiences of antisocial behaviour are all from different constituents. One writes:

"On multiple occasions I have witnessed elderly residents being verbally abused."

Another states:

"The gang jumped over the wall into my garden, vandalised my tree and then tried to come in my back door as it was open."

Another says:

"I was attacked by six or seven youth whilst I was coming through Weavers fields. I was driving my mobility scooter when I was confronted by these youths who were flicking cigarette stubs into my face."

Another writes:

"A friend of mine was going from his cousins house to his car when a gang approached him and beat him up."

Another says:

"An aunt of mine, in her 70s, was leaving a shop in Wapping Lane and couldn't get past a gang of young boys. She said 'excuse me' and they deliberately jostled her, called her names and spat at her."

Another response states:

"We generally don't leave the house after 6 pm, and avoid walking the streets. We take cabs everywhere."

Another constituent says:

"I have had stones, cans and even dead rats thrown at me."

Finally, another constituent, who bought her first home in Tower Hamlets under the Government's part rent, part buy scheme two years ago, wrote:

"I've been burgled twice. There's a burnt-out car in my street at the moment."

She said that it had been there for two weeks. She said:

"most evenings the dumped sofas, wardrobes, fridges, mattresses and industrial waste around the railway arches at the top of my street are set alight—mainly for fun, cos the kids have nothing to do."

She said that the issues threaten the whole community and undermine

"the sense of hope that everyone shared when . . . moving into their new houses. We are all living in new houses but the yob culture and squalor of the rubbish dumping is undermining and wiping out . . . the benefits of regeneration."

One problem is that many Tower Hamlets residents are living in old houses and overcrowded conditions. Young people face high unemployment and low aspirations. As a police officer said about the young gang members with whom he deals:

"All they own is the pavement they stand on. And that is where their loyalties lie".

Anyone who has looked into the problem of gang behaviour will know that it centres on territory and the battle for territory. Ordinary residents who get caught up in that can find it terrifying. The situation is getting markedly worse on several estates in Tower Hamlets. So, what is the local authority doing about it? Tower Hamlets has just carried out a best-value review of its services to combat antisocial behaviour and, as far as I know, it is the first in the country—

The council is the first in the country to introduce a best-value review and should be congratulated on that. It will lead to improved joint working in the council and among agencies and to plans to improve a range of services from closed circuit television and street cleansing to youth provision, citizenship education and a rapid response service for when problems arise. Through consultation on the review, it has become clear that community engagement sits at the heart of future success. If the community is not working with the authorities that try to deal with the matter, we are absolutely doomed to failure.

The council is planning to use the Government's cutting crime together toolkit with groups of local

It is important to bear in mind the fact that when tackling antisocial behaviour, young people are often cited as the culprits to the exclusion of all others. It is important to put that in perspective and realise that although a minority of young people cause terrible problems for their neighbours, most young people are well-behaved law-abiding individuals who make a positive contribution to community life.

Many types of antisocial behaviour, such as noise nuisance, neighbour disputes, harassment, fly tipping and permitting dog fouling, are more commonly carried out by adults. That means that a wide range of actions is required to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its forms.

The anti-social behaviour control unit is at the front line of tackling antisocial behaviour. It has several teams that can investigate the full range of antisocial behaviour cases and take enforcement action against people whose behaviour has an adverse effect on their community. It is a fact that a minority of residents have consistently been able to breach their tenancy agreements with impunity and make the lives of residents on their estates a misery. I know that the anti-social behaviour unit will be examining the situation and I trust that it will change.

Further council initiatives include: specialist cleaning teams to remove rubbish and litter; an abandoned vehicles team, which, notwithstanding the example I gave earlier, has one of the best track records in London; successful pilot programmes of a wardens' service; anti-graffiti services; increased youth provision, including new mobile youth clubs; and a youth service rapid response team, which can be deployed at short notice to help to calm a neighbourhood. I have spoken to the local police who told me that the youth service rapid response team has been of particular value. I commend all those who have worked on it.

The police and the council have been working more and more closely together. They face incredible pressure. The police and council combined receive more than 30,000 call-outs from residents each year. It is simply impossible for each one to be dealt with promptly and calls must be prioritised.

However, the result is that there are inevitably problems with the response call-out time. Given the 25 per cent. increase in police numbers, I know that the borough commander, Mark Simmons, will be working hard to translate that to reduced call-out times. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) recently spent time with the local police and saw the astonishingly complex job with which they are tasked, and he was full of admiration.

What of the national picture and the Government's approach? The Anti-Social Behaviour Bill contains various proposals. The main proposal is to give £75 million over the next three years to assist local agencies to tackle antisocial behaviour. It will deal with neighbours from hell to make it easier for local authorities to fine noisy neighbours £100 and confiscate stereos. It will allow local authority tenants to be put on probation, which will make it easier to evict them. The police will be given powers to close and seal crack houses within 48 hours.

In addition, there are proposals to introduce curfews and powers to disperse young people if they cause a problem.

Some people disagree with some of those powers because they think they go too far. Organisations I respect greatly, such as Barnardo's, the Children's Society and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, say that the proposals infringe people's liberties and rights. But the point is this:
liberties and rights are being infringed right now, especially in some of the most deprived parts of Britain. That is why I began by giving voice to some of my residents' experiences, because otherwise people lose the human dimension to the problem. We have to address those experiences. That is why I hope that we will try out the Government's new measures and that they are successful.

In the spirit of what Tower Hamlets council is doing, I hope that we, too, will have a best-value review to see what works. Headlines do not work, but wardens, for example, do work, as they have been shown to do in my area. A more integrated response between the council and the police has paid dividends. Community policing has also been helpful.

Finally, I return to the point where I started—the residents. What do the residents think will work?

Their top two answers to the questionnaire that hundreds of them filled in was, first, that there should be more police on foot and, secondly, more youth workers. I thought that an interesting combination.

Their other requests included greater installation of CCTV, posters and warning signs to gangs telling them that they are being watched, the provision of youth clubs and sport and leisure facilities, and roving vans with a video camera to record youth activities. Interestingly, many residents wanted that footage to be shown to the parents of gang members. They also wanted the possibility of prosecuting the parents of people under 18.

I am sure that the Minister will mention some of the measures that the Government are introducing to deal with parental responsibility, such as parenting orders. We must ensure that we take a holistic approach to the problem. Tougher policing and sanctions is the stick; greater youth provision and social inclusion is the carrot. However, even taken together they will not solve the problem unless personal responsibility is the byword that defines our society. Laws cannot create respect; individuals can. I appeal to everyone to play their part to tackle the scourge of antisocial behaviour.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Fiona Mactaggart): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) for giving me my first opportunity to respond to an Adjournment debate as a Minister. The issue is close to the heart of every hon. Member, including mine. It also gives me the chance to congratulate her on doing more than many of her colleagues to ensure that her constituents' voice in rejecting antisocial behaviour is properly heard and used to frame and shape the response that the Government and public institutions take. In addition, I congratulate her on the conference that she organised on 17 July, attended by the Home Secretary, the director of the antisocial behaviour unit and others. It allowed the residents of Tower Hamlets to articulate, as they always do so powerfully, many of the points that she has once again reported in the words of the people who have written to her.

I also thank my hon. Friend for the way in which she recognises—indeed, she demonstrates the extent to which her constituents recognise—that the problem must be shared by all citizens. We should not expect the Government to drop a solution on our heads. We all need to work together. I was struck by the words used in a letter from one of my hon. Friend's constituents. The correspondent pointed out how antisocial behaviour was alienating any sense of community and mutual responsibility. Towards the end of my hon. Friend's remarks, she focused on how the respondents to her surveys had recognised that the solution is, in part, increased policing and recognising our community and mutual responsibility.

We need wardens, CCTV and policing, but we also need opportunities for young people to have appropriate activities and things to do.

My hon. Friend demonstrated powerfully the contribution that the citizen can make to Government policy. It is a voice that is too often ignored, but it is one that helps the Government to remember that the answer cannot be arrived at merely by pressing one button. The Government should recognise that if the resources of ordinary people whose lives are being made a misery by antisocial behaviour can be mobilised, that in itself is part of the solution.

My hon. Friend described the problems that are so acute in her constituency, such as graffiti, abandoned cars, drugs, drugs paraphernalia in the street for adults and children to trip over, youth prostitution, young people hanging about intimidating people or being disrespectful to them and inappropriate begging. Those problems are often dismissed as being of low level; yet they make such a difference to the quality of life of many of our constituents. That is why the Government are determined to tackle the problem.

We need to be clear about what we have achieved, and we have achieved much. Crime in general is down and police numbers have never been higher. Wardens and community safety officers are on our streets to protect and reassure people. Nevertheless, there is more to be done. I hope that I shall be able to show that in the work that we are undertaking, and in the new legislation that we are proposing, some of the issues that my hon. Friend has so clearly identified are beginning to be tackled.
Police strength in Tower Hamlets has increased by 191 since 1997. There are now 26,868 Metropolitan police officers, which is an increase of 3.5 per cent. The civilian police strength at March 2002 stood at 10,459, an increase of 4.2 per cent. on the previous year. The numbers on their own are important, but the way in which officers are deployed is also important. I share my hon. Friend's congratulations to her borough commander and, like her, commend the determination of the local police force to ensure that it is tackling the issues that most concern residents.

The force is making sure that police officers are situated in schools in Tower Hamlets. That has a number of products. First, it means that the relationship between young people and the police are improved. Secondly, it means that police officers are more aware of which young people have the most challenging behaviour because they can be involved, for example, in some of the activities that need to be undertaken to tackle truanting. Their engagement with the community by being based in schools can become more powerful and more real. In the Met in particular, of all police forces, it is quite difficult to get that level of community engagement. Working closely with schools is one of the tools that they can use to do that. In addition, the Met has £1.5 million to deliver more community support officers in the coming year—250 in total, 18 of whom will be allocated to Tower Hamlets—and there are 23 wardens in the borough.

Community support officers and wardens do not have the same powers as the police, but they have the opportunity to tackle some of the issues that most featured in my hon. Friend's speech—for example, the degradation of the environment that encourages antisocial behaviour. When people say to me, "What will these wardens do to stop the people who are throwing bricks through windows, as they can't arrest them?", I tell them that one thing that they can do is to make sure that the bricks are not there on the streets in the first place. Tackling the environmental degradation that fuels crime is an important part of the strategy of bearing down on antisocial behaviour—in effect, by stopping it from starting. A lot of antisocial behaviour arises from opportunity. In a way, that reflects what my hon. Friend said about people feeling that the street is a piece of ground that they own. If we make it a space that people are proud of and which encourages appropriate behaviour, that will in itself reduce
antisocial behaviour and make people feel more positive about their environment.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on listening to people. For a long time, crime debates in this House have concentrated too much on the most serious crime. That might seem an odd thing to say. However, such crime is, thankfully, relatively rare—most of us do not experience the kind that is based on a network of criminality and results in complex court cases—whereas it is all too common for people to experience the kind that used to be dismissed as low-level antisocial behaviour, not treated as criminality. In recent years, that has changed, and debates often focus on so-called antisocial behaviour. That is because Members such as my hon. Friend have first, listened to their constituents, and secondly, know the extent to which such antisocial behaviour is a precursor to more serious crime.

My hon. Friend's constituents, having been victims of the culture of disrespect described in many of the letters that she read out, say, "We don't only want more and better policing—we want purposeful activities for young people." That is another reminder of the wisdom of the people who sent us to this House to represent them. They recognise that these issues cannot be resolved with a one-trick solution. It cannot be done by flooding the community with police officers or by cleaning the streets, although those are both important; we also need to divert young people from the belief that there is nothing else worth doing.

I am glad that we have invested so much in ensuring that young people have appropriate activities in, for example, their holidays. Since 2000, £14.5 million has been spent on setting up Splash Extra, which is a diversionary activity programme that takes place throughout the school holidays and focuses especially on 13 to 17-year-olds. It takes particular account of those who are most at risk of misbehaving. It focuses on high crime neighbourhoods—regrettably, my hon. Friend's is such a neighbourhood—and providing appropriate activities to reduce crime. It is helping to make a genuine difference in diverting young people from criminal behaviour.

My hon. Friend described the strong commitment in Tower Hamlets to working with children and young people to prevent problems. A community cohesion project is under way in her constituency. It works on intergeneration, interracial and interfaith issues and tries to bring young and older people together.

My hon. Friend said that young people are often demonised as criminals when they are frequently the victims of crime. We therefore need to improve communications between the old and the young when trying to deal with those matters. The rapid response team and the youth offending team in Tower Hamlets are working on restorative justice and prevention. They are therefore working on dealing with not only young people who have been guilty of crimes and have victimised fellow residents, but those to whom that does not yet apply. It is important to recognise that both groups—those who have previously offended and need to be prevented from reoffending and those who are at risk of offending—are targets. The teams are working on early, constructive intervention and involving the community and the victims of crimes in the justice process.

My hon. Friend's account demonstrates the extent of the wisdom of the victims of crime. They do not simply want punishment or retribution; they want prevention and strategies to ensure that others do not suffer as they have done. Some of the work is making a difference and the results in her constituency speak for themselves. Tower Hamlets has falling rates of youth offending, youth victimisation and the percentage of crimes in the borough committed by young people because it has targeted young people. It shows that such focusing can work and I wish the teams well.
When people cross the line, we must ensure that we take action to enforce and uphold standards of behaviour. We have introduced tools to prevent people from causing problems through antisocial behaviour orders and to prohibit behaviour that causes harassment, alarm and distress through fixed penalty notices for disorder, parenting orders and acceptable behaviour contracts. The parenting orders constitute another example of Tower Hamlets combining the legal and justice frameworks with working both with people who have come to the notice of the relevant institutions and those who have not yet come to their notice. That combination is a powerful method of proceeding. In my hon. Friend's borough, it is striking that parenting classes contain more parents who attend voluntarily than parents who have been sent through parenting orders.

I am glad that we are holding the debate this week, when the Green Paper on children at risk was published. It aims to ensure that no child falls through the net and to help all children to achieve their potential. It shifts the balance from dealing with problems—whether criminality or victimisation among young people—after they have occurred to preventing children from becoming criminals or victims by tackling child poverty, improving education and child care, raising school standards and supporting parents. These measures are already making a difference, but we need to be honest—we have to do more.

We have made tackling antisocial behaviour a key priority for the police. We need to ensure that all the practitioners that I have mentioned, as well as citizens, have the tools to do their job. That is why we are introducing the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which has gone through its stages in this House and is currently being discussed in the other place. It will provide new powers to deal with noise nuisance, tackle serious youth nuisance and close crack houses.

My hon. Friend and I share a tradition of being concerned about civil liberties and of understanding the views of those organisations that are anxious about some of the powers in the Bill to disperse young people. However, we also share the experience of our constituents who have been terrorised when going out of their houses—not by groups of young people for whom the street is a reasonable place to meet and who want to play out there and entertain themselves, but by those who abuse, terrorise and intimidate residents who are simply going about their daily lives and doing their shopping. We need to have the powers to disperse those young people when that happens.

I assure hon. Members that the Home Office does not intend those powers to be used willy-nilly or lightly. They are, however, powers that those who are trying to deal with these issues need to have available to them. I hope that, through the prevention work that we are doing, and through more effective youth work and improved relations between the police and the communities they serve, we can make the additional powers unnecessary. It would be wonderful if that were the case, but we need those measures to be available.

We are not introducing the powers in the Bill so that they can sit on the shelf, or so that they can be shouted at people. We need to ensure that they are used intelligently and put to work to protect the victims of antisocial behaviour, whose lives are being made a misery by it, and whose new homes, of which they want to feel proud, have become a burden to them because of it. That is why the Home Office has set up an antisocial behaviour unit to work with practitioners, with the local authorities that are focusing on the issue in the way that my hon. Friend described, and with the police, to make a difference where antisocial behaviour is at its worst. We shall not need these powers to deal with people who occasionally litter or who spit out their chewing gum on the street, although we all know that that can be extremely irritating. The powers might be needed to make the extra difference where antisocial behaviour is at its worst, and where the more positive powers have not changed behaviour sufficiently.

We shall shortly be publishing an action plan, but the biggest challenge for everyone involved will be to put the words that my hon. Friend and I have exchanged today into practice and to ensure that the approach that her speech so powerfully illustrated is not just an issue for the professionals. It is an issue in which the voice of the resident, the activity of the citizen, the experience of the young person and the anxiety of the parent can come together to ensure that we tackle antisocial behaviour. We must put our words into action to ensure that the victims are helped and protected, and are able to live their lives free from the harassment and distress that my hon. Friend has so powerfully described. I promise that the entire Home Office team will do its best to do that.