Crime, Anti-Social Behaviour and Policing Bill- ASBOs
I delivered this speech in the House of Commons on Monday 14th October 2013, the hansard can be found here
Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) for the way in which she ably steered this Bill through Committee on behalf of the Opposition and for her work more generally as part of our shadow Home Office team before her well-deserved promotion last week. I also welcome the Minister to his new role and, along with my colleagues, I look forward to debating these important issues with him.
Antisocial behaviour orders have been the cornerstone of the fight against antisocial behaviour since Labour came to power in 1997. In that year, the previous Tory Government had failed to address a problem that blighted communities up and down the country, from suburban lanes to inner-city estates, for which people were long overdue a Government response.
ASBOs are a tough, fair and proportionate last response to persistent perpetrators of antisocial behaviour. They require a criminal burden of proof to be brought in, they are a last resort where other interventions have failed and they work because they are backed by the threat of criminal sanction. In seeking to repeal the legislation that brought in ASBOs, the Government are taking a retrograde and misguided step that will not be welcomed by the communities that live in fear of antisocial behaviour and that have come to know that the police have the power to take tough action backed by criminal sanctions if necessary.
In the Government’s most recent crime survey, 80% of respondents said they believed that antisocial behaviour was increasing under this Government since the general election. One third of respondents said that they had either been a victim of, or witness to, antisocial behaviour. They will be wondering why the Government have chosen to respond to people’s concerns not by toughening the legislation or by empowering the police to take action, but by going soft, taking away the threat of criminal sanction, taking police off the beat to attend training on new and weaker powers of response, and requiring the new injunctions to be taken out not in magistrates courts, which would mean they could be dealt with quickly and efficiently, but in county courts, which are slow and overburdened. Amendment 96 seeks not to prevent the Government from introducing injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance—they could be a useful alternative for the police to consider using—but to keep ASBOs on the statute book, leaving it to local councils and police forces to decide what best suits their local areas and needs.
I speak from experience. Before the people of Croydon North elected me to the House last November, I spent nearly seven years as leader of Lambeth council in south London. When Labour won power there in 2006, we found that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition had spent the previous three years stalling ASBOs on ideological grounds. One year, it issued none at all. As a consequence, antisocial behaviour remained too high, without sanction. Young people drifted from antisocial behaviour to low-level crime, and then to high-level crime, including street robberies. Gang violence rose. The fear of crime and the perception that local streets were simply not safe became endemic.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment. Conservatives and Liberal Democrats represent areas that are much more prosperous; Labour MPs typically represent by and large urban constituencies, with disadvantaged communities. Is it not the case that ASBOs are much more relevant to the constituencies that Labour Members represent?
Mr Reed: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but antisocial behaviour can happen in any community. Government Members ought to listen to the people they represent, who do not wish to see them watering down the responses and toolkit available to tackle antisocial behaviour.
To refer again to my experience, Lambeth council increased the use of ASBOs to achieve a reduction in antisocial behaviour not for the slogans or press releases, or to try to look tough, but because it was needed to get a grip of our streets and return confidence to the law-abiding majority of residents. Government Members cannot tell me that ASBOs do not work because I saw how crime fell when a newly elected Labour council worked alongside the police to use ASBOs to great effect in making our streets and our communities safe again.
ASBOs work in part because they are backed by a criminal sanction. Breaching an ASBO is not something to be taken lightly—it is a criminal offence. Persistent antisocial behaviour is deeply damaging to local communities, and people expect effective sanctions. With Labour’s ASBOs, that is exactly what they got. Instead, the Government propose to take away the criminal sanction. Offenders can breach IPNAs in the full knowledge that they are not committing a crime. If the police or local councils want action taken against someone who has breached their IPNA and who is terrorising a local community, they will not get support from the criminal justice system. There is no automatic penalty. Instead, the breach of an IPNA will lead to the potential of civil action brought under the contempt of court proceedings. Offenders across the country will be rejoicing that the Government have gone soft, while the law-abiding majority will be horrified.
The Government’s proposal is not only a weak response to antisocial behaviour, but the police and local councils will pay for it themselves. Instead of criminal proceedings being brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, the police will have to bring a civil action in the courts at their own expense.
Dr Huppert: The hon. Gentleman argues the case for ASBOs passionately, but I am not sure hon. Members agree that they were as effective as he suggests. Has he seen opinion polls such as the one done by Angus Reid last year? Its survey found that only 8% believe that ASBOs have been successful in curbing antisocial behaviour in the UK.
In abolishing ASBOs and replacing them with IPNAs, the Government are not only taking away the power of the police to clamp down effectively on antisocial behaviour, but making the police pay for any action that follows from their hugely diminished budgets. One chief inspector has said, on the record, that the costs of pursuing such action through the civil courts would be in the region of £1,500 on every occasion. Based on last year’s court figures for breaches of ASBOs, the switch to IPNAs will cost councils and police forces another £1.5 million a year. That £1.5 million will be taken from two of the hardest-hit parts of the public sector. If a 20% cut to policing was not bad enough, hitting the police with a £1.5 million additional annual bill just for doing their job in tackling antisocial behaviour is a pretty low and unwelcome blow.
As with all costs, the proposal introduces disincentives. In the Public Bill Committee’s evidence-taking sessions, the chair of the Police Federation, Steve Williams, was asked whether the cost of pursuing an IPNA breach, both in financial and staff resourcing terms, would deter the police from taking action, to which he replied:
“That is a strong possibility. Yes.”—[Official Report, Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Public Bill Committee, 18 June 2013; c. 9, Q11.]
In Committee, Government Members said that IPNAs were necessary because they, unlike ASBOs, would not lead to a criminal record. They believe that criminalising children is wrong. However, breaching an ASBO is the criminal offence, not being subject to one. I must tell Government Members who share those concerns that IPNAs have been roundly criticised for lowering the burden of proof and for their lack of proportionality. Twenty-five organisations, including Liberty, the Children’s Society and Barnardo’s, put their names to a letter to The Times criticising IPNAs for their low burden of proof, and because they do not require “any form of intent”. The letter states:
“Such ill-thought out legislation will sweep up all kinds of non-criminal and non-serious behaviour, wasting police time and clogging up the courts. It threatens to divert resources from genuinely harmful or distressing behaviour, where the police and other services should be focussed”.