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LABOUR'S NEIGHBOUR NUISANCE STRATEGY UNVEILED (FULL TEXT)

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Shadow home secretary Jack Straw's speech on neighbour nuisance given in Blackburn today: ...
Shadow home secretary Jack Straw's speech on neighbour nuisance given in Blackburn today:

'Neighbourhood strategies lie at the heart of Labour's plans for tackling the epidemic of crime and disorder, which so disfigures community life today.

We have to develop local responses to the problems that most concern our communities. The precise problems and the responses will vary across the country, but the approach will be the same: what are local people most concerned about, and how can these problems best be tackled, using the resources of the police, the local authority, and all the other key players in the local community.

Crime

Tackling crime and disorder is the number one priority of local residents up and down the country. It is hardly surprising that crime is taken so seriously, when we look at the impact it has on people's lives. Last year an NOP survey of crime in Blackburn found that three- quarters of Blackburn residents had been a victim of crime in the last five years, and a third in 1995 alone. Similar figures have been produced in towns and cities across the country. They show that there are few of us indeed, whose lives have not been affected by crime.

Disorder

But it is not just crime that worries people. Disorder in the form of harassment and incivility, public drunkenness, vandalism and graffiti have a profound effect on people's sense of security and their ability to enjoy the area in which they live.

Disorder is closely linked to the fear of crime as home office research has shown. A recent home office report on the fear of crime concluded:

`This analysis provides suggestive evidence that fear is shaped by signs of crime - evidence of vandalism, public drunkenness and drug use, graffiti and so on.' (Anxiety about Crime: Findings from the 1994 British Crime Survey, Home Office Study 147, 1995).

The Audit Commission found that `the streets are perceived as increasingly unsafe, and this perception diminishes people's quality of life.' (Streetwise: effective police patrol, Audit Commission, 1996).

What is more disorder can help to tip areas further into decline and crime. As the Home Office report noted:

`Fear of crime can lead to spirals of decline involving the abandonment of urban public space, disinvestment and the progressive segregation of the affluent and the poor in large cities.'

And official figures show that the situation is getting worse. Figures compiled by the Department of the Environment show that incidents of disorder recorded by the police rose by 8% last year - and 21% over the last two years.

Zero tolerance

That is why I believe that it is so important to tackle disorder as well as crime. We shouldn't accept a progressive decline in standards of behaviour in our streets and public areas with a shrug of the shoulders as if nothing can be done about it.

People should feel free to use our streets without fear. They should expect to be treated with respect. They shouldn't have to avoid parks, or city centres in the evening because they feel intimidated. It cannot be right that almost half of all women and 15% of men feel unsafe on the streets alone at night. (British Crime Survey 1996)

We should not tolerate this decline in standards. This is what we mean when we use the term `zero tolerance'.

The term is, of course, most widely associated with the New York police. This has led to a polarising of debate and an assumption that in accepting New York's analysis of the impact of disorder, one is also accepting their solution. This is not the case.

New York's problems are, thankfully, of a different order from our own. A response based purely on arrests and law enforcement may make sense in a city where a large number of people carry guns and where there is an enormous drug problem. Stops for minor offences in that society, for example, have resulted in many arrests for gun offences, which may well be connected to the fall in the homicide rate in New York.

But simply sweeping people off the streets is not an acceptable response to disorder here.

We have a wider canvass. For us respect, responsibility and revival are the `three R's' of our strategy of `zero tolerance'.

Respect for others and an acceptance of personal responsibility for oneself and one's children - are absolutely critical if there is to be a revival of community life.

Far from being based upon the practice of not tolerating anti-social and criminal behaviour, the criminal justice system today - and especially the youth justice system - is indulgent of much anti-social behaviour, especially on the streets and in our public places. This is dreadful for the law-abiding majority who want no more than to be left in peace to go about their business without interference. It undermines community life.

And it does no favours for those who commit the crime and disorder in the first place. A culture of indulgence and excuse in which personal responsibility is evaded serves simply to reinforce offending behaviour.

Many young criminals rationally calculate that in the short term - because of the disarray in the youth justice system - they have a virtual immunity from punishment. As they then graduate to adult criminality they discover too late - for them, and for society - that bad behaviour has consequences.

Before I move away from the problems to some of the solutions, I want to tell you a true story.

A year ago last week a student friend of ours was the victim of robbery at knife-point late one evening in a north London street. He was very shaken by this experience, but lucky too. An off-duty police officer had seen the incident as she drove past in her car. Police assistance was summonsed quickly. The local police then did a highly professional job in identifying and arresting five members of this gang - all of whom were under the age of 18.

That's the good part of the story.

Now for the bad part.

Of these five, only two could be charged with an offence. One of these, on bail, has left the country. One adjournment has been piled on another, as so often happens with the youth justice system - especially in dealing with serious cases.

The victim has nothing but praise for the police, but anger about the system. The message these young criminals have received is very simple. However bad your behaviour, however little respect you have for others, however you evade responsibility for your own actions, you can get away with it.

Of course, robbery is a specific and serious offence. But youngsters get out of control on the streets - as well as in the home and at school - if their less serious misbehaviour is not checked in the first place.

That is why tackling disorder and anti-social behaviour is so important.

A similar spiral of decline, in standards and in community life, operates with anti-social behaviour by bad neighbours. In many areas, a single family or drug gang can terrorise a whole community into submission; intimidate witnesses, take control of the whole area.

But dealing with this, raising standards of behaviour, putting those `three R's' into practice, has to be a responsibility for us all. The police do a very good job. But their actions can only be first aid - fire fighting - unless the community gets behind them. That is why the crime prevention and community safety strategies now being developed by local authorities - like Blackburn - in consultation with the police are of such importance.

Community safety partnerships

The way forward I believe is to make the tackling of low level crime and disorder as much a focus for local community safety partnerships as offences such as burglary.

Only yesterday the Association of Chief Police Officers launched their `Crime Prevention Strategy for the Millennium'. The main aims of ACPO's safer communities strategy, contained in that document, are to reduce opportunities to commit crime, leading to less crime and anti-social behaviour and enhanced public tranquillity.

ACPO stressed the need for partnership to achieve this goal.

Labour has for many years advocated community safety partnerships. These involve a partnership between the local authority, the police, local residents and the key organisations in the local community to analyse and then devise a strategy to tackle issues of concern to local people.

That strategy will involve input from a range of organisations

In Labour Coventry for example, an enormous amount has been done to reduce public drinking, with the imaginative use of public by-laws to prevent drinking in public and rigorous enforcement of licensing laws. In addition disorder has been tackled by environmental improvements, better street lighting, CCTV, and on-site teams to deal with fly-posting and graffiti.

Only yesterday the Balsall Heath partnership announced the success of its campaign to deal with street level crimes and disorder. This partnership between the police, residents and the city council concentrated on tackling prostitution and kerb crawling, removing graffiti, mendingbroken windows, removing litter, making streets and open spaces pleasant and secure, and managing municipal housing well. For the first time since records began there were no crimes of violence in November, December and only one in January.

In other areas there may be a need to address a particular social problem. Where there are problems, for example, caused by homeless alcoholics sleeping rough, there may well be a need for a more effective range of treatment, building on the experience of local authorities, health bodies and voluntary groups in the provision of wet and dry hostels.

On many occasions the strategy will involve high-profile policing. But this will not be the short-term - and some would say, more aggressive tactics of New York - but the long-term problem-solving approach consistent with the British tradition of policing by consent.

In Kings Cross a multi-agency approach included a five-week Metropolitan police initiative, which focused on aggressive begging, drunkenness, graffiti and pick-pocketing. These all generate a heightened perception of crime in the area. Officers patrolling on foot specifically targeted openly anti-social behaviour. The initiative was just part of a much wider partnership programme. It achieved its aim of making people feel safer on the streets. 87% of those surveyed felt safer and reassured by the presence of police. 81% saw a change in the area for the better.

In Strathclyde the Spotlight initiative has targeted so- called `minor crimes' - those nuisance crimes which, left unchecked, can lead to more serious crimes and heighten people's fear of crime. Launched last October the police have worked with the 12 local authorities in the force area to tackle crime and disorder, and early results have been very encouraging.

The Labour party believes that crime and disorder prevention must be given a higher priority. That is why we are proposing to place a statutory duty on local authorities in partnership with the police to develop community safety and crime prevention programmes.

In the next few weeks I shall be outlining further plans to tackle disorder in our town centres, establishing in its place a greater sense of order and security. And I shall provide further details of our proposals for crime prevention partnerships.

Multi-agency nuisance strategies

In addition we must ensure that a range of measures is available to deal with problem neighbours.

Firstly, we are proposing that local authorities should establish multi-agency nuisance and harassment working groups. These would develop and monitor the implementation of council-wide nuisance strategies to ensure that complaints to front line staff were dealt with in a swift and appropriate way. The groups would ensure that clear procedures were in place to handle nuisance complaints. They would have sufficient status to influence local policies that can impact on levels of disorder and nuisance, such as policies to tackle school exclusions and truancy andcare programme planning for the seriously mentally ill.

One area that such groups must tackle is noise nuisance, which is the most common form of neighbourhood nuisance.

Mediation

Mediation is another key method for settling neighbourhood disputes at an early stage. Over the past ten years mediation has helped to resolve over 10,000 neighbourhood disputes. We are keen that it plays an even greater role in resolving neighbourhood problems in the future.

Community safety orders

However, there will be cases where all these methods have been tried without success and communities continue to be terrorised by individuals and families. In these cases something more radical is called for.

That is why I have proposed a new community safety order, which is designed to deal with chronic, anti-social criminal behaviour by neighbours This behaviour can make life hell for those who live near them.

All too often the criminal justice system seems powerless to deal with this kind of behaviour. Witnesses are intimidated into silence. Even when the offender is taken to court it is often for a single offence and the court is unaware of the sheer volume and persistence of the behaviour.

The community safety order would be a special form of injunction to restrain the behaviour of named individuals. It could include exclusion from a particular area, restrictions on approaching individuals or racially harassing them. Application for an order would be made jointly by the police and local authority when other methods of solving the problem like mediation had failed, and it was clear that the behaviour could no longer be tolerated because of the affect that it was having on local residents. Breach of the community safety order could lead to imprisonment.

Witness protection

We must also tackle the growing problem of witness intimidation.

A recent home office study found that on high crime estates 13% of crime reported to the police by victims and 9% reported to witnesses resulted in people being intimidated. There was `a general unwillingness of the public to come forward as witnesses' and less than a third of people interviewed had reported crimes they had witnessed. (Maynard, Home Office PRG 5, 1994)

These findings are profoundly disturbing. Confidence in the criminal justice system is completely undermined where there is this level of intimidation and fear.

I should also like to see an expansion of the use of `professional witnesses' which have been successfully used by some Labour local authorities. Typically this involves council officials or private detectives moving into a house or flat in an affected neighbourhood to log evidence of offending, harassment or intimidation.

Parenting

If we are to encourage greater respect and responsibility in society, we have to focus attention on young people.

Young people are literally our future. How we treat them and how we teach them to treat others will shape the society in the years ahead.Yet hardly any attention has been given to the crucial issue of parenting.

The media gives more attention to the care of cars and pets than to the care of children. We do little to help people acquire the skills of a parent and provide little help when parents are struggling to cope.

When I initially raised this issue two years ago I did so with great trepidation, but the response has been overwhelming. People are eager to break the taboo that has surrounded the discussion of parenting. Millions of parents do a good job, but many would welcome advice. Some people are desperate for help and others desperately need it.

That is why we have published a discussion document, Parenting, setting out ideas for a new strategic framework to help parents.

Parental responsibility order

We have also stressed the responsibility of parents to the wider community.

There has to be wider acceptance that having a child is not a totally private act, but one that has significance for the whole community if the child grows into a pattern of anti-social and offending behaviour.

That is why we have proposed a new parental responsibility order, designed for cases where it is clear that parental attitudes and behaviour are a key factor in child's offending but the parents have not been prepared to accept guidance and counselling to help them cope. The order would impose a requirement on parents to attend counselling and guidance sessions where they would receive help in dealing with their children.

Child protection orders

In addition, we are also proposing new child protection orders to deal with local problems of young children 10 and under out on the streets unsupervised late at night.

Such behaviour can be of great concern to local communities. In such cases local councils working with the police and the local community will be able to use by-laws to enforce child protection curfews after consultation and agreement on the time by which these young children should be at home.

Once the by-law came into effect the police would have the power to take children in breach back to their home or to local authority accommodation.

In either event the social services department would be responsible for visiting the home to assess whether there was a need for intervention to protect the child's welfare.

Tackling youth crime

We are determined to radically overhaul the system of youth justice in this country. The youth justice system should be the most effective part of our whole criminal justice system. It is here that effort should be concentrated to steer young people away from crime.

Yet the current youth justice system is ineffective, slow and costly. Only 1.3% of the seven million crimes committed by young people result in a criminal charge or summons. Far too little action is taken when young people start to offend to nip that offending in the bud. It takes on average four and half months to deal with a young offender from arrest to sentencing. All too often repeat cautions give the youngster the impression that he can get away with it. Then, in a quarter of cases in which the police take action, the youth court imposes a conditional discharge. And this whole ineffective system costs public services£1bn.

It is no wonder that the Audit Commission concluded that: `Overall, less is done now than a decade ago to address offending by young people.' (Misspent Youth 1996)

That is why I am proposing root and branch reform of the system to make it quicker, more efficient and more effective.

Our promise for fast track punishment for persistent offenders by halving the time from arrest to sentence is one of five key pledges for early action by a Labour government.

Our pledge to get 250,000 under 25 year olds off benefit and into work is an anti-crime policy as well as an economic policy.

We are also proposing a new final warning for young offenders to replace the present inconsistent cautioning system. This would frequently trigger intervention by young offender teams to tackle their offending behaviour.

We shall shake up the youth courts to ensure that offenders are made to face up to their behaviour.

We shall ensure that greater emphasis is given to reparation in sentencing and end the use of conditional discharges.

There will be new youth offender teams across the country to draw up intensive community sentences for young people, and a new National Youth Justice Board in the home office to set and monitor national standards for youth justice and ensure resources are used more effectively.

Conclusion

For too long the problems caused by disorder and anti-social behaviour have been placed low down the political agenda by central government.

This attitude must change.

Disorder and low level offending have a profound effect on people's quality of life.

It is time to act.

Labour in government will ensure that action is taken to make our streets and communities safe and secure.'

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