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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

Home secretary David Blunkett's long-promised Anti-Social Behaviour Bill received a luke-warm welcome in the commons - with some concerns evident even on the Labour benches.

Action promised in the Bill are moves against crack houses, truancy and noise nuisance - with teachers and environmental health officers being able to issue fixed penalty fines, expanded parenting orders, graffiti, air weapons and replica guns, and disorderly youths.

Police will have new powers to disperse groups of youths. After consultation with the local authority, the police will also be able to designate neighbourhoods or communities for six months for such dispersal action or curfews to tackle people intimidating residents or causing nuisance. Procedures for issuing anti-social behaviour orders will be streamlined.

Mr Blunkett said other aspects of anti-social behaviour outlined in the recent white paper, Respect and Responsibility, required an interdepartmental approach across government. Other measures would be contained, for example, in the draft Housing Bill.

Of his own measure, he commented: 'The Bill is of course a symbol of the need for a cultural change, not simply for legislative change. It is about putting alongside prevention and remedial action the key enforcement measures that send that signal to those involved in anti-social behaviour. Prevention will of course be crucial, as will offering people a chance to remedy their behaviour'.

The home secretary said more staff would be required by local authorities and the wider police family, and he hoped that some staff costs would be funded by fixed penalties. Another question was whether people at local level could be persuaded to adopt particular measures - that involed not just the police, but also housing and environmental health officers.

'Some people in professional organisations may have distanced themselves by promotion from the front line, but saying,'We don't want to implement these mea sures because they're inconvenient and make life difficult', is not the way to persuade the public to pay more council tax, income tax or VAT in order to fund these professionals' jobs'.

Joint working between police, social services and other department must be enhanced so that early intervention could be made into potential nuisance or criminal behaviour.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the Conservatives would not oppose the Bill which, however suffered from a few disadvantages when used by Labour as propaganda at the local elections.

He added: 'A few minor disadvantages, then: first, a large part of the Bill will do no more than make minor enlargements and refinements to existing powers; secondly, most of the changes are to the government's own previous legislation, some of which has not yet been implemented; thirdly, a large part of the Bill will have absolutely no effect in practice; fourthly, other parts of it are unworkable; fifthly, some of it is entirely meaningless; and finally, another part is of questionable good sense.

'It is therefore out of the opposition's magnanimity that we choose to try to make it a better Bill in committee, rather than to disrupt it at this stage'.

Mr Letwin said he hoped to change the proposal 'with no international precedent, the mind-numbing idea that teachers could hand out fixed penalty notices to the parents of children at their school'.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes protested that there had been no draft Bill and only mini-consultation on certain aspects of the measure. He added: 'The Local Government Association, which is dominated by the Labour Party, is clear that some parts of the Bill are unnecessaary and that other parts are badly intentioned. Those are examples of why a proper legislative process should have taken place'.

Mr Hughes said the Bill was a muddle, with some good provisions and some unnecessary provisions. It was being presented now only because there were local elections next month.

'It is a window dressing of a Bill. If the committee is sensible, if the house is sensible, and certainly if the house of lords is sensible, large parts of the Bill will be removed before it reaches the Statute Book. Other large parts of the Bill will be amended'.

Hilton Dawson, Labour MP for Lancaster and Wyre, a former senior social worker, agreed a massive culture change was needed to get to grips with issues to be confronted.

'My great difficulty with what has been said and with some of the Bill's provisions is that we are in danger of reproducing the authoritarianism and punishment mentality that have failed to deal with serious problems and have caused us to have the highest figure for young people in custody of any country in western Europe. Custody does not help reform people, but replicates problems by creating an appallingly destructive circle in which people leave prison and reoffend,' commented Mr Dawson.

He said the power to issue fixed penalty notices was a role for no one other than an enforcement agency, and certainly not for education officers. Nor should LEA officers go to court to secure a parenting order before the court had examined information a bout a pupil's family circumstances. A new approach was need to the Children Act 1989 and more imaginative use of resources and approaches to the massive problems caused by tenants was needed, as had been done in Dundee.

The Bill was given an unopposed second reading.

Hansard 8 Apr 2003: Column 126 - 236

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