Clause 29 - Dispersal of groups and removal of persons under 16 to their place of residence

Anti-social Behaviour Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:10 am ar 13 Mai 2003.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:10, 13 Mai 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 107, in

clause 29, page 23, line 35, leave out 'and' and insert 'or'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 109, in

clause 29, page 23, line 36, leave out paragraph (b).

Amendment No. 158, in

clause 29, page 23, line 36, after 'a', insert 'particularly'.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Good morning, Mr. Cran, and welcome to what I think is the first morning sitting that you have chaired.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am sorry that we have dragged you out of bed so early.

Amendment No. 107 is part of the succession of amendments to clause 29 to which I have spoken. In my closing remarks in the last sitting, I referred to the Minister's intransigent attitude to them. It will suffice to repeat the general point, which is that we should like this part of the Bill to be much more flexible and the police to be given the scope to use the powers of dispersal in a way that they think appropriate as and when they need them, rather than subject to all the accompanying paraphernalia in clauses 29 and 30.

Amendment No. 107 would remove the requirement for a

''significant and persistent problem in the relevant locality'',

stated in clause 29(1)(b). That is part of the overall case that I have been advancing. With the Bill, we—I presume that I can use the royal we—are trying to help people who suffer antisocial behaviour. Frankly, they do not really care what criteria surround whether and when the police can use the powers, or whether an offence was committed last week on the other side of town. They care about whether the police can turn up when there is a problem in their area and metaphorically get a grip on those who are causing it and sort them out. That is the purpose behind the amendment.

So much of the rest of this part of the Bill provides that the powers can be used only in areas where there has previously been a persistent problem and where a superintendent has decided to designate a relevant locality and gone through the activities described in clause 30. Those activities would be even more

bureaucratic if the Government accepted the Liberal Democrat amendments to which we shall come later.

I am trying to remove all that bureaucracy, so that if I, as an individual civilian, or my household is suffering the antisocial behaviour of a group of people—not necessarily young people—I can say to the police, ''I do not want you to have to go back to the office to sort things out and return next week to tell me that you have the powers to move these people on. I want them moved on now.'' Currently, the Bill prevents that from happening.

The Bill provides that the police can designate some parts of the country where it is deemed that there is a significant and persistent problem as relevant localities, so that the next time that something happens they can do something about it. The problem is that, as we all know, young people—we are all trying to avoid describing these groups as groups of young people, but we know that the majority will be young people—are past masters at knowing just how far to push the limits of the law. They will know which area is a relevant locality and that if they cross to the other side of the street or walk across a boundary, they will be outside the relevant locality and therefore able to gather and continue their antisocial behaviour with impunity. The police will not be able to disperse the young people or take them home.

That seems crazy. It is asking for the legislation to be brought rapidly into disrepute: young people will make it into a laughing stock. The Government should re-examine the issue and ensure that antisocial behaviour is not considered a problem only in some parts of the country. It is a problem everywhere. It may vary in degree, but to the people suffering from it, it is their suffering, not someone else's, that matters. That is why I contend strongly that there should be flexibility and that the requirement that the ''relevant locality'' must have a ''significant and persistent problem'' should be removed.

The argument can be taken on a stage to discussions on what constitutes a ''significant and persistent problem''. It is not defined in the Bill, so the decision will rely on the subjective views of individual superintendents in different parts of the country who may take different views. For clarity, we should remove that subsection and say simply that if antisocial behaviour is caused by groups of people, the police should have the power to do something about it.

That is the argument and there is no point in repeating in its entirety the case that I have made before. I am trying to emphasise that the value of this part of the Bill, which is designed to help people who are suffering antisocial behaviour caused by groups of people gathering together, will be dramatically diminished if it is hedged about in the way that the Government propose. Bearing in mind the Minister's remarks on earlier amendments, I want at least the removal of the criterion that the area must be the source of a ''significant and persistent problem'', so that people will not have to put up with the problem for some time before the police take any action.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Welcome to the Chair this morning, Mr. Cran.

The Liberal Democrat amendment in the group works, as the Conservative spokesman said, in the opposite direction to the Conservative amendments. I suppose that the difference in our philosophies is emerging. The Conservative amendments would dramatically lower the threshold to be reached before the strong powers—we have perhaps overused the word ''draconian'' in this Committee—may be used. We believe that there should be large hurdle to be overcome before the powers can come into effect, but the Conservative amendments would enable the police to use the powers in almost any case that they can think of.

Our amendment is designed to probe the Government's thinking. It is about setting the threshold and would add the word ''particularly'', so that the powers could be used only if there was a ''particularly significant and persistent'' problem. The amendment is designed to elicit from the Minister the circumstances in which he envisages the powers being used and what test is meant by the phrase ''significant and persistent''.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

As the hon. Gentleman is speaking to his own amendment, will he tell the Committee what he sees as the difference between ''significant and persistent'' and ''particularly significant and persistent''? Surely ''significant'' means significant and ''persistent'' means persistent?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

The hon. Lady is obviously not listening carefully this morning. I have just explained that this is a probing amendment designed to elicit from the Minister precisely what is a ''significant and persistent problem''. Proposing to add the word ''particularly'' enables us to get a response from him. The hon. Lady clearly does not understand that tactic.

We are seeking assurances from the Minister that the requirement of a ''significant and persistent problem'' is a relatively high threshold. We do not support the Conservatives' attempt to lower dramatically the threshold governing when the powers may be used.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

I was relieved to hear the Liberal Democrat spokesman say that his is a probing amendment, as when I first read it I did not think the Liberal Democrats were being entirely serious. The hon. Gentleman said that he wants to probe the Government on how high the threshold should be, but I think his case was that the threshold should be higher than it is in the Bill—I hope that I am not misrepresenting him. In a way, the probing amendment represents his intentions.

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying to residents, ''We are not prepared to give the police powers to deal with problems unless they cross a very high threshold indeed. You will have to live with a significant problem and wait until it becomes a 'particularly significant' problem before we are prepared to give the police the power to deal with it.'' The Liberal Democrats' message to people who are concerned about antisocial behaviour is, ''It's tough. You have to put up with it because we are not

prepared to give the police the powers they need to deal with it.''

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I am interested in what my hon. Friend says. The Liberal Democrats' position seems most peculiar. Does he agree with me that one of the problems of tackling groups of people hanging around, sometimes sitting on fences, is that the Liberal Democrats might be caught by the measure?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

That might well be the case. Although I cannot see the ''Focus'' leaflets emblazoned with the heading, ''Liberal Democrats win concessions for louts from Government'', who knows? It might happen.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Ceidwadwyr, Surrey Heath

Perhaps my hon. Friend would find it useful if Conservative party leaflets told the electorate that that is what the Liberal Democrats spend their time in Parliament doing.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

No doubt a leaflet will appear saying, ''Liberal Democrats demand tougher measures from the Government.''

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. That may be so, but it is early in the morning and we must leave the examination of Liberal Democrat policy on every issue under the sun and return to the amendment.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

Thank you, Mr. Cran. You brought me to order because I crossed the threshold and was particularly out of order.

The Conservative amendments are entirely sensible and I hope that the Government will think seriously about them. Subsection (1)(a) and (b) cover the same things; if either condition were established, the other would be too, so I wonder how much both conditions are needed. There is a case for not hedging the proposal about with too many conditions because the powers for which those conditions will be the trigger are not the most draconian, although of course we must be careful when giving the police powers.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

If the hon. Lady thinks that the powers are draconian, I will certainly give way.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I merely want to ask the hon. Gentleman if his words now are compatible with what he said at our last sitting on Thursday afternoon. Responding to me, he said:

''Such an order can only come about when there has been a proven problem in an area of antisocial behaviour, when authorisation has been given and there has been consultation. All those processes must be gone through.''—[Official Report, Standing Committee G, 8 May 2003; c. 152.]

Is that compatible with changing ''and'' to ''or''?

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

The conditions in subsection (1)(a) and (b) amount to a proven problem. My point at our last sitting and now is that an awful lot of conditions have to be fulfilled. That is my concern; that is why I read out the list of conditions that must be fulfilled, which must be seen in the light of the powers that are given to the police. We are talking not about powers of arrest or powers to enter someone's house but about giving the police powers to disperse groups of people—I thought that they had such a power anyway—and

telling those individuals not to return to the area. It is not such a draconian power that it needs so many conditions.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) made a good point about the general problem of hedging the powers about with conditions: the more conditions surrounding the powers, the less likely they are to be used. That has been seen to be the case with similar provisions: the police simply look at them and say, ''We have to prove X, Y and Z and then we have to prove A, B and C, too.''

I want the powers to be used. My concern is simply that the Bill creates orders and powers that will not be used in practice because there are too many conditions attached to them and the lawyers have got at the Bill too much. I wonder whether it will make such a big difference to the problem of antisocial behaviour because if it is hedged about with too many conditions, its provisions simply will not be used enough.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is fair to say that the Conservatives are trying not to lower the threshold, but to remove it in its entirety and give constables the power to act everywhere. I disagree with the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that we want senior officers to take a subjective view of whether there is a problem in a particular area. We want senior officers to take a strategic view of where and what that problem is and the resources that are needed to use the powers to effect change in an area where there has been a problem for a long time.

The Bill is not the only measure through which we give directive powers to officers to act in a particular area. We do so in other circumstances where there is deemed to be a problem, for example, to deal with people who are consuming alcohol in public places, we give powers of direction in an area where the problem is deemed to exist or persist. That has been very successful. The whole of Coventry city centre has been designated a non-drinking area for some time. The police have been given appropriate powers and there has been a behavioural change. We envisage the powers in the clause being used in exactly the same way.

There is no need to go all over the arguments again. We will not set the threshold at a level that is over-bureaucratic and requires extensive examination and proof of the persistence of the problem. We will lay out in a code of practice advice on when the powers should be brought into use. That use will be based on evidence of a persistent problem such as complaints about antisocial behaviour and calls to the police. It will be open to people who feel that that applies in their neighbourhood to make a case for the use of the powers.

Care will need to be taken in drawing up the designated areas. We can leave that to the police, as they will know where there might be difficulties if they draw the area wrongly. If a problem persisted in the vicinity of two public houses and the police drew one inside the area and one outside it, the effect would be

simply to move people across the road, as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said. However, if the police officer takes the designation of an area seriously, decides to allocate some resources and bear down on the problem consistently and therefore gets the area right, we might see a significant change in behaviour in that area. We would then want the police commander to move on and to consider whether it is appropriate to use the powers in another part of his jurisdiction.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling 9:30, 13 Mai 2003

If the Bill is passed in its current form and the threshold for designated areas stays where it is, what will happen if it proves that the threshold is set too high? Will it be easy to change the threshold by regulation or would that require primary legislation? Is there any flexibility?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I think that to change the threshold we would have to use primary legislation, and we do not rule that out. We are moving into a difficult area of law—no one in the Committee thought that this issue would be easy to legislate for. We are trying to change basic behaviour that has built up over a period of time. We are also trying to engage all the partner agencies—not only the police force—in effective change in the area of antisocial behaviour.

As I have indicated with regard to other clauses, we will have to consider what has worked and provide powers in other areas to achieve the change that we want. The alternative is to accept, as an Opposition Member said in an earlier debate, that in the modern world it is not possible to effect such a change in behaviour.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. Unpleasant though it may be, Mr. Ainsworth, I wish that you would look at me; that will allow the Hansard reporters to hear what you are saying.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will, of course, comply with your request, Mr. Cran. I did not know whether you could bear it at this time in the morning.

Photo of Liz Blackman Liz Blackman Llafur, Erewash

The Minister mentioned a code of practice. Does he intend to publish that code of practice sooner rather than later, so that members of the Committee can get an idea of the threshold of bureaucracy or non-bureaucracy to which the police are expected to conform?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I hope to be able to satisfy my hon. Friend that there will be no bureaucratic hurdle at all. The police will have to satisfy themselves that there has been a problem over a period of time—that people have been intimidated and harassed by groups of people gathering. However, the police will not have to go through a lengthy consultation process: they will have to consult the local authority and only the local authority. We do not intend to set time limits on that consultation or hedge it about with difficulties.

I believe that the requirement to consult the local authority and to take account of its views will be useful. For example, the local authority might be able to advise that the locality concerned should be slightly different from that first considered by the police

commander to incorporate the area that experienced difficulties.

There will be a requirement to give notification but not to conduct a wider public consultation. I believe that that will be helpful in using the powers provided. If the people affected are informed that the police intend to act strategically, they will be aware of what is supposed to be going on in their area and will be able to feed into the police operation. We want to avoid bureaucratic hurdles or unnecessary delays in a particular area.

I am glad to hear that the Liberal Democrat amendment is a probing one. However, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), when speaking to the amendment, blew a slight hole in the case for its being probing when he described the powers under discussion as draconian. The powers are not draconian. We are talking about a uniformed constable having reasonable grounds for believing that the presence of a group of young people has resulted in a problem or is likely to result in a problem. The powers enable that constable to move those people on or to disperse them and to tell them how they should disperse. If there is a history of a particular problem in an area, it is incorrect to suggest that such powers are draconian.

I am not dead sure what the addition of ''particularly'' would add to the clause. It could give the impression that we sought to raise a hurdle and to make it more difficult to use the powers, and I would be opposed to that. As I said, the code of conduct will give the police the ability to use the powers in a designated area without having to go through any bureaucratic process beforehand.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It bears repeating that the Government, through this part of the Bill, are trying to turn the clock back to the days—the good old days, as some would have it—when a police officer could go along and say, ''Oi, oi, oi, what is going on here? Move along, please. Let's have no more of this.'' Those days have gone, and there is no point analysing what has changed and why the respect that enabled a police officer to do that has changed. However, that is what the public want. They want to believe that, if there is a problem, a police officer can simply turn up and tell a group of people there and then, ''Pack it up. Go home or go somewhere else.'' That is why I tabled the amendments, and why I maintain the view that to hedge the issue with all sorts of criteria is unconstructive and unhelpful.

The Minister referred to allowing the superintendent to allocate resources to the problem, which underlines a mismatch. Policing is being directed ever increasingly from the centre, as we saw in the Police Reform Act 2002. Of course, the superintendent should have the power to dispose of his resources as he thinks appropriate but if there were enough resources, there would be no question of saying, ''We have a problem here. Let's channel our resources to it.'' The police would be out and about in communities and neighbourhoods using such a power as part and parcel of their daily duties, rather than it

being part of a set campaign to deal with a particular problem. That is part of the problem that led to this part, and perhaps even to the genesis of the Bill.

I am sure that the Minister is partly right that the actions would be successful in the relevant locality but the problem could simply move to a non-relevant locality, and we would have to start all over again. I suggest that there is a distinction between this and the alcohol-free zone in Coventry city centre, which he described. Inevitably, drinking alcohol in public places tends to be linked with a location where alcohol is available. I know that that is not an absolute science but alcohol tends to be drunk where one can get it, whereas antisocial behaviour—causing problems to law-abiding members of the public—can happen in all manner of places. It can be connected to alcohol in that sort of location but it can also be connected to street corners and the vicinity of youth clubs and pubs. It can also be connected to the vicinities of blocks of flats.

We all know that some of the lesser architectural gems of the 1950s and 1960s can become the focus for antisocial behaviour. The problem will simply be shifted from one relevant locality to another. I believe that the police want the flexibility that I have been advocating, which is to deal with the problem as and when it arises.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

I see what the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at by deleting subsection (1)(b) but if it is deleted, we are almost turning the clock back—he mentioned turning the clock back earlier—to the sus laws, which caused so much resentment in many inner-city areas. If I have a problem with the amendment, that is it. Will he say how deleting subsection (1)(b) is not a return to the sus laws?

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I strongly contend that the amendment is not a return to the sus laws in that we would still have subsection (1)(a), which states

''that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed as a result of the presence or behaviour of groups of two or more persons in public places''.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) said, that is a pretty stringent test. That would remain, and the police officer would still account for his belief that distress was being caused before he used the powers. The problem with the sus laws was that there were no grounds other than the police officer's belief that there might be a reason for intervening to stop groups or individuals whom he suspected of doing something.

As the hon. Member for Ludlow rightly said, his amendment would have completely the opposite effect from mine. As I said about his speech on another group of amendments, his comments deserve a much wider audience. The clause flies in the face of what ordinary people want, which is to see these problems resolved. I, for one, believe that that is what the Government, and certainly the Minister, want to achieve. We may disagree about how far they are going but that is the objective behind the clause. To constrain the clause even more would have the opposite effect not only to what the Government

want but to what the public expect of their police. I cannot support that.

We learned the arithmetic of the Committee, if we did not know it before, and there is no point in pursuing Divisions for the sake of it. I am not persuaded by the Minister's arguments. I believe that seeking much greater flexibility in the use of the powers is justified but we shall move on. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 199, in

clause 29, page 23, line 37, at end insert—

'(c) That the reaction of the members of the public to such presence or behaviour is reasonable'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 200, in

clause 29, page 23, line 41, after 'uniform', insert '(a)'.

Amendment No. 201, in

clause 29, page 23, line 44, at end insert—

'(b) believes that the reaction of the members of the public to such presence or behaviour is reasonable'.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Mr. Cran, you will be pleased to hear that this is a very different group of amendments. They do not relate to flexibility; we have now finished speaking to the groups of amendments that do. This group of amendments returns us to some of the issues debated in relation to the first group of amendments to the clause. I believe that you were in the Chair for that debate, and you advised me not to move too far towards speaking to this group of amendments in the remarks that I made then. I am now, however, free to do so.

The amendment would add an element of objectivity to the interpretation of what intimidation, harassment, alarm and distress may be. The opening sentence of subsection (1) states:

''This section applies where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a) that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed''.

That is a clear line of argument but it provides no objectivity as to whether the reaction of that member of the public who is alarmed or distressed is reasonable. I made the point that we all know that some people are more sensitive than others. Some people may react to minor incidents more readily than others would react to them. There needs to be some constraint in the use of the powers in order to prevent someone's abnormal reaction from precipitating police action. Under the Bill, if someone shows alarm or distress, the police can be in no doubt that they have reasonable grounds to act, regardless of whether that alarm or distress has any foundation in normal human behaviour—to put it at its most extreme. When I spoke to another group of amendments, I mentioned the way in which some people may react wrongly simply to the presence of people from a different race in the vicinity of their property. The elderly may react that way.

The amendments would allow officers to say that they appreciate that people are alarmed or distressed but that the alarm or distress is unreasonable. I do not like putting such an onus on police officers, and before I tabled the amendments I gave a lot of thought to how else we could create objectivity. However, there needs to be something, because the Bill as presently drafted seems to say that as long as police officers believe that Mr. or Mrs. Brown is alarmed or distressed, they have to act, regardless of whether Mr. or Mrs. Brown's reaction is reasonable.

As always, the Opposition do not have the same facilities as the Government, and I will not pretend that the amendment is necessarily drafted properly. There may be a better way of doing it, but the issue needs to be addressed. The grounds of reasonableness in the first line of the clause should also be applied to consideration of the behaviour, alarm, distress, harassment or intimidation, so that we ensure that the police are not forced by the legislation to use these powers in a situation that none of us expect or anticipate that they should be used.

I hope that I have made my position clear. I want the police to have flexibility, including the power not to take action because someone's alarm is unreasonable.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes 9:45, 13 Mai 2003

As I read it, the clause provides no compulsion on the police officers to disperse a group of people. In the scenario that the hon. Gentleman described, in which elderly people feel intimidated by a group of people of a different ethnic origin, the police would not have to disperse that group. The provision in amendment No. 199 is not needed in the Bill because there is no compulsion on the officers.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The hon. Lady may be technically right.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Minister laughs, but I was about to say something nice about him. I might be forced to think again.

As I said, I will not pretend that necessarily I have got the phraseology right, but I am trying to address an issue. Although the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) may be right that the Bill does not force an officer to take action, the phrasing of subsection (1) suggests that he should. I am not pretending that a member of the public will be familiar with what will become the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 or that they will quote section 29(1)(b) at an officer. Not many members of the public will be able to do that. Nevertheless, the legislation will give the impression that if someone is alarmed, distressed, harassed or intimidated, the police must disperse the people who are apparently causing that.

I am trying to achieve an element of objectivity by deciding whether the alarm or distress is reasonable. I am ready to listen to the Minister, who is well prepared and puts across persuasive arguments, despite his laughter at my earlier comments.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It is not me who is sensitive. I am so insensitive that I praise the Minister despite his laughter.

This group of amendments is designed to explore with the Minister whether we need to introduce some element of objectivity into clause 29 to ensure that the powers are not used when the reaction of the public is itself unreasonable.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

For the first time in this part of the Bill, we support the Conservatives. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman has done the Committee a service by tabling the amendments, because they highlight a potential problem with the Bill. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes says that the police would make the judgment anyway—they would decide whether the action was reasonable without that being explicit in the Bill. The problem is that we cannot assume that 100 per cent. of police officers act reasonably all the time. We hope that they do, but clearly there have been occasions in the past when that has not been the case.

Currently, if a measure is in place in a given area, a policeman who has acted fairly unreasonably could defend himself by saying that he had grounds because a member of the public felt intimated by the presence of a group of people. There is no test as to whether the policeman interpreted that his action was reasonable. It is a question only of his having reasonable grounds for believing that the member of the public felt intimidated.

The Conservatives have proposed an important safeguard that would ensure that the power was not abused. It would not prevent the power from being used. It would ensure that, when the power was used, the police officer could show that the intimidation or distress were reasonable grounds and that the action to move people on was not taken just because a couple of people of a different ethnic origin were standing outside someone's house and a member of the public complained. I hope that the Committee would regard that as unreasonable and unacceptable.

The proposal would provide a threshold—in fact, I will not use the word ''threshold'', because that would upset the Conservatives. The proposal would apply an objectivity test to the police constable. We will listen with much interest to what the Minister has to say, because the Government need to find a way of building that test into the Bill, whether or not the form of words in the amendment is exactly the right way to do that. As I said, there is a potential problem in the Bill, which I hope the Minister will find the means to address.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I rise to express general support for the amendments. Picking up on the themes that I have outlined before, I believe that people feeling alarm and distress could put pressure on the police to use the measure. The police need to be able to distance themselves from that. If young people gather and are perceived as alarming to others, there are better measures to deal with the problem, such as using the full works of the crime and disorder partnerships and local groups to consider diversionary tactics. Giving scope to go straight to the strongest possible measure

does not solve the problem, because it just moves it elsewhere. Under the amendment, there would be an opportunity to consider the full range of measures before making a final decision as to which one to choose. As we have said, that often may well need to be imposed, but at many other times people will want to use a proper problem-solving approach.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

For the benefit of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, I should point out that I was laughing at the insistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that she was right when he said that she might be. The hon. Gentleman should not be too sensitive about what I was laughing at; different things tickle different people.

I understand what hon. Members are saying and their concern that groups could be dispersed on the demand of members of the public who in fact do not feel intimidated, harassed or alarmed, but object to particular groups gathering in particular areas. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes that, as drafted, the legislation provides that, before issuing authorisation or giving a direction, the authorising officer and the officer giving the direction must reasonably believe that a member of the public has been or is likely to be intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed. It is discretionary for the police officer to do that. There is no difference in substance between us. We do not want police officers to use these powers if the alarm is unreasonable. I believe that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire had doubts about his amendment when the Liberal Democrat spokesman rode in behind him and said that he wanted to put a test on the police officer to ensure that the powers were used only in appropriate circumstances.

I do not want the powers to be used in inappropriate circumstances, but I do not want to raise the threshold and put a barrier on police officers by making them go through an artificial thought process that deters them from doing what they should do and what their common sense dictates. The Bill as drafted does what we all want it to do. I shall reflect on the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but we can rely on the good sense of police officers to use the powers appropriately. They have the discretion to do so, and I do not believe that the amendment will qualitatively enhance that decision-making process.

I am worried that raising the threshold, with which the Liberal Democrats appear to be content, could deter the police from using the powers. I know that that is not what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve, but I am not sure that amending the wording is necessary. I ask him to give the matter further thought and to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

It must be clear to the Committee from my previous remarks that I do not want to introduce thresholds or constraints to prevent the powers from being used. I am not wedded to the phraseology or even the methodology that I have proposed. The Minister referred to the senior police officer. It is clear that we are talking about a situation after an area has been designated as a relevant locality.

Within a relevant locality, if a group of three or four people, maybe of one particular ethnic origin, are gathered together, an elderly lady might feel distressed or alarmed by their presence—without any justification, most of us would say, but for reasons of upbringing or whatever. I am trying to ensure that in such a situation—it may not be only to do with ethnic minorities; it could be for many other reasons but it is an example—the police do not feel obliged to intervene because of the phraseology of subsection (1). It states that

''where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing—

(a) that any members of the public have been intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed''.

It may be perfectly clear to the officer that the elderly lady is alarmed. The issue is whether it is reasonable that she is alarmed. That is different to having reasonable grounds for believing that she is alarmed.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

In an attempt to bridge a gap that may not exist, if we spelt it out in the guidance that the constable should not use the powers if the alarm is irrational or unreasonable, would that provide what the hon. Gentleman is seeking?

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That might achieve it. It is clear from my earlier remarks that I have no intention of pressing the amendment to a vote. I have raised a concern. The Minister said he would reflect on it. Issuing guidance may be the way to address the matter. I take his assurance that he will consider it, to ensure that what some people might call a vexatious case does not oblige the police to take action that most people would consider unreasonable in the circumstances. That is all I seek to achieve. I think that the Minister accepts and understands my argument. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I beg to move amendment No. 159, in

clause 29, page 23, line 40, leave out '6 months' and insert '3 months'.

This is a probing amendment. We want the Minister to justify the proposal of six months although we do not necessarily say that three months is any better; we merely want clarification. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say that the guidance will contain advice to senior officers about the appropriate length of time and the grounds for setting it. Anything up to six months as stated in the proposal would be appropriate. The amendment was tabled to tease out the Government's thinking on the matter.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 10:00, 13 Mai 2003

We want the police to be able to use the power as part of a strategy for dealing with antisocial behaviour in an area. They will need to use the power strategically. They will need time to be able to show that a strategy has borne fruit and brought about the change that is needed. We do not want the police to have the power indefinitely. Equally, we do not want them to have to keep renewing it under unreasonable time limits. Six months is a reasonable time for the use of the power in a particular area to

effect a behavioural change. Three months is too restrictive to be able to assess whether the change has been achieved.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Will the guidance issued to senior officers state what might be the appropriate time limit?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Why does the hon. Gentleman think that an appropriate time needs to be spelt out in the guidance? The provision allows the powers to be used for up to six months, which is not an unreasonably lengthy time. I cannot see what the hon. Gentleman is getting at if he wants it spelt out in the guidance that particular times should be used in particular locations. I do not understand what he is trying to achieve. The six-month limit requiring the police to have achieved what they want to achieve or else to have to renew the powers is not over-bureaucratic. Renewal strikes the right balance between having to re-register an area unnecessarily frequently and leaving the powers in place for an unnecessarily long time. Six months strikes the right balance.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I have done the arithmetic and there is no point in dividing the Committee. I beg to ask to leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I beg to move amendment No. 163, in

clause 29, page 24, line 3, leave out

'and in such way as he may specify'.

This is another probing amendment, which is designed to check what the Government intend. I believe that

''and in such way as he may specify''

means that officers can say, for example, ''You will leave by a certain route. You will not walk through the shopping centre on your way out of here.'' The problem is that the clause states ''in such way'' rather than ''by such a route'' or something similar. I do not suggest that the constable would use it in this way but the problem with the clause as drafted is that he could say, ''You've got to crawl home.'' I am checking that the wording is as tight as the Government would like it to be. I know what they are trying to say and there is a lot of sympathy for their view but I am checking that they are satisfied with the drafting.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

All the amendments are probing this morning. Someone, somewhere—perhaps in the Liberal Democrats' office—has imposed a new regime.

Amendment No. 163 would remove the possibility of a constable or a community support officer specifying the way in which a group may disperse but that is useful for a constable or a community support officer as it gives them the ability to ensure that groups use a certain route and do not go past a problem area when dispersing as they have been directed to do. Depending on local circumstances, there may be a preferable route. For example, the police may wish to ensure that a group is kept away from people's homes, which may prevent further intimidation, while the group complies with the order that has been given. The intention is not to impose ridiculous situations, or to allow the police to impose

ridiculous situations of the sort mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

With the Minister's assurance that the provision is purely intended to allow the police to specify the route that a group should take, and since that has now been clearly recorded, I am happy to—

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

The restriction may not simply be on the route. In some circumstances, a police constable may believe that it is appropriate to try to break up the group there and then to prevent a group of a particular size from staying together. The constable may therefore direct half the group to go one way and half to go another—whatever is reasonable in the circumstances that confront him or her at the time.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I thank the Minister for his remark. The matter still essentially concerns the routes that people might take. With the clarification that the Minister has given, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I beg to move amendment No. 209, in

clause 29, page 24, line 13, at end insert—

'(4A) a constable giving a notice under subsection (4), to a person under the age of 16, must take all reasonable steps to notify that person's parents'.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 165, in

clause 29, page 24, line 24, leave out subsection (6).

Amendment No. 166, in

clause 29, page 24, line 27, leave out '16' and insert '14'.

Amendment No. 210, in

clause 29, page 24, line 32, at end insert—

'(6A) a constable removing a person under subsection (6) must take all reasonable steps to notify that person's parents'.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

The amendments are designed to deal with a number of issues concerning people under the age of 16. I shall deal in turn with the different aspects.

Amendment No. 209 would require that, if a constable has directed someone under 16 to leave a given area and not to return to it for 24 hours, he must take all reasonable steps to notify that person's parents. If the child returned to the area 12 hours later and a fine were imposed, it would almost certainly be the parents who ended up paying it. If a child of 13 or 14 is directed away from an area by a policeman, they will be unlikely to go home and tell their parents that that has happened. The amendment could be more effective. There may be arguments over the phrase ''all reasonable steps'' but I hope that the Government will examine the issue.

The Government may say that they intend to use subsection (6) to deal with people under 16 but that may not be appropriate in all circumstances. If a fairly large group of 13, 14 and 15-year-olds was being dispersed, it may be more appropriate to give them an

order, which would be in place for 24 hours, than to take them all home individually as required by subsection (6).

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

Is the hon. Gentleman's thinking that the parents should be notified immediately or that they should be written to? If there were a requirement to notify them immediately, that might impose a great bureaucratic burden on the police, and it would also be impossible to do for a large group.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I share some of those concerns. However, I am also concerned that if a 14 or 15-year-old is sent home, returns 12 hours later and ends up having a fine imposed on them, it is the parents who will pick up that tab. The parents may not even know anything about—

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Perhaps we should think back to when we were 14 or 15. If a policeman had told us to go home and not to return somewhere within 24 hours, would we have rushed home and told our parents, ''Oh well, we've been told by this policeman that we mustn't go back to the shopping mall for 24 hours''? I suspect not. I suspect that we would all have remained shtoom with the parents. The young person may not know the law very well and if they return within 24 hours the parents will pick up the penalty. A court is hardly likely to imprison someone under the age of 16 for up to three months, which is the other penalty, so it would almost certainly impose a fine. I want to hear how the Minister will deal with the issue. The Bill does not specify what ''all reasonable steps'' are and guidance might be appropriate.

If amendment No. 165 were accepted, amendments No. 166 and 210 would be unnecessary. They represent two ways of dealing with the same problem. Amendment No. 165 would omit subsection (6), which imposes a curfew. The grounds for a constable taking people under 16 back to their houses are not necessarily that they are doing something wrong or behaving antisocially. The sole test is that the constable believes that they are

''under the age of 16, and . . . not under the effective control of a parent or a responsible person aged 18 or over''.

At the moment, the police may accompany young children home if they believe them to be in danger and we are not against that. However, we are concerned that there is no test of antisocial behaviour in subsection (6). It applies after 9 o'clock at night if someone is under the age of 16 and not with a parent. The Minister will say that the intention is to use the provision only when there is antisocial behaviour and that the constable will make that judgment but nothing in the Bill provides a test beyond the fact that someone is under 16 and not with an adult. Our purpose in suggesting that subsection (6) be omitted is to test the Government's thinking. Do they intend it to be used only on those grounds, or does an antisocial-behaviour or child-at-risk test apply? It seems to do more than the Government intend to deal with antisocial behaviour.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but does he believe that someone under the age of 16 who is not under the

effective control of a parent or a responsible person aged 18 or over should be out in public between 9 pm and 6 am?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

One of our other amendments suggests that the age should be 14. At the age of 15 and even 14, I was probably playing football on public land after 9 o'clock on summer evenings and that should not be covered by the Bill. The problem could be dealt with in other ways. The 9 o'clock threshold could be raised or the age threshold could be lowered, which is what amendment No. 166 would do. Under the provision, a 15-year-old who is two days short of their 16th birthday could be sent home. They would be two days short of being considered old enough to be married but a police officer could march them back to their parents because it is after 9 o'clock at night.

Amendment No. 166 would reduce the age to 14. Most of us would be concerned if someone under the age of 14 were out after 9 o'clock, not least because of the danger to that child. Someone aged 15 and three quarters is not in the same category as someone aged 13 and three quarters. Amendment No. 166 is another way of looking at this matter and seeing whether the Government are certain about where they intend the power to be used.

Amendment No. 210 is in line with Amendment No. 209. It would ensure that all reasonable steps were taken to notify that person's parents. Again, it is reasonable. It does not say that the police officer must do so, because the parents might not be there. If he took the child home, he would want the child to stay there. If he walks down the street and the child goes out of the house and runs off in the opposite direction, there is nothing he could do short of catching him and taking him home again. If the police officer had to take reasonable steps to notify the parent it might be a way to ensure that the child did not run straight out of the house again and back on to the streets. I hope that the Minister realises that although the amendments may not be worded correctly—as has been said before, we do not have the benefit of the parliamentary draftsmen—they are designed to look at some of the potential problems with people of 16 and under.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling 10:15, 13 Mai 2003

I must warn my hon. Friend the Minister that if he asks us to support these amendments I will rebel for the first time. Whether they are probing or not, I hope that he will resist them. The hon. Member for Ludlow asked how the clause would work. Subsection (1) states:

''This section applies where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing''

and then sets out the context for the powers that are listed in the rest of the clause. Amendment No. 165 is damaging to the thrust of this part of the Bill. Part of the problem with antisocial behaviour is that in a small number of cases parents abrogate their responsibility. The whole point of subsection (6) is to take account of the question that my constituents and possibly the hon. Gentleman's constituents regularly ask. They want to know why the police do not simply take the children home and embarrass the parents at the very least. Turning on the blue light, whizzing down the

street and telling them exactly what their son or daughter is doing can be very effective. Sometimes the parents do not know what is going on. We are talking about not kids who are simply wandering around but kids who are causing serious alarm, distress or intimidation to their community.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I would like to extend the hon. Gentleman's argument. I have a great deal of sympathy with it but one of the most important factors is bringing the parents into the equation. The hon. Gentleman is probably involved in youth work, as I am. When one takes 14-year-olds who have been drinking back home, there is often nobody there. Something is needed in this clause to bring the parents into the equation.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point but her party's amendment deletes the provision that would enable the police constable to take the children home to involve the parents. What the hon. Lady seeks will be made more difficult if the amendment is accepted by the Committee.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I think that I made it clear that amendment No. 165 and amendments Nos. 166 and 210 are two ways of looking at some of the potential problems. The hon. Gentleman will know that tabling an amendment to remove a subsection is a way of prompting a debate on the problems that relate to it as a whole. He should not push it too much.

I remind the Committee of one point. Subsection (1), which

''applies where a relevant officer has reasonable grounds for believing''

that antisocial behaviour is taking place, is about the senior officer authorising the use of the powers in an area. Once that authorisation has been given, there is no test under subsection (6) that antisocial behaviour is taking place. A group of 15-year-olds playing football happily within a locality for which the power has been awarded could be taken home because it is five minutes past 9.

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. That intervention was slightly too long, given that the hon. Gentleman moved the amendment in the first place.

Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Llafur, Gedling

I want to finish by reiterating one point. One main thrust of the Bill, and one of the most important points to commend it, is the fact that the Government are trying to get the small number of parents who do not accept their responsibilities to accept them, using that as a strategy in tackling the antisocial behaviour that blights our communities. If the amendments were passed, they would seriously undermine the Bill's effect and the ability of the Government to do that.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree with the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), which he might find odd given that my name and the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) are attached to amendment No. 165. We added our names to it not because we wanted to delete subsection (6), but because we wanted to explore several issues relating to it.

I am afraid that the hon. Member for Ludlow is wrong. As the hon. Member for Gedling rightly said, clause 29 is predicated on antisocial behaviour, and subsection (6) comes into play only in that context. However, the Minister must explain some points. The proposition has come up at a pretty late stage in the Government's thought processes on antisocial behaviour. It follows what even the Government must accept as the abject failure of child curfew orders, which have not worked as intended. The Government should think carefully about the detail of what is being proposed.

As the hon. Member for Gedling said, the principle is right. If a police officer finds a group of young people, including some who are under 16, causing the problems described, he should be able to take or to send them home. There is no problem with that. There are questions about the hours. Is 9 o'clock a reasonable time? People might argue that it is a bit early, particularly at the weekend or during the summer and school holidays, and the Government need to justify why they have chosen that time.

I am not sure what subsection (6)(b) means in referring to a situation in which a young person

''is not under the effective control of a parent or a responsible person aged 18 or over''.

The part about ''a parent'' is clear but if someone under 16 is with someone over 18 whom he says is a friend, does that classify as the person being

''under the effective control of . . . a responsible person aged 18 or over''?

It is not clear, and the Government need to explain that. Furthermore, what happens if the young people are under the effective control of a parent or responsible adult but still causing antisocial behaviour? The clause is blind about that, and it seems that the police officer could move them on only as part of the larger group. That needs to be addressed.

In the final part of subsection (6), the police officer is absolved from taking the young person home if he has reasonable grounds for believing that that person, if removed to that place, would be likely to suffer significant harm. I venture to suggest that it may not become clear that that is the case until the police officer gets the young person home. It is likely that he will not know anything about the child's home, but when he gets them home, he may decide that he is unsure whether he wants to leave them there. There is therefore a great vacuum in the subsection.

My purpose in tabling the amendment was to try to explore the Government's thinking behind subsection (6), which is short but significant. We know that the Government do not usually make or accept dramatic amendments, but deliberations in Committee and on Report will be considered when the Bill goes to another place and is examined in detail. It is therefore useful to use the opportunity to try to get the Minister to explain much more of the thought processes behind parts of the subsection, because it is pretty dramatic. As I said, it follows the failure of the

child curfew orders. Their objective was noble but they did not work in practice.

I am unconvinced that the Government have fully thought through the implications of subsection (6), and I hope that the Minister will use the opportunity to let us know much more about the thought processes behind it. Members of this House and another place will then have the opportunity to consider what the Minister says and to decide whether changes need to be made. Significant issues remain to be addressed, such as the time scale, age, parental responsibility or the responsibility of the person in control, the meaning of significant harm, and what happens when a young person is taken home and there is an obvious problem, such as the father being roaring drunk and about to beat the young man up. I hope that the Minister will explain more fully to the Committee how the clause will work.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

I particularly wanted to speak to the Liberal Democrat amendment, which would reduce the age from 16 to 14. The amendment is incredible, as it would leave groups of marauding 15-year-olds, who can cause a lot of trouble, on the streets with the police having no effective powers to take the little darlings home and to let their parents know what the hell they have been up to. It is ludicrous to reduce that age limit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling says, subsection (6) goes to the heart of the problem of antisocial behaviour and poor parenting in many of our communities. Like him, I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that I hope he resists the deletion of subsection (6) and the reduction of the age limit from 16 to 14.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

I was relieved to hear my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire explain the reasons for tabling our amendment. I could feel my own rebellion rising. The hon. Member for Gedling put it very succinctly: subsection (6) goes to the heart of what the vast majority of our constituents want. I thought that deleting the subsection would be rather stupid—the best word that I can come up with for it. I should have known better, however, as my hon. Friend admirably explained the reason for it. We must examine some of the finer points of subsection (6), particularly in relation to ''a responsible person''.

From time to time, I have great pleasure in serving on Committees that consider Bills such as this, and normally they say somewhere, ''A responsible person is'' and explain that term. The other day, I served on a Committee that considered an interesting statutory instrument about Northern Ireland. That was fascinating work, which I am pleased to—

Photo of Mr James Cran Mr James Cran Ceidwadwyr, Beverley and Holderness

Order. I hope that we are not going to canter over that.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

No, Mr. Cran, except to say that that Committee provided a good exposition of a responsible person in relation to going to a police station. I wonder whether the same definition applies in this case. I could not see it in the Bill, but I just know that the Minister is waiting to tell me the answer to my question. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that I am relieved to

hear that there was a good reason for adding his name to amendment No. 165, but we should keep an eye on these things.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South 10:30, 13 Mai 2003

I have two brief suggestions. Subsection (6)(b) refers to ''effective control'' and ''a responsible person''. The link is there. The responsible person is defined in terms of whether they can deliver effective control.

Like my hon. Friends, I resist the Liberal Democrats' suggestion of reducing the age threshold from 16 to 14. My local Cleveland police force works to the 9 pm time scale. I have been out with the community police, and the activities of youngsters between 4.30 and 9 o'clock are their prime concern. That could well be a good suggestion for my hon. Friend the Minister.

My local police already take home youngsters whom they believe may have put themselves in a vulnerable or dangerous position. I have been there when the police take youngsters home, which is a very unpleasant experience. I say that as the parent of a 22-year-old who was a bit of a rip at 16, and as I said the other day, I was not always an angel myself. I saw a child taken home to his parent and the parent's visible distress. A very gentle question was then asked, ''Are you are in effective control?'' The reply was, ''Yes, I love and protect my child.'' The next question was how on earth that child was able to buy as much drink as he had obviously consumed that night. The answer was, ''Well, we always give him £25 pocket money.'' We can see the police delivering and developing an effective relationship with that parent. This is a very difficult issue for us to get our heads round, but the clause provides enough power and scope for the police to deliver on that responsibility.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I do not dissent from what the hon. Lady has said, although I want to challenge her on one issue. She says that the answer to my concern is that it is covered by the reference to

''the effective control of a parent''.

Let us suppose that a young person is out on the streets in a group, so the clause applies. A police officer goes along and finds that the young person's father is in the group. That is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The young person could be 14 and the father only 28 or 29—that is the reality of life in some parts of the country. The father is there, yet the group is misbehaving, so the young person is clearly not in the effective control of his father because his father is also part of the problem. According to the legislation, however, the police officer then has to take the chap home. That is part of what I am exploring with the Minister. As drafted, the legislation will not achieve everything that it should achieve.

Photo of Dari Taylor Dari Taylor Llafur, Stockton South

That was a valuable intervention, but the clause also refers to removing the person to a place where the hope is that the significant harm that they might have faced will be reduced. We all want absolutes in Bills, and rightly so: we all face a serious problem. Many innocent youngsters are persuaded to get involved in an awful lot of antisocial behaviour that they would not necessarily

be involved in otherwise. I hear all the concerns, but we will never find all the answers. The clause allows us to take a very reasonable stab at developing relationships that have a chance of reducing antisocial behaviour.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

Given the questions that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire raised, I suspect that there has been a policy U-turn on the Conservative Benches. He did not attach his name to the amendments, and if he was concerned about 9 o'clock, he could have tabled an amendment specifying half-past 9 or 10 o'clock. Given the threats of rebellion on both sides of the Committee, I just wonder whether we have seen some kind of U-turn on the Opposition Benches.

The amendments would do several things. First, they would remove the power to return home a young person who was unsupervised in a public place after 9 pm. Secondly, they would limit the power to people under 14. Finally, they would place additional obligations on the police when notifying parents.

The power to take children home will help the police to protect local communities from the alarm and distress that can be caused by children gathering. It will also protect children and young people from the risks posed by being unaccompanied late at night—not least the risk that they might become involved in antisocial or criminal behaviour. It would therefore be quite wrong not to allow the police to remove individuals from areas where antisocial behaviour already posed a significant and persistent problem.

I should tell the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that the power is discretionary: it allows the police to remove people but does not oblige them to do so, nor does it limit their power to disperse groups. In the circumstances the hon. Gentleman described in which a parent is involved, the police officer may think it inappropriate to take the child home. However, he would still be able to issue a direction to disperse the group, including the child and the parent. Therefore, I do not think that we are creating a problem.

The amendments would also reduce the age group covered from under-16s to under-14s. We recognise that 14 and 15-year-olds occasionally have legitimate reasons to be in an area unsupervised. The police will have discretion to return home only those about whom they are concerned and who do not have legitimate reasons to be there.

The hon. Member for Ludlow lives in a strange world. First, he suggested that police constables might direct people to remove themselves from an area on their hands and knees, and now he is suggesting that they will use the powers to go around breaking up football matches at five past 9 in the evening. We are talking about a designated area in which there is evidence that people have been intimidated by youths gathering and there has been a persistent problem. We must rely on officers to use their good sense and to exercise the powers appropriately. The dangers that the hon. Gentleman flags up are not very real and I cannot for the life of me envisage constables going around breaking up football matches.

Fourteen and 15-year-olds might be part of groups that engage in antisocial behaviour, so reducing the age to under 14 would hinder the ability of the police to protect local communities. Furthermore, it would fail to protect 14 and 15-year-olds, who are also vulnerable to the risks associated with being out unsupervised late at night.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

The idea that the amendment would somehow leave 14 and 15-year-olds out of the Bill raises an interesting thought. Does that mean that the Minister does not intend dispersal orders to apply to anyone under 16? Does he envisage two distinct provisions—dispersal orders for those aged 16 and above, and removal to their home for those aged under 16? If not, 14 and 15-year-olds would still be covered by the dispersal orders.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not see them in that way. As I have said, the dispersal order can apply to people of any age—to the father or to the child. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman can foresee the circumstances in which police officers would find the provisions useful. Rather than having to tell a young person to get out of a particular area in which it is believed that that person has been part of a problem, the officer will have the power to remove that person to their home. That will be an enormously useful addition if it is not hemmed in with bureaucratic requirements that will discourage a police officer from using it in the first place. I fear that some of the amendments would have that effect.

I can understand the intention behind amendments Nos. 209 and 210. We share hon. Members' view that parents should be held responsible for their children. Amendment No. 209 specifies that the constable making a direction to remove a person under the age of 16

''must take all reasonable steps to notify that person's parents''.

We believe that that would be unnecessarily time consuming and resource intensive—Conservative Members have said similar things. The amendment may require the police to seek the names and addresses of large numbers of individuals and might in some circumstances deter them from using the powers that we seek to give them. We do not want the police to feel that there is any deterrent. I understand what the hon. Member for Ludlow is saying about the parents of the young people out at night, but he should focus on the people who suffer from the problems in those areas.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Ceidwadwyr, Hertsmere

Having heard the case for the amendment, does the Minister now think—I take it from his comments that he does—that the amendment would probably deter police officers from using the power because they can see the additional burdens and responsibilities and the time that it would take to fulfil them?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

When I first saw the amendment and read it in conjunction with the speech that we all heard in the previous sitting, I thought that it was perhaps a wrecking amendment and that it was designed precisely to prevent the police from being given the powers that we are seeking to give them.

However, the hon. Member for Ludlow seems to have toned down some of his rhetoric from the other day.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I would like to pursue the wider matter of the parents being informed. To backtrack a bit, let us suppose that a 14-year-old child is taken back home but that the parents are not at home. It would be quite safe to leave a child of 14 in those circumstances. However, the parents would not be brought into the equation. They would have to be for any of the measures in the Bill to work. Can the Minister give us some more information? There is a missing ingredient in the provisions that we keep coming at from different angles.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I was just moving on to amendment No. 210, which requires a constable who takes a child home to take reasonable steps to notify the child's parents. In many cases, the child's parents will be at home when the police arrive. In other cases, the child might not live with their parents. To place that requirement on the police in the Bill would be unnecessarily burdensome. The hon. Lady is right that we need to engage parents. However, she cannot consider the powers in the clause in isolation. There are other items in the Bill and other areas of policy that we must develop to engage parents better.

We talked earlier about parenting orders in cases of truancy or exclusion from school, or when youth offending teams have issued evidence of antisocial behaviour. There must, of course, be efforts to involve parents. However, in this case, we are talking about a constable seeking to disperse appropriately a gang of people that may include or exclusively comprise young people.

We should not put a burden on constables. Individual constables will in many circumstances not be able to perform the duties that the amendment would require. What exactly are we talking about? We are talking about the police having to gather the resources in order to disperse the young people, to take them home and to ensure that contact is made with their parents. That is not going to be possible operationally in many circumstances. The result will be that the power will not be used. We will not engage parents more under the amendment. The police will walk away from a circumstance that is time consuming and ineffective.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 10:45, 13 Mai 2003

I urge the Minister to say how he will achieve his aim. We may end up with something quite distinct and separate from the youth offending team's work, unless those matters are pulled together. I am convinced that there is a missing link that needs to be dealt with. I accept that it might be burdensome but that does not mean that we need not tie together this measure with some of the other measures. There could be stand-alone measures and missed opportunities to deal with the situation and to solve it, rather than putting a stop to it for a set period.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We are going to issue a code of practice in that regard. That will cover to what degree the police should seek to notify parents. If the police have removed young people to their home, they may want to notify the local authority in order to make

sure that other agencies are engaged. I do not want to make that an absolute requirement. I hope that the hon. Lady will see that, under the amendment, we may prevent effective policing of antisocial behaviour in the first place.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

Just before the Minister finishes on this matter, I wish to raise the point raised by the Conservative spokesman. If a constable takes somebody to a house but, when they get there, decides that he or she might suffer significant harm there, what happens?

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

There are just a couple of points I need to address, and that is one of them. The police will be able to make the significant harm assessment at any point. They may know the individual concerned and may be able to make it immediately. Their opinion may be formed when they arrive at a home and see the circumstances. At any point before or after they have removed the person to the home, the constable may apply the significant harm test.

I do not think that we need a definition of a responsible person. That is a judgment for the police officer at the time. If he believes that a young person is under the control of a responsible person over the age of 18, he will not remove that person. If he is dissatisfied in that regard, he has discretionary power. That is why there is not a list. It will be for the individual circumstance at the time. It is not a requirement; the constable can make a judgment at the time. If his judgment is that such a person is on the scene and has control, he will not remove the young person.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Ceidwadwyr, Uxbridge

What the Minister is saying is sensible. For clarification, I ask him whether ''responsible'' is used in the way that we use it in everyday speech, rather than in the legal sense in which it is used in Home Office legislation.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

We are not using ''responsible'' to mean that the person has a legal responsibility for the individual; the Bill refers to a responsible person over the age of 18 who has control of the young person's behaviour. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in that regard. I hope that I have clarified the position.

On the point about 9 o'clock, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire did not suggest a different time. It is a matter of judgment. Many problems exist at that time of night, and people are entitled to believe that people under a certain age are under some sort of parental guidance. I would be happy to hear arguments for another appropriate time, but 9 o'clock seemed to us to be the most appropriate when the Bill was drafted. There is no great science in this regard. The hon. Gentleman may tell us that he thinks half-past one is more appropriate but I think that 9 o'clock strikes the right balance. However, we are happy to listen to arguments to the contrary.

I hope that we have avoided a rebellion on the Labour Back Benches on this occasion and that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire has managed to avoid one on the Conservative Back Benches.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I am worried that there are some matters that the Minister has not addressed. He did not say what would happen to someone under the age of 16 who the police decide will suffer significant harm. Say the young person has been taken in the police car to his house and it is decided that he will suffer significant harm. What do the police do with him? There may be powers under other legislation, to which the Minister did not refer, although I wish he had. He may therefore wish to intervene.

The Minister did much to clarify how he sees the powers being used and that was reassuring. However, there are still some judgment calls to be made. Age is one and time is another. We are inclined to say that 16 is too old for this power and that 14 would be more appropriate. Although there is no specific amendment to this effect, in some circumstances, 9 pm may be too early but in the middle of winter, when it is pitch dark at 9 o'clock, that time is probably relevant. Specifying a particular time may not be the right approach. Perhaps there should be something about how dark it is.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

May I try to clarify the matter about which the hon. Gentleman is so concerned? We are talking about a young person who is not necessarily involved in criminality. The police have no ability to arrest that young person. They have the power to make him disperse along with the rest of the group. However, because of his age, the police officer may choose to take him home and feel that he is at risk of significant harm. We would not want the police officer to be required to hand the young person over if the officer felt that the young person would be at risk of significant harm.

The young person could not be arrested. However, the police officer will have an obligation to report to social services, as they do now, whenever they come across young people in that situation. In such circumstances, the police officer would report the matter to the appropriate authorities to ensure that social services were correctly engaged. We want to avoid the necessity of leaving young people in circumstances where they would be at greater risk than they were on the streets.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I thank the Minister for his reply. We are not saying that young people should be left in such circumstances. Presumably, there will be some guidance about what a police officer should do in such a situation. A 15-year-old who has not committed a criminal offence cannot be arrested and put in the cells overnight. I presume that the police officer would take him away from the place where he would suffer significant harm, notify social services and bring people in to deal with the matter. It is the process by which that happens that I hope the Minister will be able to clarify in the guidance.

A policeman who takes a young person to an obviously violent household where the parents are blind drunk or under the influence of drugs is in a quandary. He may think the child would be in danger if he left him there and there is nothing in the proposal to say what that officer should do. The Minister may not want that to be stated in the Bill but the guidance

should clarify what a police officer should reasonably be expected to do in such circumstances.

Some of the other proposals involve judgment calls, although I can see that the Government are not going to give way on their judgment call. There is an area the Government need to address, perhaps through guidance: ensuring the involvement of parents. I understand why the Minister said that amendments Nos. 209 and 210 might stop the police using the powers altogether. Whatever he may think, we may want to raise thresholds and introduce higher tests before the powers are used. There is no intention to get rid of subsection (4). When the dispersal order or the power to take someone home is used, some attempt should be made to bring parents into the equation.

As the Minister says, on many occasions, the parents will be at home anyway and it will be fairly obvious that there is not a problem but there will be situations where the parents are not at home but at the pub—when at 9 o'clock at night the police take the kids home to an empty house. They might end up taking them back several nights on the trot.

Photo of Shona McIsaac Shona McIsaac Llafur, Cleethorpes

I am trying to save the hon. Gentleman from himself. Does he accept that powers already exist for the police to contact emergency social services to deal with the issue? They do not need to be included in the Bill: the powers already exist.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol, Ludlow

I think that the hon. Lady is looking at the matter from a different angle. There may be circumstances where it is nothing to do with social services and the child is not at risk. The child may happen to be out after 9 o'clock at night or on the streets and causing a problem but the parents may not be at home at that time. It is not necessarily something for social services to be involved in. If night after night the police are taking a young person home and the parents are not there, at some point the parents need to know. The young person is hardly going to volunteer to his parents, ''The police brought me home again tonight. They did me again tonight''. There will be circumstances where parents might not know, because they were not in when the police dealt with the situation.

I will not trouble the Committee with this group of amendments. We know the arithmetic and that the Government are determined to push the measure through. I hope that when the guidance comes out it addresses the issues that I have raised to try to help the Bill to work more effectively in the interests not only of the community but of the children. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman being of the opinion that the principle of the clause and any matters arising thereon had been adequately discussed in the course of the debate on the amendments proposed thereto, forthwith put the Question, pursuant to Standing Orders Nos. 68 and 89, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Question agreed to.

Clause 29 ordered to stand part of the Bill.