Anti-social Behaviour Action Plan Debate

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Department: Home Office
Wednesday 29th March 2023

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord German Portrait Lord German (LD)
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My Lords, we on these Benches agree with restorative justice, but we have to test this plan against what makes good restorative justice. We know that anti-social behaviour is distressing in communities, and that it leads to a loss of respect for communities. I have a sort of déjà vu, because we saw an experiment of this kind during the Blair Government and I think that this plan has missed some of the lessons learned from that. For a restorative justice system and scheme to be successful, we must recognise that it is complex, expensive and difficult, and it must meet the ambitions of a truly restorative justice programme, which has to include things such as catching the culprits, getting the community view, providing the equipment, providing appropriately qualified supervision and, crucially, incentivising success. It must act not just as a deterrent but as an opportunity.

I will examine some of those issues and question the Minister on them. Catching the culprits requires a shift in policing methodology. It means that we have proper community policing. This is at a time when the number of PCSOs has dramatically declined right across the country, and this is just the sort of job they should be doing. The Government have so far failed to meet their target of 20,000 more police officers, and effective community policing means putting officers on our streets who are both visible and trusted. Beyond that, it means providing the necessary equipment and supervision; think of items to remove graffiti, sacks for the separation of litter and appropriate disposal operations, painting equipment, et cetera.

An experience I saw first hand in the 2000s was the danger of getting larger groups of people to do the same sort of work. I well remember seeing a group of people with hi-vis jackets, doing all the things that are in this plan, painting some railings outside a community hall. There was a minibus full of them, with one person supervising at one end and another person, who was supposed to be painting, on his phone at the other end. It was unclear what support they were getting to ensure that they were doing the job. If you are going to bring the people who are making these acts together, you must make sure they are few enough to be managed well and by the right people.

We think that making nitrous oxide illegal just will not work, especially when it goes against the advice of the Government’s own drugs body. It will hand profit and control to serious criminals. There is a danger here of perhaps confusing the mess that people make when taking this gas with its usage. One of the obvious questions I have to ask the Minister is this: we all know about children, adults as well, and party balloons—the child holds the string, lets go and asks dad for another one, please. These balloons are used on a huge number of occasions all around the country, so we can imagine their purchase becoming a source of usage as well. Is this a case of a perverse incentive or is the Minister going to tell us that children’s balloons will be banned?

I will spend a short moment looking at the costs of a proper restorative justice system and at the way these figures are laid out in the action plan. To look at the extra that is being done—the change from yesterday to today, if you like—we have to look at the sections in the plan headed

“How we will go further”.

I looked at the amounts in the plan and the figures include £50 million on immediate justice measures. How many extra PCSOs, police and supervisors will that money provide? Is that £50 million part of the cost of providing the extra police that is already in the plan to reach the target of 20,000? Is this additional or part of an existing plan?

The £60 million for hotspot enforcement is obviously very welcome, but will it reach the whole country, given where these hotspots are at the moment? If one views the map given in the plan, one sees that it requires a huge effort to spread this right across the country. When will the best practice guides on how they will be operating be published?

Not a penny of extra support for rough sleeping is mentioned. This country dealt with this matter during Covid and had to spend quite a bit of money to make it work, but there is not a single penny of extra money mentioned in that area. Some £2.5 million is given to improve our high streets and £1 million to improve local activities across England and Wales. That is for the full rollout of measures in the next year or so, so the amounts of money given do not seem to fulfil the plan’s aspirations. Can the Minister explain how that money provides sufficient resource for a whole-country rollout, when so much of what is being done already applies to small, discrete areas dotted around the country?

I am drawn to the conclusion that this plan gives the impression of not having all the tools necessary to do the job properly. I am afraid that the Government have put the headline and the soundbite before the true benefits that a well-resourced restorative justice plan can provide.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Sharpe of Epsom) (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lords, Lord Ponsonby and Lord German, for their remarks. Since taking up office, the Prime Minister has been clear that the people’s priorities are his priorities. That is why, in delivering on his five promises, he is determined to build stronger communities and create a better future for people across the country.

For too long, anti-social behaviour has blighted our neighbourhoods, making people’s lives a misery and stopping businesses and individuals from flourishing. As the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, said, this is not just low-level or petty crime, or kids being kids; it is an attack on the very heart of our communities. It threatens people’s sense of safety and security and, as the noble Lord rightly observed, it is a source of anxiety to many members of the public. That is why we have launched this plan to crack down on anti-social behaviour: to restore people’s confidence that these crimes will be quickly and visibly punished. That means treating it with the urgency it deserves.

I will answer as many of the questions as I can. As ever, if I miss any, I will commit to write, having read Hansard properly. We are on track and on time in recruiting 20,000 additional police officers by March 2023. All the funding within this program is additional to that uplift. Assuming we are successful, that will take us to over 148,000 officers across England and Wales. That will be the highest number of officers on record.

Since 2019, the Government have invested over £3 billion, including additional funding each year, and that rolled into government grants to recruit and support the additional 20,000 officers. We are providing police and crime commissioners with £22 million next year, and £90 million in 2024-25, to support an enhanced response to areas most affected by anti-social behaviour and to roll out immediate justice pilots.

However, as the action plan sets out, local authorities and other local agencies will also have a key role to play. We expect local partners to work together to deliver a multiagency approach to tackling anti-social behaviour and delivering the proposals set out in the action plan. I feel I should remind noble Lords that operational policing is a matter for chief constables, and they set operational priorities in their local areas in association and consultation with the police and crime commissioners. Questions about local policing are obviously better directed to those people who are locally accountable.

This plan is backed by over £160 million of funding. Up to £60 million will fund increased police and other uniformed presence to clamp down on this behaviour, including targeting the hotspots, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord German. Although he did not ask me, I reassure him that this will not impinge on any of the spending that currently goes into the pilot areas for things such as violence reduction units and GRIPs. This method of policing has been proven to work in other areas, and we expect success from the hotspot areas that we will pilot. The intention is for it to go to 10 police force areas.

I move on to the subject of immediate justice. We are planning on investing £50 million to support the provision of immediate justice by issuing out-of-court disposals with conditions to swiftly repair any damage. The aim will be for them to start within 48 hours of the offence. This will start in 10 initial trail-blazer police force areas and be rolled out nationally in 2024.

I heard what the noble Lord, Lord German, had to say on the subject of making this efficient. The Government are aware of all of his concerns. There is no denying that the delivery of this program will be complex, but it is definitely worth doing. It is aimed at diverting offenders away from the criminal justice system and will make them undertake practical, reparative activity to make good the loss or damage sustained by victims. It will be rolled out to all police force areas in 2024-25. The focus will be on reparative activity, but that may be undertaken alongside rehabilitative and restorative services that foster connection with the local community, and educational interventions. It will apply primarily to adults and young people in receipt of conditional cautions for ASB-related offences under the out-of-court disposal framework. I am quite sure that all noble Lords will agree that keeping people out of the criminal justice system as far as possible is a desirable outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord German, asked about banning nitrous oxide and pointed out that, in its recent report, the ACMD did not recommend that we criminalise this. That is true, but we take the broader context into account. There are health concerns with young people using nitrous oxide. As I said at the Dispatch Box a couple of weeks ago, it was an offence under the Psychoactive Substances Act to supply knowing that it would be used for these purposes. This gives the police the opportunity to confiscate or take possession of the drugs. I do not think that there is a particular intention to criminalise the lots of young people who use it. I reassure the noble Lord that his balloons will not be banned—there will be exceptions for legitimate users. We talked about some of those the other week, and they include medical, dental and apparently whipped cream producers—which amused me at the time but did not seem to amuse the House. Everybody should be reassured that this is the right thing to do. I note that the only other country to have criminalised this so far is Holland. The Dutch did so because they discovered that it was having a fairly significant impact on drug-driving. There are good reasons for doing what the Government have chosen to do, despite the advice—which I might add did not say that we should not do it—of the ACMD.

There was a good deal of discussion about youth services, and I will go into a little more detail on some of the things that we are doing. As part of the national youth guarantee, we will invest over £500 million to provide high-quality local youth services so that, by 2025, every young person will have access to regular clubs and activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer. That directly reflects young people’s priorities, and includes up to 300 new and refurbished youth spaces delivered through the Youth Investment Fund. We are also giving councils the resources they need to deliver important local services, with an additional £3.7 billion, which will not be ring-fenced, made available for things such as youth services. I could say more on this subject, and I am sure that I will be asked more on it.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord German, asked me about the fact that he could not find any funding dedicated to rough sleeping and high streets. As I said in my opening remarks, this is a multiagency approach and there are many ways to tackle these problems. The high street in particular, and things such as the empty dwellings Act and the tenant Act, do not really require vast amounts of investment; they just require some new thinking, and that is what the Government are doing.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Portrait Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede (Lab)
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Before the noble Lord sits down, I have a question. When he talked about out-of-court disposals, which we approve of in principle, he used three words: reparative, rehabilitative and restorative. Traditionally, those three things are managed by probation, YOTs, charities or NGOs. On the reparative activity in particular, which, from what the Minister said, is hoped to be done within 48 hours, who will manage that part of the process? It is different from what that group of agencies does at the moment.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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The noble Lord asks a very good question. I note that none of those three words is easy to pronounce, particularly not at the Dispatch Box. As I said in my answer about the high streets and so on, it is a multiagency approach. A number of different agencies will be involved on a case-by-case basis. It depends on the circumstances of the case. It may be that there are opportunities for drug referrals or maybe other things. I cannot be more specific at this point, but I am sure I will be able to update him in due course on the more precise details.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
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My Lords, like other noble Lords I welcome the Statement, but does my noble friend recognise that there is a connection between absence from school and anti-social behaviour? The figures for the last 12 months indicate that 27% of secondary school children were persistently absent—the “ghost children” we have been reading about recently. As part of the multiagency plan that my noble friend referred to, will he be in touch with the DfE to ensure that more is done to promote school attendance and thereby reduce the risk of children coming into contact with the judicial system?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My noble friend raises a very good point. I have read some of the articles about the so-called ghost children with similar alarm and concern. I have spoken to the Department for Education about this; it has asked me to stress that it is worried about these stories as well. Without being an expert on this, I can say that there are three strands to its work. The Secretary of State regularly attends an attendance alliance. I am afraid that I cannot give much more detail about it because I do not know much more about it, but it is very good that the Secretary of State is taking this as seriously as I have been told. Local registers are being set up. They are voluntary. The intention is to collect data on the estimates from local authorities as to how many children are “ghost status”, if you will. We are also using certain specialists that exist in multi-academy trusts. Apparently they are very good at collecting some of this data on missing children and they are advising in areas where there seems to be a particular problem. If I can enhance that answer in any way over the coming days, I will certainly do so.

Lord Bishop of Derby Portrait The Lord Bishop of Derby
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My Lords, I declare my interest as vice-chair of the Children’s Society. I read the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan with real interest. Criminalising young people through tackling anti-social behaviour is counterproductive, not least given the pressures on the criminal justice system. I am therefore pleased to see a focus on preventive work with at-risk and vulnerable children with expanded funding for youth offending teams, for example. Can the Minister commit to look again at a definition of child criminal exploitation that recognises the abuse and manipulation of vulnerable children, which catches them up into what can become quite horrific spirals of crime? Such a definition would offer them greater protection.

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I take what the right reverend Prelate says very seriously. She raised very interesting points. She will appreciate that it is above my pay grade to commit to look at definitions and so on, but I will certainly take that back and make sure that discussions are advanced on the subject.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, I declare my position as a vice-president of the Local Government Association. Paragraph 71 of the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan refers to the youth investment fund, which it says is

“investing over £300 million in … new and refurbished facilities”.

Can the Minister confirm a report this afternoon from Civil Society that said that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has, given the “challenging financial climate”, just given £31 million of what was previously a £380 million capital fund for this programme back to the Treasury? This programme was announced as a £500 million plan in 2019 by the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid. Can the Minister confirm that this is indeed a cut in the provision for this capital programme? Further, can the Minister comment on the fact that local authority spending on youth clubs in 2020-21 was £379 million—a 74% real cut over the previous decade? How will the Government be able to deliver on this plan without youth clubs, which are an important way of involving young people and children in communities, giving them a place to go and a route towards the future?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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I can neither confirm nor deny the first part of the noble Baroness’s question because I have not seen the report, so I do not have detailed knowledge of the situation to which she refers. I go back to my answer in my initial remarks, which is that 1 million extra hours of youth services are planned under this programme. We will invest over £500 million to provide high-quality local youth services so that, by 2025, every young person will have access to regular clubs and activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer—the sort of life-enriching stuff that we would probably all take for granted. I hope they make the most of those opportunities.

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Portrait Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle (GP)
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My Lords, on a different subject, the Statement refers to cracking down on illegal drugs. This would seem to be entirely going against the advice of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which in December was recommending the extension nationwide of its very successful schemes piloted in Durham and Thames Valley where, instead of prosecuting users of hard drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy, users were offered access to addiction services. At that time, when the Government were talking about being harsher on drug users, the Association of Directors of Public Health wrote to the Government to protest at the plan to criminalise the vulnerable and double down on a failed model. Has the war on drugs not clearly failed over decades? Why are the Government not taking advice from experts and the police on the direction of travel on how to deal with what is clearly a huge blight on the lives of individuals and on communities?

Lord Sharpe of Epsom Portrait Lord Sharpe of Epsom (Con)
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My Lords, it sounds to me as if the noble Baroness is asking whether we should decriminalise or go in that direction. We have no plans to do so. Our approach on drugs remains clear. We must prevent drug use in our community, support people through treatment and recovery and tackle the supply of illegal drugs. There is a substantial body of scientific and medical evidence to show that controlled drugs are harmful and can damage people’s mental and physical health and our wider communities. The decriminalisation of drugs in the UK would not eliminate the crime committed by the illicit trade, nor would it address the harms associated with drug dependence or the misery it can cause. Of course we take the plight of addicts seriously, and I do not think anything in this anti-social behaviour plan will make life harder for them. The point is to go after the anti-social behaviour; it is about the behaviour, not their plight.