Labour'sremedy for noise plague

Nuisance neighbours: Plans to jail persistent offenders attract civil liberties anger
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Noisy or intimidating neighbours who fail to abide a special court order could face jail under Labour proposals unveiled yesterday. Civil liberties groups immediately attacked the idea as "Draconian".

Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, told a Westminster news conference that Labour wanted to "provide much-needed relief for the thousands of victims whose lives are being made hell in their own homes".

He said the proposals had been rewritten after extensive consultation over the past year, but he did not accept that they marked a shift "away from protection of someone who is accused of a crime and very much in favour of the accuser", as Simon Farrell, a barrister who often works for the civil rights group Liberty, had claimed.

Echoing Conservative language, Mr Straw said that a Labour government would "review" the implications carefully, "but at the moment the civil liberties of victims are being denied, and that can't go on".

Labour proposes local "nuisance squads", combining council officers and the police, totackle persistent noise, vandalism and racial harassment. If needed, senior police officers or local council chief executives would be able to ask the courts for a "community safety order", a form of injunction carrying criminal penalties of up to four years in jail, to restrain the offenders from continuing their behaviour.

The Government has been reluctant to legislate for such injunctions, which mix civil and criminal law. Whereas in criminal law an offender has to be proved guilty, courts can decide issues in civil law on the "balance of probabilities", which would make injunctions easier to obtain.

The Government has now accepted this argument in relation to injunctions against stalkers, under pressure from Janet Anderson, Labour's shadow minister for women.

But some lawyers are concerned that innocent people might find themselves the subject of malicious orders without notice.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, said: "It cannot be right to use severe criminal penalties of up to four years' imprisonment for cumulative behaviour, most of which has not been proved to a criminal standard."

Mr Straw responded by reminding journalists that Draco, the 7th-century Athenian legislator, prescribed the death penalty for almost every crime. "That is not Labour Party policy," he said.

Mr Straw's plans also include using private detectives to gather evidence in cases where people are too scared to be witnesses. A scheme of "professional witnesses" on a problem estate in Southwark, south London, had cut petty crime by 40 per cent in the past year, said Jeremy Fraser, the council leader, who joined Mr Straw yesterday.

Labour also wants a "fast-track" procedure to evict problem tenants, and promises to "explore" the possibility" of cutting to 16 the age at which nuisance injunctions can be brought.

David Curry, the housing minister, said the plans were "unnecessary and could be dangerous". He added: "Measures already exist to deal with problems in a far less bureaucratic and heavy-handed fashion than is proposed. Serious anti-social behaviour, such as threatening behaviour, assault and robbery, are already punishable under criminal law."

Mr Straw has dropped plans to punish parents of troublesome children aged under 10, but said he was "still interested" in a night curfew for that age group.