Michael Gove has defended the prime minister’s focus on banning the sale of laughing gas, saying the proposals will stop parks being turned into drug-taking arenas.
The ban is part of the UK government’s antisocial behaviour plans to be unveiled on Monday and will also include victims of crimes and communities being given a say over the type of penalties that offenders should face.
Asked if antisocial behaviour was the right priority for the government in the face of “terrible rates” of prosecution for rapes and violent crimes, the levelling up secretary replied: “I think you have to do both – you have to walk and chew gum.”
Gove accepted that ministers had been advised not to ban laughing gas, but said the government had taken a different view.
Outlining its plans to ban nitrous oxide, Gove told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I think any of us who have had the opportunity to walk through our parks in our major cities will have seen these little canisters, these silver canisters which are examples of people not only despoiling public spaces but also people taking a drug which can have a psychological and neurological effect and one that contributes to antisocial behaviour overall.”
On Rishi Sunak’s priorities, he said: “It is the case that there are communities across this country where people feel their high street has been damaged because of the behaviour of thugs and yobs, they feel they can’t walk at night, women and girls in particular, in public spaces because of intimidatory behaviour. We do need to deal with that.”
He also made similar comments on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme.
The prime minister has outlined his fears for women’s safety, claiming his wife and daughters are “emotional motivation” for his stance on crime. But he is yet to fully unveil a strategy to tackle violence against women and girls.
Sunak’s plan comes days after Keir Starmer vowed to halve such violence within a decade. The Labour leader has made crime one of his five core missions. Starmer said a Labour government would never dismiss crime as “low-level”, suggesting that even apparently minor issues such as repeatedly smoking cannabis near children’s windows had a devastating effect on people’s lives.
Tackling crime was not among the “five immediate priorities” Sunak announced after he took office, but Downing Street has been keen to fight back against opposition promises to tackle it.
Sunak is expected to outline a series of hard-hitting measures on Monday designed to clamp down on low-level crime, with plans for offenders given community orders to be cleaning-up their own graffiti or vandalism within 48 hours.
Downing Street said the proposals would also be for perpetrators to wear jumpsuits or hi-vis jackets while they carry out punishments, which could include washing police cars or carrying out unpaid work in shops.
Gove has previously admitted that he had been fortunate to have avoided jail for possession of cocaine, after a book revealed he had taken the drug on several occasions while a journalist in his 30s.
He said on Sunday that it was a mistake to “regard drug-taking as somehow acceptable” and that he believed the public would not see him as a hypocrite over his stance on laughing gas. “I have learned,” he said.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said Labour wanted laughing gas to be banned because of the antisocial behaviour challenges it posed, but dismissed the government’s plan as amounting “to nothing”.
“We’ve heard it all before from this government and I think we have to judge them by their record, and community sentencing over the last 13 years is down not just by a third, but by two-thirds,” she told Sky News.
“They scrapped the asbo [antisocial behaviour order] regime that the last Labour government brought in, and under their watch antisocial behaviour has got worse, sentencing has fallen immeasurably and we’re seeing crimes going unsolved.
“So yes, we hear these sort of reboots and another reboot and another announcement to get the Sunday media attention, but I think it amounts to nothing.”