The home secretary wants to extend the scope of anti-social
behaviour orders but does their existing low level of usage show
how inappropriate they are, asks Clare
Home secretary David Blunkett told police chiefs last month that
combating anti-social behaviour on housing estates and streets is
“key to addressing the fear of crime, and reinforcing the task of
communities to build securer and safer neighbourhoods”.
At the forefront of his policies in this area are ASBOs –
anti-social behaviour orders. Originally part of the Crime and
Disorder Act 1998, ASBOs came into force in April 1999, and allow
police and councils to apply for orders against people who “cause
harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the
same household as himself”. Alternatively, applications can be made
“to protect persons in the local government area in which
harassment, alarm or distress was caused or likely to be caused
from further anti-social acts by him”.
But Blunkett told the police that he wants to expand the role of
ASBOs. Prompted by a soon-to-be published review of the ASBO system
during 2001, he has put forward plans to allow registered social
landlords and the British Transport Police to apply for them.
Under the proposals, local authorities would be able to apply
for an interim ASBO at the first court appearance, pending a full
hearing. This would ensure communities are protected from
anti-social behaviour immediately.
In addition, once taken out, the ASBO would travel with the
person on whom it is placed, irrespective of any change of address,
so as to prevent them moving house and resuming anti-social
But behind Blunkett’s proposals is a scheme that has not
quite lived up to expectations. When the Crime and Disorder Act
1998 was being debated, financial costings in the bill referred to
the use of 5,000 ASBOs.
Figures last year found that to September 2001 just 466 have
been taken out.1 The Home Office defends the low
take-up, saying that the 5,000 figure was never a target and
insisting that 39 out of 43 police force areas have taken out at
least one order.
The forthcoming review will show that practitioners find the
system time-consuming, and that communities do not see any
immediate improvement where an order has been imposed. It will also
show that councils in Essex have not used any ASBOs.
But recently, Thurrock council, in Essex, has placed the
country’s first open-ended ASBO on a 15-year-old boy who had
engaged in trespass, verbal abuse, arson, criminal damage, vehicle
theft, shop-lifting, robbery and assault.
Linda Daysh, Thurrock’s community safety co-ordinator,
says moral and social concerns were behind the council’s
original reasons for not taking out ASBOs. The council was very
reluctant to apply for ASBOs against some young people who had
health problems, mental illness and substance-abuse problems, Daysh
says, preferring alternative ways of supporting the individual
through mediation services, and using orders as the last
“Thurrock is heavily committed to looking at other, less
punitive, ways of overcoming conflict,” she says. “ASBOs can be
immensely time-consuming and complicated.”
The average cost of £4,800 per order has also been blamed.
Spokesperson for crime reduction agency Nacro, Richard Garside,
says: “At some £4,000 per order, anti-social behaviour orders
are a costly, bureaucratic way of resolving a genuine problem. This
has been reflected in the low take-up of ASBOs.”
But a case study to be shown in a BBC documentary programme in
March shows cost and time do not have to be problematic factors,
but neither can they guarantee the order will work. Panorama:
Tackling the Tearaways focuses on David Young from Cheltenham, who
notched up 40 arrests by his 16th birthday.2
Cheltenham council’s housing solicitor Stephen Emery says
Young “terrorised the local neighbourhood”. Having been involved in
car crime, violence and racial abuse, he was placed on a 10-year
ASBO excluding him from the area where his family and friends
But Emery says the teenager had no intention of complying with
the order: “From day one he went into the exclusion zone.”
When caught on video, Young was put on a six-month supervision
order, but the ASBO was broken on another two separate occasions.
He is now in a young offenders’ institution serving 12 months
after being found guilty of affray, stealing a car, joyriding and
breaching the ASBO.
The penalty may seem harsh, but Emery defends the scheme: “These
young people have had difficult lives and you can see why they
behave the way they do. But victims of youths have suffered
terribly, with mental health problems, stress and anxiety.
Communities have to be protected in the most effective way.”
Though Young’s ASBO – the second of three the council has
taken out – was not a success story, Emery points to
Cheltenham’s first ASBO which was “successful against all
predictions”. The youth complied from day one.
And as to the third, Emery claims it cost nothing, as it was
dealt with in-house and no barrister was used, scuppering the
argument that ASBOs have to be expensive. He adds that in
Young’s case, an application was lodged in court eight days
before the hearing. Cheltenham will use ASBOs again.
Although Emery may be a convert, can Blunkett reassure the
scheme’s other critics?
A spokesperson for the Youth Justice Board says that, used
appropriately, ASBOs can be a way of dealing with young offenders,
and welcomes proposals to reduce the amount of time that it takes
to obtain an order.
But director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances
Crook, says the organisation opposes ASBOs in principle and further
reforms will not change its stance. She describes them as a “blunt
instrument that can exacerbate a problem rather than solve it”.
Crook says it is extremely worrying that transport police and
registered social landlords could be given powers to apply for
orders without the training police have. “To give people access to
criminal law is outrageous,” she says.
The National Housing Federation’s members have a range of
views, says policy officer Helen Williams, adding: “We need a
balance to safeguard communities at risk and work with people who
may be vulnerable with mental health or substance abuse
“To do that, yes we need enforcement action, but also
prevention, care and support to look at what’s appropriate in
Nacro’s Garside says: “Nacro, itself a housing association
and a registered social landlord housing more than 3,000 sometimes
difficult tenants per year, is sceptical about the extension of
this power to housing associations.”
The organisation claims “acceptable behaviour contracts” – or
ABCs – offer a more flexible response that can be used before the
anti-social behaviour develops.
These ABCs look at stopping the behaviour rather than punishing
the offender. They were introduced in Islington, north London, in
February 2000, and 100 contracts have been signed with only two
serious breaches. Seven other boroughs have since adopted ABCs, all
citing success rates of more than 60 per cent.
The new ASBO figures to be released shortly will show whether
the uptake has improved since September 2001, and only future
statistics will reveal whether Blunkett’s reforms will have
any effect. But one thing is for sure, there will be more David
Youngs. And if ASBOs prove not to be the magic wand in tackling
anti-social behaviour, the government needs to look not just at
reforms of the orders, but at a major overhaul of tackling
anti-social behaviour that will both help young people and protect
1. Action Against Crime and Disorder Unit,
Anti-Social Behaviour Orders: Guidance on drawing up local ASBO
protocols, Home Office, November 2001, At www.crimereduction.gov.uk/asbos4.htm
2. Panorama: Tackling The Tearaways, will be shown on
BBC1, Sunday 3 March at 10.15pm.
The law and ASBOs
– Magistrates’ courts have had powers to make anti-social
behaviour orders since 1 April 1999.
– Proceedings to apply for an ASBO are civil, not criminal, and
the case needs to be proved according to the rules of civil
evidence. The ASBO itself will not give the defendant a criminal
However, a breach of an order is a criminal offence. Where a
person is convicted for a breach the courts can impose stiff
penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment.
– ASBOs should be used wherever it is thought that they will be
a successful remedy to anti-social behaviour, and where other
methods may be less effective. This does not necessarily mean that
other methods have to be tried first. In other words, ASBOs are
not, as some have suggested, a measure of last resort.