David Callaghan investigates the seemingly inexorable rise in the number of children being given antisocial behaviour orders and finds that the figures mask some surprising truths
Young people on street corners, abusing passers-by. It is a scene familiar to many of us, and one that prompted prime minister Tony Blair to make restoring respect a major theme of the government’s third term.
The day after Labour’s general election victory last year, he said: “I want to make this a particular priority for this government, how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and our villages.”
The ensuing respect agenda, with its own website, task force and inter-ministerial steering group soon showed that the government meant business.
The first time the government took steps to tackle low-level public order offences was with the introduction of antisocial behaviour orders in 1999, following the Crime and Disorder Act of the previous year, and it urged councils to use them.
And use them they have, with increasing numbers being given to young people. Of the 7,356 Asbos issued in England and Wales since 1999 to September last year, 3,135 were handed to 10 to 17-year-olds. The figure for the first nine months of last year, 1,058, is nearly as many as were issued to children in the whole of 2004, which was 1,077.(1) This contrasts with the 61 that had been issued to 10 to 17-year-olds by the end of 2000.
The revelation that nearly two-fifths of Asbos in England and Wales are being given to children, despite government assurances at the outset that children would receive them only in exceptional circumstances, prompted Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, to speak out. In an interview in January, he told Community Care’s website that children were being “demonised”, and that Asbos were “catapulting” some children and young people who breach Asbos into custody.
So why is there an increasing number of Asbos being given to children?
Pam Hibbert, principal policy officer at Barnardo’s, says the media are partly to blame. “There is a lot of coverage that perpetuates the idea that most of the antisocial behaviour is committed by children. But there is no evidence of that,” she says.
The government’s push for Asbos was amplified by Tony Blair in a speech on parenting in Watford last September. He said: “The whole purpose of the antisocial behaviour legislation is to change the terms of trade if you like, change the rules of the game, make sure that when we need to act quickly, we are able to act quickly.”
Hibbert says all this puts pressure on local authorities to use Asbos.
Andrew Mackie, spokesperson for campaign group Asbo Concern, agrees that the government is providing the impetus. “It is down to government rhetoric. Talking about yobs is seen as a vote winner.”
In Scotland, where the Antisocial Behaviour (Scotland) Act 2004 paved the way for Asbos for 12 to 15-year-olds from October 2004, only two teenagers were issued with the measure out of a total of 210 Asbos in 2004-5.(2)
A Scottish executive spokesperson explains there is a different emphasis north of the border. “There was general support for Asbos being extended to under-16s, and they are an additional tool for local authorities. But they should only be used when all else fails.”
Suzanne Payne, senior project officer in the Local Government Association’s children and young person’s team, wishes the emphasis was the same in England and Wales: “Asbos should be a last option, after alternatives have been explored. It should be about prevention rather than penalty.”
Payne says agencies should look into why a child is behaving badly before seeking to punish them and initially explore a range of different methods such as family conferencing models.
But some councils have used Asbos sparingly. Bournemouth Council, which has to contend with many people coming in tothe area to enjoy the beach or nightlife, has issued only 18 Asbos since 1999, of which eight have been against under-18s. Along the south coast, Brighton has issued 86 Asbos, but does have a larger population.
Jayne Robertson, Bournemouth’s antisocial behaviour co-ordinator, says the authority looks at each case individually and it does not apply strict rules. “Our community development team works at diverting young people into more productive ways of behaving,” she says. One such method has been an initiative with local football league team AFC Bournemouth, whereby youngsters have been offered the chance to try coaching and take part in tournaments.
Voluntary antisocial behaviour contracts, which the government introduced as an alternative to Asbos, are proposed in half of Bournemouth’s referrals, although many young people fail to engage with them. The council had 30 active antisocial behaviour contracts in 2005.
Robertson is clear about what should happen if the young person’s behaviour remains poor: “If the behaviour is extreme we won’t hesitate to go for an Asbo.”
Asbos are more effective in adult cases, she says: of four current Asbos against children, there have been 36 breaches. But these figures are deceptive: two of the children have not breached their Asbos and one has three times. But the fourth has broken the order 33 times; he was 14 when he was first given an Asbo and is now serving a four-and-a-half year sentence in a young offender institution.
Breaches of Asbos are a serious problem that often lead to custodial terms for young people – a fact which Hibbert says shows that Asbos are ineffective.
She says of the 515 orders given to juveniles in 2003, 392 were breached and 179 custodial sentences handed out – of which 51 were solely the result of the Asbo breach.
More recent breach figures are not available, but she says if the same proportion of children that breached an Asbo were sent to custody in 2004-5, then 276 out of 2,135 juveniles handed Asbos would be given custodial sentences.
She says Barnardo’s would like to see individual support orders (ISOs), which courts can issue simultaneously with Asbos for vulnerable children, made mandatory. ISOs are usually issued on the recommendation of the youth offending team, and are designed to provide tailored interventions to prevent recurring poor behaviour.
New investment to the tune of £500,000 was provided by the government last July, and was a much-needed boost Hibbert says, because, of 1,822 Asbos given to juveniles in the first half of 2005, only 26 had accompanying ISOs.
Research by the British Institute for Brain Injured Children(3) suggests this number of ISOs is well short of what is required. It found that one in three Asbos given to under-17s are for people with a learning or communication difficulty.
But the Home Office says young people given Asbos should receive support to prevent breaches and causing further harm to the community.
A spokesperson says: “To help this happen we want their Asbos to be reviewed every year so that conditions can be varied or discharged if a young person has responded positively to the order, and changed their behaviour.
“But we must remember that the victims of antisocial behaviour are often young people – and they have a right to be protected. So does the wider community.”
Perhaps children do need to learn respect for other members of the community, but the government also needs to understand and respect the needs of many vulnerable children.
(1) Figures from www.crimereduction.gov.uk/asbos2
(2) Standing Up To Antisocial Behaviour annual report, Scottish executive, November 2005
(3) Asbos and Children with Learning Difficulties, British Institute for Brain Injured Children, 2005