People with learning difficulties should not get ASBO’s

The public behaviour of people with learning difficulties can be problematic, but can the issuing of antisocial behaviour orders ever be a suitable response, asks Paul Ramcharan and colleagues

In the UK there are about 1.4 million people with learning difficulties (about 2 per cent of the population), of whom 210,000 have severe difficulties. Yet, it is estimated that 9 per cent of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) have been applied to people with learning difficulties. At best the maths indicate that people with learning difficulties are about 4.5 times more likely to have an Asbo applied than the population as a whole. Why should this be?

As a central plank of crime and community policy the Asbo is heralded by the government as a means of promoting community inclusion. Home Office guidance describes the Asbo as “covering a whole complex of thoughtless, inconsiderate or malicious activity antisocial behaviour is never victimless, and too often victims are elderly, the minorities, the poor and vulnerable”.(1)

Public interest has grown, fuelled by growing and conflicting media attention. The Sun, for example, under the headline “Asbo Watch – now you CAN fight back” in August last year asked: “Is your life being made a misery by gangs of violent youths?” In contrast, people such as Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, have questioned the criminalising effects of Asbos in the national

Essentially, Asbos are requested of magistrates by the police or local authorities to “protect the community from the actions of an individual or individuals who cause harassment, alarm or distress to others”.

Behaviour that might cause such distress ranges from dealing drugs, prostitution and vandalism to verbal abuse and threatening behaviour. Throughout, the emphasis is on the community.

The problem may be that “the community” might construe some behaviour as alarming or distressing though they are a product of biology (a “behavioural phenotype”), rather than a matter of choice.

Research also shows that the different types of behaviour of people who might not otherwise make themselves understood through language use accentuated movement and sound. For example, try making yourself understood for a day at work without using verbal communication. Try, too, not to gesticulate or make loud and directive sounds, for this “strange” behaviour may land you with an Asbo.

So it’s not surprising that people with a learning difficulties are more likely to be on the receiving end of an Asbo.

The move to community living since the 1960s for many people with learning difficulties may have released them from institutions, but many have subsequently found themselves constrained in their choices regarding community inclusion. At a time when even staring over a garden fence can attract sanction, the boundaries between criminal and non-criminal activities, between “self” and “other” and our understanding of what constitutes “social” or “antisocial behaviour” are in danger of becoming blurred to the point where it is necessary to introduce legislation.(2)

Take, for example, the idea that the Asbo involves “local people not only in the collection of evidence but also in helping to enforce breaches”.(3)

The effort here is in supporting communities to become active in reporting crime and building and protecting the areas where they live. Because this is the case the Asbo is more likely to be imposed in more populous communities where those people with learning difficulties who have been resettled are likely to be disproportionately represented. Similar behaviour in non-populated areas may be less likely to cause the same effect from the public or gain enough public notice.

There is a range of evidence that can be collected by the officer responsible for the Asbo application: a breach of an agreed behaviour contract (ABC); witness statements from officers attending the incident; statements from those affected by the behaviour; evidence of complaints to the police; statements from professional witnesses – to name a few. The fact that such information builds an overall case around the alleged act of antisocial behaviour places a premium on supporting statements and one which over time can be manufactured against people who are “different”.

Moreover, in relation to hearsay evidence, “witness evidence need not prove that they were alarmed or distressed themselves, but only that the behaviour they witnessed was likely to produce such an effect on others”.(1)

The Asbo can therefore act as a charter for people to manufacture distress and reconstitute it as wilful harm and for diaries to be misused to purge the community of its unwanted members – a type of social eugenics. As important in making a case stick simply by virtue of the weight of collected evidence is the fact that people with learning difficulties are less likely to have a strong voice, to know the systems of advocacy and protection and to speak out in such circumstances. Since the Asbo comes under the civil law it is also important to recognise that the burden of proof in circumstances such as those above is lower than for criminal cases. Yet breach of an Asbo is a criminal offence.

At a time when Valuing People is seeking to close the remaining learning difficulty hospitals and is placing its weight behind inclusion within the community, the Asbo system has the potential to empower those who either do not understand the behaviour of some people with learning difficulties or, indeed, those who do not wish to do so. The move towards social diversity, acceptance of difference and valuing people for the gifts they might bring to their communities is likely to suffer unless some systems are in place to provide a structure within which to understand and tolerate difference and to make a distinction between “difference” and “antisocial behaviour”.

And it is in this aspect of Asbos that there appears an emergent battle between two models of “community”. Seen as a matter of criminal justice the Asbo is seen by some to be seeking to create “community” through division and accusation. This stands in opposition to the ideal of communities being built on mutual respect and trust. 

Paul Ramcharan is reader in cognitive disabilities, Department of Mental Health and Learning Disability, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield. Alex McClimens is a researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Bronwen Roberts  is lecturer, Department of Mental Health and Learning Disability, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of Sheffield.

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Community care, as it affects individuals labelled with learning difficulty, offers a chance of inclusion within mainstream society. More recently, however, the government’s policy on antisocial behaviour orders threatens to encroach on ideas of tolerance, acceptance and diversity. The potential effects on people with learning difficulties are discussed.

(1) Home Office, A Guide to Anti-social Behaviour Orders and Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, Home Office, ACPO, Youth Justice Board, 2002
(2) Napo, Anti-social Behaviour Orders: Analysis of the First Six Years, a briefing from Napo updated 20 July 2005. Available on
(3) Home Office, op cit

Further information
ASBOwatch: monitoring the use of anti-social behaviour orders,[YUN1]
A P Brown, “Anti-social behaviour, crime control and social control”, The Howard Journal, Vol 43, No 2, pp203-211, 2004
E Burney, “Talking tough, acting coy: what happened to the anti-social behaviour order?”, The Howard Journal, Vol 41, No 5, pp 469-484, 2002

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