Anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos): How should they be used?

As the government’s Respect agenda celebrates its first birthday, the war on antisocial behaviour continues with mixed outcomes. But evidence suggests that early intervention by youth offending teams could be the way forward, writes Lauren Revans

One year after the publication of the government’s Respect Action Plan the war on antisocial behaviour is back at the top of the political agenda.

To mark the plan’s first birthday, Tony Blair named 40 respect zones in England where the fight against yobbish behaviour is to be stepped up. He also published a progress report to tell the crime-fearing public exactly how many contracts, agreements and orders have been signed and issued in the campaign to make their neighbourhoods safer.

But not all Blair’s birthday celebrations went to plan. London councils refused to come to the party, describing the conditions on becoming a respect zone as too prescriptive. And then Camden Council – famed for its work on tackling antisocial behaviour – used the publication of a review of its work to question the very use of antisocial behaviour powers.

Camden’s review raises serious concerns about the lack of research or evaluation on the impact of powers to address antisocial behaviour. It concludes that there is a need for centrally funded research to assess the effect of different interventions on the lifestyle and behaviour of perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, particularly those who are already disadvantaged or vulnerable. And it backs a preventive rather than punitive approach, advocating clear communication about boundaries of acceptable behaviour and a tiered approach to interventions.

In contrast to the popular perception that Camden has targeted young people, the report reveals that only 12 per cent of Asbos issued by the north London borough between November 1999 and September 2006 were given to under-18s. The more common intervention in Camden is voluntary acceptable behaviour agreements monitored by youth inclusion and support panels.

Not all local authorities and their partner agencies have adopted such an approach. The annual national average for the proportion of Asbos issued to young people since 2000 has ranged from 40 to 59 per cent. In 2005, 1,555 Asbos were given to 10-to 17-year-olds in England and Wales. Just seven of the 42 criminal justice system areas accounted for more than half of all these, while totals for other areas remained in single figures. This huge disparity suggests that some councils and their partners are resorting to Asbos for children and young people too readily.

The key issue is whether Asbos are viewed as a measure of last resort – particularly in relation to children and young people.

And, on this, practitioners are receiving something of a mixed message. Camden states in its review that Asbos “have mostly been used” as a last resort after other non-enforcement interventions have failed.

But the Home Office approach is relatively gung-ho, with its ministers publicly congratulating councils and the police on their “enthusiastic take-up” of the orders. And Respect tsar Louise Casey recently told MPs on the public accounts committee that action must be taken to tackle perpetrators of antisocial behaviour, whether they are “15 or 50”.

“What is important is that areas are tackling antisocial behaviour and that the public know that,” Casey told them. “It does not matter…whether it is an Asbo, an injunction or whatever. What they are concerned about is that the behaviour stops.”

At the other end of the spectrum, children’s charities, such as the Children’s Society, say Asbos are never appropriate for children. They are committed to fighting for their abolition for under-18s. And somewhere in-between, the Youth Justice Board says Asbos have their place but must be used “with care, and only when necessary”. England’s children’s commissioner, Al Aynsley-Green, insists that an Asbo should only be issued when it is “appropriate, sensible, proportionate and just”.

Amid such confusion, a shared understanding of good practice in relation to where, when and how Asbos should be given to children is essential among all those involved in issuing them. A good starting point, according to evidence published by the YJB, is ensuring the involvement of youth offending teams in all aspects of the fight against antisocial behaviour.

The study, based on a sample of 137 young people who received an Asbo between January 2004 and January 2005, clearly links a greater involvement of Yots with a stronger commitment to a tiered approach to tackling antisocial behaviour and a lower use of Asbos.

“The integral involvement of Yots appeared to create greater scope for prevention and diversion before the need to impose an Asbo arose,” the report concludes.

Bob Ashford, head of prevention at the YJB, says this focus on early intervention and prevention is critical, adding that Yots have been urged to spend the £45m of additional funding for youth crime prevention over the next two years on programmes to deal with antisocial behaviour.

“Yots should always be involved at an early stage of a young person’s problematic behaviour,” he says. “They are integral to the process. They come from a background of working with troubled young people. Other agencies haven’t got that experience.”

Involving Yots early should also help to address concerns about the treatment of children with learning or behavioural difficulties, issues that should be picked up during assessment and in multi-agency discussions.

Probably the greatest concern, though, is the ability of Asbos to catapult young people into the criminal justice system, and then perhaps into custody. Getting the conditions of any Asbo right in order to reduce the chance of non-compliance and breach is therefore of utmost importance.

The YJB research highlights particular concerns among practitioners, parents and children about bans relating to young people being in certain places or associating with certain people, warning that they can be counter-productive by restricting normal daily activities. The High Court has also criticised broad conditions for being “incapable of being understood” and demanded greater clarity in the future.

“Conditions have to be workable and achievable,” Ashford says, flagging up the need for Yots to be central to the decision making process on conditions and support arrangements too. “In many cases of Asbos being breached, young people didn’t understand the conditions or they were unachievable or unrealistic.”

Leicestershire takes a tiered approach
Jane Melville, prevention manager at Leicestershire Youth Offending Service, explains how Leicestershire is responding to antisocial behaviour differently. And, she says, the results speak for themselves.

“In Leicestershire, every district uses the same tiered approach, and everybody knows the key contacts. “The first stage is a non-threatening advice letter from the council or the police aimed at raising parents’ awareness about the kinds of antisocial behaviour going on where their children are hanging out.

“The second stage is a direct warning letter, outlining a specific complaint about a child’s antisocial behaviour and asking parents to discuss this with them. It also stresses the seriousness of the matter, listing all the different orders that could be used in the future if the behaviour does not cease, and providing contact details for parenting support and social services.

“The third stage is the acceptable behaviour contract (ABC) when multiagency working kicks in. The child, their parents, the local authority or the police, and the youth offending team meet to discuss the child’s behaviour and put together a contract.

All our contracts say ‘this is what we expect you not to do’. But they also say ‘this is the support we will offer’. “Part of the Yot’s role is to look at the conditions of the ABC and make sure they are suitable. We will also offer parenting support, and a review meeting will be set up for four to six weeks later.

“Many of the children are already known to the Yot. Where this is the case, the existing case manager will support a child’s contract. Those who aren’t known but need help to stick to their contract will work with the Yot prevention team’s antisocial behaviour service on a one-to-one basis.

“At this point, all children receiving support will be assessed to establish their needs, a process which should bring to light other issues including any diagnosed learning or behavioural difficulties or mental health problems.

“Under the tiered approach, if a child fails to stick to their ABC, we look again at the contract and whether the child needs more support or whether the conditions are stringent enough.

“If the ABC continues to be unsuccessful, only then will we use that as evidence for an Asbo. We would expect all the other things to have been done before a standalone Asbo is applied for. When a request for an Asbo comes we will carefully consider the proposed conditions.

And for all standalone Asbos, we would ask the courts to consider an individual support order too. “The system works so well because we have such a fantastic relationship with the police, and because all Asbos go through us. We also work closely with the courts.

“The results speak for themselves.

There were 61 ABCs issued to young people between April and November 2006, almost half of whom accepted some support. Only one went on to receive an Asbo.”

2005 Hotspots

Issuing of Asbos varies from area to area – and this can throw up some statistical quirks. Thus Greater London, despite its seven millionplus population, issued fewer Asbos than Greater Manchester, which has 2.6 million residents.

● Greater Manchester (201)
● Greater London (188)
● West Yorkshire (116)
● West Midlands (88)
● Humberside (65)
● Northumbria (63)
● Nottinghamshire (61)

Asbo good practice

● A tiered approach of interventions, should be used with clear, shared rules.
● The youth offending team ought to involved early and throughout.
● Multi-agency forums should be used to agree resource allocation to tackle antisocial behaviour.
● Support to children and parents needs to be on offer at every tier.
● A full assessment of the child should be built into an early pre-Asbo tier.
● Use of interim Asbos to be limited.
● Individual support order should be requested alongside any Asbo.
● Conditions need to be clear, specific and relevant to the behaviour in question.
● Geographical and non-association conditions that conflict with positive activities ought to be avoided.
● Conditions should not relate to criminal matters.
● Asbos to be reviewed regularly.

Further reading

Antisocial behaviour statistics
Anti-social behaviour order research, Youth Justice Board
Anti-social Behaviour: A Guide to the Role of Youth Offending Teams in Dealing with Anti-social Behaviour, Youth Justice Board, 2006
A Guide to Anti-social Behaviour Orders, Home Office
Camden review
Good practice in tackling antisocial behaviour in Scotland

Contact the author
  Lauren Revans

This article appeared in the 8 February issue of the magazine under the headline “Handle Asbos with care”

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