Beggars won’t be losers – John Denham interview

The last ever interview with home office minister John Denham
before he resigned from his role. Interview by Clare Jerrom

CJ What would you like to achieve through the White
Paper and what’s your role within that?

JD What we want to do is to achieve a real reduction in the type
of anti social behaviour and nuisance which is blighting far too
many communities in the country.

It’s a problem that’s increasing the fear of crime,
it means that people don’t feel safe even though crime itself
has fallen by over a quarter over the last 5 years.

If we can be successful in reducing anti social behaviour people
will feel safer, communities will feel stronger and of course in
tackling anti social behaviour we will have to tackle some of the
underlying problems that give rise to nuisance. Some of which is
about sheer selfishness, people behaving in ways which have no
respect for others, and we need to assert the values of the
majority of people in the community against them. Some of it is
problems that arise from families that have huge difficulties
bringing up their children or other social problems and there we
have got to make sure we tackle the causes as well.

CJ How important would you say is tackling anti social
behaviour on the government’s agenda?

JD I think it’s one of our key priorities at the present
time. If you look at the background on crime, overall crime is down
27% since 1997. That’s big falls in things like burglary and
car crime which if you go back 5 years were what people were saying
were their major preoccupations.

Now in almost every community in the country people talk about
anti social behaviour – the whole range of things from
neighbours who simply won’t turn the music down to crack
houses and evidence of drug dealing in the streets, to
environmental crimes, the graffiti, and vandalism and so on to the
issue of gangs of young people, apparently out of control in local
neighbourhoods. There’s a whole set of different things.
People say it’s their number one priority and the thing that
makes them feel least secure in their homes or in their

CJ Some critics have branded some of the measures in the
White Paper punitive, what do you think about that?

JD Well I’m not very interested in branding. The truth is
that there are people who behave in an anti social manner. They do
so fully aware they are being anti social, they are being
unreasonable and they shouldn’t be able to get away with it
just because there aren’t simple remedies at hand.

There are quite a lot of parts in the White Paper where we are
developing simpler, faster mechanisms to deal with problems. If
someone knows that nobody can do anything about their drunken,
abusive behaviour without a very, very lengthy court procedure,
they know they may get away with it. If people know that they can
be issued with a Fixed Penalty Notice at the police station the
very same evening they are picked up and the consequences followed
from that, people are likely to respond.

So there are effective enforcement measures in the White Paper,
quite rightly. I don’t think there’s anything in there
that I would say was out of proportion to the problems we’re
trying to tackle.

CJ So you think it’s a case of having to be tough
to tackle such a serious issue as anti-social

JD I think you do and you can’t have a situation where
people know that their behaviour will go unchallenged simply
because the procedures and the laws we have at the moment are very
difficult to enforce.

CJ Do you think that’s the main problem behind
anti social behaviour?

JD If you look for example at Anti-Social-Behaviour-Orders, they
were used effectively in some parts of the country. In some places,
the idea grew up that they were too complicated, too long drawn out
to use. That actually was largely to do with, I think, various
local agencies being against them and not wanting to make them work
but nonetheless that was the belief.

We changed the legislation last year, we changed the guidance
last autumn, we introduced interim Anti Social Behaviour Orders so
there wasn’t a delay of months and months and months before
you got one and now we find they are being very widely used and
very effectively.

CJ A lot of measures are aimed at young people, would
you say that young people are the main people who are committing
anti social behaviour?

JD No, some young people are amongst the offenders but most of
the town and city centre drunkenness that we see in most towns and
cities in quite small towns on a Friday and Saturday night,
isn’t by teenagers, it’s by older people with money in
their pockets. By and large the noisy neighbour problem and the
family that intimidates all of those around them is every bit as
likely to be the senior members of the family as the children as
the problem.

We must avoid any suggestion that we are labelling this as a
“young person’s” problem or that all young people are
offenders. Indeed if you talk to young people, ordinary young
people, they will tell you that they more than anybody lose out if
they don’t think they can go out in the evening because there
is a gang of youths dominating the area, if they have to avoid
certain parts of the estate where they live or the town where they
live because of intimidation by a minority of young people. So
there mustn’t be any doubt that if we tackle anti social
behaviour effectively, we will be doing something that will be
welcomed by the majority of young people.

CJ One of the proposals in the White Paper is to extend
Fixed Penalty Notices to 16/17 year olds. That has been criticised
by the National Children’s Bureau who believe young people
won’t be able to pay the fines themselves at that age, and
that could then lead to financial pressures on poor families and
exacerbate tensions between parents and their children

What do you think about that argument?

JD I get very disappointed with organisations that always rush
to say why you shouldn’t do something, and never put forward
an alternative to tackling the problem. The reality is that we
introduced Fixed Penalty Notices a year or so ago, we started
piloting them in the summer. In the police forces where they are
being piloted, the feedback we are getting is they are being very
successful. But there is a problem; you can use them for the 18
year old in the group but not the 17 year old or the 16 year old.
The approach we have taken is we want to take the powers to have
Fixed Penalty Notices to 16 and 17 year olds and of course we will
pilot the use of them just as we piloted the use of Fixed Penalty
Notices for adults. Now I think that’s a much more sensible
way to respond to the problem than to simply rule it out of order
before you have even tried it, without any alternative.

CJ You say they have been quite successful? Have there
been any problems with people actually being able to

JD With adults, no would be the conclusion at the moment. We
have at the moment 60 per cent have been paid within the 21 days.
That in itself is as good as the record of collecting fines through
the courts. So we’re already doing as well as the courts and
nobody has actually been to court. About 2 per cent have been to
court, people wanted to argue, as they have every right to do, over
whether it was right to issue the notice. The others have been
converted into fines and we will need to use the same measures that
the magistrates courts or courts use in general to collect the
fines from those 38 per cent. But even on those figures, we are
already showing this is a more effective way of taking action than
taking someone to the magistrates court straight away which is what
would have happened under the other system.

CJ So it’s freeing up the court’s

JD It’s freeing up the courts time, and equally important
I’m sure it’s leading to crimes being punished that
would otherwise have gone unpunished simply because of the amount
of time it would have taken for the courts to take them to

CJ So do you think that people will “learn their lesson”
from a FPN?

JD I believe it will. It’s early days of course here .
With a lot of the measures that we need to take there are people
who once warned or once dealt with will change their ways. Others
will be more difficult to deal with, we all know that and we have
to be sensible and no single one of these measures will be the
answer to all the problems.

I believe there will be a set of people who will change their

CJ What happens if they don’t pay?

JD With 16/17 year olds then it would become a fine in the same
way it would if they had been to court, and as adults who had been
to court, then it would be the normal means of pursuing the fine.
We will need to pilot it and we will see if there are problems in
doing so, but I think it’s the right way forward.

CJ There are also plans to extend Fixed Penalty Notices
to parents of truants and you are going to look at housing benefit
sanctions for tenants who are anti social. Do you think hitting the
pocket of poor people will end the problems of anti social

JD When you look at truancy it isn’t simply a problem of
poor parents. There are parents who condone their children’s
truancy who are not particularly short of money. The parents, for
example, who take their children out of school without
authorisation or without discussing with teachers who clearly have
got enough money to go on holiday. You are talking there about
tackling irresponsible behaviour, a lack of concern for the
children’s own well-being and future that needs to be
tackled. And the same would be said about more minor truancy, not
holidays, but the more obvious day to day truancy where there are
parents who could challenge that but choose not to do so.

Similarly with housing benefit sanctions, I think there has to
come a point when you have been through all of the other available
measures where you have to consider the principle of a housing
benefit sanction. And the two types of sanctions that we have
talked about in the anti social behaviour White Paper. One is aimed
at landlords and that is stopping direct payments to landlords
where they are simply failing to manage their properties and their
tenants effectively. That one we believe is the right way to go
forward. On the question of benefit sanctions against tenants, we
have promised to consult on this. So the final decision has not
been taken.

But I think most people would probably take the view that if
there have been warnings, if there have perhaps been an attempt to
agree some sort of Acceptable Behaviour Contract with the family,
is following on from that there had been an injunction by a social
landlord or an Anti Social behaviour Order taken out against the
family and those in turn were breached, most people would say you
are getting to a point at which a financial sanction must be
seriously considered.

CJ So it is an end of the line measure?

JD I think that everybody would see this as not the first thing
you would do. Because the experience up and down the country is
that for a great, well probably a clear majority of tenants, of
nuisance tenants, is effective housing management with support for
the family, making clear what standards are actually works. So if
you deal with problems in that way of course you are not going to
take more heavy handed action.

CJ A lot of measures are aimed at punishing people who
are anti social. Do you think there is enough emphasis on getting
to the root causes behind it?

JD I think there is. I highlight two parts of the White Paper.
Firstly the recognition of the need for greater support for
families who are having difficulties bringing up their children,
which at one time in our life, Clare, probably applies to all
parents so this isn’t simply a thing about parents of
offenders if you like. We recognise that we need to improve the
quality of parenting support and we will set out a lot more detail
about that in the Children at Risk Green Paper that we are going to
publish in a couple of months time.

CJ When is that going to be published?


JD It’ll be in the early summer I think, we haven’t
got a firm date for that yet. So there is only a taster if you like
in this White Paper of what we want to do but we are recognising
that there are families to whom we need to offer more intensive
support that’s better support through parenting classes and
the like. What we have focussed on in the White Paper is how we can
ensure that we can deliver that support to the families who need
them most. And so the ability for example, of schools, as well as
Youth Offending Teams to agree parenting contracts with families,
rather like an Acceptable Behaviour Contracts, not something
that’s legally binding on the individual but sets out what
you expect the parents to do, how you expect them to take advantage
of the support that will be available to them – that’s
an important step forward.

As are the measures to work with some of the families where the
children are getting into such trouble and the family support is so
weak that the danger is you are going to end up putting the young
person in a Young Offenders Institution or in local authority care
and not deal with the underlying problems. So we have talked there
about intensive fostering, we’ve talked there about the
possibility of residential provision for such families, putting
additional support into the home through Homestart type projects
and so on in order to support those families to get through this

What we do have to change I think is the culture, which
isn’t everywhere, in some places of almost ignoring repeated
offending behaviour by younger children and failing to deal with it
on the grounds that we are trying to help the family as a whole. I
think we have got to recognise that if a child is offending, 100,
200 times in the year, then simply saying well we cannot address
that offending behaviour because the family has got problems is
doing that child and that family no good at all. So we want to
ensure we have got more effective remedies available for those
families and those children, including those that can be applied
through the court.

The family support is one area, the other is the emphasis on
extended use of restorative justice. We have already set a high
target for the Youth Justice Board to build restorative justice
into sentences for young offenders and that we know is a way that
for many young people is proven to change the way in which they
look at their own behaviour and can benefit the community too and
done properly, leaves the victims with a much better sense that
their problems have been taken seriously than if they are simply
told what punishment is put down by the youth court.

CJ Do you think is the way forward?

JDI think it’s a very important part of it.

CJ There is another plan to give beggars a criminal
record. But Homeless Link, representing more than 700 agencies
working with the homeless people believe this is unworkable and
they say criminalizing vulnerable people exacerbates problems and
inhibits the work of government to achieve greater social
inclusion. Do you think there are contradictory elements in the
White Paper and the Social Exclusion Unit?

JD No I don’t because I think one of the problems with
begging at the moment is that there is no continuity with their
treatment. Because it is not a recordable offence, there is no
useful information held by the police and the same person can be
moved on time and time again but nobody is addressing the
underlying problems. We know that significant numbers of people are
begging are involved in other crimes and this is not about begging
to avoid doing other crimes, they are doing other crimes and
begging. Many of them, probably a very large majority, have a
serious drug problem. And one of the things about making it a
recordable offence is that then that triggers the possibility of a
different type of approach by the courts not just fining people,
but imposing community sentences and also being able to refer them
or put them on Drug Treatment and Testing Orders. So this is as
much as anything, although it is being presented as pure
criminalisation, as much as anything it’s making sure we are
able to deal with the problems that beggars have effectively though
the criminal justice system.

CJ So you are looking at addressing the root problems
behind begging?

JD Yes we are and at the moment those are frequently not
addressed. I think we also need to recognise because of the
expansion of X over the past few years there is no need in this
country, in terms of access to benefits or to at least some sort of
accommodation, for people to be begging to survive. So it is a
problem that needs to be dealt with although it needs to be dealt
with positively so far as possible.

CJ You touched earlier on Anti Social Behaviour Orders and how
you want to make them operate more effectively. Why do you not
think they have been effective to date and how do you plan to
increase take up of them?

JD I think there has been three problems, one is that there is
no doubt that the guidance the home office itself issued originally
was unnecessarily complex, and in some places quite confusing. It
gave the impression, for example that all the local agencies like
the local authority, the housing department, social services, all
had to agree that an ASBO was the right way forward. That was never
the intention of primary legislation and it led in some places to,
for example, if social services took a policy view that they
didn’t like ASBOs then they would simply refuse to turn up to
case conferences – so you couldn’t get one.

We have changed all of that guidance that’s the first

The second thing is that we have recognised some weaknesses in
the original legislation particularly that you couldn’t get
an interim ASBO, which is a quick application to the court. And
secondly that you can use ASBOs to tackle some additional problems.
A constant problem at the moment is if a local authority evicts
somebody for anti social behaviour as a tenant, frequently they
will turn up 3 doors down the road in a private let and carry on
behaving in the same way. That tends to put the local authority off
taking eviction action in the first place. Because now when you go
to court the court can also put an ASBO on them, and that can
follow the individual wherever they go, then it means that if they
carry on behaving as they did before they can be breached and
potentially sent to prison. So we have improved the design of the

The third problem that we had has been one that is almost
inevitable with new legislation. It has taken a bit of time for
magistrates and courts clerks to develop a full understanding of
ASBOs. And so in one or two parts of the country there were court
decision, which I can’t name because I will get into trouble
but to the outside observer looked perverse, and of course that
demoralised sometimes the local authorities and the police who had
put a lot of energy into getting the ASBO, helped to give them a
bad name. Now I think those problems are largely behind us at the
moment, I think the understanding is much better. I think the Lord
Chancellor has worked very hard on getting good advice out to
magistrates. But put those three together and you can understand
why this time last year they probably got a bad name. I think now
because of all the changes we’ve made, interest in them has

The other change is that people now understood much more clearly
that ASBOs work best when they are part of an overall anti social
behaviour strategy.

And so in my own city, at Southampton, which is mentioned in the
White Paper, they have 12 ASBOs and I think 120 Acceptable
Behaviour Contracts (ABC) so they there will only use an ASBO as a
first action in the more extreme cases, in the others they will try
to divert the behaviour through an ABC first, but with the very
clear message that they will take an ASBO if necessary and they
will prosecute a breach and they have had several people sent to
prison as a result.

So a few well designed ASBOs where breaches are effectively
prosecuted can sustain a very large number of ABCs.

CJ Do you think that these measures will mean the role
of social workers will change from more of a supportive role to one
of enforcement?

No but what I do think it means for social workers is a clear
signal that there is a responsibility to recognise the impact of
their clients or their clients children on the wider community and
that if in the past there has sometimes been a tendency to say
“It’s not our job to take that into account” – that can be a
mistake. And in reality, I believe that there have been cases in
the past where the failure to take effective action where children
have been multiple offenders has not been in the interests of
children at all.

I think that most social workers will welcome the support we
give in the White Paper for techniques like family group
conferencing and indeed the opportunities that intensive fostering
and the development of new forms of residential support for
families, together with techniques like Homestart, will bring.

I think they will see this as a very exciting agenda for working
positively with families. But at the same time, professional social
workers clearly also need to recognise that they do need to have an
eye – and a strong one – on the impact of their clients on
the wider community and they should never excuse that behaviour on
the grounds that they are working with their client in other









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