The Bigger Picture on Antisocial Behaviour
By Lindsay Clarke
Combating anti-social behaviour is a long-standing New Labour commitment. Prior to the party’s landslide victory in the 1997 general election, its manifesto pledged to create “community safety orders will deal with threatening and disruptive criminal neighbours.”
The Labour government went on to fulfil this pledge with the creation of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
Around 2,600 Asbos have been issued since their introduction in 1999. Councils and the police can apply to a magistrates’ court for an order to prohibit an individual from causing harassment, alarm or distress in a particular area. There is no maximum time limit for an Asbo, although the minimum is two years. The most controversial element of the orders is that they can be awarded to children as young as 10.
Although an Asbo is a civil order, breaching one is a criminal offence and, if convicted, the individual can face up to five years’ jail. They can be applied for by local authorities, police forces (including the British Transport Police) and by registered social landlords, but not by members of the public.
An order contains conditions prohibiting the offender from specific anti-social acts or entering defined areas. For example, an ASBO may prohibit an offender from associating with other named people or from going near a house where they have caused problems.
They are community-based orders that involve local people in the collection of evidence and in helping to monitor breaches. The civil status of Asbos means hearsay and professional witness evidence can be heard in Asbo applications. This is an extremely important feature of Asbos because those subjected to the anti-social behaviour or those reporting the behaviour can be protected.
Despite fears from children’s charities and lobby groups that Asbos tend to criminalise children too early in their lives and could lead an increase in custodial sentences for teenagers, the government has continued its drive towards greater powers against what the tabloids term “louts and yobs” with the introduction of the Anti Social Behaviour Act 2003.
With this legislation, anti-social behaviour has become a term capturing all sorts of activities disrupting communities. The bill addresses topics including fly-posting, air weapons, closure of premises used for drugs, and allowing Community Support Officers to stop cyclists. The act also creates parenting orders that can be linked to Asbos or used to stop children truanting from school.
The government aims to toughen up previous anti-social behaviour legislation by removing the requirement to consult before using curfew powers. Under the plans, police officers will be able to break up or move on two or more people even if they are not suspected of having broken the law.
Officers will also have the power to impose curfews on under-16s by taking them home if they are found outside without an adult after 9pm.
In 2003, the government also launched a campaign to encourage communities to take action on anti-social behaviour and help them make use of the new legislation. Dubbed TOGETHER, its strands a range of initiatives, from funding for every area of England and Wales, to a new TOGETHER ActionLine, to TOGETHER training programmes for police, housing officers, wardens, court staff, environmental health officers, and other practitioners. TOGETHER action areas were launched as initiatives to tackle nuisance neighbours, begging, and environmental crime in 10 trailblazer areas. Meanwhile, research and funding would identify the best ways to support those affected by anti-social behaviour. Also, action across government departments that would help tackle anti-social behaviour, the Home Office said.
The Home Office has also launched academy action days as part of its Together campaign to combat antisocial behaviour. Practitioners will visit local agencies and teach them how to use the Antisocial Behaviour Act, obtain Asbos and share information.
Acceptable Behaviour Contracts
The Housing Association has been another body used by the Home Office to tackle anti social behaviour. Housing associations will be encouraged to use Acceptable Behaviour Contracts when dealing with antisocial young people.
An acceptable behaviour contract (ABC) is a voluntary written agreement between a person who has been involved in anti-social behaviour and one or more local agencies whose role it is to prevent such behaviour (e.g. police and housing).
ABCs are most commonly used for young people but may also be used for adults. The contract specifies a list of anti-social acts in which the person has been involved and which they agree not to continue. In April 2002, there were over 170 ABC schemes across the country and over 1,800 ABCs in place.
A Housing Corporation spokesperson described the contracts as more inclusive and consultative than the harsher antisocial behaviour orders, as well as potentially more effective.
Legal action in the form of an Asbo or possession order (if the young person is in social housing) should be stated on the contract where this is the potential consequence of breach.
Antisocial behaviour policies
In a circular issued to housing associations about how they should prepare their antisocial behaviour policies, required under the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003, the corporation suggests that prevention should be an essential part of housing associations’ approach to antisocial behaviour.
The document stresses that young perpetrators of antisocial behaviour often have problems with their family and school due to their behaviour. It claims the causes of the young person’s behaviour should be ascertained and there may be a need to involve parents and guardians, and possible access information from schools and social services.
Although the bodies representing civil liberties and children’s rights have fought hard against what they see as draconian Asbos and curfews, the government is likely to press on with its anti social behaviour programme because Labour thinks it is a vote winner. In this regard, the perception of anti social behaviour may be as important as the problem itself. The Home Office website says anti-social behaviour includes a range of problems – noisy neighbours, abandoned cars, vandalism, graffiti, litter and youth nuisance.
It claims anti-social behaviour holds back the regeneration of our most disadvantaged areas, creating the environment in which crime can take hold. But support for this position comes from the latest BCS data showing that the proportion of people who perceived a high level of anti-social behaviour had fallen from 21% in interviews in 2002 to 18% in 2003. And one in three people (33%) cited teenagers “hanging around” on the streets as a big problem.
The challenge facing those campaigning for children’s rights is to convince the government that teenagers hanging round the streets is not a big enough problem to justify measures that can lead to a custodial sentence ever committing a criminal offence.
Campaign groups are increasingly doing this and Rod Morgan, chair of the government’s Youth Justice Board warned in May 2004 that there had been a rise in the number of children going to prison as a result of breaches of asbos.