Manchester: An Asbo Oasis

Manchester Council has blazed a trail in the use of antisocial behaviour orders, handing out more than any other local authority. But some in the city are less enthusiastic about their use, writes Maria Ahmed

Since antisocial behaviour orders were first introduced, Manchester has earned the controversial crown of the Asbo capital of Britain.

The latest official figures show that a total of 1,045 orders were issued in the city between April 1999 – when Asbos began – and September last year. This compares with 749 issued in  London and just 189 in Merseyside, Manchester’s next-door neighbour, during the same period. Wiltshire had the lowest count with just 32.

While 381 Asbos were issued over the whole of 2004 in Greater Manchester, the latest figures show that 335 were issued in the first nine months of last year alone. It’s a sign that Asbo fever  shows little sign of abating.

To the government, the number of Asbos deserves praise. Earlier this year, the then Home Office minister Hazel Blears welcomed the latest Asbo figures. “People can be proud of what is happening in Manchester,” she said.

Despite the government’s endorsements, Manchester Council has attracted criticism with several controversial Asbos, including the case of two brothers who were banned from using the  word “grass”, and a prostitute who was prohibited from carrying condoms in a given area.

A 16-year-old boy was banned from wearing a hooded top for five years, while a homeless man was prohibited from begging in “an earnest or humble way”. The council also used an Asbo to stop mobile soup vans offering food and help to homeless people from entering Manchester city centre after people complained they made a mess.

To Manchester’s critics, the Asbo boom is having a negative impact. Campaigners point to particular anxieties over the effects of Asbos on the city’s younger generation and vulnerable people.

Manchester Asbo Concern, a group of organisations and individuals, says the council’s policies are “draconian” and estimates that over one in every 500 children in the city has been issued  with an Asbo. Andrew Mackie, a member of the group, says: “Asbos are divisive and there is a danger it will reinforce and legitimise negative attitudes towards young people. There is a risk that this in turn will reduce support for young people’s provision.”

There are also questions over whether Manchester issues so many Asbos because there is simply a higher level of antisocial behaviour than in other cities.

Mackie argues that Manchester’s enthusiasm for Asbos is based on a political decision. He says that there is a perception that antisocial behaviour has been reduced in other large cities, despite the fact that far less Asbos are used. “But some Labour councillors in Manchester have convinced themselves that a ‘tough’ Asbo-based approach is the only way to promote good behaviour within their communities and win them votes.”

He adds: “Police like them because they are so easy to obtain. The combination of the broad definition of antisocial behaviour and use of hearsay has led to high success rate for applications and fast-tracked people into custody.”

Mackie claims that Asbos are designed to “give the impression that something is being done” while failing to offer proper support and good policing.

Steve Rumbelow, director of housing for Manchester Council, rejects the criticisms. He argues that Asbos are carried out “in response to community concerns”, and play a crucial role in  regenerating the city. “Antisocial behaviour can blight a community and sometimes force residents to leave,” he says. “We are interested in improving our city as a place to live in, to work in and to visit.”

But campaigners question whether Manchester balances punishment of individuals with the right support to help them change. They argue that this is vital in deprived areas of the city such as Gorton, where a high number of Asbos are issued. Mackie argues that the council is “far too ready” to issue Asbos. “Often, timely provision of support could have avoided problems getting out of hand. There are far too few facilities for young people, especially in Gorton.”

Campaigners also highlight the links antisocial behaviour has with poverty. Recent research by the Youth Justice Trust, a charity representing youth justice organisations in Manchester, found that cases of antisocial behaviour occurred in areas with high levels of social deprivation, unemployment, truancy and school exclusions.

 Simon Ashley, Liberal Democrat leader for Manchester accuses the council of operating an “Asbo first, think later” policy, adding: “Asbos should be part of the solution, not the only weapon.   There is a need for more early intervention for people with problems.”

But Rumbelow argues the council is doing enough to tackle the causes of antisocial behaviour. He points out that Manchester is one of the government’s trailblazers in its work supporting  problem families. Projects include a residential family centre, mediation and outreach work. Gorton is also home to the council’s On the Streets project, which offers activities for young people from eight to 16.

“We recognise that prohibitive work is only one answer,” Rumbelow says. “With an Asbo, we can tackle the underlying problems. Asbos for under-16s can now have a parenting order or contract attached, plus an individual support order. In all cases where we believe one of these additional orders would help the young person change their behaviour, we apply for a parenting order and an individual support order alongside the Asbo.”

And Rumbelow says the council’s Asbos can all be justified because they are put in place to stop violent, intimidatory or threatening behaviour. “The victims are very often young people, women and vulnerable members of the community including those with disabilities or with an ethnic background.”

However, while the council has firm faith in the value of Asbos – which cost around £1,200 each to issue – there is less concrete evidence over their impact on people’s lives.

Rumbelow says that Asbos change people’s behaviour, but admits there is no formal way of measuring this. He points to “anecdotal” evidence that shows Asbos are having a “dampening effect” on crime.

The number of Asbo breaches – a criminal offence carrying a maximum £5,000 fine or up to five years in prison – is not recorded centrally, but Rumbelow says the council’s latest “best  estimate” based on figures from 2004-5 shows 45 per cent of under-18s and 28 per cent of adults breach their Asbos.

This indicates that Manchester’s breach rates are broadly in line with the national average – the most recent government figures published last year showed that almost half of under-18s  reached their Asbos between April 1999 to the end of December 2003.

The breach rate has caused concern among campaigners – including Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey, who has argued that Asbos are “catapulting” young people into custody.

Recent snapshot figures from the Youth Justice Board for Manchester indicate that 15 young people aged under 18 went into custody for breaching Asbos between April and December last year out of a total of 94 who had Asbos during that period.

But the YJB cautions against “black and white” reading of the figures – as they do not reflect young people’s previous offending history.

According to Mackie, the figures suggest there is “no evidence” to show that Asbos have changed behaviour and says this is something the government is keen to hide. And while the  government published the most recent Asbo figures in March, in the run-up to the recent local elections, campaigners are still waiting to see what the latest breach figures will be.

Mackie says: “The government has refused to issue 2004 breach rates, which were due out in March this year, and there is every indication that it is now even higher. Asbos may displace a problem temporarily – to prison in some cases – but long-term solutions come from the provision of positive interventions and support.”

Garside questions whether Asbos are really working in Manchester: “There is little real knowledge of the overall effectiveness on Asbos – it remains almost entirely anecdotal. Until the evidence is clear, Asbos will continue to cause concern as long as cities like Manchester keep churning them out.” 

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