Open Forum – 26 October 2006

For its Respect agenda to succeed the government should learn from the voluntary sector, writes Julian Corner

Almost uniquely, the government’s antisocial behaviour agenda is driven by one value, Respect. Beyond outcomes and evidence, Respect suggests a deeper vision of where society should be going, and one that seems to have more in common with voluntary sector values than government targets. Even so, the response of most charities has been overwhelmingly hostile.

At Revolving Doors Agency, our work with mentally vulnerable offenders has placed us at the heart of this tension. We believe we are part of the same movement towards a respectful society where there is less antisocial behaviour. We view respect for our clients as an inextricable part of delivering this vision. Our experience of antisocial behaviour orders, however, suggests that respect is being treated as a highly partial value.

Take Brian, who has always used alcohol to control his mental health problems, and who picked up an Asbo banning him from being drunk on the street. To help him off the street, we tried to find Brian local authority housing, but this was refused.

Inevitably he drank on the street, breaching his Asbo, which triggered a prison sentence from which he was released homeless. That triggered more street drinking, which triggered another prison sentence, and so on. From a distance, Brian is highly disrespectful of his community, intimidating people going about their daily business. Close up, he suffers from mental and physical illnesses.

Over the years he has been rejected by many more services than have helped him. It is hard to see where respect for his own humanity is to be found in the society he himself is ordered to respect. Now his Asbo has closed off the possibility of respect growing between him and his community.

Values don’t have to be woolly sentiment. When implemented with integrity, they point the way to effective practice. A value-driven agenda is welcome, but the use of Asbos shows that the government can learn a great deal from the voluntary sector in turning values into reality.

Julian Corner is chief executive of the Revolving Doors Agency

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