Matt Foot looks at the implications of Asbos, from the ridiculous to the draconian.
'Anti-social behaviour' seems to have replaced 'weapons of mass destruction' as the latest buzz phrase of New Labour. Tony Blair, looking a little out of place, spread the message on a recent visit to the Potter Street area of Harlow:
'Anti-social behaviour can ruin neighbourhoods and make life a misery for decent, hard-working families... anti-social behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts, fixed penalty notices, dispersal orders, closing crack houses, controlling fireworks, clamping down on graffiti and litter... Together we can beat it... the louts are on notice.'
Talk of dealing with anti-social behaviour is not new. The government introduced anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) back in 1998 with the Crime and Disorder Act. Ministers were unhappy with the delay in bringing them in, and so introduced several new initiatives to force their use. The Police Reform Act 2002 extended the power of an order to cover the whole country. In January 2003 the Home Office set up the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit to ensure, in its own words, 'that existing measures to tackle anti-social behaviour are used, and to drive forward new policy and action'.
This was followed in November 2003 with the Anti-Social Behaviour Act. As if that was not enough, there is also the government action plan Together: Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour.
The recent act is like many of New Labour's criminal laws - cumbersome, draconian and at times farcical. The farcical element is reflected in the action plan's reference to a devastating epidemic which may have escaped your notice: 'Many people are concerned about the effect of hedges that are out of control. Although common law rights entitle people to cut overhanging branches back to the property boundary line, they can do nothing about hedge height. The act changes that'! As of 1 October 2004 local authorities have been given the power to charge for complaints and issue notices to those with high hedges, then cut hedges and charge for the work.
The draconian element is the increasing ease of enforcement, and variety of orders and penalty notices that can be issued. Blunkett boasts that there have been 6,000 child curfew orders and 150 dispersal orders. These are simply orders against young people to make them stay indoors. The orders prohibit them from going to certain areas and 'congregating', but offer no alternative entertainment.
The unsurprising result of the endless pressure from the government to impose Asbos has been an increase in the number of orders issued, which ministers then quote in order to prove the serious and widespread nature of the problem they are tackling.
Asbos are a serious punishment. They start as civil orders introduced by local authorities, the police or the courts, aimed at persistent offenders. They are supposed to protect the public, but the definition of anti-social behaviour is so wide it can cover any disagreement you might have with a neighbour if you are acting 'in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household' (emphasis added).
The definition could even extend to the home secretary's behaviour of having an affair with a married woman. The orders can and do prohibit acts that are not criminal, such as going into an area, dropping litter or spitting. The orders have a minimum duration of two years.
Because the orders come under civil law, they are supposed to be voluntary. But breaching them is a criminal offence. This is the real power of the orders - a breach is punishable by up to five years in prison. So people sentenced for offences such as begging or prostitution, which are not imprisonable, can end up serving lengthy terms in jail through the imposition of an Asbo.
Some of the orders are obscene. I recently represented a young disabled man who was being prosecuted for street begging. He was also in breach of a previous Asbo which specifically prohibited him from showing his 'wounded leg' while begging! But for a technical fault in the order he would, under the new guidelines, have been sent to prison.
The government claims that Asbos are effective in preventing anti-social behaviour. The evidence is to the contrary. Ministers celebrate the number of Asbos issued but are silent on those breached. During 2000-02, 36 percent of Asbos were breached. In North Yorkshire 86 percent were breached, and in Bedfordshire 75 percent. Clearly for many people Asbos change nothing. Those who breach an order are likely to face custody - nearly two thirds of those sentenced go to prison for an average of 139 days. The government knows this but keeps it quiet. The main government review on Asbos in 2002 cited a persistent offender who was involved in 133 incidents prior to an order being made and 29 the year after. This was supposed to show that Asbos work. But a footnote explained that the individual was in custody for 186 days following the order for breaching the order!
The rationale of Asbos is the old Tory message that if we lock up a 'criminal' they cannot commit crime. The orders have simply extended this reactionary nonsense to deal with petty crime and people on the margins of society.
So are Asbos the answer to 'anti-social behaviour'? One clue is that half the orders relate to youth, 86 percent of whom are recorded as blaming boredom for their behaviour. These are young people who have no money and little choice but to hang out on the streets or in open areas. In Tottenham a dispersal order banning youth from congregating at specific times was introduced for five streets, which included the street where the youth centre is based!
Another clue is money. Asbos are very expensive. The average cost of imposing an order for the police or local authority in 2002 was £5,350. This figure does not include court or defence costs, or cases where breach leads to expense at her majesty's pleasure.
So, if public money was diverted away from punishment and towards creating youth centres and other facilities directed at young people, wouldn't that relieve at least some of the boredom and therefore be a better way to tackle 'anti-social behaviour'? As for disabled beggars, a novel approach might be to give them the money and support they need rather than send them to prison. It seems, however, that such arguments have no sway with the New Labour Party and their new ways, which in truth rely on old values and old forms of punishment.
Asbos scapegoat some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. The Home Office report welcomed the use of the press to promote Asbos in a way that has never been done with other offences. Young offenders in particular are subjected to Asbos and then additionally pilloried in the press. In some cases police witch-hunt the individuals by distributing cards in the local community with their photographs and the prohibited behaviour.
New Labour started by attacking 'squeegee merchants'. They have gone on to attack asylum seekers and young people, and are now moving on to binge drinkers and hedge growers. Where will it end?