Asbo: A License for Persecution

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Last month a teenager in Suffolk was served with an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) banning him from using abusive language and visiting particular areas.

It would have passed by unnoticed, but the district council decided, for the first time, to distribute 500 leaflets revealing his identity and urging residents to notify the appropriate authorities if he breaks any of his conditions.

'Either the locality will be too frightened to go near him or the opposite will happen, and they will get together, seek him out and exact some vengeance on him,' his solicitor David Stewart told Socialist Review. 'I am considering the law on the publication of photographs, and I may be taking further action.'

This is not a strange aberration in the wilds of Suffolk, but the future of policing in Britain. The Home Office is urging local authorities and the police throughout the country to publicise the names of adults and children issued with Asbos. Its new guidelines state, 'Publicising should be the norm, not the exception. An individual who is subject to an Asbo should understand that the community is likely to learn about it.'

Despite the distinct possibility of acts of revenge and mob justice, the Home Office is taking no serious steps to prevent vigilantism. Nor has the Home Office taken into account the impact of publication on these often vulnerable individuals. Who is going to employ the local youth after they have been named and shamed? Moreover there is no evidence that public humiliation acts as a deterrent. As the assistant general secretary of the probation officers' union Napo, Harry Fletcher, points out, 'It's far more likely to make people more angry, more mischievous and more deviant.'

The government claims the guidelines are based on a controversial test case. Last year the Court of Appeal ruled against three young people publicly named in the London borough of Brent. The judge said the publicity was justified as long as it was not intended as a punishment. Yet it is difficult to see how it is anything other than a punishment - the youths reported they were refused employment, victimised and ostracised. One of the boys' father said, 'This has ruined my whole family's life. My son is threatened on the street by vigilantes. These kids have just been branded as responsible for every bit of trouble round here.'

Of course these young people were far from angels. They were accused of wreaking havoc on local estates. But soon afterwards residents complained other youngsters had taken their place and the quality of their lives had not improved. Besides, the orders and the publicity went no way towards addressing the causes of their behaviour.

Asbos were introduced in April 1999 as part of the government's efforts to crack down on what it claimed was a rising tide of low-level unruly behaviour ranging from flytipping to kids setting off fireworks. Initially only 104 orders were issued, but the figures rose dramatically when the government intervened in 2003 - now nearly 4,000 have been issued, with almost 20 percent of these in the most recent quarter (July to September 2004).

This trend shows no sign of slowing. The government plans to make anti-social behaviour a feature of the forthcoming election campaign, and has set up an anti-social behaviour unit headed by Louise Casey (the former homelessness tsar) to promote the orders. The unit helps implement Asbos, organises awards for people who complain about their neighbours and runs courses.

Casey has taken her matronly meanness (she once said people shouldn't give to the homeless) to her new job: 'I think we have become too tolerant around taking action on these particular issues. We think the way to deal with them is by feeling sorry for them, and providing more and more services to them in the hope that maybe then their behaviour becomes checked.'

However, Asbos have been used extensively against the very people abandoned not helped, by successive governments - teenagers, people with mental health problems, beggars, prostitutes and drug addicts. According to government statistics, just under half have been served on juveniles. A recent Napo report documents many alarming cases, including a prostitute banned from carrying condoms, a drug addict banned from begging, a homeless alcoholic banned from consuming alcohol, and a man banned from dancing with a Christmas tree. The report concludes that people are being imprisoned for previously non-imprisonable offences because breach of an Asbo carries a maximum sentence of five years - figures for the most recent quarter show 42 percent of orders are breached and half end up in prison.

This is likely to get worse once the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill becomes law. As well as effectively reversing the presumption of privacy for all children involved in criminal proceedings, it paves the way for the privatisation of some Asbo functions. It also allows the home secretary to allow private community groups like Neighbourhood Watch to apply for Asbos.

Fortunately those at the cutting edge of the criminal justice system are not standing idly by as the vulnerable are criminalised. In April lawyers, youth workers, children's charities and probation workers are launching a campaign called Asbo Concern. Napo's Harry Fletcher, who is speaking at the launch rally, said: 'Naming and shaming is a cheap, headline grabbing measure which will appeal to the Daily Mail but will do nothing to deal with the causes of anti-social behaviour.'

In the same week as the Suffolk teenager was named and shamed, another teenager was publicly branded a troublemaker in a council leaflet. How long before someone is seriously hurt?