Anti-social behaviour in Britain

Taking liberties

Feb 3rd 2005
From The Economist print edition

What the war on terror and the war on anti-social behaviour have in common

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WHAT'S a government to do when faced with a bunch of undesirables whose guilt is difficult to prove in a court of justice? Lock them up without a proper trial, of course.

That's how the British government is dealing with people it suspects of terrorism. Its actions, including its shocking announcement last week of a new power of house arrest, have rightly been condemned as an attack on civil liberties. But cases of suspected terrorism are not the only ones in which the principles of the criminal justice system have been abandoned. The state has given itself new powers to deal with minor offences and other crimes which are scarcely less draconian than those to deal with suspected terrorism.

Over the past decade, anti-social behaviour—hellish neighbours, beggars, teenage gangs—has become a big worry in Britain (see article). Rightly or wrongly, people think that drunkards and beggars are more aggressive these days, that teenagers are more threatening and that bad children have got worse. Explanations vary, with some blaming 1960s liberalism and others 1980s individualism. But all agree that the normal remedies for dealing with neighbourhood tyrants are not up to the task. The police lack the time to collect evidence; witnesses are too scared to testify; wrongdoing is difficult to prove; and sentences are too mild.

In response to such difficulties, the government has created a new set of legal tools. Chief among them is the anti-social behaviour order, or ASBO. This is a list of restrictions tailored to an individual offender that can now be obtained either in a civil hearing or following a criminal conviction.

Troublemakers as young as ten years old can be barred from entering neighbourhoods, ringing doorbells, using public transport and mobile phones or even uttering certain words for a minimum of two years. Securing an ASBO is easy. Hearsay evidence, for instance, is admissible in court. The consequences of stepping out of line are weighty: a maximum of five years in prison for doing something that is not necessarily an offence in law. Not surprisingly, such a powerful weapon is popular: more than a thousand ASBOs were handed out in the first half of 2004.

That delights MPs, who were sick of hearing stories from their constituents about local teenagers who have terrorised the neighbourhood by blasting music, breaking windows and spitting at passers-by. Prosecutors and the police are also pleased. Their powers to deal with low-level offences used to be weak. Now they are so draconian that they undermine the principles on which the criminal justice system is built.

Trust us

The power to obtain anti-social behaviour orders was granted to the police and local authorities on the assumption that they were to be used with restraint. Just as the government promises to subject only genuinely scary terrorists to house arrest, so the forces of law and order are supposed to aim their most potent weapon only at the most dedicated and egregious troublemakers. Don't worry, goes the typically British assurance: our powers may be draconian, but decency and common sense will ensure we don't overuse them.

That's not what has happened. Obtaining an ASBO is so easy (fewer than one in 70 applications are turned down) that they have been used to tackle a wide range of undesirable behaviour. ASBOs allow the police to nail people for offences too minor to be criminal. Orders have been secured against crotchety old neighbours, prostitutes, beggars and mothers who argue with their children. Some of these people have subsequently been jailed for breaching their ASBOs: most absurdly, one man was sentenced to four months in prison for howling like a werewolf.

More worryingly, ASBOs allow the police to bypass the normal procedures of criminal justice when they suspect somebody of serious criminal activity but can't prove it. A suspected drug dealer, for instance, can be banned from using a mobile phone—a crucial tool, in his supposed profession. When he is caught doing so, he can be jailed.

If it's broke, fix it

It is not surprising that ASBOs are being used so frequently and so unwisely. After all, the English legal system is founded not on the assumption that everybody will behave with decency and restraint but on the rather more reliable conviction that most people, including the police, are capable of lying and may do so if it is to their advantage. Faced with two competing accounts of what one person has done to another, the courts normally give both of them a hard time. Accusations are minutely examined; witnesses are accused of fabricating their stories. Fail to make your case and you lose.

As the police point out in defence of their enthusiasm for ASBOs, the criminal justice system does not always work well. If the police catch villains, prosecutors sometimes don't charge them; if they charge them, witnesses don't turn up to give evidence; if witnesses do turn up, the case is all too often adjourned because the courts' administration is chaotic. These are, indeed, serious problems; but the government needs to deal with them, not create new, lazy ways around them. The safeguards built into the criminal justice system are there for a good reason. If the police think a man is a drug dealer but can't prove it, he shouldn't go to jail, however often he uses his mobile phone.

The defence of civil liberties is rarely a vote-winner. People are, understandably, moved more easily by violence against people than by attacks on systems. Politicians are keener to be seen to be protecting victims than defending the rights of suspects. In a country without a written constitution, the rules that underlie a properly-run society are particularly vulnerable to the whims of populist politicians, and vigilance is therefore especially important.

Britons are lucky people, and complacent ones. The liberties they take for granted have evolved over a thousand years or so. The idea that any one government should seriously undermine them seems implausible. It isn't.

Anti-social behaviour

Enemies of the state?

Feb 3rd 2005 | SHEFFIELD
From The Economist print edition

People worry more about anti-social behaviour, but that's not necessarily because there's more of it about

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THE trouble began in Meersbrook, a district of the poor northern town of Sheffield, in the autumn of 2003. At first it was just a group of teenagers loitering outside a shop on the corner of Valley Road and Brooklyn Road. But their numbers grew, swelled by an unruly family that had recently moved in nearby. Walls were soon covered with graffiti, fireworks were let off in the street and drug dealers began to tout for customers. “For Sale” signs appeared on local houses. A neighbourhood that had never been particularly cohesive seemed about to fall apart.

Then, last August, the police secured a “dispersal order”, which enabled them to break up groups of loiterers and return under-16s to their homes. They also asked six local people to sign contracts promising not to misbehave. The contracts have no legal force, but seem to have worked. The graffiti have gone, the gang is smaller and better mannered and, as Steve Kidder, a local shopkeeper, puts it, “we're gradually getting back to where we were.”

Until recently, Sheffield's police would probably not have devoted so much energy to solving a neighbourhood problem. Their priorities—determined largely by the Home Office, 140 miles away in London—were tackling burglars, car thieves and other criminals who could be locked up for a satisfyingly long time. But priorities have changed and resources been redirected. Eighteen months ago, the local sergeant, Alan Boyle, had four officers to deploy in the area. He will soon have 20.

The change is a response to demand, partly from local people and partly from the government, for action against the kind of petty irritations collectively described as anti-social behaviour. Five years ago, the concept was almost unknown. These days, it is one of the most prominent issues in local and national politics and in the British press (see chart).

That is probably not because there is more of it about. Vandalism (the closest proxy for it in the statistics) has declined since the mid-1990s along with most other crimes. Rather, says Louise Casey, director of the government's anti-social-behaviour unit, public concern has migrated from old-fashioned things like burglary and car theft to petty incivilities. “As crime has fallen, it has opened up some spare capacity to worry about litter, graffiti and abandoned cars.”

The other reason more attention is paid to anti-social behaviour is that there are more tools for dealing with it. Most powerful of these is the anti-social behaviour order (ASBO)—a civil order, lasting for a minimum of two years, that can be used severely to restrict a person's liberties. In September 2003, a mentally unstable drunk, Paul Booker, was barred from doing anything “likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress” to anybody in Sheffield, or from using any bus, tram or train in South Yorkshire. Perhaps not surprisingly, he soon broke the order and was jailed.

In Sheffield, ASBOs are generally sought only after milder techniques have failed to change a person's behaviour. Just 49 have been handed out since 1999—one to a Meersbrook resident. That contrasts with other northern cities such as Manchester, where 20 orders are being handed out every month. There, according to Martin Lee, head of the council's nuisance strategy group, ASBOs are frequently used as an option of first resort, even for petty troublemakers. “If one person says ‘I was intimidated while using a cash machine,' then we're in.”

Manchester has used ASBOs against both minor indiscretions and serious crimes. Last year, it secured an order preventing four gang members from wearing body armour or riding pedal cycles. Such a move has two advantages over prosecuting people for criminal offences: it is easier to prove a breach, and the resulting sentence is likely to be tougher. In 2003, a prolific Cardiff shoplifter was caught stealing from two shops. For one of his crimes, he was sentenced to a month's detention—a standard tariff for a persistent offender. In entering the second shop, however, he breached the terms of an ASBO. For that, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

The government approves of Manchester's war on incivility. David Blunkett, the former home secretary, viewed the number of ASBOs handed out as a vital measure of police performance; he also affirmed that they should not necessarily be regarded as a weapon of last resort. But is the tough approach the better one?

It is not yet known how many people stick to the terms of their order. Of the 855 ASBOs handed out in England and Wales between June 2000 and December 2002, just over a third—305—were breached in the same period. Not bad; but, since the minimum duration of an ASBO is two years, the proportion ultimately flouted will almost certainly be higher.

A more important test is what happens when the forces of law and order are deployed away from areas like Meersbrook, as eventually they must be. If the Home Office's predictions turn out to be right, locals will gain the confidence to deal with petty nuisances themselves. If, on the other hand, they come to believe that the only remedy for incivility lies in the police and the courts, they are likely to remain cowed.

So far, the drive against anti-social behaviour has encouraged some neighbourly behaviour. It has also given free rein to prejudices and suspicions. As Neil Pilkington, the chief solicitor of Salford City Council, puts it: “There are people in every community who believe that if you're under 18 and breathing, you ought to be on an ASBO.”