Antisocial behaviour orders are having little impact on a "hard core" of young hooligans who bring havoc to their communities, the Government's spending watchdog warns today.
The National Audit Office also discloses that more than half of the Asbos issued - each of which costs £3,100 to administer - are breached.
A month after the Youth Justice Board warned that the orders were regarded as a "badge of honour" by some, the NAO raises fresh questions over the effectiveness of the policy.
One in six people complains of high levels of antisocial behaviour, such as drunkenness, vandalism, intimidation and drug misuse, in their areas. That figure rises to almost half in Corby, Northamptonshire, and more than 40 per cent in several areas including Nottingham, Luton and Hackney, east London.
After a slow start, the numbers of Asbos being issued is increasingly rapidly, with 3,500 handed out in England and Wales in 2004-05, a rise of 60 per cent on the previous year.
But the NAO said that "a hard core of perpetrators for whom interventions had limited impact" is responsible for more than half of all antisocial behaviour. It discovered that 55 per cent of Asbos are broken. The average number of breaches per offender was four, although the NAO uncovered the case of one breaking his order 25 times.
Edward Leigh, the chairman of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, said the shock of receiving an Asbo was enough to steer some people back on the straight and narrow. But he added: "Instead of being startled into bringing their behaviour into check, too often offenders respond to an Asbo by sneering at the authorities and continue to make life miserable for the rest of their community. We're not talking about high jinks from a few mischievous youngsters. We're talking about yobs whose persistent criminal activity and intimidation are making our city centres no-go areas."
The NAO examined three of the most common methods to combat antisocial behaviour - warning letters, acceptable behaviour contracts and Asbos. The success rate for the other two sanctions was better than for Asbos, with around two thirds not coming to the attention of the authorities again.
The NAO was critical of the Home Office's failure to evaluate the initiatives but acknowledged that the number of people saying behaviour was a serious problem fell from 21 per cent in 2003-04 to 17 per cent in 2005-06. It said the annual cost of such behaviour was some £3.4bn. But it added: "There is also an emotional cost for victims such as anxiety and depression, which they may suffer for years."
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said Asbos would be an effective weapon against crime if they were properly enforced, but these new figures showed that was not the case.
"This reduces them to nothing more than yet another Labour initiative designed to grab a headline," he said.
Paul Cavadino, chief executive of Nacro, the crime reduction charity, said: "These findings show Asbos are a blunt instrument which have been oversold. In the initial stages of nuisance behaviour, support and prevention work are more likely to succeed than early resort to Asbos."
But Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister, said: "I don't accept a breach of an Asbo is the failure of an Asbo. They aim to stop a persistent pattern of behaviour and for the long periods when orders aren't being breached, communities are spared the intimidation that lessens their quality of life - behaviour which, in the past, may have gone unpunished. Where breaches are reported, it means that individuals are being monitored, that communities feel confident enough to report them."
'We never get any peace at night'
Drinking lager from the can and cheap sherry from the bottle, the small group of men gather every morning outside the chip shop and the adjoining Anglia Stores & Off Licence, the only two businesses that survive in the otherwise shuttered shopping parade at the centre of the vast Kingswood Estate in Corby.
"In a way I'm glad they are there. I can point them out to my youngsters to tell them that's what they will end up like if they're not careful," says Alan Mawdsley, manager of the Linwood Skills Centre, that occupies the corner site, adding with a wry grin: "Actually they do keep an eye on things for us."
It is slightly more antisocial behaviour than habitual drinking that concerns Mr Mawdsley who tries to provide opportunities for local people to get back into education and training from lives blighted by benefit dependency, drug abuse and petty crime of the kind suffered every day by Sunny Singh, who works at the Anglia Stores.
He said: "The kids come in here every day nicking stuff, so much of it I can't keep track. The police are no good; the kids call me Paki. It's very bad here."
Alexine White, 63, who works at a nearby old people's home, also suffers everyday crime and vandalism. She said: "We never get any peace at night. They tried ripping up my fence at my house a while ago - we discovered that the bloke who did it got murdered recently."
Mr Singh and Mrs White have the misfortune to be working in the worst area of a town which, according to today's National Audit Office report, has probably the worst record for antisocial behaviour in the country: about 49 per cent of people said such behaviour played a major part in their lives.
Terry KirbyReuse content