Out of order

Problem: one unruly child. Solution: put the whole family out on the street. Peter Stanford visits Mansfield's 'Little Bronx' estate where Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are running 'trouble' families out of town - and leading to a torrent of vigilantes, vendettas and writs
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The Independent Online

Jason doesn't want to talk. The 15-year-old in his football shirt stomps past the open lounge door and glares in. Then he begins stalking up and down the hallway liked a caged animal, bashing into things to make a noise - just in case we've forgotten he's there. "He knows we're talking about him," whispers his mother, Gail, by way of explanation. "He just reacts to it. He's sick of people talking about him, pointing at him, picking on him. He just wants to be able to do something without anyone watching. Because no one has any respect for him, he has none for himself."

Jason doesn't want to talk. The 15-year-old in his football shirt stomps past the open lounge door and glares in. Then he begins stalking up and down the hallway liked a caged animal, bashing into things to make a noise - just in case we've forgotten he's there. "He knows we're talking about him," whispers his mother, Gail, by way of explanation. "He just reacts to it. He's sick of people talking about him, pointing at him, picking on him. He just wants to be able to do something without anyone watching. Because no one has any respect for him, he has none for himself."

Gail McGinn's accent is Scottish, but she has lived these past 19 years on the Bellamy Road Estate in Mansfield. It is one of those places that must have looked visionary on an architect's drawing board in the 1970s - low-level homes, lots of space for individual and communal gardens, all set against a backdrop of hills. Today, blighted by unemployment and poverty following the abrupt closure of the local coal mines, it has more the air of a derelict holiday camp.

Gail, though, hasn't let the neglect around her lower her domestic standards. There are studio photographs of her three children on the brightly coloured walls, neat tiebacks on the curtains and a nest of side-tables for cups of tea. "We've no history of trouble, nothing to suggest we're not a caring family," she says. "I still don't know where it all went wrong, but we're facing eviction because the council says we've not exercised sufficient control over Jason."

Jason McGinn is the subject of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order - an Asbo - imposed by the courts after an application by the local council. His principal offence has been to ride a motorbike around the estate's walkways. He told his parents he was one of a group, but he is the only one to have so far been pursued by police.

The government has hailed Asbos as the answer to teenage delinquency and nuisance neighbours. First launched in 1998 under the Crime and Disorder Act, and updated earlier this year, they are designed to bring together all interested parties - social workers, school welfare officers, police and housing departments - to tackle problem individuals. There is a three-stage process, culminating in a court appearance and an Asbo, which places strict conditions on what the subject of the order can do and where they can do it. In Jason's case, he is banned from going anywhere near the local shops. If you break the terms of your Asbo, you then face criminal sanctions - up to and including a custodial sentence.

Asbos also involve naming and shaming. Those on an Asbo are identified to the local community. So flyers with Jason's picture and details of his Asbo have been put through those letterboxes on the Bellamy Road Estate that aren't boarded up. They have even been distributed at the nearby Tesco, but it could have been worse. There was a suggestion - successfully resisted by the family's lawyer - that the flyer be printed in the local paper.

If people hadn't noticed Jason already, they will have now. With some of them, his parents report, it has brought out the worst. Knowing they can say what they like to Jason and that he is powerless to answer back, neighbours have taken to abusing him in the street and taunting him that he will soon be in prison. One woman in particular follows Jason with a camera, hoping to gather evidence that he has breached his Asbo to pass on to the police.

You begin to understand why Jason is in such a bad mood. There is, however, a further burden on his shoulders. If he breaches the order, Jason and his family face eviction from their council home. His parents are held responsible for his actions and this will be their punishment.

The use of Asbos is a classic New Labour carrot-and-stick policy - tough on crime, tough on the perceived causes of crime. The theory is that local agencies offer those who are out of control and their families support to mend their ways. If they fail to respond, youngsters and parents are both punished. Society can not be blamed. The parents are forced to take responsibility.

The reality in the McGinns' case is rather different. They are quite willing to take responsibility, but they have a youngster with severe behavioural and educational problems that are beyond their powers to tackle, however willing they might be. They need help. What they have got is an Asbo and the threat of homelessness.

The first thing to dispense with is the stereotype of a problem family. Both Gail and her husband have jobs in a town where many don't. Their other two children are doing well: the oldest is hoping to make a career in the Army or Navy, and the youngest is getting good marks at school. So they must be doing something right. Yet these blameless siblings will also be punished with eviction because of their brother.

Gail for her part has put plenty into the local community, running play schemes and visiting vulnerable old people. "Jason used to help," she recalls. "They all liked him. When I look at the pictures of him back then, it just makes me want to cry." As he advanced into teenage years, Jason became more troubled and more trouble. There have been petitions about his behaviour from neighbours on the estate - as well as statements of support for him. His case has split the community.

What angers the McGinns most is what they see as a complete absence of the support from the professionals that is promised in Asbo legislation. "When Jason was excluded from school," says Gail, "it was only because I kept ringing that, months later, he was found a place in a pupil-referral unit where he is doing well. We've asked to be rehoused, for a fresh start, but no one listens. There have been no visits from social workers, no offers of help, only threats."

While we are talking, Gail's husband Danny comes home for his 30-minute lunch-break from the factory. He is more forthcoming than his wife about the damage the experience has done to their family life. "It has been devastating. There have been times when I have thought seriously about taking my own life. I don't go to the local club for a drink anymore because people come up to me and say, 'Call yourself a father?' As if to illustrate the point, as he is speaking the phone rings. Gail picks it up. There's no one on the other end of the line. "We get a lot of that," she says resignedly.

The McGinns' is not an isolated case. In the five years since Asbos were introduced, some 1,600 have been sought from the courts and only 38 applications have been refused. They were initially employed mainly in big centres and against adults. In Leeds, for example, police used Asbos successfully to target drug dealing and abuse in the city's Little London area.

But Mansfield is one of a number of smaller local authorities around the country that has made Asbos a key part of their approach to reviving run-down urban areas. With unemployment rates the highest in the East Midlands, large sums of regeneration money have been ploughed in to replace jobs lost in the mines and associated industries.

Part of the renewal money has gone on improving facilities on large, run-down estates such as Bellamy Road and Ladybrook. On the latter - a maze of streets of 1950s terraced houses - those properties still in local authority ownership have got double-glazing, new kitchens and rerendering. There have been skate parks and a host of initiatives against crime, drugs and teenage pregnancy in an effort to banish Ladybrook's nickname - the Lady Bronx.

In April last year, this regeneration package paid for the establishment of an Asbo office within the council's housing department. The Asbo team was set up, says Kelly Scott, its head and general housing manager at Mansfield District Council, as a direct response to issues that local residents had highlighted.

"We consulted with our tenants and this was one of the things they said they wanted. And we believe it has been a success," she says. "The use, for instance of acceptable-behaviour contracts, one step short of an Asbo, has proved effective in modifying the behaviour of those who have caused problems in the past."

There are other enthusiastic local supporters. Inspector Dave Shardlow of Mansfield Police is one. He runs the teams of beat officers who cover the estates in the northern segment of the town. "If you think back 20 or 30 years, there would have been community leaders from among the pit deputies and managers and the unions who would have sorted out any troublesome youngsters. Now that has all gone. There is no one for them to look up to anymore and the police have had to pick up the pieces. Until we had Asbos, it was hard, but this way we can bring together everyone concerned and have a single approach, rather than in the past when the individuals concerned would have played off their social workers against their housing officer against the head teacher and against us."

For him and Kelly Scott the key word is community. Asbos are a way of building - or rebuilding - the sort of social contract that used to exist in tight-knit communities such as Mansfield. But there are others in the town who believe that in trying to strike a balance between the rights of individuals and the rights of the community, something has gone wrong. Paul Bacon is a local solicitor who has defended several of those facing Asbos.

"My objection is that these orders cover misdemeanors that are at the lower end of the scale and yet they carry such Draconian penalties. No one, for instance, suggested that Ian Huntley's parents should be evicted from their home as a result of his crimes. They also ignore the real criminals and hit on soft targets - troubled youngsters whose parents are vulnerable. If they owned their own homes, the Asbos couldn't touch them. No one is talking about taking out Asbos against difficult teenagers in middle- class areas of Mansfield like Berry Hill."

Bacon also articulates a more widespread concern within the legal profession about the use of civil law and hearsay evidence in granting Asbos in an effort to make them a quicker fix than the more traditional injunction. With Asbos, harsh consequences result from verdicts that are reached on civil courts' "balance of probability" test rather than the more severe "beyond reasonable doubt" standards of a criminal court. Allowing eyewitness accounts to be repeated to court by police officers is meant to prevent witnesses being intimidated into silence, but it can also allow for local vendettas to be legitimized through the judicial process - as many believe happened in the case of the Harris family, Bacon's clients on the Ladybrook estate.

Jamie Harris, 15, was the first youngster in Mansfield to receive an Asbo. Tall, wiry and with close-cropped blond hair, he is one of six children of Martin and Norma Harris. Depending on who you believe, the Harris clan either terrified the estate so much that people were afraid to go to the chip shop, or they were decent neighbours. Their local Neighbourhood Watch co-coordinator, for instance, used to leave them her keys when she went away so they could look after her garden.

No one, though, would suggest that the Harrises don't have their problems. Neither parent works, money is scarce and their children have a poor record of school attendance. Because there are so many of them and they do all have a similar look, they tend to stand out, especially when there is trouble. But the problems they faced during their five years on the estate are beyond the scope of an Asbo.

The first was the appalling state of their house - owned by a private landlord but deemed unfit for human habitation by the council on account of the damp and its broken toilet. And the second was a long-running dispute with a group of other families there who, many believe, got in first to encourage an Asbo against the Harrises before one was taken out against them. Their aim was simple: to punish the Harrises by driving them out of town.

Rather than ushering in peace and neighbourliness on the Ladybrook estate, in this particular case Asbos instead prompted near civil war and brought the lynch mob on to the streets. Even the local beat officer, Marcus Tierney, admits it could have been handled better. "The notices that were put up around the estate about Jamie's Asbo were over the top."

Produced by the council's Asbo team, they included a picture of Jamie under the headline "Not Wanted". If the intention was to invoke memories of the Wild West, Armstrong Road turned into something akin to Little Big Horn shortly afterwards when a mob attacked the Harrises' home, terrifying the younger children.

Kelly Scott staunchly defends the notices. "We took a decision to go for maximum publicity, to get the message across and to build public confidence that we could and would take action when the community was suffering." Such an explanation cuts little ice though with Maria Gibson, a community activist on the Ladybrook estate, where she and her husband live with their three daughters. She is also a youth-offender panel leader and was recently invited to Buckingham Palace in recognition of her work.

"In theory," she says, "I can see the point of Asbos. There are hot spots where young people gather and make a nuisance of themselves and that needs tackling. What worries me is the social factor. The Harris kids aren't saints. Their dad is a scratch-your-nuts type who has struggled to do his best. What they need is support - not being made into a target for vigilantes. If you treat people like animals, they lose their dignity and then they won't listen."

It is estimated that it costs around £10,000 to obtain each Asbo. Gibson would like to suggest that, instead, social services spend £50 renting a public meeting room to bring together all the agencies involved with the Harris family, plus those other families who target them in the community, and try to thrash out a practical solution. "What underlies Asbos," she says, "is the idea of giving power back to communities. Well, let's do that - but not in a way that involves courts and throwing people into the lion's den. There are cheaper, more effective solutions that, with a bit of communication and common sense, might work. The spare money could be spent improving facilities locally for young people."

The Asbo on Jamie Harris had what many see as its desired effect - it moved the problem of the Harrises elsewhere. They found a private landlord who would take them on in another part of town - but only after Norma reverted to her maiden name (such was the notoriety that surrounded the name Harris). If this last desperate bid had failed, her children would have been taken into care. Given the emphasis that is put on keeping functioning families together - and the Harrises for all their problems do function - this can hardly have been counted as a result.

In this case, local shortcomings in implementing Asbos start to take on the look of a more substantial flaw at the heart of the whole system. The impression of muddled-thinking and sending out contradictory messages is, however, best epitomised by a well-publicised incident that took place recently on the Ladybrook. Malissa Smith is 14. She lives with her mother, Maureen, and brother on the estate. She got pregnant. Ladybrook has a very high level of teenage pregnancies and so, as part of the regeneration money, outreach health workers have been provided to work to bring down the figures. Malissa turned to one of these workers for help, explaining, as any other teenager in a similar situation would do, that she was afraid to tell her mother.

A termination was hastily arranged without Maureen's knowledge. Had any checks been made on the family - through the school, for instance - they would have discovered that although Maureen is a single parent, she has provided a good, stable home for her children. By chance, she found out what was happening, but because of the drugs that Malissa had already been given, it was too late to stop the abortion - as Malissa and her boyfriend now said they wanted to do. With Paul Bacon's help, Maureen is now planning to bring a case before the European Courts arguing that she had a right to be informed.

"The irony," she says, "is that if Malissa had been making a nuisance of herself on the streets of the estate, I would have had the Asbo team turning up, telling me it was all my responsibility and threatening to evict me if I didn't change the way my daughter was behaving. But because she was pregnant, it was decided that I shouldn't be involved at all. Which way do they want it - are parents responsible or aren't they?"

The community activist, Maria Gibson, who has supported the family throughout their ordeal, thinks that such double standards are revealing. "For the authorities, people here are all too often just seen as poor and a problem. So the Asbos are one way of moving problem families on. In the same way, arranging a quick abortion is a fast-track way of tackling the problem of high levels of teenage pregnancies so as to meet government targets. Malissa and Maureen - all of us - are just another statistic, and statistics don't have rights. Sometimes, living here, it can seem that we only have rights when it suits the government."