The 'sin bin' society

The Government's antisocial behaviour tsar thinks that 'chaotic individuals' who flout Asbos should be put into special accommodation with 8pm curfews until they mend their ways. Marie Woolf reports
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The Independent Online

When the Government's antisocial behaviour tsar was out on patrol with the police on a housing estate last week, she was amazed to find that the officer was handing out sweets rather than enforcing Asbos.

Louise Casey, head of the Government's Respect Task Force, said she found the experience "bizarre", and part of general trend for "authority figures" to avoid confrontation.

Appointed by Tony Blair to crack down on thug culture, she has also been shocked to discover that community support officers, whom she admits to secretly following through the streets, have failed to stop aggressive beggars hassling people at cashpoints. And the other day she was dismayed to watch them walk by as a group of young people caused mayhem in a toddlers' playground.

Research by the IPPR think-tank found that the British public are more scared than any other people in Europe of stopping yobbish behaviour. But Ms Casey fears that their reluctance to intervene now extends to the police, teachers and even to youth workers who deal with delinquent teenagers on a daily basis.

She believes the failure of authority figures to set an example and take action is eroding public confidence.

In an interview with The Independent on Sunday, she said that the public are growing disillusioned. "Authority figures have been less comfortable with being authority figures. We find excuses for bad behaviour, as opposed to challenging that behaviour. People are desperately frightened to say anything," she said. "We have to be clear that antisocial behaviour is not acceptable and not tolerable and we have got to do something about it," she said.

With David Cameron saying that "tough love" may be the answer to tackling youths who are out of control, the question of how to end the cycle of antisocial behaviour is one of the most pressing for policymakers today. Some even claim the constant demonisation of young people is merely exacerbating their sense of disaffection.

Last week, the Youth Justice Board got into the debate by claiming that Asbos were seen as a "badge of honour" by some youths, and that the scheme was glamorising young tearaways.

This is an analysis that Ms Casey says is wrong. She and other ministers believe Asbos are a crucial tool in the Government's armoury to deal with young people who have ignored all other warnings.

She even backs extending the scheme of naming and shaming offenders by printing their photos on leaflets and putting them through their neighbours' doors. This would allow local people to report breaches to the police.

But there is a group of people for whom even Asbos do not act as a deterrent. This group of "chaotic individuals" are so beyond the reach of the authorities that drastic action is being considered to try to reverse their destructive behaviour patterns.

Ms Casey believes that the time may have come to extend the family intervention projects - accommodation units which resemble boarding schools with strict rules and even curfews.

The so-called "sin bins" have provoked claims that they are virtual prisons, punishing families who have not in fact committed a crime. But Ms Casey is so impressed by the effect on families who have been asked to leave their council estates that she believes they are "the answer" to turning round people for whom every other intervention has failed.

"I really believe this is the approach that will work. It isn't cheap and it isn't easy. They are quite tough. Basically, it's the end of the road," she said.

Last week in Sheffield, Ms Casey met a single mother who has lost custody of her two older children after a history of prostitution and drug use. With the threat of having her third child taken into care, she found her life turned round after agreeing to give up her liberty and move into an intervention centre.

Now the woman not only has access to her other children but is preparing to move into her own flat. "This is the way I think we have to go with these seriously problematic people," she says. "They have changed her."