Blair hails success of Asbos in drive to tackle 'yob culture'

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Tony Blair sought to turn the political spotlight on low-level crime yesterday after returning from his month-long summer break. At an estate in Harlow, Essex, the Prime Minister urged all local authorities to take advantage of the antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) which crack down on troublemakers.

Tony Blair sought to turn the political spotlight on low-level crime yesterday after returning from his month-long summer break. At an estate in Harlow, Essex, the Prime Minister urged all local authorities to take advantage of the antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) which crack down on troublemakers.

Ministers say the scheme has been a success, with 2,600 Asbos issued since their introduction in 1999. The Home Office said a record 1,323 Asbos were made in the 12 months to March.

Downing Street highlighted the number of orders in places such as Manchester and Liverpool but was accused of "spinning" the figures after it emerged that the take-up in London was much lower.

Mr Blair, who is convinced that "yob culture" is a huge issue for many, said: "It doesn't always get the headlines but if you've got difficult people living next door or down the street, if you've got groups of young people misbehaving, it makes life absolute hell."

Asbos prevent offenders from committing specific acts for at least two years. Only local councils, police and registered social landlords, can apply for them, but they rely on people to collect evidence. Civil liberty campaigners say Asbos are creating a dangerous tier of criminal law, allowing police to take action against people without proper evidence or conventional charges.

The civil rights group Liberty says the orders can be used to make a vast range of actions a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail. They include visiting particular areas, associating with certain people, dropping litter and spitting.

Campaigners say the wide reach of the law means magistrates' courts can ban any acts deemed to be "antisocial", extending the criminal law, in effect, to an ill-defined range of incidents. Because orders are outside the criminal law, they say this allows prosecutors to use "hearsay" evidence inadmissible in a criminal court.

Liberty warns that many orders are impossible to enforce and merely move problems from one area to another. It is critical of "naming and shaming" campaigns used in some areas to identify young people subject to orders, saying that can stigmatise families.

Examples of Asbos include a ban on a 14-year-old boy in January from saying the word "grass" until 2010. Another youth was ordered to stop wearing a glove to signify gang membership. Other Asbos were used to stop spitting, congregating in certain areas or visiting pubs.

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Unless there are police on the streets, actively enforcing Asbos, they won't provide the security people demand." Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrats' home affairs spokesman, said: "Much more should be done to get offenders to make active amends for their behaviour. Exclusion may offer short-term relief but it is not a magic bullet."

THE BLAIR IN-TRAY

LABOUR PARTY

Morale and membership has slumped since the Iraq war. But Mr Blair will offer few concessions at the party conference in Brighton on 26 to 30 September.

TRADE UNIONS

Mr Blair is likely to reiterate his "partnership with no special favours" mantra when he addresses the TUC conference in Brighton in two weeks.

PARLIAMENT

Mr Blair's weekly jousts with Michael Howard resume a week today. The reluctant Prime Minister is expected to force a ban on fox-hunting through Parliament.

NORTHERN IRELAND

A new effort to complete the stalled peace process will be made by Mr Blair and Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, at talks on 16 September.

AFRICA

Mr Blair wants to focus the world's eyes on Africa and the Commission for Africa, which holds its second meeting next month. He is also under pressure to send troops to Sudan.

ENVIRONMENT

Mr Blair plans a speech on the environment. His problem is how to distance himself from George Bush without alienating him before the presidential election in November.

FARMING

Mr Blair will have briefings on the crisis facing farmers after a poor harvest. Farmers want CAP payments speeded up.

IRAQ

Iraq remains a cloud. Mr Blair hopes the issue does not have a high profile during the Labour conference.

HARTLEPOOL

Mr Blair's decision to send Peter Mandelson to Brussels may return to haunt him if Labour loses the resulting by-election in his Hartlepool seat, expected next month.

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