High political price in failing to deal with nuisance neighbours

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Indy Politics

Since Labour came to power, it has unveiled more than 20 initiatives for combating the low-level disorder that blights so many communities.

Since Labour came to power, it has unveiled more than 20 initiatives for combating the low-level disorder that blights so many communities.

Ministers have barely concealed their frustration with police and local authorities over their failure to use the tools at their disposal against "neighbours from hell" and vandals.

But after a painfully slow start, there are signs that the Government's high-profile, and often repackaged, plans for fighting antisocial behaviour are finally having an impact.

A total of 2,600 antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) were handed out in the past 12 months - double the total number issued in the previous four years, although still well short of the initial annual target of 5,000. Police have also used new powers to disperse groups of youths more than 400 times in the past year and closed 150 "crack houses".

The Home Office estimated that at least 100,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour had been dealt with in the past 12 months and Labour is certain to trumpet even greater numbers in the run-up to the election expected in May.

However, the Home Office's own research suggests that is a drop in the ocean. It discovered that 66,107 incidents of antisocial behaviour were reported on just one day in September 2003 - amounting to one every two seconds, or 24.1 million a year.

Critics have also seized on the admission that 36 per cent of Asbos are breached as proof that the policy is only having a minimal effect. The Government retorts that those who fail to comply with the orders face prison. The political price for failing to tackle the problem is high and there is evidence that the tide of petty crime is eating into Labour's support and obscuring its successes in cutting levels of burglary and car theft.

Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's pollster, has privately warned Tony Blair that the feeling of insecurity encountered by voters caused by antisocial behaviour is having an effect on the voters.

For a substantial number of Labour MPs, particularly those with inner-city constituencies, it is now the number one issue on the doorsteps. Its potential damage to the party has been demonstrated in recent parliamentary by-elections in the former Labour strongholds of Brent East in London and Birmingham Hodge Hill, where the Liberal Democrats campaigned to impressive effect on such issues as yobbery, graffiti, drug-dealing and burnt-out cars.

As a result Mr Blair is determined to put the drive against antisocial behaviour at the heart of Labour's general election campaign. Both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats respond that they relish the challenge.