The political conference season is almost upon us. During the next 3 weeks you'll see politicians of all Parties try and capture the public mood. As soon as we get back to Westminster, government plans to scrap the Asbo will face their final Parliamentary hurdle.
If Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs really want to show they're in touch with their constituents, they should back Labour and vote against the watering down of anti social behaviour laws.
This year’s official statistics revealed more than eight out of ten people think anti-social behaviour has risen in England and Wales in the last 12 months (ONS April 2013). 49% thought it had 'gone up a lot’. Just 3% said it had gone down. The LGA commissioned a ComRes poll exactly a year before the PCC elections in November 2011 - respondents said they wanted anti social behaviour to be the top priority for newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners top priority. A Home Office Impact Assessment published alongside this year’s draft Anti-Social Behaviour Crime & Policing Bill readily acknowledged 'it remains the local crime and policing issue that matters most to the public' and a key driver of public confidence in the police and authorities'.
Anti social behaviour really matters to people.
MPs up and down the country will tell you they hear the same stories whenever they hold surgeries in their constituencies. Threatening and aggressive behaviour, underage drinking in streets, bad behaviour in alleyways and family parks, neighbours repeatedly playing loud music until the early hours, cars and motorcycles hurtling up and down residential areas - the list goes on.
One recently retired lady was desperate for help because of the behaviour of yobs who had been terrorising residents in two trouble prone alleyways nearby. Both had become magnets for anti-social behaviour and many residents who were vulnerable, were experiencing nuisance behaviour, vandalism, groups of youths hanging about drinking and vandalism on an almost weekly basis. Residents were on edge, couldn't sleep, and were scared to leave their own homes.
It's not just strangers and that can make the lives of ordinary folk a misery. I see lots of people who are driven to despair by the behaviour of their neighbours. One working couple with a young child who own their home in a quiet and pleasant residential street told me about their nuisance neighbours who rented the house next door and kept them up by playing music late into the night, holding parties, shouting, screaming and arguing. It would be enough to make most people snap especially when you've got a little boy under five to look after as well, it's just not fair.
Another couple, in their 60's owned a nice house by a family park and had lived there all their lives. They had worked hard and were looking forward to their retirement. That's when the constant nuisance caused by inconsiderate yobs on motorbikes and scramblers who were using their road as a rat run to the local park. On some occasions they were nearly knocked down.
Unfortunately by the time people in Ashfield come to see me it is because they are at the end of their tether and they feel like they have nowhere else to turn. I'm worried that the Governments changes mean the situation will get worse because they don't understand the lives of the decent majority of people who play by the rules. They can't govern for the whole country.
Anti social behaviour doesn’t discriminate but it does affect some more than others. According to the latest figures ONS report 'Short Story on Anti-Social Behaviour 2011/12', if you live in the 20% most deprived areas you’re over five times more likely to think there's a big problem with anti social behaviour than if you lived in the 20% least deprived areas. The same survey also revealed that people with children report a high perception of ASB in their area. 29% of single parents and 17% of couples worried about anti-social behaviour compared with 13% without kids.
21 per cent of households who earn less than £10,000 perceived it as a big problem in their community and 18 per cent of households bringing in between £10,000-£20,000 said the same. It is clear that anti-social behaviour still blights the lives of middle and lower income families.
The government's plans to scrap the Asbo are wrong because they throw a tried and tested system into chaos, and there is a big risk that anti social behaviour will go unpunished. As polling has made abundantly clear, the public's priority is to see anti-social behaviour tackled and the perpetrators punished. The Asbo is much maligned but little understood. You often hear that it hasn't worked, that it's a badge of honour, yet the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission found 65% of those who had experienced one of our interventions never offended again. BUT there was a small core of people who did and that's why it's so important to say if you breach the terms of your ASBO - if you continue to abuse, harass or intimidate people - it's a crime, and in serious cases, it’s a crime that can land you in prison. Under the government’s new tool - the Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance, a breach won't result a criminal record because it won't be a crime. The police could still pursue the breach under contempt of court but would have to pay to do so. One local chief inspector told me his legal services team estimated the cost to pursue a breach would be in the region of £800-£1,500 per case. That forces a cash strapped local council or police force to have to choose between pursuing a breach which is obviously the right thing to do, but to do so will divert time and cash from other priorities.
When I asked Steve Williams, Chair of the Police Federation of England & Wales if cash strapped forces would sometimes be unable to pursue a breach because of financial constraints. He told me “yes I'm sure that is a strong possibility.”
Around 1,500 Asbos have been issued annually in recent years but I fear we'll see a reduction in the number of people who are punished while agencies get used to using the new powers. When I asked Gavin Thomas (Vice President of Superintendents' Association of England & Wales about this, he told me, “I think you may well find a dip so to speak in terms of officers having to get to grips with the new legislation and what's actually required.”
A well known teenager who terrorised a neighbourhood in my constituency was given an Asbo by my local council and the police after a series of incidents involving threats, foul language and harassment. The Asbo was his final warning. Under the terms of the Asbo, his movement was restricted and he could only visit some areas in the community if he was accompanied by designated family members or family friends. If he breached the terms he would have committed a crime, the police would report the breach to the CPS and he would end up in court. He'd not only get a criminal record but a possible custodial sentence too.
A written parliamentary question I asked last June revealed that in 2009 and 2010 approximately 20% of stand-alone Asbo's breached resulted in a custodial sentence - that's 1 in 5. That's how seriously the Labour Party took anti social behaviour.
Labour will never be complacent but it's important to remember that, before 1997 there were no specific tools to deal with anti-social behaviour. The Government is now turning the clock back and the introduction of the new Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance which will take its final stages through the House of Commons next month. We have constantly warned Ministers that it’s a tool without teeth, that it’s vital that a breach has to be a crime or persistent anti social behaviour will go unpunished. I don’t think they think anyone will notice that they've taken their eye off the ball. The polling shows that they already have.
Gloria De Piero is shadow home office minister