Condemn the yobs, but tackle the deeper social malaise

We are all to blame for the growth of anti-social behaviour


There is a truth about the yobbish behaviour wewitnessed on our television screens from Belgium last weekend which we have to face. It is not confined to the followers of English football abroad. It is commonplace, here at home. Every Friday and Saturday night, in towns and cities across our country, young men are engaging in the same sort of outrageous, drink-fuelled disorder with often devastating consequences to victims and communities as a whole.

There is a truth about the yobbish behaviour wewitnessed on our television screens from Belgium last weekend which we have to face. It is not confined to the followers of English football abroad. It is commonplace, here at home. Every Friday and Saturday night, in towns and cities across our country, young men are engaging in the same sort of outrageous, drink-fuelled disorder with often devastating consequences to victims and communities as a whole.

This is no excuse for the appalling behaviour in Brussels and Charleroi. But, it does, however, illustrate a wider malaise in our society which we must confront: the gradual decline in the standards of public behaviour and order.

Loutish, anti-social behaviour has many forms, some serious, some less so. The dropping of litter or a child spitting can be an aggravating nuisance, but a racist neighbour who harasses and threatens an Asian family next door can destroy their peace of mind and quality of life. Yet the cumulative effect undermines the social bonds that make communities tick. It restricts innocent people's freedoms to live their lives as they wish and, in doing so, creates the breeding ground for more serious criminal behaviour.

The 1998 British Crime Survey shows a very close correlation between those neighbourhoods that are scarred with graffiti and litter, where there are visible signs of public disorder, and those communities which suffer from more serious crimes. Those who live in areas blighted by disorder are two-and-a-half times more likely to be the victims of burglary, and nearly twice as likely to be victims of violent crime. But this should come as no surprise. Allow an area to decline, allow acts of vandalism to go unrepaired or children to behave in an unruly way, and the fear of crime rises. As a result, law-abiding people avoid using the local park during the day or bus stops at night, allowing criminals a freer hand.

Tackling anti-social behaviour, whether from unruly neighbours or in city centres on Friday and Saturday nights is not straightforward. Targeted, no-nonsense policing has a key role, but the idea that these issues are just a matter for the police has long been rejected by the service itself. Social services should be asking why young children are running riot late at night, hospitals should be looking into why their casualty departments are full of the victims of pub fights every Friday and Saturday night, housing officials should be rooting out the racist tenants, and schools should be making tackling truancy and bullying a serious priority. New crime and disorder partnerships are bringing all these bodies together to tackle these problems in every area, but more needs to be done.

The Government has given the police and local councils new powers to deal with anti-social behaviour. The new Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) can be used against individuals who cause harassment to innocent people in the community, and provide conditions such as curfews, to afford a welcome respite to victims. In the first 14 months, more than 70 orders have been made by magistrates - and they have proved a great success. Of course, radical changes to the law often take time to bed down, and police officers and council officials tell me that the mere threat of an ASBO has been an effective weapon against the local thug or bad neighbour. But I would still like more of them to be used.

So, this week I will be publishing new guidance to councils and the police about how best to apply for these orders, and when they should be used. It makes clear that ASBOs should be used swiftly where circumstances demand it, not just against the very hard cases of unacceptable behaviour. By law, either the police or local councils can apply for these orders. This dual responsibility is there to ensure a quick and flexible response but in some cases it has led to buck-passing. There needs to be effective co-operation and consultation. But this new protocol highlights the fact that either the police or town halls can apply for an order without the agreement of the other. What everyone wants to ensure is that decision-making does not disappear into the treacle of case conferences. I hope and expect this will help those communities run ragged by the anti-social behaviour of a minority. They deserve it.

Government can only do so much. All of us need to do our bit if we are to reverse the decline in public order. The "walk on by" society is no society at all. We all have a responsibility for the behaviour of our children, responsibility for the antics of boyfriends and husbands, responsibility for the way we conduct ourselves and help protect the area in which we live. Employers need to show a responsibility for the behaviour of their staff in and out of the workplace, and pub owners must take responsibility for drunken violence in and outside of their establishments.

Drink-related violence is a particular concern, as we saw in Belgium. Indeed, recent figures appear to show an increase in these sorts of drink-related crimes as the number of young men in the population has risen and as the successful economy has provided them with more money to spend. Our proposals to end uniform closing times, and crack down hard on rogue landlords, should make a real difference. I have been enormously impressed by some of the schemes in place across the country to tackle this social blight. In Cardiff, for example, the casualty department of a local hospital is working closely with the police better to identify the trouble spots. We have invested money from the Crime Reduction Programme to support this pioneering work, and licensees have helped by introducing toughened glasses to reduce the chances of serious injuries. I want to see other areas following suit. But there are immense differences in the energy and success of crime reduction schemes across the country.

In many areas - where the police, councils and others have got a grip and launched effective joint action - there have been tremendous results. Yet in others performance has been slower. In the 12 months to September last year, for example, the headline national figures were up 2 per cent, yet recorded crime still went down in the majority of police force areas (24 as against 19). In Lancashire, crime fell by 11 per cent - and at a more local level the differences are even more marked.

It is the same story we find among schools, hospitals - and in big companies, too. Similar institutions, with the same resources, catering for similar people, achieve remarkably different outcomes - and the key almost always is the leadership and management skills of those locally in charge.

Many of the serious, persistent offenders are hard drug addicts. We're putting in place a substantial programme of drug testing, referral and treatment - in police stations, prison and probation. But few of those who caused serious trouble in Belgium, or in our streets at the weekend, are drug addicts. Many will be in good jobs or steady relationships.

That's why we need to take action not just against specific football-related violence, but on a much wider front, as well to break the links between alcohol and violence to help create a safe, just and tolerant society for everyone.

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