Deborah Orr: Asbos are the roughest kind of justice

Our government is leaving deprived communities to punish their neighbours' children
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The Independent Online

A beloved Glasgow poem, by Stephen Mulrine, asks: Whit'll Ye Dae When The Wee Malkies Come? In three short verses, it describes the chaos that will ensue when a gang of children descend on a tenement close. They will break the light on the stairs, knock the door and run away, ruin the washing, block the drains then assault the man who comes to fix them, and much, much more. At the dying fall of each stanza is the rhetorical challenge "Hey, Missus, whit'll ye dae?"

A beloved Glasgow poem, by Stephen Mulrine, asks: Whit'll Ye Dae When The Wee Malkies Come? In three short verses, it describes the chaos that will ensue when a gang of children descend on a tenement close. They will break the light on the stairs, knock the door and run away, ruin the washing, block the drains then assault the man who comes to fix them, and much, much more. At the dying fall of each stanza is the rhetorical challenge "Hey, Missus, whit'll ye dae?"

The poem appears to identify with the boys, describing their misdemeanors as exuberant and high-spirited, rather than anti-social and vandalistic. It seems to revel in the fact that the Missus, to whom the poem is addressed, can do nothing really to challenge the childish authority of the gang.

Its subversion of decent attitudes is part of the poem's delight. It's also the essence of its truthfulness. In Glasgow tenements, and in pretty much all high-density social housing, children do rule the roost, running around the spaces between the buildings like The Lord of the Flies was an activity holiday in La Manga, marking out their territory in wild bursts of destruction and hysteria, bold in the knowledge that nothing can stop them. The difference nowadays, of course, is that this sort of behaviour can lead to an Anti-Social Behaviour Order.

The latest figures on Asbos show that they are taken out more often against children than adults. The great surprise, really, is that this is a great surprise. The kind of low-level nuisance activity - this side of criminal, but distressing nonetheless - that Asbos were designed to challenge is pretty much definable as childish.

Those framing the legislation that gifted us with Asbos insist that they are intended primarily to curb the antisocial behaviour of adults. But the reality is that most people, by the time they have reached adulthood, have either grown out of their antisocial ways, or moved to embrace full-blown criminality. A lesser or greater degree of antisociability, in other words, is part of the normal process of achieving adulthood. A survey some years ago suggested that more than 97 per cent of boys indulged in some activity that would be considered "delinquent", with nearly all of them reverting to perfectly upright citizenship by the time they were 21.

That's why, when people suggest that Asbos are a way of criminalising childhood, they are pretty much correct. Feral children roaming neighbourhoods do cause great distress, and are a screaming affront to community-minded citizens, especially when the authorities seem powerless to stop them. Prior to the introduction of Asbos, there was endless discussion of how young criminals with huge charge-sheets against them were being punished too lightly, or being let off by a criminal justice system whose high-falutin' ideas of fairness and justice meant that it was impossible to hang anything on the tiny terrors masterminding local crimewaves.

The advent of Asbos has changed all that. In a bracingly simple alternative to all the ins and outs of guilt, innocence, proof and due process, this kind of civil order can be granted by a magistrate simply because the balance of probabilities is judged by him or her to indicate the accused has engaged in some sort of antisocial behaviour . The success rate in winning Asbos is extremely high because they are so easy to get. Yet the real sucker punch is that once you've been served with an Asbo, you can be jailed for up to five years for breaking it. Needless to say, children are most likely to break their Asbos. Some estimates say they are being jailed under this legislation at the rate of 50 a month.

For children, as well, the infringement of the rights they would be entitled to in a criminal court is even greater than that suffered by adults. As minors, in court, they are entitled to anonymity. But Asbo offenders need to be publicly named and shamed, so that the local community can be vigilant in ensuring that the order is obeyed. This leaves an odd anomaly whereby children can have anonymity once their breach of an Asbo triggers criminal proceedings, even though their names and misdemeanors are already in the public domain. There is a worry that the relaxing of this restriction could lead to the end of anonymity for children in court altogether.

This worry, however, is more esoteric than the worry that the general public is expressing about Asbos. In a recent survey by the Rowntree Foundation it was found that two-thirds of the public did not think Asbos were a useful way of challenging antisocial behaviour in children, and instead favoured a response that aimed to help the child as well as protecting the victims of his or her disruptive activities.

The survey also found that antisocial behaviour was not a problem for most people, and that it was a problem mainly in deprived urban areas. Attitudes of people in such areas divided into three categories. Most saw antisocial behaviour in terms of moral decline, and favoured stricter discipline . Most local agencies saw it as a symptom of deprivation or neglect, and favoured solutions based on prevention and inclusion. Finally, some people simply considered that "kids would be kids".

What strikes me is that this picture, especially the latter phrase, is much the same as the one Stephen Mulrine conjured up when he wrote the Wee Malkies nearly half a century ago. The Glasgow slums he was writing about have been pulled down. They have been replaced with the gleaming, but cheap, blocks of flats now known as sink estates. Now these are called areas of urban deprivation, and the great change in the period is that these pockets of deprivation have become more concentrated.

In these closed communities, Asbos act, not only as a way of criminalising unneighbourly behaviour, but also as a way of institutionalising the principles of vigilantism. There are plans to extend ways in which Asbos can be triggered - at present by the police, by local authorities or by social landlords - so that they can be set in motion by petition, by town hall meeting, by referendum, or via neighbourhood watch or parent-teacher groups. What is really sad is that after all these years of talk about social exclusion, our government is leaving the most deprived communities to police themselves and to punish their neighbours' children, for no other reason than because this is cheaper by far than intervening to help either the Missus or the Malkies in a meaningful way.

The victim may feel championed by Asbos, but really they're just a way of recruiting decent people to dole out rough justice to kids who deserve instead to be rescued by them.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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