Joan Smith: How not to make teenagers behave

It appears as though the policy on antisocial behaviour is being dreamed up by a bloke in a pub
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The Independent Online

Not long ago, a printed postcard was pushed through my door, announcing that the police and my local council in west London had introduced a dispersal order to deal with anti-social behaviour. Any thought I might have had that this would deal with an intermittent problem in my street, where large, noisy groups of youths sometimes gather on summer evenings, was quickly dispelled. My house is just outside the dispersal zone, which may actually make my street an attractive destination for people who have been moved on but don't feel like going home.

In any case, the language on the card was so sinister that any relief I might have experienced wouldn't have lasted long. I'm not sure I want to live in a country where the police are able to disperse people for behaviour that "disturbs or damages the quality of life for local residents" - a highly subjective judgement, which is unlikely to be made against owners of SUVs who undoubtedly damage my quality of life by taking up too much space and polluting the air I breathe. Nowhere on the card did it distinguish between criminal and merely annoying behaviour, and I was startled to see that the order had come into force on 4 July, American Independence Day, which is familiar for its ringing declaration that all citizens have "certain unalienable Rights".

Not in Tony Blair's Britain, they don't: the authorities now have a wide range of powers, including dispersal orders and the better-known antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos), to stop people doing things that aren't actually against the law. Dispersal orders are aimed primarily at under-16s, giving the police powers to stop and escort them home after a certain time, usually 9pm; around 400 orders have been granted up and down the country, although in my area nobody from the police or council has ever sought my views as to whether I would like them to assume such extraordinary powers, reminiscent of a police state.

It's not that I think antisocial behaviour isn't a problem. There has been a noticeable decline in civility in this country, and I don't doubt that certain social groups, such as the elderly, look on teenagers in particular as a threat. But the Government's knee-jerk response demonises teenagers, while creating more problems than it solves. Take Asbos, which are already being used to outlaw behaviour, such as wandering around indoors in underwear while visible to neighbours, which some people apparently find offensive but seems to me quite harmless.

Indeed it sometimes appears as though the Government's strategy on antisocial behaviour is being dreamed up piecemeal by a bloke in a pub, except that the bloke in question more often than not turns out to be the Prime Minister himself. A few years ago, he had the brilliant idea that yobs should be marched to cash machines to pay on-the-spot fines, a wheeze that happened to coincide with the discovery of his eldest son, the worse for wear, late one night in Leicester Square. Blair's latest inspiration is that parents whose children have been excluded from school should be forced to take time off work to supervise them, which, I suppose, sounds almost reasonable on first hearing.

Then you begin to wonder who would do the staying home in a typical two-income family in central London where both parents have demanding jobs - the father, who might just be running a war in Iraq, for example, or the mother who is a part-time judge? How would colleagues react when asked to take on extra work to cover for someone ordered to stay at home with her teenage son at short notice? And if children are behaving badly enough to be excluded from school, doesn't it suggest that they might be beyond the control of hapless parents?

By another splendid coincidence, the Prime Minister had barely unveiled this half-baked proposal when a 15-year-old in Richmond, south-west London, had the temerity to mount a successful High Court challenge to a central plank of dispersal orders, which were created by the 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act. The boy, identified only as W - a wise precaution, for this is surely the kind of behaviour that might itself attract an Asbo - argued that dispersal zones breached his rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.

The police and Richmond Council argued that the orders were perfectly legal and reduce antisocial behaviour (as well as, presumably, saving the trouble of applying for individual Asbos). The High Court did not agree: in a judgment delivered yesterday which constitutes a major setback for the Government, it ruled that police do not have powers of arrest in dispersal zones and cannot force someone who has not committed an offence to accompany them. "All of us," declared Lord Justice Brooke - sounding like someone from a better time and place - "have the right to walk the streets without interference from police constables ... unless they possess common law or statutory powers to stop us."

Not when identity cards are introduced in this country and it's made compulsory to carry them, but I am getting ahead of myself. For the moment, W welcomed the ruling, saying: "Of course I have no problem with being stopped by the police if I've done something wrong. But they shouldn't be allowed to treat me like a criminal just because I'm under 16." This is subversive talk, and naturally the idea that the Government may have to bring in further legislation to make dispersal zones work is already being canvassed.

The alternative would be to examine the causes of annoying behaviour in young people, which needs to be distinguished from actual criminality. Asbos and dispersal orders blur the line, saving police a lot of time and trouble, but they also bolster the impression that we are menaced on all sides by feral teenagers. I'm not sure this is true - kids may be rude and aggressive, especially in groups, but that doesn't make them all muggers and rapists. And if the problem is a widespread absence of consideration for others, it can't be laid solely at the door of families.

After eight years in power, the Government has failed to produce a state education system that is trusted by parents, resulting in a stampede to the private sector and church-run schools; teachers and parents share a responsibility to socialise children, and there is evidence that they aren't making a particularly good job of it.

And if the aim is to increase co-operation and a sense of responsibility in teenagers, subjecting them to arbitrary curfews and creating unnecessary conflict with the police hardly seems the right way to achieve it. On the contrary, isn't it time we started arguing that dispersal zones and Asbos are themselves a form of anti-social behaviour?

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