Lumpy elbows and other anti-social behaviour

One man got an Asbo for being sarcastic. Law and order is turning into a Radio 4 panel game

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One of New Labour's unquestionable successes, boasts Tony Blair, is the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders, served on yobs and delinquents to bring comfort to our streets. For example, a beggar with a withered leg he's had since birth, was recently served with one by Haringey Magistrates' Court, informing him he would be prosecuted if he displayed his withered leg as it was "offensive" to passers-by.

One of New Labour's unquestionable successes, boasts Tony Blair, is the introduction of anti-social behaviour orders, served on yobs and delinquents to bring comfort to our streets. For example, a beggar with a withered leg he's had since birth, was recently served with one by Haringey Magistrates' Court, informing him he would be prosecuted if he displayed his withered leg as it was "offensive" to passers-by.

That ought to push him into unwithering that leg and walking properly. Or at least to hide it in a stylish Louis Vuitton bag. But this scheme should be extended. Plain-clothes inspectors should entrap random pedestrians and inspect their limbs, serving on-the-spot fines for anyone with off-putting features such as lumpy elbows or hairy calves.

Even more encouraging, in one borough a man was served an order for being "too sarcastic". Surely a conversation between the police and someone being illegally sarcastic would never end. "Hello son, I suppose you think you're very clever by being sarcastic."

"Go on then, serve me with an anti-social order, that should keep the streets safe."

"Oo, doing it again - I reckon you must enjoy sitting in police cells."

"I would if I had you to keep me company with your sparkling wit."

In fact, the accused appealed against the order with the wonderful defence of: "I wasn't sarcastic, just ironic."

The anti-social orders can be used to prevent almost any activity. A youth worker reported that, in Manchester, "Subjects have been forbidden from playing ball sports, and from using words like 'grass'."

Keeping law and order could become like playing a Radio 4 panel game. An inspector could announce the week's forbidden word, then ring a bell before all the kids try to catch each other out while Nicholas Parsons adjudicates on who has to be served an anti-social order.

The reason given for this new system is the growing unruliness of anti-social people. For example, in Preston the council extended the anti-social orders because "kids were throwing fireworks". But there were already laws against throwing fireworks. Or are we to believe that in Preston whole neighbourhoods were being exploded while the police said: "The trouble is, as long as they're doing it with Catherine wheels it's perfectly legal. But rest assured, the minute they use petrol, we'll have them."

And the same goes for the whole issue. The orders won't stop crime, because crime was already illegal. Bank robbers won't tell their mates: "Nobby, I'm going straight. I don't mind looking at 12 years, but I can't face one of those anti-social orders."

Or maybe I'm wrong, and when the police get an informer to wear a wire and visit a known robber, they sit outside listening to a tape in a van. And the orders are: "If he confesses to the robbery, there's nothing we can do. But as soon as he's sarcastic, we'll break the door down. And if he calls our man a grass, we've got him on two counts: he'll be looking at 20 years minimum."

In any case, is it true that anti-social behaviour is worse now than it used to be? One delegate at the Conservative conference said: "Over the past 25 years, we have cast aside the word 'discipline', and now we are suffering from it." And another complained: "Our wives and mothers are frightened to open their doors." But they were both said in speeches at the Conservative conference in 1958.

When I lived on a council estate, I was amazed at how sociable people were, given the conditions. Thousands are crammed in, in close proximity, to the extent that you can hear every movement in any adjoining flat. So you'd know people as "the couple who wash up three times a day and have sex for 20 minutes after Casualty".

There was an inspiring tolerance of each other's foibles, but as the estate became run down, with busted lifts never fixed and repairs never carried out, it became harder to maintain a sense of pride in the environment. It must have seemed so different in the 1950s, when social housing was seen as part of the reward for winning the war, a contract in which you paid the rent and looked after the place as a community. Now the Government looks on state housing with contempt, somewhere you could only possibly be living because you are a failure; and as the decay grows, so does the anti-social behaviour. Now any sense of community is in defiance of the state, as part of a campaign against cuts and closures of the remaining facilities.

Or you can try and fix bad behaviour with anti-social orders, such as the recent one that resulted in an eight-year-old being handcuffed to a railing. And though I'm putting myself at risk with the law by saying it, I suppose that's exactly the sort of image that makes you feel part of a safe and social community.

Incidentally, among the tributes to Christopher Reeve, I don't suppose there was one from Haringey Magistrates' Court. Because they'd probably sent him a warning saying: "Put one wheel inside this borough, and we'll slap an anti-social behaviour order on you. And if you weren't such a celebrity, you'd get four, one for each limb."

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