It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Asbos are illiberal and ineffective

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The Independent Online

The intention behind the Government's antisocial behaviour orders scheme was not unworthy. The legislation that established these orders in 1998 was supposed to empower the police and communities to tackle low-level nuisance behaviour.

The intention behind the Government's antisocial behaviour orders scheme was not unworthy. The legislation that established these orders in 1998 was supposed to empower the police and communities to tackle low-level nuisance behaviour. They were encouraged to apply to magistrates' courts to place control orders on troublesome individuals. This could be anything from banning a yob from frequenting a shopping centre to restricting the hours someone can play loud music. The merit of the legislation was perceived to be its flexibility.

But it is increasingly clear that the scheme is badly flawed. The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee is expected to criticise the way it has worked when it releases a report on the subject next week. The first thing to note is that the orders have been issued far too freely. Of 1,300 orders sought by local authorities between June 2000 and June 2004, only 13 were refused. Local magistrates courts are adopting a rubber stamp approach to applications. This explains the increasing number of ridiculous Asbos that have been issued. A prostitute in Manchester was ordered not to carry condoms. In Bath, a suicidal woman was instructed not to go near bridges or tall buildings. This sort of pointless injunction is no doubt a by-product of the loose framing of legislation, which defines antisocial behaviour as "any behaviour likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress". That could apply to just about anything.

Yet the fundamental flaw in Asbos is that they do not follow standard judicial procedure. If the police want to impose an Asbo, they are not required to collect evidence and prosecute through the courts. They merely need to plead their case convincingly in front of a magistrate. This has led to lazy policing. It has also led to injustice. Asbos have sucked a large number of vulnerable people - children in particular - into the criminal justice system. Breach of an Asbo is a criminal offence. People are finding themselves facing jail terms for what are extremely minor infractions. An Asbo has become a shortcut to a criminal conviction. When one considers that a third end up being breached, the scale of this problem should be clear.

And for every order that unfairly criminalises someone, there is one that is useless. Banning a group of youths from congregating in a particular street usually means that the problem is displaced. While there is a problem with low-level nuisance behaviour, it should not be exaggerated. Home Office research shows that when people are asked to list the worst problems in their neighbourhood, the top answers are usually speeding traffic, illegal parking and litter. In those deprived areas where antisocial behaviour is a considerable problem, the only real solution is more effective policing. And in the long term, the best way that the Government can improve the quality of life on poor estates is to provide resources to improve local schools and tackle drug addiction.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Asbos have proved both illiberal and ineffective. The Government must think of another way to turn those worthy intentions into reality.

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