Leading article: A failing approach to a complex problem

It ill-behoves anyone to dismiss anti-social behaviour as merely a minor irritant in modern Britain. It is true that the sort of conduct usually described as "anti-social" - noisiness, vandalism, casual intimidation, petty crime, public drunkenness and the like - does not constitute serious criminality. Very often it cannot even be classified as criminal at all. It nevertheless diminishes the quality of life of a great many people in this country. It also disproportionately affects the least well-off.

We heard a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the problem from Tony Blair at a seminar with community and local police representatives in Brighton yesterday. The Prime Minister eschewed some of the "tough" rhetoric he usually deploys on such occasions and acknowledged the limits of central government's ability to solve this problem alone.

Yet when it came to policy, Mr Blair's prescription was, sadly, as regressive as ever. He heralded the creation of 40 "respect areas" around the country, including one in Brighton. These areas will receive extra government funding to deal with the problem. Local councils will be expected to set up parenting classes, meetings between police and public, and "family intervention projects" to confront the worst behaved residents in their area.

The Government points to a significant increase in the use of these sort of initiatives by local councils as confirmation that this is a productive approach. But the take-up rate is no guarantee of success. Consider anti-social behaviour orders. The number of Asbos imposed since they were introduced in 1999 is now more than 7,000. But according to research by the Youth Justice Board last year, half are breached and they are often seen as a "badge of honour" by teenagers.

The truth is that most of the Government's programme has been designed primarily to grab headlines and give the impression of action. The roots of the problem go far deeper than these initiatives reflect. On the most basic level, they are about a lack of facilities for young people, particularly in low-income areas. The provision of skate parks, sports pitches and music clubs is sorely lacking. But this is not the whole story. Rising levels of anti-social behaviour are also a consequence of family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, chronic welfare dependency and a dearth of opportunities for structured interaction between children and adults. More broadly still, they are a symptom of the vilification of young people in our culture. This has become a mutually destructive cycle. Unless young people are treated decently, they are more likely to react in precisely the ways we fear.

Hardly any of the Government's policies of the past decade have been designed to address such complex problems. Instead the emphasis has been on punishment. Dispersal orders on teenagers who congregate in town centres are a case in point. Where else are bored teenagers to go? The imposition of an order may result in a temporary improvement, but in the long term it simply shifts the problem somewhere else.

As the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell pointed out yesterday at the launch of his party's policy review on crime, the creation of 3,000 new offences and the publication of more than 20 criminal justice bills by this Government have not made people feel safer. The answer does not lie in ever more legislation. Mr Blair presumes that a liberal approach to crime means being "soft" on criminals and anti-social behaviour. It does not. It means employing methods that work and ditching those that make the problem worse. In his final months in power, Mr Blair seems as far as ever from recognising that his approach is failing.