Leading article: Another cynical gimmick

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All of the worst aspects of this Government's record on law and order were in evidence in the measures outlined by Jacqui Smith yesterday. The Home Secretary is promising to establish an anti-social behaviour "action squad". Ms Smith envisages this body identifying those guilty of nuisance behaviour and checking whether they have paid their car insurance, TV licence and council tax. The purpose is "to ensure the tables are turned on offenders so that those who harass our communities are themselves harried and harassed".

This is populist garbage of course. Does Ms Smith really believe that the anti-social can all be found relaxing in front of their "plasma screens" with an expensive car parked in the drive? But the populist framing of the plan is a minor flaw next to its glaring intellectual and practical incoherence. Is Ms Smith saying that those who fail to pay their council tax or TV licence are not already targeted by the relevant authorities? And if not, are we supposed to be grateful that Ms Smith has finally decided to enforce the law? And since when was it the job of the Government to demand that people be "harassed"? The Home Secretary seems to want to take this Government's contempt for civil liberties to a new extreme.

But worst of all is the rampant cynicism of the announcement. The idea that £255,000 of funding will be enough to make any difference to the problem of anti-social behaviour is a bad joke. The likelihood is that this crackdown will never even materialise; and, if it does, it will surely sputter out after a few months. It is reminiscent of Tony Blair's ill-fated idea of marching yobs to cash points.

The truth is that this is yet another cheap gimmick, designed to grab favourable headlines for the Government in the populist press.

Somewhat ironically, this programme came as Home Office figures revealed that the number of anti-social behaviour orders issued in England and Wales has fallen by a third. When Asbos were introduced, they too were hailed as a brilliant solution to nuisance behaviour and low-level criminality. Yet all they have achieved is the criminalisation of a large number of children.

The frustrating thing is that the Government is right to be concerned with tackling anti-social behaviour. Vandalism and aggression do indeed make far too many people's lives a misery. But ministers and civil servants need to think deeply about the causes and effective remedies. None of that necessary thought was evident in yesterday's announcement. What shone through far more clearly was an impression of ideological bankruptcy from this Government when it comes to the problem of anti-social behaviour.

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