Leading article: Symptoms of an underlying illness

All of a sudden, the policing authorities seem to be taking an interest in anti-social behaviour. The Chief Inspector of Constabulary, Sir Denis O'Connor, yesterday presented the findings of a survey which shows the phenomenon to be significantly under-reported and suggested that the police need to "reclaim the streets" from rowdy youths. This was swiftly followed by an admission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, that a "psychological contract" has been broken between the police and the public when it comes to tackling troublemakers.

The imminent reductions to the policing budget are likely to have much to do with this unusual flurry of interest. Sir Denis yesterday warned that cuts would result in fewer police on the streets and more misery for the public. But despite this special pleading, public anxiety about the rise of anti-social behaviour is not to be dismissed. The case of Fiona Pilkington, who in 2007 killed herself and her disabled daughter after a sustained campaign of harassment from local youths, grabbed the nation's attention last year not only because of the tragic detail of her experience, but because so many people could empathise with what she had been through.

Labour's response to public concerns about low-level street disorder was to criminalise it through the imposition of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. This approach failed. Reported anti-social behaviour did not decline after the introduction of Asbos. And more than half of the court orders handed out between 2000 and 2008 were breached. There were even tales of youths regarding them as "badges of honour".

Sir Denis is right to demand that the police take public complaints more seriously. It is outrageous that frightened and vulnerable individuals in many communities feel ignored by the police. The Leicestershire police did nothing to help the Pilkington family, despite countless pleas for help. This appears to be another malign by-product of Labour's target culture. Most forms of anti-social behaviour, such as abuse and noise, are not recordable crimes so the police, with their eye on official clear-up rates, have no real incentive to deal with it. It seems sensible, as Sir Denis urges, for police to be instructed to deal with reducing social "harm" as well as basic crime. Community policing needs to be more than just a slogan. And the police need to be compelled to share information on vulnerable families and to identify problem ones.

Yet we also need to devise more effective ways of dealing with the problem than simply more police. Labour's mistake was to focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying illness. Anti-social behaviour is an amorphous phenomenon. It can range from persistent noise to violent intimidation. And as such it is difficult to identify the specific causes. A whole range of factors have been blamed for the rise in problem behaviour, from the increased availability of cheap alcohol, to the disappearance of community authority figures (such as park keepers and bus conductors), to welfare dependency, to the failings of the education system. There is likely to be an element of truth in all these explanations. But it is not necessary to have a complete understanding of the origins of this anti-social behaviour to begin to tackle it.

There are constructive approaches that have been under-explored. Parents need to be encouraged to take greater responsibility for the behaviour of their children. Councils need to invest more in educational and leisure facilities for young people, particularly in deprived areas. Often, the reason young people congregate on street corners is because they come from violent and chaotic homes and literally have nowhere else to go. What is clear is that parents, schools and councils need to be involved in curbing the blight of anti-social behaviour. Relying on the criminal justice system alone has been tried – and found wanting.

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