In a heavily trailed initiative, the Home Secretary will today announce new measures to address the problem of drunken youths who gather in public places. That teenagers below the legal drinking age have little difficulty in obtaining alcohol and can, in their inebriated state, pose a threat to the peace and safety of the law-abiding majority is hardly news. It is one of the chief complaints that go under the general heading of anti-social behaviour. It is a nuisance, sometimes much more than a nuisance – and of course, it is high time that something was done.
In fact, we were under the impression that something was being done. That something was the introduction, with much fanfare, of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos). And we seem to remember that, at the time, it was precisely such informal gatherings of rowdy young people – around shopping centres, parks and other public places – for whom Asbos were deemed especially suitable. The idea, we had understood, was that police would be able to disperse such gatherings without criminalising the individuals concerned. Only those who subsequently breached the terms of their Asbo would find themselves with a criminal record.
So what is this new initiative all about? It looks remarkably like the old initiative, with the emphasis shifted from the gathering to the drink. If the police deem the offence to be a one-off, the under-18 concerned will be moved on and have his or her alcohol confiscated; a repeat offender may be served – a big new idea, this – with an Asbo. And the offender's parents may be contacted and served with a parenting order or offered advice.
Now it is clearly sensible for the police to have the power to confiscate alcohol which has been bought, or is being drunk, illegally. It also makes sense for officers to contact the parents of juveniles making a nuisance of themselves, whether as the result of drink or not. But surely there are sufficient provisions on the statute book already to allow them to exercise such powers? At a time when the effectiveness of Asbos is being increasingly questioned –because so many are ignored – it also seems perverse to cite Asbos as part of a new solution.
Anti-social behaviour is a blight on many people's lives; it compounds the difficulties experienced by people living in deprived areas. Binge-drinking is a health issue, too. But both are symptoms of a deeper malaise. Unless the lack of affordable activities and entertainment for young people is tackled, cheap alcohol drunk with a gang of mates in the park will seem an attractive option to many.