Thuggish behaviour needs to be tackled, but Asbos must be applied with care

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The Government celebrated the first anniversary of its antisocial behaviour initiative by announcing that the number of pilot areas was to be increased from 10 to 60. This was at once a vote of confidence in the programme as a worthwhile use of public money and an admission that the problem exists the length and breadth of this land.

The Government celebrated the first anniversary of its antisocial behaviour initiative by announcing that the number of pilot areas was to be increased from 10 to 60. This was at once a vote of confidence in the programme as a worthwhile use of public money and an admission that the problem exists the length and breadth of this land.

Far too many people in far too many places suffer from the irresponsible or aggressive behaviour of a very few. Whether it is gangs of youths lurking menacingly outside a corner shop or an individual playing loud music through the night, someone polluting public land by fly-tipping or malevolent children intimidating people who are elderly or infirm, such acts make other people's lives a misery.

Before the introduction of Antisocial Behaviour Orders (Asbos), there was little recourse. Police were reluctant to intervene unless the offending behaviour was criminal; local councils were preoccupied with the fabric of housing and public areas and did not make loutish behaviour a priority. Afflicted estates were tantamount to no-go areas even for many of their residents. Tired of being told by the council or police that there was little they could do, they were left with the choice of "having a go" - and risking reprisals - or watching the area steadily degenerate around them.

That it was a Labour government, rather than a tub-thumping Tory one, that took the decision to tackle antisocial behaviour is to its credit, even if the move was not entirely free of demagogy. Asbos and other measures associated with the initiative, such as dispersal orders, offer people in deprived and neglected areas the prospect of removing or neutralising known trouble-makers. They mean that there is once again reason for police and local council officers to be involved in areas that had been abandoned to low-level nuisance.

Asbos are a useful tool and one that is relatively easy for people to use. That applications have to be made to a court through police or local council officers is a safeguard against individuals using them to settle personal scores and against the spread of vigilantism. That Asbos can be brought against juveniles, including quite young children, and tailored to their particular behaviour, is another advantage, along with the fact that so long as the anti-social behaviour ceases, it does not leave the scar of a criminal record.

For all the undoubtedly beneficial effects that Asbos have had, however, the picture is by no means unclouded, and there are dangers that need to be recognised - even amid the first anniversary euphoria. Asbos may be the only means of tackling nuisance, but non-criminal, behaviour, but the procedures for obtaining them are not as simple as their advocates suggest. They also differ from council to council.

As the pilot areas multiply, procedures need to be simplified and standardised. Already among the loudest complaints are those relating to confusion of function; different agencies are already treading on one another's toes and reducing the effectiveness of each.

This applies especially to the treatment of those who breach their Asbos. One-third of all orders, ministers admit, have been breached. The next stage is supposed to be swift arrest, but this has by no means always been the response. And, if breached, Asbos are going to be a fast-track to trial and possibly prison, crime figures and prison numbers are likely to increase, neither of which is in ministers' interest. The policy sends a confused message.

Even where Asbos are observed, individuals who are banned from specific areas may simply transfer their activities elsewhere, necessitating a new order. And it is still too early to judge some of the indirect consequences. Will Asbos be seen as a badge of honour by some young thugs? Might they serve to brand some juveniles hopeless cases, even criminals in the making - in their own eyes and in the eyes of others - before they have really been given a chance? Such malign effects need to be closely watched for if the antisocial behaviour campaign is to be judged a success.

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