Government ‘thrashing around’ for votes with anti-social behaviour plan, former victims’ commissioner says

No timetable for new laws needed for plan as police lament ‘more s**** we’ll struggle to enforce’

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Monday 27 March 2023 17:10 BST
'Go away': Sunak and Braverman heckled during visit to Chelmsford

The government is “thrashing around” for votes with its new anti-social behaviour plan after years of ignoring victims’ calls for action on the issue, a former watchdog has said.

Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman have hailed a new “immediate justice” scheme and announced new laws against street beggars and a controversial ban on laughing gas.

But large parts of the plan require new legislation, which has not yet been drawn up and has no date set for its arrival in parliament. There are also questions about how police will cope with extra demand generated by the changes.

Dame Vera Baird, who was the Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales from 2019 until last September, said anti-social behaviour had been a “major” part of her work as she battled to stop police treating it as “trivial”.

She told The Independent that the government had ignored formal submissions on support for vulnerable victims and “cut back” councils’ capacity to protect them.

“There’s nothing in any of this plan about supporting victims – that’s very telling,” Dame Vera said.

“All of that appears to be more thrashing around, announcing some clever ideas that sound good when you say them but it’s hard to understand how it will be implemented. I think they are just flying kites thinking it’s a vote-catcher.”

Her former post remains empty because ministers delayed the recruitment of a successor by restarting the process, after blocking Dame Vera from remaining for another term.

The new strategy was unveiled by the Prime Minister during a visit to Essex on Monday after the charge rate for all recorded crime in England and Wales plummeted to 5.5 per cent of offences, with the figure for rape standing at just 1.6 per cent.

Asked if the government was going to “get very tough on graffiti but not on child rape” on LBC Radio, policing minister Chris Philp rejected the comparison and added: “We do take these offences extremely seriously.”

Mr Sunak said he was “determined to restore people’s confidence that those responsible will be quickly and visibly punished”.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak takes part in a Q&A session on the plan in Essex (PA Wire)

“This action plan maps out how we will tackle this issue with the urgency it deserves and stamp out these crimes once and for all – so that wherever you live, you can feel safe in, and proud of your community,” the prime minister added.

Plans unveiled on Monday aim to see perpetrators of anti-social behaviour “face swift and visible justice, increased fines and enhanced drug testing”, the government said, claiming there would be a “zero-tolerance approach”.

Reports of behaviour including fly-tipping, rowdiness and excess noise are expected to rise when a “new reporting tool” is created.

A government statement said police and local authorities would be “given the tools they need to tackle the problem”, but people discussing the strategy on a Reddit page for UK police officers were unsure.

“We're not able to deal with any petty crimes at the minute, why does he think we'll be able to deal with this?” one asked.

Another wrote: “Great. More s**** we’ll struggle to enforce.” A different commenter called the plans a “waste of everyone's f***ing time”, while others questioned if resources would be diverted from issues with class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin, or other crime types.

The national police lead for anti-social behaviour, Deputy Chief Constable Andy Prophet, said he welcomed the government’s focus on the issue and added: “Only through working together can policing, local authorities and other agencies most effectively combat anti-social behaviour in our communities.”

Under the plan, 16 areas in England and Wales will receive funding for either “hotspot” patrols in areas with the highest rates of anti-social behaviour, or to trial a new “immediate justice” for visible punishments.

From left: Community support officer Sonja Viner, police sergeant Sophie Chesters, prime minister Rishi Sunak, home secretary Suella Braverman and police sergeant Matt Collins during a visit to a community centre in Chelmsford, Essex (PA Wire)

Other measures announced on Monday, including the classification of laughing gas as a class C drug and a crackdown on street begging, require new laws to be passed by parliament that have not yet been drafted.

Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, called the plan “too weak, too little and too late”.

“Over the last 13 years the Conservatives have decimated neighbourhood policing and youth services and weakened antisocial behaviour powers so they are barely used,” she added.

“A few hotspot pilots is nowhere near enough to turn that around. We need guaranteed neighbourhood patrols and action in all areas or this is just yet more empty rhetoric.”

The planned ban on nitrous oxide contravenes official recommendations by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which handed the government a report earlier this month saying it should not be criminalised.

“Offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 would be disproportionate for the level of harm associated with nitrous oxide and could have significant unintended consequences,” the document said.

“At present there is no substantive evidence linking nitrous oxide with anti-social behaviour or widespread criminal activities.”

The council said there were “widespread reports of littering” associated with laughing gas but no tested comparison to other causes, and that “evidence of prevalence of health harms, particularly neurological harms, is also limited”.

But in its anti-social behaviour plan, the government claimed that the ban was needed to stop “intimidating groups of young people littering local parks with empty cannisters”.

Mr Sunak dedicated a portion of his New Year speech, setting out his five pledges ahead of the next election, to his ambitions to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director of the Release charity, said: “This is all about winning elections and has nothing to do with preventing harms or protecting young people.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The new cross-government action plan builds on the government’s focus to deliver common sense policing, backed by an unprecedented recruitment drive of 20,000 additional officers by the end of March .”

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