Legal Opinion: Labour has not curbed yob culture in Britain

The Asbo was supposed to help communities combat nuisance behaviour. Robert Verkaik, Law Editor, reviews the unhappy record of a flagship Labour policy

Wednesday 28 May 2008 00:00 BST

When it was first unveiled in 1998, the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) was hailed as a panacea for a range of low-level nuisances that plagued Britain's communities. Since then, the rise and eventual fall of the Asbo has come to symbolise the futility of using a stick without a carrot to tackle deep-rooted anti-social behaviour in broken-down neighourhoods.

Latest figures relating to the granting of Asbos show that local authorities and police forces have begun to recognise the short-comings of this quick-fix approach to social disruption. Between 2005 and 2006 the number of Asbos fell by nearly a third, from 4,123 to 2,706.

But of much greater concern must be the level of breaches of the original order which have soared to 61 per cent among teenagers in the same period. This is partly because young people have come to regard the imposition of an Asbo as a badge of honour, rather than the deterrent it was supposed to be.

A recent study commissioned by the Home Office, but published independently, found that nearly a third of young people interviewed after they had received an Asbo declared that it had had no effect on their propensity to become involved in anti-social behaviour.

Roger Matthews, Professor of Criminology at the South Bank University and co-author of the report Assessing the Use and Impact of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, says that many of those interviewed had underlying drug problems that remained unchanged by the order.

One of the 60 interviewees tellingly reported to researchers:

I don't think the Asbo has affected me. . . I do care if I get arrested [for a breach] but I don't care about the Asbo because I need to do what I need to do and I need what I need. What they say and what they do ain't going to get me off the brown and white [heroin and cocaine].

The study further found that when the order included a geographical exclusion, the nuisance behaviour simply became displaced to another neighbourhood. A 21-year-old Asbo recipient said:

When I got the first Asbo, I was banned from the whole area and they take your flat away, everything. You have to start again. I was homeless. After that, I moved (to an inner-city borough) and started pissing people off there.

All this is not to say that there haven't been some Asbo success stories. These tend to be where the order has been specifically tailored and includes a proper support package for the individual. But these cases have been too few and far between.

A decade after the introduction of this flagship policy the impression is that ministers will have to invest a great deal more targeted funding or go back to the drawing board.

And in a speech this month on anti-social behaviour, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, did indeed urge greater use of alternative "early intervention" measures, such as parenting orders, acceptable behaviour contracts and support orders to tackle bad behaviour from the start. Nevertheless, Ms Smith felt it necessary to describe the Asbo as "a groundbreaking innovation" which had been wrongly dismissed as a gimmick.

This is only partly true. Asbos have not only failed to end social disturbance, but they have brought hundreds of young people into contact with the criminal law when their original behaviour only merited a civil sanction.

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