Anti-social behaviour powers are impossible to hold to account

Matt Ford
Thursday, 19 July 2018

In 2014, the system of anti-social behaviour powers in England and Wales was overhauled.

Heralded as making anti-social behaviour more responsive to communities and victims, the controversial reforms gave greater flexibility to local agencies, mainly councils and the police, in the use of a new set of powers. But nearly four years on, new research by the Centre suggests the government has created a regime whose consequences are impossible to hold to account. 

Our research analysed responses to over 800 Freedom of Information requests to all councils and police forces in England and Wales, as well as the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to try to get the most comprehensive picture possible about how three key anti-social behaviour measures are used and who is subject to them, with a particular focus on young adults (18 to 25 year olds). This included the behaviours for which people are sanctioned, in which area they are prosecuted and the court sentences they receive. 

Localising accountability?

Although we had a very good response rate, data collection was expectedly patchy as there is no centralised data collection. Only five police forces out of 43 were able to give us data on the ages of people ordered to leave areas under dispersal powers. 39 councils out of 348 were able to give us figures on the ages of people given Community Protection Notices (CPNs), and only 27 of these could also give information about the behaviours the CPNs were issued for. 21 councils were able to provide statistics on the ages of people sanctioned under Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), and which conditions they breached. At best, a fragmented picture of how the on-the-spot dimensions of the measures was gleaned. 

Disparities in prosecutions

We did, however, manage to get good data about court prosecutions, convictions and sentences for breach of these measures from the Ministry of Justice. They provided us with data for 41 of the 43 criminal justice areas (an administrative unit equivalent to police force areas that the MoJ uses to break their statistics down regionally) in England and Wales. Age, sex and ethnicity information was included. From this data we were able to tell two interesting things. Firstly, there is huge variation between areas in how these powers are used to sanction adults, even after accounting for the different sized young adult populations between areas. Why are only two per 100,000 young adults prosecuted for breach of any of these three measures in North Wales and Surrey, but 47 per 100,000 young adults prosecuted in Norfolk? Secondly, in London, a greater number of young black men were prosecuted for breaching police-only dispersal orders than we might expect given how much of the overall population of 18-25 year olds they make in the capital. 31 per cent of prosecutions for dispersal order breach were against young people, mainly men, who self-identified as being of black African heritage, despite making up only nine per cent of the young adult population in London. 

The need to explain

You might say that this probably just reflects particular ASB issues in those areas, and those areas are best placed to understand and respond to those problems. This was the position taken by Councillor Simon Blackburn, chair of the Local Government Association's safer and stronger communities board in response to our findings. But because the detailed information about the on-the-spot level aspects of the measures - the behaviours people are sanctioned for, how many warnings they received before they were fined, and so on) aren't collected in a consistent way or even at all in most areas, we cannot easily explain the disparities we found. 

And this is the crux of it: if there are issues emerging, such as seemingly disproportional numbers of young black men being affected by measures which carry serious criminal consequences, we need to know why. Unfortunately for the government they seem to have created a system that they cannot explain and in doing so are escaping accountability.