Are antisocial behaviour strategies antisocial?

From relatively obscure and humble beginnings 'anti-social behaviour' has become a key theme in the current law and order debate. Politicians of all parties regularly refer to the problem of 'crime and anti-social behaviour'. Policies are proposed, new powers introduced and legislation passed to deal with the problem of anti-social behaviour.

Richard Garside
Tuesday, 22 March, 2005

But six plus years on from the development of anti-social behaviour strategies and the creation of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order, and with a report on anti-social behaviour due from the Home Affairs Committee, the time is ripe to review the strategy.

Are we clear about the problem we are seeking to solve?

The common definition of anti-social behaviour is contained in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act. According to that Act anti-social behaviour involves acting 'in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household'.

In theory this covers a range a different behaviours. Noisy neighbours, yobbish teenagers or speeding drivers could all be considered anti-social on this definition; but so could doorstepping journalists, a shirty letter from the bank manager, or political parties cold-calling voters in the run-up to an election.

As a result it has proved difficult to offer any real precision about what anti-social behaviour might in practice mean. The 2003 White Paper, Respect and Responsibility, acknowledges that anti-social behaviour can mean 'different things to different people'. A Home Office report in 2004 argued that 'by describing the consequences of behaviour rather than the behaviour itself, the definition lacks specificity and measurability'.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Unit developed a typology of different types of anti-social behaviours in 2003. This covered a range of behaviours, from quite serious criminal acts such as opening a crack house to the frankly trivial: letting down car tyres or dropping litter. But in general the Unit has avoided offering any clear definitions. Louise Casey, the director of the Unit said in an interview last year that anti-social behaviour 'spans a vast list... It is a very big range of problems'. She did not offer anything approaching a coherent definition.

This lack of precision means that significant powers to determine what anti-social behaviour entails have been placed the hands of local authorities, social landlords and the police. Armed with the powerful Anti-Social Behaviour Order, these agencies have been given a strong brief from the Government to 'take a stand' against anti-social behaviour.

Are we targeting the right people for the right reason?

The anti-social behaviour strategy supposedly targets a yobbish minority who blight the lives of the decent majority. As the Home Secretary put it in a recent Home Office press release, 'Tackling anti-social behaviour is a major priority for the government. We know that too many communities are still blighted by the mindless behaviour of a few yobs, who can ruin the quality of life for everyone.'

Following a relatively slow start the anti-social behaviour strategy developed rapidly. In 2001 some 323 ASBOs had been issued, rising to 403 in 2002. By 2003 this had jumped to 1,035. In the first nine months of 2004 some 1,825 ASBOs had been issued.

Regardless of the expressed intentions of the strategy, evidence is emerging that the wrong people are being targeted, and for the wrong reasons.

Research by Caroline Hunter and Judy Nixon on 67 nuisance case files from 10 landlords across England found that two-thirds of those described as being involved in anti-social behaviour have some form of vulnerability. These included those who were victims of sexual and physical abuse (18 percent); those with mental health problems (18 percent); those with drug-related problems (12 percent; those with alcohol problems (10 per cent), those with physical disability (9 percent) and households with children who were 'out of control' (31 percent). Research by Mark Foord at the University of Central Lancashire has found evidence that housing agencies are more readily resorting to eviction, increasing the numbers of families in temporary or unsatisfactory private rented accommodation.

Behind these bald statistics lie real people with real stories to tell; such as a woman threatened with eviction, along with her 15-year-old son, for having an untidy garden. There were no other contributory factors, no rent arrears, no other complaints. She was also in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. In another case a deaf woman, who also suffered from epilepsy was evicted from her property after complaints of noise. As a deaf person she did not understand the concept of noise, nor did she fully understand the complaints communicated to her verbally by her housing officer.

A mother with a large family who had escaped a very violent background faced eviction following possession proceedings on the grounds of anti-social behaviour. One of her children had severe Attention Deficit Behaviour Disorder. In the ensuing publicity around the case the child's school place was withdrawn. The family eventually left the area. The son ended up in a secure unit.

One client of Shelter faced possession action for nuisance. Almost all the incidents involved her partner threatening, beating and, in one instance, raping her. In another case a housing association tenant who frequently stayed with friends after being harassed by a neighbour was advised by her landlord that she was in breach of her tenancy conditions because she was not residing at her property.

One of the more shocking cases of an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) being served involved another client of Shelter who lived with her husband and teenage daughter. Her daughter had Crohn's Disease and she was disabled and suffered from severe depression. Following the imposition of an ASBO on the husband the whole family were evicted and deemed to be intentionally homeless. The husband subsequently lost his job and they have been living in the Shelter client's mother's one bedroom flat ever since.

Other disturbing ASBOs include the Manchester prostitute banned from carrying condoms, and Leonard Hockney, who died in jail after breaching an ASBO banning him from begging. A child with autism was threatened with an ASBO because he was trampolining in his own garden and making strange noises that caused distress to neighbours.

In the plainly surreal category must surely be placed the ASBO imposed on 23-year-old Kim Sutton from Bath, who following a spate of failed suicide bids was recently subjected to an Order banning her from jumping off bridges or into canals and rivers. Magistrate Pamela Gwyther, reportedly told her, 'You are not to dip one toe, not one finger, in a river or canal'.

Rethinking the approach

Such vulnerable and needy individuals were clearly not in the sights of Ministers and Members of Parliament when anti-social behaviour legislation was being drawn up and passed. Moreover, it would be silly to deny that there are a range of behaviours, some of which fall outside the current criminal law, that can be disruptive and distressing for very many people.

But it time to recognise that the current anti-social behaviour strategy is punishing individuals for being mad and sad, as well as for being bad. The challenge for the next parliament will be to unpick the current legislative and policy framework and develop a strategy that acknowledges the complexity of personal and social problems.

An edited version of this article was published in Whitehall and Westminster World, 22 March 2005