Happy 20th birthday anti-social behaviour

Helen Mills
Monday, 13 August 2018

It is 20 years since anti-social behaviour powers came onto the statute books in England and Wales. Since their introduction, these powers have passed through some significant life stages. First, there were the early years of indulgence and attention. Tony Blair fathered anti-social behaviour (ASB) as a flagship element in New Labour’s ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ law and order platform. ASB was given a huge remit, with its wide-ranging definition of acting in a manner that causes, or is likely to cause, harassment, alarm, or distress to others.

Since the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) in 1998, a proliferation of these powers followed. The Criminal Anti-Social Behaviour Order (CrASBO), the Drinking Banning Order (DBO) and the Individual Support Order (ISO), amongst many others. The agenda was given both a national taskforce (the Respect agenda) and an outspoken advocate in Louise Casey.

These powers typically enabled the police and local councils to fine, exclude or coerce those deemed anti-social in an effort to change their behaviour. Eventually, if breached, individuals could face prosecution.

ASB and the speed of its growth attracted much controversy. The agenda’s focus on symptoms rather than causes for example. That few legal safeguards were offered by the process. The potential arbitrary nature of the powers was also much debated. As was the risk that enforcement approaches could further exclude the most vulnerable.

By the late 2000s and Tony Blair’s resignation, ASB had lost its most fervent advocate and with it, seemingly, much of the early enthusiasm displayed by its political masters. Indeed one of Labour’s own frontbench described it as an approach they wished to see consigned to the past.

A new ASB framework?

Then came the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. It signalled a break from the New Labour agenda on ASB, at least in rhetoric. Less the indulgent feeder Labour had been, more the broom to straighten the mess out. ‘The previous antisocial behaviour legislation,’ said then Home Secretary Theresa May, ‘provided a veritable alphabet soup of powers’. The coalition government reformed the then 19 ASB powers in operation, including ASBOs, into six new powers in 2014.

It may on the surface have looked like a tightening up of the use of ASB powers. But this was no attempt at drawing back on the use or legitimacy of ASB interventions. In fact quite the opposite.

It was more accurately thought of as a rebrand. The coalition government left untouched the wide- ranging nature of the definition of ASB. Its reforms further devolved the powers and decision-making associated with them to local areas and, in some instances, to frontline practitioners. But gone was the taskforce, the national agenda and figurehead. Also gone were any requirements for those implementing ASB enforcement to say who they were sanctioning, why and with what consequences.

The result is now the routine use of controversial powers, with vastly different practices between areas, and about which it is impossible to get a full picture.

Who is being sanctioned?

I and colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies recently published two briefings detailing the findings of over 800 Freedom of Information requests about the use of ASB powers. Our intentions were to gather data to see who is being criminalised by these powers, for what, and with what outcomes. Our ambitions were largely thwarted. From what we can tell (and there’s lots we can’t tell), the use of ASB powers varies significantly between areas, with a relatively small concentration of extremely high use. The array of behaviours these powers are used in relation to is dizzying: car racing, street drinking, begging, brothel-related ASB, fighting, touting, shouting in the street, intimidation and abuse, to name just a few that ASB practitioners spoke to us about.

But finding out the numbers of those being moved on and who those being prosecuted are, was impossible to establish. While we found out more about the numbers prosecuted, their demographics and why they were prosecuted remained unclear.

Current debates

The original speed of ASB’s growth was a subject of significant debate and became something of a lightning rod for criticism of New Labour. Current debates about ASB have splintered into separate conversations and local campaigns, ones in which the Home Office and central government emerge unreferenced and unscathed. For example, the recent furore about proposals to use ASB measures to tackle ‘organised begging’ and ‘rough sleeping’ in Windsor during the run up to the Royal Wedding, largely focused on the local council’s leader as the problem.

Of all the coalition’s ASB reforms, Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), which allow councils to prohibit or require specific behaviours in public places, have received the most attention, both in terms of local resistance and national press coverage. But PSPOs are simply the most visible element of the wider ASB agenda. PSPOs are the only one of the six ASB powers that require public consultation as well as street signage. What about the powers that don’t?

What about dispersal powers, a routinely used police power to exclude individuals from a specified area for periods of up to 48 hours? Over 13,350 dispersal zones were declared in England and Wales in 2016 and many thousands of people were required to move on. We found Black African young men aged between 18-25 years old were significantly disproportionally prosecuted for dispersal powers in London.

Less than a year ago the government’s own commissioned report on racial disparities in criminal justice, the Lammy review, concluded agencies must explain racial disparities in criminal justice and if not, introduce reforms to address them. The current ASB regime makes it impossible for the government to respond to its own agenda. As other colleagues have pointed out, it’s created a system it cannot explain.

A politically orphaned dog’s breakfast

ASB may be politically orphaned in Westminster but this has not inhibited its use in the day-to-day lived reality of managing social space. ASB powers are now very much ‘out there’, fuelling public expectations, and what councils and the police believe they could or should achieve. ASB powers may no longer be the ‘alphabet soup’ they once were but they are still a dog’s breakfast of a policy agenda.

Helen Mills is Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

More on