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The politics of 'proper behaviour'

Mark Easton | 12:41 UK time, Tuesday, 29 September 2009

It seems there is a big red button marked "ASB" at Labour HQ. The sign next to it reads: "In case of electoral emergency, press here".

No surprise that Gordon Brown is today thumping the anti-social behaviour (ASB) button with a mallet. It is a tactic which been instrumental in Labour's success for more than a decade.

Asbos in headlinesEven though many Brownites had previously sniffed at a policy they regarded as punitive and populist, needs must. A Blairite invention has been wheeled to the frontline for the fightback.

Anti-social behaviour was once a phrase confined to academia, but Tony Blair took the concept out of psychology lecture halls and made it mainstream politics.

As shadow home secretary in the early 1990s, Blair met the residents of problem estates near his home in Hackney. He realised that millions of potential Labour voters were turned off the party because they thought it didn't understand the realities of crime and disorder in their daily lives.

Law and order was seen as a Conservative issue - but Blair determined to mount a surprise raid on enemy territory.

When I interviewed Jack Straw a couple of years ago, he recalled the day senior party figures were told of Blair's plans:

"I remember Tony coming to shadow cabinet and saying: 'We are going to change'. And then he tried to get going what has now become a famous phrase about 'tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime'."

Initially there was scepticism. Instinctively, the party saw a crackdown on anti-social behaviour as an attack on the working classes. But Tony Blair won them round and convinced members that being "tough" could be a socialist cause.

Internal polling showed the party that Blair had touched a real nerve. The public was hugely enthusiastic and on the back of its landslide victory, almost the first legislation Labour passed was the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Within its pages, the Asbo was born.

Crime and Disorder Act 1998Anti-social behaviour was defined in the act as behaving:

"...in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself."

Suddenly, non-criminal activities which might previously have been seen as nuisance, mischief, selfishness or just bad manners were enshrined in statute and subject to action from the state through courts and police.

Actions within the definition included harassment, verbal abuse, noise nuisance, writing graffiti and smoking or drinking alcohol while under age.

Not included, despite being the most commonly cited examples of ASB in an early Home Office study, were "speeding traffic" and "illegally/inconveniently parked cars".

It seemed clear that the real targets for action were rowdy teenagers, not selfish or dangerous drivers.

Having defined the problem, the Home Office set about quantifying it and concluded in a "one day count" in 2003 that there had been 66,107 reports of ASB across 24 hours. This equates to 1.5 million incidents per year.

Some have argued that New Labour manufactured a social crisis to justify its draconian response. But voters were highly appreciative of the new Asbo powers and from a slow start, courts up and down the country began issuing the new orders in their thousands. By 2005, magistrates were slapping them on 80 people a day (although Labour's hopes that 5,000 be issued each year were never realised).

Tony Blair again pressed the ASB button during the 2005 election campaign and, at the party conference later in the year, suggested his third consecutive election victory was down, in part, to his approach to anti-social behaviour. He told his party:

"Respect is about more than crime. It's about the loss of a value which is a necessary part of any strong community: proper behaviour; good conduct; the unselfish notion that the other person matters."

His argument seemed to be that it was now the job of the state to try and get people to be nice to each other.

Echoing the "Broken Britain" slogan his political opponents were busy honing, he talked of the "break up of traditional communities and family structures" and how the "bonds of cohesion have been loosened".

Blair's conclusion was this:

"For eight years, I have battered the criminal justice system to get it to change. And it was only when we started to introduce special ASB laws, we really made a difference."

However, among the very academics from whom New Labour had borrowed the anti-social behaviour concept came voices that suggested the whole approach was questionable.

One critic, Andrew Ashworth, professor of law at Oxford University and chairman of the Sentencing Advisory Panel, argued that in introducing the Asbo, government "intended to sail as close to the wind as possible" with regard to human rights legislation.

The point was that while Asbos were civil rather than criminal orders (they can be issued on the basis of hearsay evidence and, on occasion, without the recipient being present), breach of the order was a criminal offence which could lead to five years' imprisonment.

Given that most ASBOs are breached, according to the National Audit Office, it has been argued that the orders have effectively criminalised thousands of people who may never have been convicted of any other crime.

It has been calculated from Youth Justice Board statistics that 12% of youngsters in custody are locked up for breaching a court order including Asbos.

Whatever misgivings there might be about human rights in this context, they cut little mustard in contemporary British politics. Expect David Cameron and the Conservatives to thump their own version of the ASB button next week under the "Broken Britain" banner.

The criminal justice system has never been very good at dealing with chronic low-level crime and the Asbo provided a tool for communities and courts to deal with troublesome activities.

"The system itself is the problem," Tony Blair told the 2005 Labour conference. "Our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety. It means a complete change of thinking. It doesn't mean abandoning human rights. It means deciding whose come first."

It appears that we have decisively moved into an era when enforcing "proper behaviour" is the business of the state.

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