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Wednesday, July 28, 2010 

The end for ASBOs, again.

There appears, on the face of it, to be something remarkably strange going on within the Conservative party where it comes to policy on crime. Before the election it couldn't tell us often enough how broken our society was, yet since becoming part of the coalition government that consistent piece of rhetoric has all but disappeared, to be replaced by the first steps towards enabling David Cameron's beloved "Big Society". Before the election it was dedicated to keeping the prison building programme going, only for Ken Clarke almost immediately after it to start looking for alternatives. Before the election the then shadow home secretary Chris Grayling was looking for ways to implement a "21st century clip round the ear", giving police the power to take someone off the streets for "doing something stupid", and wanted to introduce "grounding orders" which would have banned youths leaving their home outside of school hours for up to a month.

Today Theresa May sounded the death knell for the anti-social behaviour order, supposedly. Giving a speech titled "Moving Beyond the ASBO" at the Coin Street community centre, she announced a review of the current orders available to police, which isn't exactly the same thing as getting rid of them altogether, and without giving any real detail as to what they would be replaced with, if anything. This also isn't exactly the first time that a home secretary or other ministers have signalled that the ABSO is reaching the end of its usefulness: Ed Balls previously said that every single one issued was a mark of failure, while Jacqui Smith (remember her?) wanted alternatives like parenting orders, acceptable behaviour orders and early-intervention to play a wider role.

Even so, getting rid of the ASBO or reviewing them didn't previously seem to be on the agenda. The Conservative manifesto, while somewhat dismissive of them, was fairly clear:

We recognise the need for criminal sanctions like ASBOs and fixed penalty notices, but they are blunt instruments that often fail their purpose of deterring people from committing more crime.

If you wanted to give the Liberal Democrats some credit they almost certainly don't deserve, you could link the apparently more enlightened stance since the election to their influence. There's been no suggestion from the ministers themselves however that this is the case, and no specific crowing from the Lib Dems either that it's thanks to them. Instead, there seems to be a much simpler explanation: it's all part of the attempt to search for savings absolutely everywhere, while outsourcing everything possible to either the voluntary or private sector, covered up by the now already wearying "Big Society", decentralising, local is always best rhetoric.

The problem with this approach when it comes to ASBOs is that it's always been local authorities that have been behind their issuing. Some have hardly used them while others embraced them. May tries to cover this up by suggesting that they were somehow imposed on councils by Whitehall:

Of course, with such an obvious problem even the last government could not ignore it.

They knew they had to do something, but as with so much they did, their top-down, bureaucratic, gimmick-laden approach just got in the way of the police, other professionals and the people themselves from taking action.

Such a centralised approach, imposed from Whitehall, can never be the best way to deal with an inherently local problem.

Rather than part of the solution, the previous government’s focus on anti-social behaviour became part of the problem.

The multitude of central government initiatives and gimmicks meant that people expected the government to deal with these issues.

Too often, the top-down approach of the past meant that the police and the other agencies involved in tackling anti-social behaviour at local level took their cue from central government rather than the people they were meant to be serving.

It also doesn't seem to concern May that she's contradicted herself within a matter of sentences. We go from "even the last government could not ignore it", as if New Labour had somehow been slow to recognise the problem of anti-social behaviour when during Tony Blair's time as prime minister it practically never shut up about it, to a "multitude of central government initiatives and gimmicks" which actively undermined the local fight against it. The government was in fact so concerned about how anti-social behaviour was dealt with differently across the country at the initiative of local authorities that it commissioned a study on it which was published last December (PDF). Noting this would however contradict May's argument that it was somehow centralisation which previously held everyone back. She even builds a straw man in the next paragraph:

For 13 years, politicians told us that the government had the answer; that the ASBO was the silver bullet that would cure all society’s ills.

It wasn’t. Life is more complex than that.

As pointed out above, not even New Labour was that shallow, and it never even began to claim that government had all the answers, even if it sometimes felt like that, or that ASBOs were a silver bullet. The speech as a whole is much like this, saying a lot while offering very little substantive. May goes from stating:

In making this case, I’m not saying that there is no role for government. We’re not going to just walk away and leave you to it.


Government has a role to play - sometimes that’s just by getting out of the way, simplifying the landscape, removing the bureaucratic barriers that prevent professionals from doing what works.


But government also has an active role to play. We need to help agencies join up more effectively, spreading good ideas like the Case Management system in Charnwood, Leicestershire, which allows agencies to pool information on anti-social behaviour incidents and victims, and manage cases collectively online.

There is then a role for government: first it gets out of the way, removing the barriers that prevent professionals from doing what works, then it needs to get involved again to ensure that agencies can join up more effectively. Confused? You shouldn't be. From not walking away and leaving you to it, it instead wants to help outside agencies do it for you, in line with so much else of current government policy. And then there's the role for communities themselves:

But crucially, we also want communities to come up with their own ideas of what they are going to do.

It’s not just the police, it’s not just social landlords, or councils - it’s the whole of society that needs to come together and work together to tackle anti-social behaviour.

From the examples she provides, there's ample evidence of this happening already.

The whole speech and change in policy, if indeed there is one, amounts to a big bag of nothing. Government might get out of the way, or it might not. It wants things to carry on as they currently are, but doesn't provide any actual examples of how will it help similar projects as there's no mention of extra funding, predictably, just that they will have the equivalent of moral support. ASBOs will be reviewed, and a "toolkit that is appropriate and effective" will be put in place, with no suggestion as to what that might amount to. There's the occasional encouraging sentence, such as "[W]here possible, they [the new sanctions] should be rehabilitating and restorative, rather than criminalising and coercive", which is more than Labour ever attempted, but there's no meat on the bones.

Whether this exactly is the Conservative "Big Society" writ large or not is open to question. Others within the party have already described it as "Blairite window dressing", but not even most Blairite thinking was this vacuous or opaque. Clearly, the government is desperate for this not to be seen as the rolling back of the state for the sake of it, yet that's what it looks like when the state wasn't even in the way in the first place. While the rhetoric is thankfully remarkably different to the strident, authoritarian tone taken by Chris Grayling, it still doesn't make clear that incidents of anti-social behaviour as measured by the British Crime Survey (PDF, page 116) have been falling for a number of years, and that the main indicators of ASB have always been teenagers hanging around and litter on the streets rather than actual recordable incidents of abuse and drug taking. It's not so much then that Conservative crime policy has gone liberal; it's more that the decisions are being made on a individual, case by case basis rather as part of a general ideological overview, even if informed by other parts of government policy. This would be an improvement if it was to stay like this, yet once the more benign atmosphere disappears, as it will, it's difficult to imagine anything other than responding to headline once again becoming the norm. One suspects that ABSOs will still be around for some time to come, and probably long after the latest home secretary herself has moved on.

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A bit ungenerous, I think. There are two genuine shifts going on here. Firstly, there's already been a move away from ASBOs to more preventive measures like acceptable behaviour contracts, & an accompanying devolution of effective power to housing associations; in that respect May is just being opportunistic and putting a Tory seal of approval on a change that happened quietly under Labour. But it's also true, although less important, that May's instincts (like Clarke's) are more liberal than Blunkett's or Blair's: they had a vision of respectable working-class communities and tapped into a deep and scary vein of working-class authoritarianism in the cause of achieving it.

May, like Clarke, doesn't really give a monkey's about working-class communities, so she doesn't have that temptation. And the job of policing the areas where they vote Tory can actually be done on the cheap - less crime to be policed and more volunteers and busybodies to draw on.

This means that the kind of people who demand ASBOs aren't going to be listened to, but I don't think that's such a bad thing. People who don't have much power over their own lives will always say that the kids are running wild, the streets are out of control and somebody else needs to be made to suffer. The trick is to address their grievances, not their compensatory fantasies. The real problem is that that's not going to happen either under the Tories.

Of course, since writing this, the Liberal Democrats predictably have claimed credit for influencing the change, although I still doubt they've had any real impact whatsoever.

It's not often though when it comes to policies on crime that a government turns out to be more liberal than it suggested it would be prior to being elected; I was amazed a few weeks back when a Tory on Question Time admitted that Labour had been tough on crime, despite claiming the complete opposite previously. Certainly this has something to do with it being May and co in charge rather than Grayling and pals (indeed, it's alleged that it was Rebekah Wade's doing that resulted in Dominic Grieve being moved from shadow foreign sec after he made the mistake of criticising the Sun's coverage of crime to her face) yet I still think it's partially down to it being early days more than anything and that at the moment the press isn't screaming blue murder at how lenient they're currently being. Today's Sun editorial is even broadly supportive, having previously accused Labour of never going anywhere near far enough.

If ASBOs were to be abolished, it would be something to celebrate; if anything though, these new alternative sanctions might be worse in that they'll have less of a legal basis and constructed in an ad-hoc manner. We shall have to wait and see.

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