The Anti-Social Behaviour Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords on the final day of the parliamentary session. Compared with the Criminal Justice Bill, this is a tiny piece of legislation – but with a significance disproportionate to its size. It is part of the government’s wider campaign against anti-social behaviour, originating with the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which has infiltrated a variety of measures – including the Homelessness Act 2002 and the latest proposals on housing benefit sanctions.

The government’s rhetoric on this issue is that of war. The language of the Home Office is of ‘armouries of weapons’, of ‘guts’ and of ‘glory’, and of heroes who ‘take a stand’. Prime targets are those who are perceived by the government as modern day rogues and vagabonds – Travellers, neighbours from hell, feral children and acquiescent parents. But the war is not only being fought against ‘yobs’. It is also being fought against the liberal judges who deny the problems and accuse the Home Office of populism; lawyers who use public funds to silt up the criminal justice system; and those police and local authorities that have failed to use all the powers available to them.

The government’s war against anti-social behaviour is being fought, like most wars, in the name of freedom. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, in a speech delivered in New York last April, talked of a new understanding of freedom appropriate to these times: ‘a broad definition of liberty based on people’s ability to engage in government and contribute to their communities – not just a passive definition of freedom from interference’. Those who threaten the new freedom are regarded as ideological enemies – they commit the crime of hooliganism against the state.

Yet nothing in the bill promotes active citizenship. The new powers are given only to state authorities; victims of anti-social behaviour have no means of compelling the authorities to take action against perpetrators. Moreover, active citizenship is more contentious than the government acknowledges. For many people, it would encompass engaging in protest or flyposting – both activities that are restricted by the bill.

The bill contains extensive measures to control the behaviour of ‘deviant’ children in ‘dysfunctional’ families. It allows for the dispersal of a group of two or more young people under 16, merely to prevent the risk of disorder. There is no need for anyone in the group to commit a criminal offence, or even threaten a breach of the peace. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) criticised this provision as a ‘potential intrusion on private life and liberty’, and commented on the difficulty of ensuring that the new power would be used proportionately to a ‘pressing social need’.

Clause 59 of the bill, which the government introduced quietly at a late stage, epitomises LAG’s concerns. It amends the Public Order Act 1986 so that the police can impose conditions on ‘public assemblies’ consisting of two people, instead of 20 as at present. The JCHR points out that the original power was designed to prevent serious public disorder, damage to property, intimidation or disruption caused by large groups of people – and that without clarification of the mischief that is being targeted by this amendment, it is impossible to assess its legitimacy.

LAG does not deny that anti-social behaviour is a real problem. David Blunkett may be surprised to learn that many lawyers and advice workers have experienced it at first hand. We share concerns about victims and accept that there should be some redistribution of the resources devoted to criminal justice to give a higher priority to the violence, harassment and fear that often plagues the lives of disadvantaged people.

However, LAG also fears that those who will be the target of the bill’s powers are likely also to be the ‘victims’ that it claims to protect. People who depend on the state for housing, income, education and support services are always subject to the changing fashions of welfare provision. They suffered from an individualised consumer culture that was created under successive Conservative governments, and which rolled back the inherent protections of a universal welfare state. The resulting insecurities that such people experience make them more vulnerable to this current moral crusade.

As LAG has commented previously, anti-social behaviour is a complex issue that is often deeply rooted in a range of social and personal problems. Heaping yet more punitive measures on top of those that already exist is unlikely to prove effective in altering the way that people behave. From the government’s point of view, the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill is more important for what it says than for what it does – but, unfortunately, it will also manage to impose some extremely oppressive controls on vulnerable people.

more background and links, on my blog at:

Criminal Justice and Public Order Act .. .. .. .. AND NOW, PART 2