A campaign to amend Clause 1 of the British government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill has been successful. Thanks to pressure from the House of Lords, anti-social behaviour will continue to be defined in terms of behaviour that causes harassment, alarm and distress rather than, as the government wanted, behaviour capable of causing a nuisance or annoyance. But the main problem was never with how this bill defined anti-social behaviour; rather, it’s that the bill is built on the false premise that communities can’t deal with anti-social behaviour themselves.
When anti-social behaviour became a political issue in the 1990s, there was little challenge to the idea that the solution lay in legislation and official action. Tackling anti-social behaviour with legislation was central to the New Labour message and in 1998 it legislated to create the ASBO (anti-social behaviour order). ASBOs meant that behaviour that had previously been seen as none of the law’s business had become very much the law’s business. In 2005, more than 4,000 ASBOs were issued. Behaviours which had been previously dealt with by ordinary people were now dealt with by officers wearing uniforms and acting as professionals. This had two consequences.
First, by empowering the state to tackle anti-social behaviour, parliament ensured that authority leached away from ordinary people and into the hands of officials. It became state policy that responsibility for tackling anti-social behaviour lay with police community support officers, police officers, housing officers, youth probation officers, lawyers and judges. The system encouraged individuals to leave it to the professional and the officer in a uniform. The citizen who saw a youth with a spray can was expected to report it to an official rather than deal with the incident directly, there and then.
Six years after ASBOs had been on the statute book, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted the ‘sense of powerlessness’ within communities suffering from anti-social behaviour. It gave the example of a community activist who said that ‘in his “own country” – Somalia – he would not accept the levels of bad behaviour he encounters in Britain; but here he has to accept that he can’t do anything’. Another activist ‘recalled the time when locals would challenge youngsters who misbehaved; but today… a lot of people shut the door and think the problem will go away. But it doesn’t.’
Secondly, the boundary between crime and anti-social behaviour was eroded. Gone were the days when official agencies could disregard behaviours that fell short of crimes. The police and courts, in particular, were now expected to deal with the lout who dropped litter as well as the hardened criminal who robbed banks. With so many potential incidents to take action over, the deployment of resources became politicised and distorted in favour of those who could best persuade officials to take up their complaints. Inevitably, public resources were sometimes spent on those who made the biggest fuss, and resources spent on one unworthy cause were resources not spent on another.