Scotland’s anti-social bill

A new law designed to keep kids off the streets will fragment communities further.

Simon Knight

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Topics Politics

Anti-social behaviour – it’s everywhere in Scotland, and it just won’t go away. In particular, Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell is constantly scheming about how to make life a misery for even more people. The latest ruse, as part of a new Scottish parliamentary bill, is to hassle young people by granting the police powers of dispersal over groups who haven’t done anything illegal.

The Anti-Social Behaviour (Scotland) Bill (1) is currently at committee stage. As the flagship legislation of a party whose one big idea in Scotland was the parliament itself, this prepubescent executive is now blaming everyone but itself for the country’s continuing dissatisfaction. Young people, adults, partygoers, party-leavers, pubs and off-licences are all now targeted. But the sharp end of this spiteful little stick is pointed at society’s least powerful: children.

Introduced to parliament in October 2003, the bill was promoted as being the response to communities’ real concerns. It grants local authorities and the police a swathe of new powers with which to ensure that communities are truly communal. These include: easier evictions from both public and private tenancies; a new basis to seal off commercial or residential property; a host of fixed penalty powers for noise and litter; and Parenting Orders, Restriction of Liberty Orders and Community Reparation Orders.

Where members of the public have been caused alarm or distress by the actions (or merely the presence) of a group of young people, a senior police officer will be able to disperse the group. Police will then have the power to direct individuals to leave a defined area for up to 24 hours, and to return young people who are residents home. This last part is considered a ‘logistical impossibility’ by the Scottish Police Federation (2) – even so, contravening police directions to leave will be an arrestable offence.

Of course, the Executive can point to the widely reported ‘significant concern’ about groups of young people hanging around, and evidence that money is being spent on creating purposeful places as alternatives to the street. But it’s the misanthropic impact of these measures on communities that most concerns me. By creating no-go zones and legitimising unwarranted fears, McConnell’s bill will only exacerbate the feelings of alienation that he claims he wants to banish.

Older members of the community already feel at odds with a fast-changing world. When neighbourhoods are populated by ‘strangers’, branding young people who hang around as ‘up to no good’ and targeting them for dispersal compounds the corrosion. In the past, adults may have been tempted to go out and deal with any perceived difficulties themselves. This at least meant that there were connections between people, even if these were occasionally abrasive. Today however, Strathclyde Police’s weapon of choice for members of the public who believe that they are witnessing anything untoward, is the telephone. Is it any wonder that calls to the police about nuisance behaviour are at an all-time high? The vicious circle thus spirals out of control.

And what of the children themselves? Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister, ‘make[s] no apology for taking radical action to deal more effectively with the small minority of young people whose behaviour blights our communities’ (3). She would never think of being so crass as to blame all young people. But by creating catch-all powers to disperse groups that needn’t have done anything wrong, it seems that this bill is more about targeting voters than that ‘small minority of young people’ whom she claims to be concerned about.

Apparently, ‘many members of the community are subjected to noise, intimidation, fear and harassment from groups of mainly young people’ – and some of these people then telephone the police and local politicians (4). But when youth workers in the town where I work were instructed to take to the streets, in response to calls from the community, they found nothing untoward in a month of late nights. In fact, it was more of a concern that there were so few children out and about.

Peer groups are necessary for children so that they can learn how to conduct themselves in social settings. As with all learners, young people will get it wrong sometimes and have to learn from their mistakes. It is the responsibility of local adults to correct mistakes and transmit cultural norms to their next generation. Community adults, not professionals, are the ones with the relationships, presence, conscience and interest to do that. The police should stick to dealing with the handful of young people who commit an actual crime.

With politicians getting their knickers in a twist about anti-social children and legislating against anything that moves, they legitimise insubstantial fears and paradoxically, inhibit the one avenue where this type of behaviour can be dealt with and left behind. Now, who’s being really anti-social?

Simon Knight is a director of Generation Youth Issues, the Scottish-based youth research charity.

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Topics Politics

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