Socialist Worker

Asbos: what the Dickens is going on?

by Matt Foot
Issue No. 1971

In his conference speech last week Tony Blair complained in Orwellian style that “We are trying to fight 21st century crime with 19th century methods, as if we still lived in the times of Dickens.” The truth is the opposite.

Ever since Blair came into office in 1997 he has introduced Dickensian state powers to the 21st century. There have been over 700 criminal offences bought in by Labour. This is what Blair correctly refers to as “battering” the criminal justice system.

Was this necessary? Is he suggesting that the previous 18 years of Tory government were marked by such extreme liberalism that we needed such vast powers for the police and courts? Was Maggie Thatcher a “Hampstead liberal” in disguise?

Criminal justice in the 1980s and 1990s was characterised by excessive police violence on picket lines, the removal of the right to silence and high profile miscarriage of justice cases, such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and the Bridgewater Four.

Those miscarriages showed up the flaws of a system where police abuse was rife and lack of proper disclosure was the norm.

Blair’s response to the Thatcher era has been to take away even more crucial and long-established protections for defendants including introducing previous convictions and hearsay at trial.

This will lead to further cases of the police arresting the “usual suspects” and fitting the evidence to the case. It also means suspects will be tried on their past rather than on the evidence. Inevitably yet more innocent people will be convicted.

Vulnerable people

Nothing is more Dickensian than the case of 23 year old Kim Sutton, a woman with a personality disorder who made repeated attempts to kill herself. Magistrates in Bath imposed an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) banning her from going near rivers, railways, bridges and multistorey car parks.

She appealed against her Asbo but the crown court upheld it in order to protect anyone who may try and rescue her. She was just one of the many vulnerable people who have been subject to these simplistic banning orders, introduced by Jack Straw as one of the first New Labour laws.

Under the order you can be banned from doing anything for the rest of your life if you behave in a “way likely to cause alarm”. If you don’t comply you can be imprisoned for five years. Blair says they have “really made a difference”—maybe he is referring to the 800 people who have gone to prison since 1998 for breaching their orders.

Asbos have been part of the agenda of locking up record numbers in overpopulated, often Victorian prisons. These are starting to resemble the old poor houses where we place undesirables, such as “feral” youth, beggars, prostitutes and the mentally ill. The recent publication by Inquest — In the Care of the State? — shows children are dying in custody under Labour at a faster rate than under the Tories.

Justice is subject to a populist agenda and the nadir has been reached in the recent incarceration of 11 people who have already been locked up for three years without trial and then made subject to control orders.

This is on the basis that the government intend to get an agreement to deport them to other countries whom they accept practice torture.

The worry is that Blair has no intention of stopping this agenda. His current anti-terrorism proposals include three months police detention for terrorist suspects.

This amounts to internment by another name and if we heard about this practice in another country we would call it torture.

The proposal fits with the government’s acceptance that evidence obtained by torture from other countries should be admissible in court.

Such a licence to vicarious torture is subject to challenge in the house of lords in the next few weeks. It is a sad day when we have to hope for senior judges to protect our liberties from a Labour government — even in Dickens’s time that didn’t happen.

Matt Foot is a criminal defence solicitor at Birnberg Peirce Solicitors and the coordinator of Asbo Concern

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Article information

Sat 8 Oct 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1971
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