Beccy Palmer is a youth worker in Brent, north west London, coordinator of the Voice Of Young People group who recently won a human rights award for their documentary highlighting the real effects of Asbos and a founder member of the Asbo Concern organisation
There is one big issue that is barely touched on in discussion of the government’s policy on anti-social behaviour. This is that it effectively changes the law so people can be convicted and even jailed before they commit a crime.
That is the reality behind New Labour’s drive to get authorities to issue ever more anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos).
There is a parallel here with powers the government has sought over mental health legislation and terrorism measures to detain without trial. Taken together these amount to a huge expansion of the power of the state to detain, and a major threat to civil liberties.
There are two factors underlying New Labour’s anti-social behaviour policy. The first is simple party politics.
Blair is facing a continued collapse of support in working class areas, which do face massive problems thanks to the government’s own policies of privatisation and the running down of social services.
We’ve seen in parliamentary by-elections in the past two years how New Labour has attempted to deflect discontent in working class communities through populist campaigns over young people and anti-social behaviour.
I believe Blair launched — or rather relaunched — his “respect” campaign last week as part of his attempt to stop a meltdown at the local elections in May.
The other motivation for Blair is that he wants to scapegoat individuals rather than addressing the social reasons for the problems that do exist.
For all the talk of community, the government is doing nothing to build up a sense of community in working class areas. It’s no surprise why when you consider that genuine community feeling is often expressed in opposition to government policy.
It’s the feeling shown when people come together to oppose cuts in local health services or the privatisation of a school, or when there are meetings over issues such as the war.
Instead of that atmosphere, Asbos end up dividing communities and targeting the most vulnerable. That is the experience in Brent, north west London.
The issuing of an Asbo on an estate has even led to someone being attacked. And, while there are people who say they support Asbos, there are also others who recognise that it means large numbers of people being labelled as a problem.
All of this is in the context of a crisis of provision of local services, particularly youth services.
It’s not just the cuts that have accumulated over the last three decades. There is no serious long term planning of services. The pattern now is that local projects have to bid every year for funding.
So in Brent half the funding for youth services has to come from bids made to external sources. So half this year’s budget may not even exist next year.
Across the county we are seeing highly successful projects, which have tackled social problems, closing down because they cannot get funding.
There is also pressure to modify schemes to fit in with the government’s agenda.
Last month the government issued a report claiming its approach to dealing with anti?social behaviour is working. But 40 percent of Asbos are breached, resulting in young people being criminalised.
And the government’s definition of anti-social behaviour ignores those problems that the public tell them are of most concern.
Two years ago a home office study found that the public ranked “speeding traffic” and “cars parked inconveniently” as the two biggest anti-social problems in their area.
“Teenagers hanging around” was ranked only sixth and “noisy neighbours” was twelfth.
The stories ignored by the mainstream media
Tony Gearing runs the Young People of the Year awards. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the way the media represents young people
“I founded Young People of the Year (Yopey) in November 2004 because I felt there was very little positive portrayal of young people in a media that is dominated by negative images,” says Tony.
“A survey by pollsters Mori has analysed national and local press for mentions of children and young people. It found the vast majority of articles were negative.”
According to the survey, of 603 youth-related articles in one week 71 percent had a negative tone, and just 15 percent were positive.
“That means fewer than two articles in every ten about young people is positive,” says Tony.
“I feel we have become too negative in our portrayal of young people,” says Tony. “That can become a self fulfilling prophecy. Being issued with an Asbo can become a status symbol.
“Young People of the Year is about highlighting examples of really positive, inspiring behaviour by young people. They have always been there, but they are largely ignored.
“These range from young people who are hidden carers, such as an 11 year old who looks after their mum, through to two 17 year old young women who travelled to Sri Lanka to help with the relief effort after the tsunami last year.
“A group of young people recently put on a play in rural Cambridgeshire to highlight the problem of drugs after four drug-related deaths in the area in as many months.
“The drug deaths are bound to make the news. We are ensuring that the positive response of young people is also heard.”
Tony says that when contact is made with schools, youth centres or other institutions in an area, there is never any shortage of nominees for the scheme, adding, “I think that would come as a big surprise to many people.”
For more details about Asbo Concern go to www.asboconcern.org.uk
For more details of the Young People of the Year Scheme go to www.yopey.org