Socialist Worker

Asbos: the politics of fear

Kelly Hilditch reports on the growing opposition to anti-social behaviour orders and the victimisation of young people

Issue No. 1999

Police pose with a leaflet “naming and shaming” young offenders in Preston

Police pose with a leaflet “naming and shaming” young offenders in Preston

Law and order was the main issue being pushed by many Labour Party candidates in the local elections. Having driven through neo-liberal policies that are ripping apart communities and are tearing down the welfare state, all

Tony Blair’s party can offer is the politics of fear.

Anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) are a key part of this authoritarian agenda. Almost 4,000 have been served, with over half of them directed against young people.

Last week, at a packed meeting hosted by the all-party parliamentary group on youth, about 100 youth workers, parents and young people voiced their concerns about the government’s attitude towards young people.

The Labour MP Dawn Butler was the lone voice speaking in favour of Asbos.

A group of 13 young people from Brent in west London opened the meeting with a showing of their documentary – Spotlights On Us! Now You Know.

The film consists of a series of interviews with MPs, youth workers, civil rights campaigners, parents and young people. They discuss the use of Asbos and the treatment of young people.

Letarnia, a woman from the group of film-makers, told Socialist Worker, “I don’t think that the people in charge listen to what is really happening with young people. We worked hard to get this film together and we’re really proud of it. We did everything – the filming, interviews and music.

“I think that this kind of meeting, where you can speak to some MPs about what needs to be done is good. But it’s not good enough to see them once a year.

“We need to have meetings like this regularly, so that we can hold these people to account, so that they know what is happening and so that things actually change.

“There’s an election on at the moment, so they’re here saying what we want to hear, or what they think we want to hear.

“But we need a lot more than words about how young people need to be treated differently – we need these MPs to go away and fight our corner.”

One theme of the film is that the fear of crime is far greater than the reality. People fear young people because of their portrayal by the media, not because they are genuinely scary.

People are prevented from wearing some of the clothes that have been associated with anti-social behaviour, especially “hoodies”.

Those who do wear them are treated as if they have done something wrong. One young woman at the meeting asked, “What if they’re cold or they have an ear infection?”

Letarnia said, “It’s insulting that we are all put into the same category. So what if people my age dress a certain way or listen to a certain type of music?”

Several of those in the meeting made the link between poor housing and anti-social behaviour.

Street corner

A youth worker from Brent said, “We have a real housing problem where families with two parents and five children are sharing two bed flats – and then we wonder why kids are hanging around on street corners?

“We have to start with the root of the problem, not the symptoms. If we don’t give young people decent housing, education and services then we have no right to criminalise them for their behaviour.

“Society as a whole has to take responsibility for young people.”

A major problem with Asbos is that they criminalise young people who have committed no criminal offense.

A youth worker from Portsmouth explained, using the example of a young man who had been given a four month sentence for playing football in the wrong place with the wrong people:

“He’d been given an Asbo banning him from going to a local park with a certain group of young men.

“About a year later, after he had started his A-levels he went to the park to play football with his college mates.

“When his old mates turned up and joined in the game he broke the terms of his Asbo.

“It’s an absolute disgrace that we can treat people like this. This was a young man who had sorted his life out. Now he has a criminal record.”

A speaker from the civil rights organisation Liberty said, “Asbos are unique because they are not about the law, they are about upsetting people. So anti-social behaviour is in the eyes of the victim, not in the eyes of the law. How can this be right?”

Labour MP Dawn Butler, who chaired the meeting, was forced to temper her remarks about Asbos, saying that they are only used as a last resort.

One speaker from the floor responded angrily, saying, “If Asbos are supposed to be a last resort, why is the Labour Party naming and shaming councils who aren’t handing out enough? Surely the councils that don’t give out so many are succeeding.”

Beccy Palmer, a youth worker from Brent, summed up the feeling of the meeting, saying, “We are so busy criminalising young people that we fail to notice what brilliant things they are achieving.

“We need proper funding for services for young people, long term funding so that things can be done properly, not year on year.

“It’s about giving young people a chance to learn, so that young people get to make real choices and real decisions.”

Young people are being dehumanised

A NEW report by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) shows that the government’s policy of criminalising young people is ruining lives.

Up to 40 young people each month end up criminalised for breaking the terms of their Asbo.

The report reveals that despite research showing that education and training are essential to help young people move on with their lives, only 35-45 percent of people in the youth justice system are in full time education, training or employment.

People who are sent to young offenders’ institutes for breaking the terms of their Asbos have generally not committed a criminal offence.

Ceri Davies, the YMCA’s director of programme and learning, has said, “There are a growing number of instances where incidents which used to be regarded as high-jinks or normal adolescent behaviour 15 to 20 years ago are being seen as criminal activity now.

“A line should be drawn between normal adolescent behaviour and low level criminal activity.”

He said instead of issuing Asbos and court punishment, education and support should be the alternative:

“Otherwise there is a danger of the young person entering a spiral of crime, which in later life shows itself to be difficult to break out from.”

The government’s system of school league tables is adding to the problem. A number of schools are implementing informal exclusions or inappropriate study-leave to keep “problem” children out—thereby keeping their figures up.

It also shows that those most likely to be excluded are those who are already behind in their education.

Professor Rod Morgan, chair of the YJB, said, “This report shows gaps in services that have to be filled.

“Schools and other providers must accommodate the needs of this most difficult group—not doing so is unacceptable.

“If we are to stop young people offending and reoffending we must encourage and support activities that improve their life chances.”

He spoke of the danger of the “demonisation” of children and teenagers who are acting no differently from those throughout history.

Despite the fear of young people whipped up by Blair’s government, the past ten years has seen no increase in the number of children labelled “anti-social”.

The number of young people dealt with by the criminal justice system has stayed constant at around 200,000 a year. The difference is the numbers who end up in court – from around a third to around half.

The government’s emphasis on being seen as “tough on crime” means that young people are scapegoated.

Rather than address the lack of funding for housing, youth facilities and education that many believe to be the cause of “anti-social behaviour” the government attempts to blame the very people it has failed.

Shahed Ali stood this week as a Respect candidate in Whitechapel, east London. He recently met with some of the young people in his area. He told Socialist Worker, “There are no open spaces in my ward for young people to hang out.

“For years people used to play football in the hospital car park, but it was built on recently and now they are on the streets. Because they are hanging around and playing football on the streets they are getting hassled by the police and a number have been hit with Asbos.

“The council needs to rethink where it spends its money. There needs to be investment in facilities for young people – that is the only real way to tackle ‘anti-social behaviour’.”

To get a copy of the documentary Spotlights On Us! Now You Know go to

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Sat 6 May 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1999
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