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Tackling anti-social behaviour head-on

South East Region Together Academy
4 March 2004

Today’s event is home ground for me in more ways than one. I have been banging a drum about anti-social behaviour for nearly six years, as it fell to me to implement the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Alun Michael and I toured the country encouraging people to make the best use the powers they were being given.

It’s easy to be impatient with the criminal justice system. Many changes take some time to come into full effect. When community service orders were introduced, there was a prolonged hesitation before the courts used them. When I introduced tagging, I hit the same reluctance to do something new, something different: yet now tagging is a successful and well-accepted community sentence.

So I can understand why anti-social behaviour initiatives may have taken a little while to get going. One of the radical aspects of the Crime and Disorder Act was the prominence it gave to anti-social behaviour. The concept was not new. The definition of anti-social behaviour as that which gives rise to harassment, alarm and distress came directly from the Public Order Act 1986, when Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary.

What was new was the concept of tackling anti-social behaviour through statutory crime and disorder reduction partnerships (CDRPs) and the stimulus this gave to the development of acceptable behaviour contracts (ABCs).

I recognise that, at one stage, there was a pretty sterile debate over whether ABCs were better than anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and whether ASBOs should be only a measure of last resort. That never made a lot of sense to me. I have always encouraged CDRPs to do what they can to prevent offending and tackle the causes of crime; but I had never heard anyone ask whether charging someone for burglary should be a measure of last resort or not.

For me, it was the very existence and the power of ASBOs – strictly, the real possibility of ASBOs – which legitimised the work of CDRPs on anti-social behaviour and allowed ABCs to develop and flourish as well as, sometimes, the offenders who are subject to them. In East Hampshire, a young man is now attending school regularly for the first time and both he and his mother have agreed that the ABC should be extended for a further three months.

We are now several stages down the line. Many CDRPs have found just how effective ABCs and ASBOs can be – both with the offender, and providing much-needed relief for a long-suffering community. In this region, currently the safest part of the UK, several CDRPs are recording 30-40% reductions in anti-social behaviour as a result of their focused initiatives and a lot of mischief is rectified without the need for an ASBO.

One of the common threads across the South East is the developing work with problem families and prolific offenders. A significant number of CDRPs – all in Surrey – now have well-developed procedures for considering their local problem families and offenders. This work is very often the starting point for ABCs and, if they do not work, with ASBOs.

A second thread is the use of ASBOs to tackle offending which has previously been long neglected because, although it is far from trivial, the usual procedures would have led to the offender being charged with a relatively trivial offence and being relatively trivially dealt with. So we have CDRPs using anti-social behaviour powers to address issues as varied as graffiti, abandoned cars, prostitution and flytipping.

A community warden in Basingstoke told me how she was so frustrated by some persistent flytipping that she donned mask and rubber gloves and sifted through the whole revolting pile until she found a clue which led her to an address. There she told the lady that flytipping was a civil offence punishable by a fine of up to £50,000. There has been no further repetition.

That’s the point. We have to be in the faces of offenders if we want to make a difference. Particularly since the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, we have ready-made powers to do so.

Another issue which was troubling at the start was costs. The South East has a large number of relatively small CDRPs and scare stories were circulating about the allegedly high costs of seeking ASBOs and the legal challenges which some lawyers might raise. All that has subsided: efficient CDRPs now find that the costs are containable – and, indeed, a number have told me that, because ASBOs are so effective, they end up as rather good value.

But I was repeatedly asked about the availability of good advice on how to do ASBOs and the centre has responded. Today we have not only this conference, with all its information and materials, but the Together Academy is a source of advice which is readily to hand – and in direct response to the requests which I put up from this region. Thanks to Louise and her colleagues for doing us proud. As a Chief Constable said to me last week: “when you can ‘phone someone up and sort out an ASBO in a couple of hours, there’s really no excuse for not getting on with it”.

I continually have to remind myself that staff are always changing and we must have procedures in place to help those who are new to the business. Just because the Crime and Disorder Act has been around since 1998, does not mean that everyone here has been working with it since then. So the Government Office is always at hand to help anyone who does not know how to get started. All you have to do is to contact your crime reduction area manager at GOSE and he or she will get you on your way. Please don’t hesitate. That’s what too many people have been doing for too long with many anti-social behaviour issues.

You need to get on top of the wide-ranging powers which are now available. Then you need to make yourself accessible and get good information: from the locality, from neighbourhood, street and community wardens and police officers; from other council staff; from the fire and rescue service; from the NHS; and from CrimeStoppers. Southampton tells its residents what is going on through an ASB newsletter. Dartford has issued a leaflet to spell out its ASB approach. Reading is supporting witnesses who appear in ASBO cases.

You also need to get some tools in your toolbox: like GIS mapping and an analyst so that you can get on top of where ASB is occurring; issue residents associations with graffiti removal kits – Reading is getting a graffiti removal machine: create some opportunities for young people where none otherwise exist. Test Valley has an art project to divert young people from graffiti. Havant has just opened a new multi-use games centre. Seaford has opened a skatepark. This picture is of Woking. You should also consider mediation: Southampton has been using its mediation service to reduce – I could say, remove – neighbour disputes and anti-social behaviour on estates; Dover has five families in mediation.

And, of course, you must develop and publish a proper policy towards pubs and clubs, particularly in the light of local authorities new powers under the Licensing Act 2003. Guildford led the way with Surrey Street Standards. You could stagger closing times, as Slough has done. You could help young people who have had enough to drink to get home safely at night, as Spelthorne, Cherwell and Dover are doing. If you need it, get proper needle exchange and collection in place.

And, if you are not doing it already, you need to build up a picture of prolific offenders in your area. These will be the people who are simultaneously troubling the police, probation, housing, social services, education, the drug action team (DAT) and the youth offending team (YOT). They will be causing much of the mayhem. They will be living locally. Tackling them head-on will make your neighbourhood a safer place.

I say that because I hear so many complaints about offenders allegedly coming from some other place nearby: that will happen, but not as much as  local offenders attacking their own locality. Burglars usually burgle within two miles of their home. Because offending and anti-social behaviour go hand-in-hand, you need to be on your toes to get an ASBO on conviction in cases where this is appropriate.

All this links up, of course, to the important wider agenda of public reassurance and reducing the fear of crime.  We may never be able to get rid of all graffiti, abandoned cars or dangerous litter.  But these are much more alarming to the public in three particular locations – high streets, public parks and transport termini – than in other places. Make sure these are cleaned up and protected first, followed by the base of any tower blocks. That will instantly make the community feel safer.

Finally, this year every CDRP will be conducting a crime and disorder audit and preparing a crime and disorder strategy. Make sure that anti-social behaviour is properly incorporated into that process.

This is because, at its roots, tackling anti-social behaviour is about working together, in partnership. No one agency can do this by itself. The point is that there really is no excuse now for not tackling head-on anti-social behaviour problems which have been blighting the lives of some people for a very long time. This picture comes from Eastbourne’s Operation Confront. I have picked out just a few examples from the South East. There are many more and keep them coming!

Address given by Hugh Marriage OBE
Home Office Director, Government Office for the South East