Anti-social Behaviour Orders: Youth Justice Board Report
Baroness Stern (Crossbench)
asked Her Majesty's Government what action they will take in response to the report by the Youth Justice Board, published on
My Lords, I thank so many noble Lords for deciding to speak to this Question for Short Debate. I know that a number of Members of this House have been concerned for some time about the effects of anti-social behaviour legislation on young people. In particular, we have been concerned that very disadvantaged children and young people with serious problems would be given enforcement rather than help. We have had anxieties about a disproportionate use of such measures on young black people. We have feared that families that need stability and support are instead facing eviction from their homes. We have seen evidence from reports and Parliamentary Questions that troubled and troubling children are being pushed towards the criminal justice system inappropriately.
We hear that those responsible for young people in trouble, the youth offending teams, are marginal to the activities of those in the police and local authorities who deal with anti-social behaviour, although we do not know whether this has improved as a result of the guidance that came out in March 2005. We have heard that the conditions imposed on some young people have been unrealistic and impossible to comply with. We have said before in this House that naming and shaming can put children and their families in danger. We have been concerned about aspects of the legal regime that contain injustice.
In our debates, we have repeatedly asked for more evidence and for some facts on what is actually happening. We have, therefore, all been awaiting with interest this report from the Youth Justice Board. We now have it, and sadly it confirms our worst anxieties. I remind the House that we are talking here about children. There is a wider issue about anti-social behaviour legislation in general and what happens to adults, which is not the subject of today's debate, although a recent report from the National Audit Office suggests that the whole policy gives cause for concern. Those of us who are concerned about the impact of this policy on children care enormously about the quality of life in high crime areas. We have great sympathy with those who have to live in the same streets as disturbed and uncontrollable children. In our view, the anti-social behaviour legislation is a poor and unjust substitute for a properly resourced policy on family and child care and support for neighbourhood initiatives by local authorities.
This independent report, commissioned by the Youth Justice Board, the first such report, looked at ASBOs issued to young people aged under 18 in 10 areas of England and Wales between January 2004 and January 2005. The report finds that the children who are given these orders are among the most disadvantaged of our children. They have suffered family breakdown and previous abuse, bereavement and loss. They also tend to live in high crime neighbourhoods where there is very little for them to do. Some 22 per cent of the children in the sample were from black or other ethnic minority groups. One quarter of them were in special schooling of some sort. One mother of two children on ASBOs explained that they had reacted badly,
"to deaths in the family and witnessing a murder".
One mother of a son on an ASBO described to the researchers their family's experience of violent racism, which had forced them out of their home. One grandmother talked of her grandson who had been neglected and physically abused before he came to live with her.
The conditions imposed on these young people were often found to be unrealistic and not understood by the children. Some of the orders had 20 prohibitions in them. Requirements not to go to certain places and meet their friends were too difficult for many of them. They felt that they were being set up to fail. Most of the orders were for two years but some were made for five years or longer. Michael, aged 12, was, according to the report, given a five-year ASBO in criminal proceedings. Before the ASBO, he had lived with his mother and stepfather. His stepfather was a drug user who abused Michael, who could not go to school because he had no clean clothes or school uniform. He had access to the drugs used in his household. After the ASBO, his grandmother took him in. The ASBO imposed on him an area that he could not enter, an exclusion zone, so that he could not go to his local secondary school and had to find another school to take him. Those who think it is acceptable to subject a 12 year-old child from such a background to such restrictions for five years, with the threat that if he walks down the wrong street he could be imprisoned, live in a different moral universe to the one that I inhabit.
Few of the children could remember all their prohibitions. One 13 year-old had 60 prohibitions, including not to throw eggs at the public and not to swear in public places. One lived in the same street as someone he was not allowed to see. One stopped going to school because the publicity of the ASBO meant that she was picked on by children and, she said, by teachers. Not being able to go out meant that some stayed in and took up drinking or smoking cannabis instead. Some feared that the ASBO would be known to future employers or would prevent them getting a council tenancy when they were old enough.
Many of those working for the youth offending teams were frustrated at their lack of involvement in the process. They felt that they could have offered an alternative to the ASBO but were not asked, and that earlier intervention to prevent the behaviour developing would have been a better approach. Some of the prohibitions were hard to understand or to justify. For example, one child was required,
"not to attempt to steal anything that doesn't belong to you".
As that is already a criminal offence, the only purpose of including it and similar requirements was, so the respondents to the interviewer suggested, to allow for more severe sentencing if the condition was broken, since the young person would be sentenced both for the criminal offence and for breaking the terms of the order by committing the criminal offence. Not surprisingly, the level of non-compliance was high, as many other reports have shown. Not surprisingly, the parents and children knew that they needed help and support and were desperate to be helped and supported. An ASBO was not, they said, help and support. No doubt the Minister will tell us what action the Government propose as a response to the report from the Youth Justice Board.
I end by making some suggestions. The length of time of these orders for children should be drastically reduced. Five years is completely unacceptable. Three months, accompanied by intensive support, would make more sense. Negative conditions, such as excluding children from going to certain places and meeting certain people, should be replaced by positive requirements to take up certain activities, to get involved with the community, and to do something constructive. Naming and shaming should stop now. It is cruel and counterproductive. The possibility of prison for breaking an order should never apply to those under 18. Orders should never be imposed on children until there has been an expert medical assessment of mental and other health problems. That would be a small step in the right direction for a country that was one of the first signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Lord Judd (Labour)
My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I rise to support the noble Baroness. I have two experiences of working closely with her. I had the privilege of serving on the board of NACRO when she was the most effective and impressive chief executive. Currently, I have the privilege of working closely with the noble Baroness on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Her experience, insight, commitment and intellectual incisiveness are very challenging for the rest of us on that committee.
I hope my noble friend will take very seriously the report that has been produced by the Youth Justice Board and the recommendations just made by the noble Baroness, indicating possible ways forward. I emphasise that the Government face an immense challenge in this area. I also put on record that it is not always possible to overestimate the living hell in which some people in this country exist, surrounded by delinquency and social misbehaviour. For those of us who can escape to the countryside at the weekend and enjoy our homes and families in highly civilised surroundings, it is possible to reach theoretical positions. Those who have no option but to endure day in, day out, throughout the year, the social reality I have just described deserve strong sympathy and solidarity. I put on record my appreciation that the Government have understood this issue, and wish to respond to it.
Having said that, I say, without qualification, that ASBOs are not the right way to respond. The noble Baroness has put the case very clearly. I shall share one experience that I shall never forget with your Lordships. I was privileged to be honorary president of the YMCA for nine years. The YMCA worked hard in detention centres for young people. We had among our volunteers a retired chief constable, who had a reputation as quite a "toughie". One evening, I was talking to him at a YMCA occasion and he gave me this account. He told me about how he had talked one day to a young man who was about to be released. The young man started to cry. The retired chief constable was astounded and asked him why he was crying. He said, "I am petrified by what is going to happen when I leave the centre. The centre and the work I encountered"—it happened to be done by the YMCA, but there are many other people undertaking similar work with great commitment, courage and vision—"is the first time that I have begun to feel that I matter and that people care. It is the first time that I have been able to recognise myself and come to terms with my own behaviour. It is the first time that I have begun to understand the nature of relationships with other people and how they should be handled".
The noble Baroness has emphasised that the people we are talking about are very often the most deprived in society. I want to support the noble Baroness on two priority counts. First, because I am convinced that a civilised community, which really takes being tough on crime and the causes of crime seriously, must examine the issue of deprivation and what needs to be done to make good that deprivation, enabling those young people to succeed in life. ASBOs certainly do not assist in that process. They are an easy short-cut option. By their nature, they are likely to be highly counterproductive: a badge of honour for a youngster within the excluded group to which he belongs; or the further sense of alienation as deprivation continues.
Secondly, I want to emphasise the importance of what the noble Baroness has said because I believe that, in absolutely all dimensions of our criminal justice system, we should have rehabilitation constantly in mind as our objective. It is a denial of our civilised values and potential not to want to do that instinctively, because we want to help people to be decent and positive citizens. If we want to look at it on no other ground than the economic cost—and these days we seem always to be mesmerised by economic cost—it is madness to take any other course. The cost of losing the battle for rehabilitation and enabling people to become positive citizens increases all the time. The Government have an opportunity in the context of this report to examine the real relevance of ASBOs, what they have and have not achieved, and to look very objectively at whether they should continue or what might be introduced in their place.
Baroness Sharples (Conservative)
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for introducing tonight's debate. I hope I will be forgiven if I stray a little from the subject. A few months ago I was the chaperone for a friend who had, for some years, been dealing with ASBOs in the community. Since a change in management she is sent out alone, working until after midnight on most occasions, and travelling many miles as her centre covers a very wide area. This is quite disgraceful. Often she has no information on the background of the person she has to visit. This has put her in danger. I do not exaggerate; more than once she has been confronted by people with guns in their houses.
Putting restraints on her clients and installing equipment takes time, and results in lots of paperwork for her. The equipment is often unreliable, which proves even more frustrating. Older offenders are not as skilled as the younger ones in damaging or removing their restraints. One young lady has removed hers three times. On each occasion it has taken at least a week—sometimes a month—for the centre to deal with it and for that restraint to be replaced. What use is this? Innocents are sometimes blamed for removing their straps when it is the equipment that is faulty. Are corners being cut to save money? I rather suspect so. Why is it not compulsory throughout the country—I know that it happens in certain areas—to send visitors out only in pairs?
Baroness Linklater of Butterstone (Spokesperson in the Lords (Penal Reform), Home Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am truly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for raising this subject which, as she rightly says, has caused many Members of this House considerable concern for some time. During the Anti-social Behaviour Bill in 2003, we discussed at length the management of low-level disruptive behaviour, and the sort of distress and aggravation caused by those families known as neighbours from hell and generalised trouble on the streets—so often alcohol-fuelled. Everyone has the right and need to be spared such behaviour and the distress it can cause.
The Anti-Social Behaviour Unit was created to promote and develop a crackdown on such behaviour—with enormous enthusiasm and a zero-tolerance enforcement approach. However, the rigorous evidential tests more usually required by the Treasury for funding other Home Office policy initiatives were not applied. Indeed, Louise Casey, now head of the Prime Minister's respect task force, was reported as saying to a senior police audience in 2005:
"If No. 10 says bloody 'evidence based policy' to me one more time, I'll deck them".
One can only infer from that extraordinary remark that No. 10 was indicating that at least some research would be desirable, even if the head of the task force had no time for it.
That research and some evidence is now available through the welcome work of the Youth Justice Board, and it is an extremely important start to what should be informing any developing policy in this area. The vagueness of a definition for anti-social behaviour has, inter alia, caused the interpretation of, and the prosecution of, ASBOs to vary enormously around the country. Indeed, in 2005, the Home Office concluded:
"What counts as antisocial behaviour is not firmly agreed and there is a fine dividing line between antisocial acts and behaviour that might more appropriately attract a 'criminal' label".
Today, instead of respect being imposed through ASBOs and the zero-tolerance approach, they are now seen, as we have heard, as a badge of honour among some of the most disaffected—the precise opposite of what was intended—and allow the naming and shaming of children who appear in court. Worst of all, the breach of ASBOs is a criminal offence and has become a growing issue. This means that non-criminal anti-social behaviour can lead, through a breach, to a criminal offence and possible imprisonment. This is important as, increasingly, children are seen as the chief cause of anti-social behaviour. Indeed, 46 per cent of ASBOs have been issued against children aged 10 to 17, although that group comprises just 13 per cent of the population.
The Youth Justice Board research shows that children with ASBOs tend to come from highly disadvantaged groups, including those who suffer family breakdown and significant mental health problems. That illustrates the complexity of the problem that we are trying to deal with. However, there is a raft of strategies, including a tiered approach to the young people in trouble and their families, before an ASBO is imposed, as well as ISOs—individual support orders—which can be attached to make the ASBO more constructive. However, very little use is made of either approach. Similarly, YOTs were often neither consulted nor had input into the length of an ASBO. It is clear from both these findings that, as yet, the steps necessary to develop the possible benefits of an ASBO and minimise all the potentially very damaging effects are simply not being taken.
Although very recent figures are not yet available, in the early days 46 per cent of 10 to 17 year-olds who breached ASBOs actually received a custodial sentence, and the presumption is that that figure will be substantially higher today. Here we have a policy which, whether by accident or design, is both criminalising children and promoting their imprisonment.
By contrast, in the whole of Scotland, where the children's panel system keeps all children out of the criminal system until after they are 16, only four ASBOs were made against children aged 12 to 16 in 2005. Instead, through the children's hearing process and its welfare-based approach other strategies are used—strategies that do not involve being soft on inappropriate behaviour, but instead require the child and his or her family to face up to the consequences of their actions. If only such lessons could be learnt south of the Border.
The conclusion of the Youth Justice Board's research is of concern. It states, in relation to ASBOs, that:
"Those who see their role principally in terms of community protection are generally less critical of enforcement-type measures than those whose predominant concern is working directly with young people to change their behaviour. Effective practice may in future depend on achieving a balance between those perspectives".
That points to a difference in the perceptions and objectives of those two groups, when in fact they are and should be identical. Young people are part of the community that needs protection and managing their behaviour in such a way that it is not repeated and the causes of it addressed properly are precisely in the interests of all concerned. Instead, the Home Office has confirmed plans to introduce "indicators" in every area to,
"increase the take up of anti-social behaviour powers".
In other words, the more ASBOs, the better, as the proof that the problem is really being tackled.
Can the Minister reassure us that the suggestions in the report for minimising this damage will be adopted? If not, I fear that the quality of life in our communities, far from being enhanced, will be greatly reduced and those young people will be further than ever from learning the respect that we all want to see.
The Earl of Listowel (Crossbench)
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Stern for this opportunity to consider how the right sanctions and support can be used to address the behaviour of our troubled and troubling children. I very much agree with the hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, has just expressed—that this debate will be an impetus for the Government to take forward the important improvements to applying anti-social behaviour orders—in particular, the concern identified in the Youth Justice Board report that in seven out of the 10 areas examined, youth offending teams had little or no involvement in the decisions that led to an ASBO being imposed. I hope the Minister agrees that that must be addressed.
I recognise that for some young people a sanction of this kind is needed. Professor Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, has stated:
"Let me be clear—the YJB is not against Anti-Social Behaviour Orders. They can—and do—work incredibly well ... but ... they need to be used correctly. That means exhausting every preventative measure in the community first".
I join the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in expressing concerns about the most deprived families in our communities and I salute the Government for the many measures that they have taken to improve the welfare of our most vulnerable families, thereby preventing this sort of behaviour by that means. I am thinking in particular of the respect action plan, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, referred, and the emphasis that that puts on supporting parenting.
When I spoke to the noble Lord, Lord Warner, the former head of the Youth Justice Board, he said that parenting support proved to be the most effective and most economic way of reducing re-offending—and it was welcomed by the parents. The Every Child Matters agenda—the Children Act 2004—obliges all agencies to work together to improve outcomes for children and families. There are targeted youth work teams. The recent Options for Excellence paper, published in October, looks at the social care workforce in particular, and how the Government's ambition is to do for social workers what they have successfully done for teachers by raising their status and morale.
All those developments are welcome, but in the real world we know that legislation and plans do not necessarily bite. There needs to be perseverance. A lot of investment needs to be made to ensure that the social workforce is transformed. We are at a difficult time in terms of funding. There is the issue of the turnover in social workers. I spoke to a young man a month ago who had five social workers in two years. Vacancy rates for social workers can be as high as 20 per cent in urban centres. The British Association of Social Workers is greatly concerned about the retention of social workers in many areas; they are the people who could do the most to support families and, therefore, prevent anti-social behaviour. The report of the Youth Justice Board notes that little consideration is given in sentencing to providing parenting orders and other interventions. It astonishes me that so little thought is given to that.
The first question is whether the young person has committed many acts of anti-social behaviour. Secondly, are there any other means of protecting the public from this child's behaviour before introducing the anti-social behaviour order? That thinking has not taken place. There is insufficient involvement of the YOTs in these processes. There is currently a surge in the number of children being taken into custody. We already have too high a number of children in custody. We must be careful not to criminalise more children through not taking the sensitive and necessary precautions to which my noble friend referred.
I recognise that in some cases those sanctions are effective. However, they need to be applied with great care. The figures demonstrate that that is not being done at present. The figure of 60 per cent continuing instances of anti-social behaviour among children once the orders have been introduced is not acceptable. I hope that the Minister can assure us that real action is being taken in response to the report.
Lord Dholakia (Deputy Leader, House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for initiating the debate. She and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, were responsible for dragging me into NACRO. Twenty years later I find myself president of that organisation.
I confine my remarks principally to the use of anti-social behaviour orders for young people and in particular to the findings of the recent report on the subject which was prepared for the Youth Justice Board by the Policy Research Bureau and NACRO. I shall also refer to the recent report of the Runnymede Trust entitled Equal Respect—ASBOs and Race Equality and the National Audit Office report Tackling Anti-Social Behaviour which was published in December.
A number of key points arise from the report produced by the Policy Research Bureau and NACRO. They are not new. We have reflected on them in the past. First, there are strikingly wide variations between areas in the extent to which ASBOs are used. Some areas use ASBOs as a last resort when other more constructive measures, such as acceptable behaviour contracts, warning letters and interventions to support the child and family in changing their behaviour, have been tried and failed. However, other areas seem to be using them as an early resort. Overall, the report found that young people given ASBOs had two or fewer convictions.
In the areas making a relatively low use of ASBOs, there were better arrangements for discussions between the police, local authorities and youth offending teams before an ASBO was applied for. Rightly, these inter-agency discussions look at whether other more constructive interventions to improve the young person's behaviour should be tried first. The study found that the high ASBO areas did not have similar arrangements and applied for ASBOs without prior consultation with youth offending teams, a point well made by my noble friend Lady Linklater.
Secondly, the breach rate is high. In the Policy Research Bureau/NACRO report nearly half the young people in the research sample had breached their ASBOs. The majority of them had done so on more than one occasion. The National Audit Office report found that over half of those who received ASBOs breach them and that one third do so on five or more occasions.
Many of the most troublesome young people have a range of background problems which can include inadequate parental supervision, family conflict, abuse or neglect, educational failure and substance abuse. It is impossible to resolve such a set of problems simply by imposing restrictions requiring young people not to behave in specified ways. When young people are told that they cannot go to certain areas or associate with certain friends for at least two years—we are told that in some cases it is up to five years—they stand little chance of abiding by those conditions unless they receive strong, positive support. Yet the Policy Research Bureau/NACRO study found that courts were making little use of individual support orders, which can provide such help, and that many magistrates seemed never to have heard of them.
Thirdly, the report found that the publicity of "naming and shaming" which often accompanies making an ASBO is often counter-productive. Again, we have used these arguments in the past in your Lordships' House. On the one hand, the stigma of publicity makes it harder to rehabilitate a young offender in the local community. Moreover, in some cases young people appear to regard ASBOs as a "badge of honour" and respond to it by acting "hard" in front of their friends to live up to the tough image which they consider the ASBO gives them. Only recently in a project to which I paid a visit, I was introduced to a number of young children by their names except for one who was very proud indeed to call himself "an ASBO kid". Surely the oxygen of publicity is the last thing we need in such orders.
Fourthly, 22 per cent of ASBOs in the research sample were imposed on young people from minority ethnic groups. Although the sample was not nationally representative in terms of geography, this is nevertheless a worryingly high proportion, particularly because the definition of "anti-social behaviour" in the legislation is very wide indeed which creates wide scope for potential discrimination. And of course we know that many other powers in the criminal justice process are used in ways which produce a racially discriminatory result.
The Runnymede Trust report found that neither the Home Office nor local authorities carried out ethnic monitoring of the use of ASBOs—a wholly unacceptable situation which should be remedied as soon as possible. There must be rigorous ethnic monitoring of ASBOs so that clear measurable targets can be set to reduce any discrimination in their use. I have shared my concern with the Minister. There is a danger that public bodies may be in breach of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act. It would be helpful if the Minister were to consult the Commission for Racial Equality on this point.
Police and local authorities in every area should be required to carry out inter-agency discussions with youth offending teams to discuss other potentially more fruitful approaches to changing a young person's behaviour before applying for an ASBO. Indeed, I would go further than the report and propose that courts making ASBOs should be required to give their reasons for believing that all other available methods of dealing with the young person's behaviour have been tried and failed. This would be the most effective way of ensuring that ASBOs are used sparingly and that more effective and constructive ways of reducing anti-social behaviour by young people are used wherever appropriate.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Shadow Minister, Home Affairs; Conservative)
My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for giving us the chance for this short debate.
The research carried out by the Youth Justice Board found that almost half of ASBOs are routinely breached by under 18s; and that they are widely seen, as other noble Lords have said, as "badges of honour" by offending teenagers, their parents, and even some criminal justice professionals. It is a disturbing picture indeed.
Furthermore, the report says that many of those involved in tackling youth offending, including magistrates, have serious reservations about their effectiveness and question how much they change the behaviour of young offenders, or address the causes of that bad behaviour. More than 7,300 individual orders have been issued since they were introduced by the 1998 Act as a flagship part of the Prime Minister's drive against anti-social behaviour. But this new study shows that 49 per cent of under-18s have been returned to court for failing to comply with their order, with the majority breaching that order on more than one occasion.
When we had an oral Question on the National Audit Office report on ASBOs last month, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, who is not here today, displayed an air of complacency about the breaching of ASBOs that I found very worrying indeed. She said that one should not see breach as a failure and that she was,
"very pleased by the success of the work that [the Government were undertaking]"—[Hansard, 12/12/06; col. 1452.]
That success has led more widely to 55 per cent of all ASBOs being breached and 20 per cent of those being given ASBOs simply not responding to them in the long term.
The report concludes that youth offending team practitioners, and some sentencers, regard the high level of non-compliance as a key indicator that ASBOs are ineffective and are concerned that by extending the young person's criminal record, breach increased the risk of custody in the longer term. What is the Minister's response to that?
All the young people interviewed were aware of the possibility of breach, but most either did not regard the threat of custody as "real", or did not consider it to be a deterrent. Surely that raises the concern that ASBOs do not have an impact on that young person's intentions to offend again and again. Indeed, the report also shows that even youth offending team practitioners tended to think that ASBOs were overused and had little positive impact on behaviour. They typically viewed ASBOs as potentially counterproductive, believing that they undermine positive interventions that were available, that could be in place and are not being used, and which might be better than using court action.
The research also found that there was a variation in the use of the different types of order. That could not be explained by examining the type of behaviour leading to the application, but appeared to be due to the development of local preferences for a particular route. Surely the worry there is that as a result ASBOs can overall be poorly targeted and unrealistic in what they impose on the young person. All noble Lords have referred to that point.
So, what is to be done? Of course an immediate response from the Minister tonight might be to tell us that the Government are minded to adopt all the recommendations in the report. We shall wait and hear. I believe that we need to take a longer-term view. Here I get rather worried that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has often pre-empted many of my remarks. There seems to be some kind of a very holy alliance, I am sure, developing. Are ASBOs fit for purpose? Are they now being used inappropriately as a first resort rather than a last resort? The Home Office has added to the confusion here by its change of emphasis in the guidance it has issued on these matters. Are ASBOs being used to address minor misdemeanours in the proper way, or, instead, as some have suspected, and indeed in this report, are serious matters now being dealt with rather than other matters being addressed?
One of the key findings on page 37 is that a number of interviewees, most notably sentencers and—I hate the term "YOT"—youth offending team practitioners were concerned that anti-social behaviour legislation was now being used to address criminal behaviour. So what was intended to be directed at minor misdemeanours is now being directed at more serious criminal behaviour that should have been dealt with in other ways.
Would it not be useful for the Home Office to produce a forensic, reliable and published analysis of what works and what does not work; and why? It is vital that we should hold individuals responsible for their actions and punish them when they break the law. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, was absolutely right to remind us of the living hell that some of these young people can impose on some neighbourhoods. That has to be at the forefront of our memories in dealing with all these matters. But, as my right honourable friend David Cameron said at the annual Youth Justice Board convention this November, we can punish young offenders all we like, but if we do not tackle the causes of crime we will never have a safer society. So we should not demonise young people. We should ask ourselves what we can do to give young people hope, to improve training, to strengthen families, to tackle addiction as early as possible and to encourage good behaviour—knowledge of what is right and wrong; a conscience—before one acts.
Fighting youth crime is not just a state responsibility; it is a social responsibility for us all; and we forget that at our peril.
Lord Dear (Crossbench)
My Lords, I want to be very brief. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for introducing the subject tonight and apologise to her for missing the first few moments of her address. I merely want to echo what has been said by many noble Lords tonight, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on family values and rehabilitation, which are of course the key to any governmental policy to tackle this sort of anti-social behaviour.
I want to draw your Lordships' attention to the all-important question of the supervision of ASBOs. They are used from time to time as a badge of honour, but it is a fairly flimsy badge if one is being forced by the mechanics of the ASBO to conform to certain requirements—to be in at a certain time, not to keep certain company, not to go to a certain place and so on. That supervision, often at unusual hours of the day, late evening or night, can often only be put into place by a uniformed police presence. I have mentioned this before in your Lordships' House when speaking to another matter. It is a matter that the Minister is not best placed to answer, and I would not expect a detailed response from him on this, but I ask him to take note of this fact: my best information at the moment is that an original undertaking to provide 24,000 community support officers for the police is now under discussion, in the likelihood that it will be reduced by one-third to 16,000 community support officers, who are being loaded with more and more requirements other than ASBOs as part of their daily business.
If that is the case—I emphasise that it is not yet a completed deal—the supervision of ASBOs will suffer significantly. Without proper supervision, all that we have said in this House about how they can be put into place fruitfully is likely to fall. I repeat myself lest I was not clear: I do not expect—I think that it would be unreal to expect—a detailed response to that, but I ask the Minister whether he can reassure your Lordships' House that he has this issue in his mind and will talk to officials elsewhere to try to accelerate that conclusion.
Lord Bassam of Brighton (Government Whip (technically a Lord in Waiting, HM Household); Labour)
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for putting this issue before your Lordships' House this evening because it gives the Government an opportunity to respond to some of the points raised in the very valuable report commissioned by the Youth Justice Board. It is fair to say that we have had a wide-ranging debate looking at aspects of the way in which anti-social orders work. In large measure, I think that I can probably summarise the observations made by many of your Lordships by saying that there is concern about how ASBOs operate, and there were questions about some fundamentals of the policy.
I take issue with many of those observations, but I believe that the report itself is of considerable value and that it will help us perfect the way in which anti-social behaviour issues are dealt with and will enable YOTs who, in good measure, have a big responsibility as part of the local partnership arrangements in this field. We conclude by saying that we find it gratifying that independent research of this nature supports, in general terms, the direction in which we are trying to develop further policy.
In welcoming the research and the contribution that it makes, we clearly need to reflect on it. Anti-social behaviour orders have been used for a number of years and have proved themselves to be both popular and effective. We were particularly pleased to see that the study reinforced our view that the tool was, broadly speaking, being used wisely and widely. For example, the report found that most anti-social behaviour orders were not being breached and that they were highly effective when used appropriately. We also welcome the element of constructive challenge to the policy. It is particularly pleasing that many of the study's findings match our own—for example, on the issue of renewing juvenile ASBOs after one year, which we are committed to making a statutory requirement. We must also remember that many young people are victims of anti-social behaviour and, like adults, want anti-social behaviour problems addressed in their communities.
As the authors made clear and as the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, usefully reminded us, they sampled but 10 of the 156 YOTs in England and Wales. They chose them deliberately—purposefully—according to their anti-social behaviour order use. Where the report makes constructive and useful suggestions for policy development, we will of course—I give this reassurance—act on those recommendations, but the report should in no way be read as representing the experience of all YOTs or, for that matter, crime and disorder areas.
I move on to the detail of the recommendations. The report recommended that ASBOs on young people be reviewed regularly to ensure that prohibitions continue to be relevant. In December 2005, we announced a development in policy: ASBOs for young people would be reviewed annually. That was in response to feedback from stakeholders, as well as a specific recommendation from the Home Affairs Select Committee, which pointed out that a year was a long time in the life of a young person.
The Youth Justice Board report also recommended a tiered approach by the agencies when considering applying for an ASBO. That is already the policy advocated in the joint guidance issued by the Home Office, the Youth Justice Board and ACPO in August last year. That approach is also in keeping with the respect agenda in tackling anti-social behaviour, which is that enforcement and support are two sides of the same coin.
For young people, it is essential that support is in place either in the form of an individual support order or other intervention to tackle the root cause of the offending behaviour. To that end, the YJB, the Home Office and the DCA have been working together since February to research why take-up of ISOs has been low and to put in place necessary measures to ensure that the agencies are aware of them and are making better and more appropriate use of them. That includes publicity on websites and at conferences, including the respect academies, and training. We hope that the next round of statistics will therefore show a significant increase in take-up. However, we also know that communities sometimes need immediate protection from anti-social behaviour, and in those cases an ASBO might be the first, rather than the last, resort.
The report also drew attention to the prohibitions in ASBOs, recommending that they be kept to a minimum. Our view is that prohibitions must be appropriate and carefully thought-out so that they are easy to understand and practical for the individual and, above all, are effective in protecting the community by reducing the likelihood of breach. The joint guidance advises practitioners on how to prepare prohibitions. Ultimately, it is for the agencies applying for ASBOs to determine what prohibitions are appropriate for the young person and for the courts to approve or refuse them. That means that the facts of the case determine specific prohibitions, and therefore that safeguard is already built into the system. It is also open to the defendant to appeal against the order if the prohibitions are thought to be inappropriate.
We see no useful purpose in limiting the number of prohibitions if the facts of the case merit them. However, that is quite a difficult matter for agencies to consider with many options open to them. We absolutely agree that it is important that agencies devise conditions that are appropriate and proportionate. In recognition of the importance of preparing effective prohibitions, the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service, together with expert practitioners from the police and local authorities, have recently held workshops for those in the anti-social behaviour field to make sure that they are getting them right.
The report recommended that youth offending teams should be included in the decision-making process to ensure that appropriate diversionary options are fully explored, something to which the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, referred. In March last year, the YJB published guidance produced jointly which set out a clear framework for YOTs on their role in working with local partners to prevent and address anti-social behaviour. The document was designed to help other agencies working to tackle anti-social behaviour, such as social landlords, the police and local authorities to understand fully the role of the YOT and its expertise in working with young people. It emphasises the importance of early intervention with young people and of agencies working together. The YJB has also contributed to the revised guidance on ASBOs recently published by the Home Office, which underlines YOTs' role and continues to work closely with the Home Office Anti-Social Behaviour Unit and other stakeholders, such as the Magistrates' Association and the Courts Service to review the role of YOTs and other issues. In addition, the YJB will recommend that YOTs ensure, through regular user group meetings, that local sentencers are familiar with the range of intervention and prevention schemes being delivered in their jurisdiction.
The report also recommended that revised guidance could help ensure that ASBOs in criminal proceedings and interim ASBOs were reserved for circumstances where there were clear reasons for pursuing such an approach. The ASBO guidance issued jointly provides a comprehensive, separate section on orders on conviction, interim orders and ASBOs and young people. It builds on experience and legal developments during the past five years. However, that experience is that practitioners only ever pursue an ASBO where it is clearly needed to protect the community from anti-social behaviour. The courts provide an additional safeguard.
The report expressed concern about the potential for publicity to stigmatise young people who receive ASBOs and said that decisions regarding publicity may not currently take account of the possible counter-productive effect. Again, the new Home Office guidance on ASBOs provides comprehensive advice on the use of publicity. The allegation that publicising ASBOs stigmatises young people has, I fully recognise, been a long-standing issue with those opposed to the use of publicity. However, case law has determined that publicity is necessary for effective enforcement of the order.
The guidance makes it clear that there is no "naming and shaming" policy. ASBOs are not intended to punish or embarrass individuals but to protect communities. We advocate a case-by-case approach, and the human rights of the individual should be properly balanced against the right of local communities to be protected from anti-social behaviour.
I now turn my attention to some other issues raised by the report that did not come to light in the media but may warrant attention. First, the report shows that almost half of the sample breached the terms of their ASBO. It is important to note that the sample of young people was not representative of the ASBO population and therefore those results cannot be generalised or be indicative of overall ASBO compliance rates. Furthermore, I reject the proposition that any breach rate is an indication of failure. It shows that ASBOs have teeth and that, if people do not abide by them, there are serious consequences to be taken on board. Those on ASBOs know the consequences of breaching—it is spelt out very clearly when they are brought before the court.
That said, although we found those recommendations pertinent and helpful, we were disappointed that some sections of the media decided to focus on comments from the mother of a young anti-social behaviour perpetrator and from a magistrate leading to the misguided conclusion that ASBOs were generally regarded as a badge of honour. We refute that allegation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people do not view ASBOs as something to be proud of.
ASBOs are prohibitive orders put in place to provide protection for the community and place restrictions on behaviour. For every person who says that an ASBO is a badge of honour, we can show you victims who can say that a difference has been made to their life and to their community and to practitioners who say that it now means that they can finally help communities take control over the minority who have been making the lives of many a misery. Such negative comments undo much of the good work that has been done to tackle anti-social behaviour and attempt to undermine an extremely valuable tool for practitioners.
We also refute the claim made in the media that young people are being demonised or criminalised. ASBOs are a civil order, and, if a young person breaches that order, they should be given custody only as a last resort. In recent years, considerable emphasis has been placed on promoting positive activities for young people and ensuring that they have a say in the activities on offer in their local area. I welcomed the comment made by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, on this issue, because we believe that ASBOs can be seen and used as a positive method of intervention.
It is a key tenet of government policy that we use ASBOs to drive down anti-social behaviour in many communities that have been blighted by it. We are grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this important topic. I have not been able in my summary to deal with all the issues that arose in the debate, and I will review the debate and ensure that I do so. In particular, I shall look closely at the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dear, in his comments towards the end of the debate.
We recognise that the report is an important contribution to discussion. We have viewed many of its recommendations positively, and we will continue to consult widely on many of the issues that have been raised in it. We are proposing, as a last resort, some new powers to close premises that are causing significant and serious harm to local communities. That is one of the issues on which we shall consult further.
I hope that some of my comments will offer some reassurance to those who have concerns about the way in which the anti-social behaviour orders operate, and we will continue in our obligation to listen to those who deliver these key services in often very troubled communities.