terça-feira, março 28, 2006

ASBO crazy

Why Britain has gone...

Asbo crazy
Special Investigation by Tim Rayment, Sunday Times, 26 de Março

Family rows. . . overgrown hedges . . . doorstep deshabille. All these ‘offences’ could earn you an antisocial behaviour order that is designed to curb yobs

Here is a happy Asbo story; happy, that is, from every viewpoint except one. I have a neighbour who is difficult. Everyone knows this: I was warned about him before I moved in. He’s aggressive, they said. When he has a point to make, he will emerge from his house with a baseball bat. Some people are so scared of him, they have sold up and moved away.

So, before buying my house three years ago, I knocked on his door. He made me welcome and I risked going ahead. We even became friendly, although I could see why people lived in fear, and I could feel the background tension.

Last year, my neighbour was being a mild version of his usual self. From what I gather, he sat on land that overlooks a person he dislikes and glared in a hostile manner. He also parked his car in a deliberately obstructive way. These are not usually criminal offences. Then suddenly he was gone. He had been taken to prison.

If you have lived with stress, you will know it is only when the cause is removed that you realise for the first time how much tension you accepted as normal. In our community of a dozen houses, anxiety would come and go as the cars did. If my neighbour’s car was in its place, tension was raised. But for two months, everyone relaxed. He went to jail because an intimidating stare and some obstructive parking breached his Asbo. So they took him from our midst, just like that.

God will be my judge on Iraq, Tony Blair said recently; but at home, his legacy is the Asbo. After a slow start, local authorities everywhere are seeking them. Last year so many were handed out that one researcher calculates we’ll all have one by 2016. Caroline Shepherd, 27, was served with one because she scandalised her Scottish neighbours by opening the front door in her underwear. (As Cherie Blair almost did, the morning after Tony Blair’s election victory – see previous pages.) Stefan Noremberg, 42, has one for moving his furniture too loudly, as well as being a bad neighbour in other ways. Kim Sutton, 24, is banned from dipping a toe or finger in any river or canal, in case she tries to kill herself – in effect, making it a crime to be mentally ill. Targeted initially at the persistent offenders who make neighbourhood life a misery, they now cut across the classes. Paul Weiland, the film director behind Mr Bean, is among those facing an Asbo: his offence is not to trim the leylandii trees at his £4m home in Wiltshire, blocking sunlight to next door’s garden.

With 6,497 issued in England and Wales as of June 2005, and 599 in Scotland, the rate of increase is levelling off, but not for long, perhaps. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, thinks that some councils are not keeping up with the municipal Joneses, and wants to embarrass those who have been slow to use Asbos by naming them before local elections in May.

To observers who dislike the authoritarian nature of new Labour, with its culture of supervision and surveillance, the popularity of Asbos must be bewildering (even 67% of Guardian readers support them). But there is no doubt that, for those who suffer from the real but “low-level” abuse that blights lives, they have been a fantastic innovation. All MPs have constituents with despairing stories for which, in the past, there was no easy answer. Now there is.

What makes Asbos an easy remedy is that they are not hard to obtain: only 3% of applications are refused. Let’s take a real case. Suppose your neighbour – a businessman – has no respect for anyone. He warns you that he is a psychopath, and gives you every reason to believe it. He puts cat faeces through your letter box, allows his dog to foul your garden, and intimidates other neighbours by staring into their homes. In the past, you would have had to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that he was responsible for the faeces; he might have laughed off his court appearance, and nothing would have changed. But Asbos are different. First, they are civil cases, even though magistrates hear them, which means that all you need to show is that on the balance of probabilities, the businessman acts as you and your neighbours describe. You can even give evidence without the accused ever knowing your name. But the order, once granted, has a hidden bite. Asbos are designed to inhibit people from repeating behaviour that others find unacceptable, and to breach them is a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison. Five years for interfering with your letter box: that’s a weapon. At least, it is if the courts take the breach seriously, but we’ll come to that later.

Unsurprisingly, Asbos have reached parts of British life the authors of the legislation cannot have imagined. Abusive landlords are prevented from threatening tenants or unlawfully evicting them. Violent husbands are banned from causing alarm or distress to their wives. Dundee city council is contemplating the use of Asbos in schools, to stop pupils disrupting classes or being bullies. The legislation has been used to turn prostitution, drinking and begging into crimes: in North Yorkshire, for example, police looked through the window of Ripon and District Social Club and saw Tom Kelly, a young bricklayer, having a drink two days before Christmas. Because of persistent bad behaviour, including assault, criminal damage and public-order offences, entering licensed premises breached his Asbo. His workmates hid him under a table, but this did not save him from being sent to prison for five months.

Thomas Brown, a flasher from the Isles of Scilly, has been banned from speaking to any female, except for members of his family, in any public place in the UK. In east London, residents are experimenting with “Asbo TV”, giving them access to 400 CCTV cameras so they can compare suspicious characters with an on-screen gallery of Asbo recipients. Children are not exempt from all this: although the original intention was to use the orders mainly against adults, almost half go to juveniles. The age of the youngest has been creeping down: in 2003, four years into this great social experiment, to be 17 and to receive an Asbo was enough to make the newspapers; now, you need to be 11. According to the Home Office, more than 160 have been issued to children aged between 10 and 12.

Storm-toss’d lovers have been caught in the net: Kirsty Smith, 22, had to go to court when seven months pregnant to contest an Asbo preventing her from living with the father of her child, after police were called 40 times to their home in southwest London. She fancied the pants off 43-year-old Christopher Rabess; he was so shy when they met, he could not eat; but their rows were spectacular. They argued that the ban on living together was against their human rights, and last month she was allowed to move back in. The original terms were that she was not to go within five miles of his home, and he was not to contact her, but a modified Asbo instructs them not to put one another or their neighbours in fear or distress for two years.

The proving ground for Asbos is Manchester. This is not because Manchester is a bad place, even if it has deep social problems and the country’s highest rate of car crime. It is because there is an enthusiasm. Manchester understands Asbos, and Charles Clarke is pleased with Manchester. Of the 6,497 issued, 938 have been in the city, which leads London despite a population one-third the size. Labour councillors argue that they have nothing to be ashamed of: if you have money, you can buy yourself out of problem neighbourhoods, and Asbos protect those who have less choice over where they live. Agreed. But do they work?

Let us visit one area: Monsall, to the east of the city. This is a small, clearly defined estate, with a strong sense of belonging. As it is small, surely social policy will work here. In the community centre, those in charge know everyone who comes in. But the street cleaners work only in the early morning, before the estate’s feared teenagers are about; shards of glass that are too small for them to pick up show that no car is safe.

The cleaners are not wimps. An example of a Monsall Asbo is that of Lewis Cook, who was first arrested at the age of 10. He has five convictions for theft and receiving, two for possessing cannabis, and more for assaulting police officers, criminal damage, and carrying a locking knife. His Asbo was granted in 2004, when he was 17, because of evidence that he and others had gathered in his road with baseball bats, knives and bars. They had also been seen “using foul and abusive language… and drinking alcohol and shouting on separate occasions”. The order bans him from just about everywhere, except for the roads he must use to visit his grandparents or go home; even there, he is not allowed to be on the street for any other reason. It makes it a crime for him to communicate with 11 named friends, or to be “with more than two people in public”.

Another Monsall story. I went to see Doris Lewis, 70, who has four grandchildren who are forbidden to visit her because she cannot control them when they do. (The list of allegations against one includes burglary, criminal damage, indecent exposure to a 10-year-old, and terrorising Cub Scouts.) It was my second visit to the area and I was still naive. I thought I was being careful; I parked around the corner so that nobody would see me remove the satellite-navigation device, and hide it, with other valuables and the notebooks containing two months’ work, in a scruffy carrier bag. On Lewis’s doorstep, I had my back to this bag for about 90 seconds, and a teenager stole it. Naturally, I chased him along three streets, shouting in a Shakespearian voice: “Stop that man!” The shouts brought people out of their houses, but only after we had flashed past, and I lost him after he turned the fourth corner. (We were now near the home, by the way, of another person I wanted to visit, who felt so terrorised by the five girls next door, aged 9 to 17, that she hid her baby in a cupboard.) Reporting the crime proved taxing: the phone box on the corner was not working – what a surprise, said a resident later – and the thief had my mobile. At home that evening it was impossible to get through to the police because of other people’s urgent calls. When I did get them at 6.30am the next day, a friendly officer related his Mancunian story: he had stepped out of his car to knock on a friend’s door, leaving the keys in the ignition and his wife in the back, when a “nipper” got in to steal it, wife and all.

Doris Lewis witnessed my theft with the deadpan expression of someone for whom nothing was new. What struck me was the teenager: when I turned round, seconds before he took the bag, he made no effort to hide what he was about to do. “They have no fear,” says Pauline Madden, 75, another grandmother on the estate. “Our children are delightful,” says the secretary of the local primary school, with total sincerity. “I don’t know what happens to them.” The secretary – speaking moments after a man who had come to fix the school photocopier had his satellite navigation nicked, too – thinks there is a lookout in one of the estate’s four small tower blocks. This would explain why I drove onto the estate and had my stuff pinched two minutes later.

You get the picture. This is a strong community, but it is not a place to be a dreamer, as I am, or weak. Last summer there was a community-pride meeting in Monsall; a Spanish lorry driver had the misfortune to park outside the meeting place because he was lost. Talk of community pride was interrupted by the sound of people breaking into the lorry and then, when they found it empty, assaulting the driver with rocks. The police were called, but did not come.

If anyone needs Blair’s protection, it is the people of this estate. They include residents with ordinary working lives – the streets are empty of cars during the day – and the highest aspirations for their children. Take Anne Barratt, 64, a shy grandmother who provides some of the glue for the estate’s fabric, by working as a volunteer at the community centre and as a school dinner lady. Her grandson Matthew can be seen in an old BBC film, made in the 1990s when the estate was at its worst, playing a game of hunt-the-rats under the mattresses and other rubbish outside abandoned houses. Today he is at university, studying to be a graphic designer.

Have Asbos helped? The city council has an intelligent approach: the orders are part of a suite of measures to try to prevent trouble as well as to punish it. There are parenting classes for those struggling to manage children’s behaviour; contracts to encourage parents to take responsibility for what their children do; Asbo warning interviews, which seek to identify what help a young person needs to stay out of trouble; and activities to keep them occupied, such as trips to the swimming pool and a recent outing to the Lake District. New tenants are given a period of probation: they know if they or their children do not behave, they will lose their home.

Alas, the problems go deeper than policy can reach – at least, as policy is practised at the moment. One obstacle is cultural. Almost nobody talks to the authorities, for fear of being seen as a grass. “The reason I looked at you as if you was dirty,” one young mother explained helpfully, “is because I thought you was undercover police.” When joyriders race round the streets, nobody says anything. Live and let live. How do you enforce an Asbo if nobody reports that it is being breached?

Then there is the difficulty of getting hold of the police, even if you wanted to. Sadder still is that there are residents who used to call, but have given up because of what happens when cases reach court. “I think it was 1999, the first Asbo,” says Ken Moran, who runs the community centre, “and the idea you could ring up the police and say, oh, I’ve seen someone doing that, and something would be done about it, was great. Then people rang and nothing happened. And nothing happened 20 times. And they think: well, why bother? The police have actually said to us, there is no point in us [reporting things] because they get to court and the judge lets them out. They’re home in time for tea, you know. That’s made the Asbo pretty much a laughing stock.”

To address the “no grassing” culture, the authorities have introduced neighbourhood wardens, who patrol the estate as the eyes and ears of the police. The wardens carry leaflets that distinguish them from law enforcers, presenting them as ordinary people, “here for you, your mates and the rest of your neighbourhood”. No handcuffs! No batons! No CS gas! We’re not the police! The weakness of this is that they have no power, and everyone knows it. Nobody on Monsall reports anything to them, either. In some parts of the country, these brave and friendly figures have the authority to issue fixed penalties, which would seem a good idea here, too.

I meet a group of mothers, most of whom had their first babies as teenagers. Asbos have made no difference at all, they say. What would you do instead? “Kill ’em all,” says a mother of four, before thinking about this for a moment. “No – if you just killed one, in the middle of the street, and showed everyone. It does need something done, because it is getting out of hand.” Neighbourhood wardens make no difference, she says. “If you hand names in, you wouldn’t be here the next day. Because you’d be f***ing dead. The only time this estate is quiet is when they are all banged up. Or when it’s raining.” (Or when they’re in the Lake District.)

The teenagers look hooded and sinister, as teenagers do. But most are happy to chat as soon as they know we are not the police, and one – 14 years old, and described by an official as one of the biggest scrotums in the area, with an anger-management problem – comes across as particularly sweet and likable. His friend Reece even blushes when I ask if his name is spelt with an S. “That’s the girl’s way,” he protests.

It is obvious that these boys need something to do. There is no playground on the estate, and the days when teenagers would get on a bus and go swimming are a fond memory. These lads don’t go anywhere, except in a stolen car. They will go swimming if you take them, but not otherwise. The community centre has active youth groups, but these have little to offer. “We get people up to 15 or 16. But sometimes at 12 that’s it,” says Moran, “because we have nothing to offer them. We can’t offer them drugs or let them steal cars. We can’t let them vandalise anything.” So the boys hang about the streets and get bored. Some of them – and there are no young women on the street, for some reason – show entrepreneurial spirit and a faith in officialdom. “Can’t you put a track over there for us?” ask three who are astride off-road motorbikes. (One has a mud-spattered toddler on the front, without a crash helmet, aged two.) They built these bikes themselves; to make one took four years. They would build the track, too, if only the council would give them one of the empty fields that are about. They even signed a petition asking for it. Nothing happened.

Have Asbos had any effect? No, say these young men, an answer that by now is expected. But there is a hint that the orders do have results. “I’d rather go to prison than have an Asbo,” says one of the bikers. “When you’re on an Asbo, the police hassle you 24 hours a day. So you may as well be inside, where the police can’t bother you and you’re just sat there, doing what you’re doing anyway. The Asbos don’t work whatsoever. You just want to throw that in the bin.” Whereas in prison you can sit doing nothing with your mates and take drugs in peace, which is better.

Like most of the public, I want to support Asbos. I still think they are a powerful innovation for beleaguered people. But there is a difference between my community, where Asbo recipients are few and the police easy to reach, and this one. Monsall might be small, with a population of 570, but it needs intensive effort to enforce the orders. I was on my sixth visit to Monsall before I saw a neighbourhood warden; I saw police, but always in cars, and as one officer said, all the lads round here look the same. The moral is obvious. Only if Asbos are seen to be enforced will residents in the toughest areas start to support them again. The orders are weakest where they are needed most. Much of the responsibility lies with the courts. “I don’t think Asbos have worked,” says a young neighbourhood warden, who was willing to be quoted but goes unnamed to protect his job. “Twenty-five per cent of them work, but the rest, the kids breach. I’ve been to court four times, and what’s been given by the judge is a slap on the wrists. There should be something sterner to replace the Asbo, like boot camp, where they can actually learn something.”

More likely is that the government will start to dock the benefit payments of antisocial households, an idea first put forward by Frank Field, Blair’s blue-skies social thinker. The objection to this is that cutting benefits affects only the poor. Better-off offenders would face only the penalties imposed by the courts, while the poor face double jeopardy. I have never understood this argument. By definition, the poor live among the poor, which means it is other poor people who suffer. As the motive is to give peace to the majority, the idea should be tested – with a pilot scheme on Monsall, perhaps. The real results come when effort is expended on one family, and however uncomfortable we might be with the idea that the state should intervene in parenting, somebody has to.

Manchester does have success stories. One family – not in Monsall – seemed beyond help. A mother and five children were moving from one address to another, while the father was in prison on a long sentence. Neighbours suffered racist and verbal abuse, loud music, vandalism, stone-throwing, joyriding and theft from local shops, which are exactly the low-level offences Asbos are meant to combat. The city council sought injunctions, eviction proceedings and Asbos against three of the children. But it also brought in its Tenancy Support Plus team, which taught the mother to praise her children and introduce routines. “This family,” said a council spokesman carefully, “is now moving towards eligibility for rehousing on an introductory tenancy basis.”

Close supervision has worked on the other side of the Pennines too. Leeds city council asked for an Asbo restricting Leeford Walker, 19, to be lifted after he dropped his friends and, helped by a strong relationship with a key worker, became a mentor for other young people. He hopes to be a youth worker or a soldier. “My life’s changed so much,” said the former burglar and drug dealer, who is now the father of a toddler. “If they’d sent me to jail instead of giving me an Asbo, I’d have got into more trouble.”

“The Asbo has done me good,” says Tiffany Woods, 17, also from Leeds, who was identified as a troublemaker because of the company she kept. “I’ve got a job and my own place, and I don’t bother with a lot of those people any more. It’s got me away from that area.”

Was Liberty, the civil-rights group, right to say: “We must not become an Asbo land, where it is a crime to be irritating or to be a child”? Is Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, right that some councils “are using the powers to drive off the streets anybody whose behaviour is eccentric, undesirable or a nuisance”? In a few well-publicised cases, yes.

But in the real world, somebody has to intervene when people behave badly, and low-level nuisance has a high-level effect on people’s lives.

Like anything involving the state, the use of Asbos needs watching. That is the role of newspapers, and of groups such as Asbo Concern. The orders need enforcing, too. Many are: more than 1,000 people have been imprisoned for breaching one. Ask Marion Beresford, of Glasgow, who spent Christmas and New Year behind bars for ignoring complaints about music blaring from her flat. Or Howard Sanders, from Cornwall, who swung his wife round by the arm, causing her to fall, breaching an order that he was not to harass or assault her. He was jailed for 21/2 years. These imprisonments either cheer you or chill you; possibly both.

For now, the home affairs select committee has concluded that the government’s Asbo policy is just about right. The public agrees. The great social experiment is just beginning.