The Government's flagship criminal justice measure, the anti-social
behaviour order (Asbo), is being widely misused by police and local
authorities, MPs have been warned.
Since they were launched in April 1999, the number of Asbos granted
by magistrates' courts has risen dramatically and now totals 4,000,
many of them against children.
Civil liberties groups have raised concerns that authorities are
increasingly relying on the powers of the orders as a short-cut to
imposing criminal punishments. The warning forms part of a report by
the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee's investigation into anti-
social behaviour in Britain, which will be published on Tuesday.
An Asbo is granted as a civil power but a breach of the order is
treated as an offence punishable by up to five years in prison. Of
nearly 1,300 Asbo applications from local authorities in England and
Wales between 2000 and 2004, only 13 were refused by the courts.
In some cases Asbos are being used to tackle long-standing social
problems, such as begging and prostitution by turning offenders into
The wide terms of the legislation mean that a magistrate can grant an
Asbo by being satisfied only on a balance of probabilities that the
accused's behaviour is "likely to cause alarm, harassment or
As a result, children risk being sent to detention centres for
swearing or spitting in the street. In one case a child suffering
from Tourette syndrome was banned from swearing in public.
Groups such as the British Institute for Brain Injured Children
(Bibic), a national charity working with young people with
behavioural difficulties, warn that the Government's targeting
of "families from hell" could lead to the demonising of children with
Asperger's syndrome or other problems.
In the first year of the Asbo only a few dozen applications were made
to the courts. Since then, Labour has introduced new laws to
strengthen their use while giving councils and police more money to
fund applications. In many cases, an Asbo against a child is now
accompanied by a naming and shaming order.
The human rights group Liberty warns that this not only targets the
individual but also their brothers and sisters. Shami Chakrabarti,
the director of Liberty, says that such a measure can destroy the
lives of innocent and often vulnerable children.
The Children's Society, said yesterday that it was "very concerned
about the government policy to 'name and shame' children who receive
Liz Lovell, a policy adviser at the Society, said: "The policy is not
only counter-productive, it puts children and young people at risk.
We are also opposed to the proposed extension of this policy in the
Serious Organised Crime & Police Bill. Another concern is that,
although an Asbo is a civil order, breaching it is a criminal
offence, the penalty for which can be imprisonment. Asbos were not
designed with children in mind."
In six years since the first Asbos were granted, evidence is emerging
that they no longer have a deterrent impact on anti-social behaviour.
Liberty has told MPs that such an "indiscriminate and excessive" use
of the legislation is "undermining any benefit they might bring". A
Liberty spokesman said: "We are aware of anecdotal evidence of Asbos
being treated as a badge of honour. If this is so then what must be
the principle purpose of Asbos, deterrence from anti-social
behaviour, is undermined. "Displacement of aggressive youths from one
estate to a neighbouring one does not address the cause of their
The Home Affairs Committee report will also consider the impact of
police powers to impose curfews on children under the age of 16 and
dispersal orders for groups of teenagers congregating in the street.
In its evidence to the committee, Liberty says: "While people might
find the presence of a group of young men with hoods covering their
faces intimidating, it does not always justify the police taking
action. These powers are the consequence of the Government's blank-
cheque policy on policing."
Social-welfare charities are also concerned about the widespread
imposition of Asbos. Research carried out by the National Consortium
for Sheltered Housing (Erosh) for possession or eviction in sheltered
housing during the first quarter of 2004 found that, for the first
time, anti-social behaviour was cited as a cause for more actions
than rent arrears.
Erosh is concerned about incidents of early onset of dementia,
paranoia, depression, or manic conditions, for example, which can
lead to behaviour that many consider "anti-social" but are in reality
evidence of health breakdowns.
WHAT'S BANNED IN ASBO BRITAIN?
ANSWERING THE DOOR IN UNDERWEAR
Caroline Shepherd, 27, was given an Asbo after neighbours complained
about her wearing skimpy underwear when answering her door or using
the garden. The Asbo also banned her from making noise, shouting and
swearing, holding drunken parties, abusing neighbours and letting her
friends use her garden as a lavatory. Before the ban was imposed, Ms
Shepherd, of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, said she had been wearing a
new bikini for gardening. On Wednesday, Hamilton Sheriff's court was
told Ms Shepherd had pleaded not guilty to two charges of breaching
Kim Sutton, 23, has tried to kill herself four times by jumping off
bridges. Ms Sutton, who suffers from a personality disorder, first
attempted suicide in August last year when she was seen in the river
Avon at Bath, Somerset. Three months later she was rescued from the
same river twice in two hours. After being convicted of three public
order offences by Bath magistrates, she was given a 12-month
conditional discharge and a five-point Asbo for two years. It bans
her from going into rivers, canals or open water, loitering on
bridges, going on to railway lines, entering multi-storey car parks
unaccompanied, or acting in a way that causes harassment or alarm.
Brian Hagan, 62, has a pig farm in Briston, Norfolk. Last year he was
given an Asbo after his animals repeatedly damaged crops in
neighbouring fields. His lawyer argued that it was the wrong
intervention to use. The human rights group Liberty said this use of
an Asbo could set a dangerous precedent. The case was dropped in
By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent 02 April 2005