Archive article from The Socialist Issue 423
New Labour's policies can't end ...
Crime and anti-social behaviour
TONY BLAIR'S well-publicised ideas on "respect" in the community have pushed his views on crime and anti-social behaviour onto the political agenda again. Education worker MIKE FORSTER asks what attitude should socialists take on this issue?
IMMEDIATELY AFTER last year's general election, Tony Blair announced that his most immediate priority would be tackling anti-social behaviour. He claimed to have been struck on the doorstep by people's general concern that 'respect' was fast disappearing from the streets of Britain.
In reality, government statistics show that over the last year crime actually fell, with individual recorded crimes falling from 5.9 million to 5.5 million. However, violent and sexual crimes increased by 2.6%, although they don't appear to be on the government's list of priorities.
The most likely victims of crime are aged between 18 and 25 and are black. The least likely victims are those from the 50-75 year old age profile, though statistics like these don't reflect the strong and genuine fear of crime that exists in this section of society as well as others.
Looking back even further, crime remained relatively static from when statistics were first comprehensively collected in the 1820s, to the 1950s. There was a slight increase from the 1950s to the 1970s, but the 1980s saw a dramatic increase of over 700%.
This period coincided with Thatcher's government: the destruction of manufacturing jobs, a huge rise in unemployment, the collapse of social cohesion and the beginning of the dismantling of the welfare state. This led to many of the social consequences which 21st century Britain now struggles to deal with: family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, rising disparity between rich and poor.
A recent study conducted in New Zealand found what socialists have always known, that you're three times more likely to be involved in crime if you live in an area of social disadvantage. The biggest factors likely to trigger criminal activity were prolonged economic deprivation, family stress, school exclusion or disaffection and drug or alcohol abuse.
Of course criminal activity carried out by the capitalist class continues unpunished - the theft of pension funds, the destruction and theft of manufacturing jobs, the withdrawal of welfare benefits from the most needy, the 'illegal' invasion of Iraq.
We live in a class society with blatant class laws put in place to defend the capitalist system. Under such a society, we cannot expect the rich or big business to be brought to book for crimes they commit against the working class every day of our working lives.
Following the increase in crime in the 1980s, it started levelling out in the1990s and has been relatively static for the last 10 years. This did not stop New Labour's crusade against anti-social behaviour which began in 1998 when David Blunkett was Home Secretary. Initially he announced that the government was going to tackle 'families from hell' who, it was claimed, were terrorising estates.
ARISING OUT of the Crime and Disorder Act, a massive new panoply of orders were introduced that the courts can impose on civil offenders: Acceptable Behaviour Contracts; Referral Orders; Action Plan Orders; Reparation Orders; Parenting Orders; Fixed Penalty Notices; and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). Breaching any of these will result in imprisonment.
The government has tried to define what constitutes anti-social behaviour. It initially included being noisy or rude in public places, behaviour likely to lead to neighbour complaint, carrying some form of weapon, racial harassment, joyriding and graffiti.
They later added speeding traffic, dog mess, sleeping rough, inconvenient parking and teenagers hanging around. When challenged about this definition, Blunkett's deputy minister suggested that anti-social behaviour "was whatever the victim thinks it means". 'Hoodies' - young people wearing hoods, have been banned in several town centres and most schools have banned wearing hoods on school premises.
However, this gimmick has been superseded by a raft of proposals, including bringing in a 24,000-strong army of community support officers to conduct truancy sweeps, setting up an Anti-Yob Direct Hotline where callers can 'dob in a yob', empowering councils to evict occupants from 'properties from hell' and requiring certain families to go on compulsory rehabilitation programmes on money management, anger control and parenting.
There will be cash incentives for teenage parents to attend parenting classes and a further £20 million will be provided for parent school advisers to help families make the 'right' choice for their children's education.
These measures are going down a predictable route this government has already started to tread. They also include giving teachers more power to restrain pupils in order to 'restore discipline' in schools and giving councils more powers to impose fines and custodial sentences to improve school attendance.
Since ASBOs were introduced their range and purpose have dramatically shifted from families towards almost exclusively being focussed on young people. Three-quarters of orders so far imposed have been against people under 21, 47% of them under 17. Roughly half have been breached, by supposedly failing to abide by the conditions imposed in the ASBO, and in those cases, 75% of the people concerned have been sent to jail!
Socialists could never be in favour of people going around smashing windows or riding motor bikes on pavements, but ASBOs are criminalising young people and their behaviour by using criminal law, rather than existing civil legislation which carries far different consequences.
For example, by failing to abide by the conditions of your ASBO, you can be returned to the magistrates' court, found guilty and sent to jail, not for the original offence, but for not complying with the ASBO! More recently, parents have been sent to jail for failing to pay fixed penalty notices because their children weren't going to school.
Civil rights groups complain bitterly about the inappropriate use of ASBOs which have criminalised a whole new layer of young people. Even the former head of the family justice system, Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss warned that Britain must act to stop child offenders hardening into life-long criminals or risk a legacy of "totally unmanageable juvenile crime."
She argues forcefully that too many child offenders are prosecuted and put on the path to a life of crime. Instead, she says that young offenders up to the age of 14 committing moderate anti-social crime should be dealt with by the care system rather than the courts.
And little wonder. Prisons are now full to over-capacity. From an average of two to a cell, the prison population has swollen to six per cell. The HM Inspectorate of Prisons admits that racial harassment and bullying are rife. Youth numbers in jail have never been higher, along with an alarming rise in prison suicides.
The Audit Commission and Chief Inspector of Prisons both say that "something should be done" about the overwhelming number of young people in prison. The government is 'doing something' - criminalising even more young people!
Ignoring the causes
SOCIALISTS, WHILE recognising the genuine and legitimate fear of crime that exists, have to move away from the government's agenda of using crime to create a greater climate of fear, and must consider exactly what's taking place and how an alternative can be found.
The government's claim of spending more on young people is far from the truth. They're appointing armies of new workers whose role in life is to police all these orders imposed by the courts. They are all being directed to move from care and reparation towards punishment and enforcement!
In case they don't get the message, Home Secretary Charles Clarke has ordered the Probation Service to be served up lock, stock and barrel for privatisation. The biggest likely provider of rehabilitation for offenders leaving prison could be the private company Group Four if these measures are approved - so much for care in the community!
Under existing ASBO legislation, the right to a fair trial has been removed. Many organisations can apply for ASBOs, such as tenants associations, community groups, parent teacher associations, housing officers, landlords and parish councils. Head teachers have been recently added.
Only one in a hundred ASBO applications is turned down by the courts. Little wonder - these are the only hearings in Britain which allow the admissibility of hearsay evidence and where no standard of proof is required to produce a finding of guilt.
The Commissioner for the Council of European Human Rights, Gil Robles, says the UK is suffering from ASBO-mania and is introducing control orders which constitute punishment without trial. ASBOs are being introduced for bizarre reasons, such as forbidding: owning a box of matches, using a mop and bucket, wearing a baseball cap, owning a TV stereo or radio and being drunk over the next five years.
In Hull, anyone found loitering in Queen's Gardens (a public park just outside the technical college) can be arrested since the whole area has had an ASBO imposed on it!
In reality all these measures blatantly ignore the real causes of crime and so-called anti-social behaviour. This government's policies are perpetuating a system which will let more working-class people fall into the poverty trap and so be more likely also to be tempted into criminal activity that adversely affects other people.
The NHS is being broken up and privatised, benefits are being clawed back from the most needy and the closing off of higher and further education to working-class young people denies them opportunities.
So-called foundation schools will inevitably want to exclude more challenging or needy pupils, especially if they have control over admissions policy; private-sector housing is on the march and councils are selling off their housing stock. The scandal of low pay continues to blight British jobs and is spreading like an ink spot, especially across the most unorganised workplaces.
ECONOMIC AND social deprivation follows in the wake of these appalling policies and so we will see a corresponding increase in crime. The government's response has been solely to strengthen the punishment and enforcement arms of the criminal justice system.
However, an alternative form of society is necessary if we are to begin to address the problem of crime; the building of a socialist society in which deprivation, poverty and alienation could be tackled. A society which can meet the needs of all its members will, over time, by the elimination of poverty, be able to dramatically reduce crime.
In the shorter term, we need to put forward positive ideas about how socialists might want to see crime tackled in opposition to Blair's proposals. A full programme of investment in public services would go a long way to restore confidence in the welfare state and reverse the government's privatisation programme.
In the field of criminal justice, certain limited projects clearly have had a lot more success in preventing offenders from re-offending, such as community projects, restorative justice, investment in more youth facilities, developing alternative education curricula and genuine welfare programmes. Youth and community workers should be allowed where possible to move away from the destructive environment of enforcement towards care and reparation.
The danger signs are there if this government carries down its path of enforced 'respect'. The explosion of anger on the streets of France reflected a mood of rage, despair and frustration. Where communities don't find an organised, constructive expression to these feelings, they all too often turn in on themselves.
The blind alley of rioting does not offer a way out. It is the task of socialists to argue for and offer an alternative which will harness these energies in building a socialist society.
Build for action