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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 08:53 GMT
Q&A: Respect agenda
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Police talking to youths
Tackling yobbishness: Police officers in Nottingham
BBC News explains what the prime minister's "respect agenda" means - does it just focus on crime, or is it more wide ranging?

What is the respect agenda?

Tony Blair's so-called "respect agenda" emerged as a broad idea during the 2005 general election campaign. He said that it was about putting the law-abiding majority back in charge of their local communities.

"Whether it's in the classroom, or on the streets in town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, I want to focus on this issue," he said. "We've done a lot so far with anti-social behaviour orders and additional numbers of police.

"I want to make this a particular priority for this government, how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and our villages."

What exactly does the prime minister mean?

It's one thing to talk about respect, but another to define clear policy goals. Take anti-social behaviour orders, for example. These were designed to deal with people engaged in nuisance behaviour or low-level criminality - in effect a form of control.

But whether or not they instil "respect" is another matter. One key element of the respect package is what Downing Street says will be a major public consultation. That might provide some more answers.

But is crime at the heart of this?

Undoubtedly - and it's about how crime impacts on communities. Since Labour came to power in 1997, the government has pursued a range of policies that it believes provide local councils, the police and other bodies with far more sophisticated ways of tackling nuisance behaviour.

Supporters of the respect concept argue that this focus on low-level aggravation - drinking, vandalism, daily problems which depress householders but may not warrant the blue flashing lights and sirens - helps people sleep easy.

So how does this go beyond crime?

The prime minister signalled his intention to "join-up" the anti-social behaviour agenda with wider goals when he set up a special task force on school discipline.

One of the most controversial proposals is a power to "shut and seal" what Downing Street has dubbed "properties from hell". In practice, it could lead to people deemed guilty of causing serious nuisance to others being excluded from their own homes for three months, even if they own them.

Mr Blair has also signalled he wants to see more done on parenting through a special academy. This would augment the existing parenting orders and contracts - measures that try to enforce good behaviour by making parents recognise their responsibilities.

Is there a clear strategy here?

The idea of a respect agenda has been criticised for being at best vague and at worst a clever slogan with nothing behind it.

But if you link all the themes - crime, parenting, schools, relationships with local authorities and so on, supporters see a strategy of seeking to influence behaviour at a very local level, rather than in the institutional heights of the courts.

Although the policies differ, the respect agenda is arguably very close in concept to the US idea of "zero tolerance", used to target low-level offending in an effort to create a better environment, step-by-step.

The other element of the package is the "signal" the government is seeking to send out. If it is trying to recreate a sense of respect, the question is how was it lost in the first place - and this may be an inevitably divisive issue depending on your political persuasion.

What do critics say?

The general anti-social behaviour agenda to date has faced a variety of criticisms. Firstly, those concerned with rights of the individual have argued that it is verging on the totalitarian and criminalises young people by presuming they are yobs.

Secondly, it has also been criticised from the other end of the political spectrum for being ineffective and tokenistic: the Conservatives have argued that you can have all the clever measures you can dream up, but they will be no good if there are not enough police officers.

Some people who work in criminal justice also have their doubts, saying that jailing of people for breaching an Asbo can be extreme - particularly if the cause of the problem, such as drug addiction, is not tackled.

They also point out that figures from last year revealed that four in 10 Asbos were being breached - meaning the behaviour had not actually become any more acceptable.

So can governments change the behaviour of society?

Drink driving was once commonplace - but it is now regarded as unacceptable by most people. That social change came about thanks to a massive publicity campaign coupled with sanctions.

But then again, despite a long-running campaign to persuade people of the dangers of cannabis, use of the drug became increasingly widespread until the government eventually reclassified the drug to make use and possession less serious offences.

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