Page last updated at 16:41 GMT, Thursday, 8 May 2008 17:41 UK

Harass young thugs, police urged

Jacqui Smith announced a new 'action squad' at a conference in central London

Youths who persistently misbehave and intimidate others in their communities should be "harassed themselves", Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said.

She said she wanted police in England and Wales to "turn the tables" on those who would not "live by the rules".

This could include repeated home visits and checks to identify benefit fraud or council and road tax non-payment.

But the government should be "nipping these problems in the bud much earlier", the Liberal Democrats said.

The party's home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, said "in the most serious cases" it was important for the police and other authorities to "come together and make sure they're dealing with the problem".

But he said treating violent and disruptive behaviour with a "heavy hand" did not work, and ministers should adopt "the sort of measures which have been pioneered by Lib Dem councils" to tackle such problems.

Meanwhile, the number of anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) issued in England and Wales has fallen by a third, according to Home Office figures.

In all 2,706 orders were granted in 2006, the most recent period for which statistics are available, compared to 4,123 in 2005.

There were proportionally more breaches of Asbos in 2006, however: 49%, whereas the total for 2000 to 2005 was 47%.

'Early intervention'

Ms Smith, speaking in Westminster to an audience of professionals who deal with anti-social behaviour, announced 250,000 to fund an "action squad" which will encourage areas to better use such measures.

There could be "no excuse for inaction" while people lived in fear, she added.

If persistent offenders know that they'll be able to get away with it, then they will, by definition, persistently offend. They will try it on again and again
Jacqui Smith
Home Secretary

Home Office figures suggest that two-thirds of those involved in anti-social behaviour - including vandalism, threatening behaviour and street drinking - abandon it after their first warning.

But 7% of individuals continued misbehaving even after three encounters with the authorities - "still too many", Ms Smith said - and police should be paying particular attention to these repeat offenders.

She said she wanted to ensure "the tables were turned on offenders so that those who harass our communities are themselves harried and harassed".

Those who were being anti-social should also have their road tax, car insurance, TV licence and council tax payments checked, she added.

"That car of theirs: is the tax up to date? Is it insured? Let's find out.

Police officers were targeting and disrupting those who cause anti-social behaviour for years until the presence and value of the bobby on the beat was no longer recognised
Jan Berry
Police Federation

"And have they got a TV licence for that plasma screen? As the advert says, it's all on the database.

"And as for the council tax, it shouldn't be difficult to check whether or not that's been paid. And what about benefit fraud? Can we run a check?

"If persistent offenders know that they'll be able to get away with it, then they will, by definition, persistently offend," Ms Smith said. "They will try it on again and again.

"We need to send them a strong message that we're not having it, there's no room for that sort of behaviour in our communities and that there are tough sanctions for it."

She also called for greater help for parents "who struggle to keep their kids under control" and an automatic requirement for courts to consider granting a parenting order - aimed at parents who would not cooperate - whenever they issued an Asbo to a young person.

But Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said there was "nothing new" in the home secretary's speech.

A young person drinking (Pic: SPL)
The proportion of Asbo breaches has risen, although fewer are being issued

"Police officers were targeting and disrupting those who cause anti-social behaviour for years until the presence and value of the bobby on the beat was no longer recognised.

"Frontline policing must be carried out by fully attested officers, and not by community support officers who, despite their best efforts, are not respected by the yob element."

The home secretary urged forces across the country to follow the example of Essex Police, who have mounted an operation to target those who repeatedly cause problems.

They used local intelligence to identify offenders, knocked on their doors and warned them their behaviour would not be tolerated.

They then photographed and questioned them and their friends over the next few days.

"Dramatic" results from the new approach included burglaries, criminal damage and car crime stopping altogether on one estate during the operation and staying at a low level afterwards.

"Those responsible for anti-social behaviour had no room for manoeuvre and nowhere to hide," Ms Smith said of the operation.

Asbo figures

Regarding the drop in the number of Asbos issued, the Home Office believes this could be down to the wider use of "early intervention" procedures by local authorities, police and magistrates.

These include acceptable behaviour contracts, parenting orders and individual support orders which aim to encourage better behaviour.

Shadow home secretary David Davis claimed ministers were, however, "giving up on Asbos" because of "their appalling breach rate".

"The government's answer is to replace them with acceptable-behaviour contracts," he said.

"National Audit Office figures show these are breached by almost two-thirds of under-18-year-olds. The government is repeating the same failed strategy under a new name."

Martin Narey, the chief executive of children's charity Barnardo's, said each Asbo issued was "a sign of failure".

The government needed to introduce methods of "constructive intervention" rather than having an "over-reliance on anti-social behaviour orders on their own", he added.

"It is important that government panic over their polling unpopularity does not usher a return to Asbo mania."

Johnson bans drink on transport
07 May 08 |  London
Under-18s may face new drink ban
07 Feb 08 |  Politics

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