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BBC OnePanorama


Last Updated: Sunday, 20 November 2005, 19:02 GMT
ASBOs on trial

youngster vandalising a car
Sunday 20 November 2005
The government has announced its determination to crack down on 'yob culture' and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are increasingly being used as weapon in the battle.

The BBC's Panorama programme has uncovered evidence that while some people's lives have been transformed for the better, ASBOs can have a potentially damaging effect when used against vulnerable children.

With ever increasing numbers of the orders being issued, "ASBOs on trial", to be broadcast on Sunday 20 November 2005, has investigated cases on both sides of the debate.

The programme talks to people whose lives were made utterly miserable by the behaviour of neighbourhood troublemakers, behaviour which has been stemmed by the use of ASBOs. But it also talks to children with mental health isses, and their parents, about the effect of ASBOs on them, effects which have led to the Children's Commissioner for England, and a leading child psychiatrist, voicing concerns over their use.

'I'd got some justice'

Lesley Pulman
Lesley Pulman managed to get a ASBO served with help from the council
With support from her local council in Manchester, Lesley Pulman became one of the first people to take a stand against anti-social behaviour in the city. She suffers from multiple sclerosis. Her health worsened after one family moved in nearby, and drinking and disorder spilled out on to the street:

"My car was parked outside and this group came up to my wall, I can only see what I can see looking down from my bedroom window. I had a camera of my own fitted against the wall which took in views at the front, where they were shouting and threatening me originally, one with a mask on, and then he jumped on me car."

For almost two years Lesley Pulman had to put up with noise and vandalism outside her home.

"It affected me, and it affects the whole community. The tentacles go far and wide. The impotency you feel in not being able to tackle it. We tried going through the legal process, the criminal courts, it failed us miserably."

But then a council official told Lesley Pulman she could secure an ASBO against her tormentors.

The council collected evidence from her and from her neighbours. She attended court as a witness and the ASBO was issued.

"I came out of court, like I felt for the first time I'd got some justice, just the way the judge spoke to them. These two little miscreants, who had been strutting round, with the gang, behaving like gangsters, threatening, intimidating people, he brought them down to what they was, and they was bullies and cowards. And I sat in front of them and I could see their faces, and every dog has its day, and I had my day that day."

Two teenagers who'd been among the ring leaders of the gang were banned from the area. Just by being near Lesley Pulman's house they were committing a criminal offence. They did - and were immediately reported to the police for breaching their ASBO.

"They got six and eight-months jail. So it was effective for us. By curbing them, we sent our message in this community that we won't put up with that. You know we sent out a message to all the other miscreants that if you come here we're going to take you on."

Lesley Pulman now runs a witness support group in Manchester to encourage more people to bring ASBOs.

When she won the order on her neighbours, three years ago, it was one of just 41 ASBOs in the city.

The figure is now more than eleven times that, with most against juveniles.

'The last port of call'

But Professor Al Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England, believes that great care should be taken not to overuse them:

"If the ASBO is inappropriate, if it's not proportionate [and] if the ASBO is breached, then there is a risk of that child or young person having a criminal record. That could be catastrophic for the life chances with employment and so on."

"So I come back to the point repeatedly: let's make the ASBO the last port of call rather than the first, and make sure we've gone through a proper process."

It is cases like 14-year-old Liam Scullion that most worry Prof Aynsley-Green.

Liam Scullion
Liam Scullion was given an 'interim' ASBO earlier in the year
Liam has a psychiatric condition known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). With his breakfast every morning he must take medication to control violent mood swings:

"If I don't have my medication I get really really giddy and just can't help myself. It does get on everyone's nerves and everything."

"If I get something in my mind that I'm going to do something I can't stop to think, but I'm trying to learn now, trying to make things better."

According to Professor Susan Bailey of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, this is not uncommon:

"It's been long recognized in all the very good research studies, there is a very strong association between early-onset, anti-social behaviour and ADHD. Children with ADHD don't have the capacity to concentrate; they don't fully understand instructions or boundaries or rules placed on them."

Liam also had problems with low self-esteem. Earlier this year before the correct level of drugs was fixed, he was given an interim ASBO.

Interim orders are meant to speed up the process; in effect they are temporary ASBOs before a full court hearing can be arranged. In Manchester most orders now start off as interims.

They still carry the full force of the law, but the defence has little or no time to mount a legal challenge.

Liam's case involved violence, so he was not even told his ASBO hearing was taking place.

He had no chance to represent himself in court so the magistrates had no knowledge of his medical condition when they imposed his order. It was a shock for his mother Barbara as well:

"The man turned up at nine o'clock at night to serve him with the ASBO order. I had no prior warning whatsoever, nobody had been to see me from the council or the police."

Before moving to an ASBO councils are encouraged to give a formal warning about a child's behaviour where appropriate.

Eddie Newman
Eddie Newman, Executive Housing Member for Manchester City Council
Figures supplied by Manchester city council show that 43% of juveniles received no warning interview before getting an ASBO. The council say when the cases involve violence they need to go straight to an order to protect the public.

Councillor Eddie Newman, Executive Housing Member for Manchester City Council defended their position by citing some examples of the sorts of behaviour which they are seeking to deter:

"What is very worrying is that there is a small minority of youngsters who think that they can threaten people, they think that they can attack people, that they can throw fireworks at people, that they can threaten people with weapons, in one case they can carry a cross bow in another case they can carry a machete and they think this is behaviour they think they should be allowed to do in their neighbourhood."

Guilty until found innocent

Even though Liam's ASBO is only a temporary, interim civil order, breaching it is still a criminal offence - and he could be given a two-year Detention and Training Order (DTO). He knows that he could quite easily find himself in breach of the order, having been told what would constitute a breach:

"Anything, even messing about toy fighting on the street with my mates or swearing, even if I'm just swearing having a buzz with them and that, messing about with them and the police see me doing it, I can get in trouble and dragged in. If I get caught dropping litter that's anti-social behaviour."

Like many people with an ASBO Liam's movements are now strictly controlled. He cannot go to certain areas near his house. If he crosses a junction marked by the ASBO, even by mistake, he could be facing a DTO.

Eventually interims must be confirmed with a full hearing. Liam will then be able to challenge the council in court, but it can take months. In that hearing the council can include "hearsay evidence". It is designed to protect frightened witnesses - it means they do not have to appear in court, or even be identified. So council officials can simply give their evidence for them, but the defence then has no chance to cross examine the original witness.

More than six months after his temporary, interim, ASBO was issued, Liam Scullion finally went to court. It was the first time his lawyers were able to plead his case: that his ADHD led to the assault and with this controlled by medication, the ASBO should be lifted.

Barbara Scullion
Barbara Scullion's son Liam has been on an ASBO for nearly a year
His family believe that, up to this point, he had been found guilty until proven innocent. But inside the Magistrates hear that Liam's defence had not submited his medical reports in time for the council to consider them and the case was adjourned until March 2006.

For his mother Barbara it means the family must continue to wait:

"If Liam breaks any of them it will be a criminal conviction then for him, which the judge has told him today so the matter is quite serious. Not that Liam will break the asbo but it's putting a lot more strain and stress on the family as a whole."

For Liam the interim ASBO means that if he does breach his conditons, he could be given a DTO even though a court might ultimately find the order was not justified in the first place. The growing use of interims means hundreds of people in Manchester are now on ASBOs, but still waiting to defend themselves in court.

How effective are they?

The Government backs authorities which hand out high numbers of ASBOs and is examining how to speed up the process. But it is hard to say whether they are working or not: there is no national measure of anti-social behaviour and only now, seven years on, is the Government conducting research into how effective ASBOS really are.

The Children's Commissioner, Professor Al Aynsley-Green says there needs to be much more research before their use goes much further:

"At first glance there may be tremendous positive reaction from the community. They see the kids off the street and that may be wonderful. I think it may just be a sticking plaster over a serious issue and it's not giving sustained long term improvement on those localities."

"So I want much more information, much more research before we go very much further in applying what is actually a very powerful tool which I am not against in principal as long as it's appropriate, fair, proportionate and just."

Hazel Blears MP, Home Office Minister
Hazel Blears MP, Home Office Minister
According to Hazel Blears MP, Home Office Minister, the government plan to do just that:

"We're doing an evaluation of ASBOs at the moment, I've certainly asked for some examination of the handful of cases that have caused difficulties. I don't want orders to be used inappropriately, I want the public to have faith and confidence in the police and in their local councils to use the powers that we've given them, properly and appropriately to tackle what is undoubtedly a serious problem in many parts of our country."

Panorama's "ASBOs on trial" was first broadcast on Sunday 20 November 2005, on BBC One and online at bbc.co.uk/panorama .

One mother explains why she believes Asbo's are not effective

Programme transcript
23 Nov 05 |  Panorama
ASBOs on trial
17 Nov 05 |  Panorama
Your comments
20 Nov 05 |  Panorama

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