Page last updated at 16:03 GMT, Thursday, 26 May 2005 17:03 UK

Q&A: Teen dispersal powers

By Dominic Casciani
BBC News community affairs

Sgt Phil Matthews
Dispersal Order: Yobs in the sights
A teenager has challenged anti-social behaviour powers to create dispersal zones, saying they are unfair and breach human rights. But how do the powers actually work?

What is a dispersal zone?

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 (ASBA) created a raft of powers which the government says are necessary to help councils and police crack down on everything from nuisance behaviour such as noisy neighbours to low-level but persistent criminality such as graffiti. One of the new powers is the dispersal zone.

Under the powers under-16s can be forcibly returned to their homes by the police if they are on the streets after nine at night and unaccompanied by an adult.

Police can also order people in a dispersal zone to leave the area and not return for 24 hours.

A dispersal zone can be as small as the area surrounding a cash point or as large as an entire open area of a housing estate or row of shops. Once a dispersal order is in place, the escort power can be used against any under-16, but it does not necessarily have to be used at all.

How are the orders made?

A superintendent or above can declare a dispersal zone, providing they have the support of the local council. In theory, this means that councils and police, both of whom may be receiving complaints about unruly teenagers, have an opportunity to work together to crack the problem.

The police announce the dispersal zone in the local press and post notices around the area affected.

Once the area is established, any police or community support officer can take the unsupervised child home or order a 24-hour dispersal. Refusal to comply is a offence that can lead to the courts.

How have the powers been used to date?

The take-up of the first anti-social behaviours, introduced shortly after Labour took power in 1997, was slow. But the reformed and extended powers seem to have been more widely used.

The Home Office says that in the first nine months to September 2004 after the new law was introduced, police chiefs made more than 400 dispersal orders.

Half of the special Home Office-backed local partnerships created to tackle anti-social behaviour had used the power and one in six of all orders were made in key areas receiving intensive support on tackling community problems.

Problems targeted for dispersal have included roads popular with joyriders, underage drinking in parks and aggravation of shopkeepers.

What's the objection?

The government, police and councils say the law is designed to deal flexibly with troublemakers by allowing officials to force them off the streets where they are causing misery to residents.

Police talking to youths
Council/Police receive complaints
Police consider dispersal zone
Council gives backing
Police chief announces dispersal zone
Beat officers get powers
Refusal to comply can lead to the courts

But opponents say the law is woefully blunt and to all intents and purposes criminalises teenagers because it limits freedom of movement without requiring proof of criminal intent or action.

In the case of the teenager taking the case, the 15-year-old has never been in trouble and is described as a model student.

He believes the likely re-imposition of an order near his Richmond-upon-Thames home will ban under-16s from playing football or even walking home from the cinema on warm summer evenings.

Another criticism is that it does little to solve the problem if it only leads to the targeted group congregating elsewhere.

One think tank recently accused the laws of creating a nation of "fear-ridden, neighbour-hating citizens, afraid to step outside of their own front doors". The government however insists that its anti-social agenda has enormous public support.

And Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board, told the Observer newspaper that politicians should stop labelling youngsters yobs and find answers to the youth custody crisis.

Would a court case stop the government in its tracks?

There have been other challenges to anti-social behaviour powers since the new Act reached the statute book and the courts' view has tended to be that they are not a legal sledgehammer to crack a nuisance nut.

One key ruling came last year when the courts supported a crucial power that allows councils and police forces to "name and shame" teenagers subject to anti-social behaviour orders.

The judges concluded there was nothing wrong in naming the wrongdoers because public shaming as a deterrence was part of the intention in drafting the law.

The government's post-election strategy has been to emphasise a "respect" agenda, a message Prime Minister Tony Blair said came through loud and clear on the doorstep. Anti-social behaviour powers remain at the heart of that agenda.

Hoodie ban for violent teenager
26 May 05 |  Manchester
Blair pledges new 'yob' crackdown
12 May 05 |  UK Politics


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