By Jon Silverman
Legal affairs analyst
Downing Street's record on tackling anti-social crime will be at the centre of the next election campaign, and that means the controversial Asbo.
Drunken behaviour has been tackled with Asbos
As the government plans its campaign to win a third term, it will emphasise its record of tackling anti-social behaviour. The order, known universally as an Asbo (anti-social behaviour order), is at the heart of its crime strategy and has perhaps been the subject of more media comment than any other piece of legislation since 1997.
But surprisingly, it seems that even many of those working in or alongside the criminal justice system have a hazy grasp of the Asbo and its appropriate uses. Belatedly, a training initiative has been launched to correct that.
"I have seen people following Asbo procedures which are utterly unsuitable in the circumstances," says Bill Pitt, head of Manchester's Nuisance Strategy Group and the government's favourite Asbo champion.
"And I have seen appalling examples of buck-passing, where one agency hands on the problem to another, with no-one willing to take responsibility. We are letting victims and communities down."
For a tool which is supposed to represent multi-agency working at its most effective, the Asbo has often served to highlight differences rather than a unity of approach. Only latterly has the Crown Prosecution Service got fully involved, appointing an Asbo prosecutor for each area.
An organisation which, in its early days, kept all its telephone numbers ex-directory, might be expected to be standoffish. Other reluctant guests at the party are social service departments.
"This is because they tend to be client-based rather than focused towards the community", says one Asbo trainer. "And the order is all about protecting the community rather than the interests or rights of one individual."
Farmer Brian Hagan's straying pigs earned him an interim Asbo
Controversy has followed the Asbo since the beginning. The principle of a civil order which, if breached, can result in an offender being jailed, is anathema to many lawyers and campaigning organisations. Indeed, the sentencing guidelines suggest that the starting point for a breach is prison, with a maximum term for an adult of five years.
But what fails to get mentioned is that, following a Law Lords ruling, the evidence needed to secure an Asbo has to pass the criminal standard of proof, in other words, be beyond reasonable doubt.
It is frequently said that the ASBO has criminalised behaviour which has never been a criminal offence.
"But this is untrue," says Edmund Hall, the Asbo prosecutor for London. "Asbos are often imposed for being drunk and disorderly, causing criminal damage, common assault. These are all criminal offences.
"And since April 2004, the courts have been imposing Asbos after a conviction for a range of crimes."
This can lead to a civil penalty following a criminal one. For example, a council tenant may find himself with what's known as a "demoted tenancy", meaning he can't exercise a right to buy his property, unlike other tenants.
One consequence of the current training initiative is likely to be a more "imaginative" use of Asbos. There has been national publicity about the youth banned from his own home. But equally innovative is a move by the police in the London borough of Camden to secure an order prohibiting 13 convicted drug dealers of using a mobile phone for life. The argument is that without their mobiles, their illicit business will be stymied.
Another order bans a man from drinking alcohol in any public place.
For all the publicity generated by Asbos, it is impossible to be certain about their effectiveness. The last year for which figures on breaches is available is 2002 and a group called the Alliance Against Asbos is contemplating making a request under the new Freedom of Information Act to force the Home Office to release the 2003 statistics.
Asbos are an example of "cheap and nasty politics", says Frances Crook of the Howard League for Penal Reform. And the politics of crime means they will loom large in the coming campaign.