Ask Liberty: How should anti-social behaviour be tackled?

The government's stepping up its efforts to tackle anti-social behaviour in England and Wales. Extra funding will be given to reduce such problems as vandalism, graffiti and rowdy neighbours. Plans to strengthen the use of "anti-social behaviour orders" (ASBOs) are also expected. Another 50 communities will join the pilot scheme trying out new ways of reducing low-level crime.

How do ASBOs work? What's the best way to tackle anti-social behaviour?

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty answered your questions in an interactive forum.



Hello and welcome to this BBC News interactive forum, I’m Luisa Baldini.

More money is to be spent tackling vandalism, graffiti and nuisance neighbours in England and Wales.

The government says it wants to crackdown on anti-social behaviour – which will see the number of communities using special programmes increased to 60.

But critics say some of the measures are failing to work, including the use of ASBOs – anti-social behaviour orders.

Well joining us to answer your questions is Shami Chakrabarti, director of the human rights organisation, Liberty.

Welcome Shami. Now firstly what is Liberty’s view on ASBOs?

Shami Chakrabarti:

Well I think that one concern that we have is that this idea of anti-social behaviour has become incredibly broad indeed. At one end of the scale it seems to cover things that really are quite serious crimes, including crimes of violence and so on. And ultimately, I think, if you’re a victim of crime, you ultimately are entitled to see somebody prosecuted for a proper criminal offence.

At the other end of the scale, we’ve seen some of these anti-social behaviour orders used against people for begging and in some cases, used against children with a consequence of naming and shaming which leads to public vilification and vigilantism and I think that that’s got to be a real problem in a civilised society.


So briefly are you in favour of them or against them?

Shami Chakrabarti:

I think that I have deep concerns about how they are being used in some cases and that they’re only really appropriate when we’re talking about behaviour that was already covered by the criminal law or behaviour that was serious harassment for which there was always the power to get an injunction anyway.

But rather than have a technical dispute about the orders themselves, I think it is about time that people started looking at individual orders and whether they are actually being used in appropriate circumstances.


Well let’s go right back to basics because our first e-mail is from Carl from Plymouth and he wants to know: what exactly is an ASBO?

Shami Chakrabarti:

An anti-social behaviour order is an order applied for by the police or the local authority. It is applied for in the magistrate’s court on the basis that somebody is causing alarm or harassment or distress. It is not a criminal matter, it is a civil order.

Now the Government says this is really important because it means you don’t have to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. You can get an order without witnesses coming to court on the basis of hearsay and so on.

Now once an order is made, the magistrates being satisfied that somebody is causing harassment, alarm or distress. The order operates as a kind of injunction – don’t do certain things. And the nature of that prohibition or injunction can be very broad indeed. We’ve heard about people being told not to swear in public, in some cases barred from begging and so on.

Now the teeth in an ASBO come if you breach the order. If you breach the order, that breach is then a criminal offence for which you could go to prison for up to five years.


Well you yourself will be aware that a lot of people are quite upset by the behaviour maybe near where they live – they are being victimised, there are maybe vandals close by and in fact Guy from Sheffield says: If the ASBO means that the Government and the authorities are getting tough, why not let’s just try it?

Shami Chakrabarti:

That’s right. I think that if behaviour is criminal, victims of criminal behaviour are entitled to be protected and ideally there should be a criminal prosecution in the first instance and a criminal conviction and in some cases a custodial penalty where people are really living in fear of violent and other serious crime.

Now in certain cases the Government or the police may say that what we’re talking about is repeat harassment and it’s difficult to prove it to a criminal standard and so on. So what we want is a civil order like an ASBO which then is, I suppose, similar to the kind of injunction that has always been possible in this country under the civil law. But of course an ASBO is a new package – it was in tough legislation in 1998 and there’s been more legislation, repacking and changing these orders ever since.

My concern is at the other end of the scale – to create injunctions saying that people shouldn’t swear or shouldn’t beg, with the possibility of criminal conviction if they breach that order. That’s something that really should be treated quite differently from serious criminal behaviour.

And possibly more important than any of this, some local authorities are talking and sounding tough by not only getting an ASBO against a child but then putting photographs of that naughty child, if you like, on posters and in leaflets that are spread widely across a borough. Now that has led to harassment, not only of those children – no matter what they’ve done, that’s not acceptable – but also to harassment and public order problems for family members, including elderly family members and younger siblings. Now that is not appropriate in a civilised society and that is going to cause as many problems for policing as it could possibly solve.


Well Antonio who has written to us seems quite in favour of them. He says: Why is punishing anti-social behaviour hidden from the public? Surely if these youths are violent, they should be named and shamed.

Shami Chakrabarti:

Well if people are violent and they are committing criminal offences and ultimately if they are dangerous people, they should really be prosecuted and go to prison. Naming and shaming is difficult because even if somebody has done something terrible, the consequences of naming and shaming can be a rise of vigilantism.

The worst example in a sense of naming and shaming that we’ve seen in this country was a few years ago when a tabloid Sunday newspaper decided that it was going to name and shame sex offenders and it placed their names and photographs and in some cases, addresses, in the newspaper and this led to people being attacked. Not very often the offenders themselves but people who looked like them – in one case a paediatrician had a brick through his window because the person who put the brick through his window thought that a paediatrician was a paedophile.

So naming and shaming – a return to this kind of mob justice – doesn’t actually solve any problems, it creates greater problems of criminality and public order.


Marcia H has written to us from Horsham and she asks: Are you worried ASBOs could be abused as a way of circumventing the legal process?

Also Keith Bennett, Newport asks: My family has suffered for 18 months from young youths who have threatened to damage my property and shout verbal abuse. I believe that more power should be given to the police and courts. Do you agree?

Shami Chakrabarti:

Well to take those two questions in order. The first question is about fear of abuse and of course that is a very real fear, particularly when we’re talking about things that aren’t really criminal behaviour at all – like begging. Or some people who would like to classify young people who are literally just existing, just standing on a street corner because sadly they’ve got nothing better to do – to think of that as in itself anti-social behaviour – that’s dangerous.

Equally, if people are accused of serious criminality, really what ought to be happening is that they ought to be prosecuted. They should have the right to cross-examine their accusers and to know the case against them is. So there is of course a risk that the police will say, well let’s make it easier and easier to get ASBOs so we that we don’t have to do the hard work of actually putting a proper criminal case together.

That said, I understand that there are some circumstances in which there are vulnerable and intimated witnesses who find it difficult to come to court and things should be done to protect them. But ultimately the protection is not in making it too easy to effectively subject people to serious penalties without a fair hearing.

Now as the second question – should the courts have more power – this is something that we’ve slipped into, I think, over the last 10 years. When there are serious problems of crime and what’s now being called anti-social behaviour, the easiest thing for a Home Secretary to do is to say, I’m going to tackle this by creating more powers by legislating again and that is why we’ve had 30 criminal justice Bills in the last 10 years.

I’m afraid that the tough truth is that more and more criminal offences, wider and wider police powers do not in themselves solve deep-seated problems of crime and anti-social behaviour. You can solve perhaps a bit more by having more financial resources to put into policing and also to put into tackling the causes of crime, like high unemployment in certain areas, drug addiction, poor housing and so on. But just legislating is the cheapest thing in the world, the easiest thing in the world and it doesn’t necessarily always do any real good.


So what would you think then of a suggestion from Tony in Birmingham who says: Why not place an ASBO on the parents as well as the offender if it is a youth?

Shami Chakrabarti:

Well again I think the legislators got there first because there are now things called parenting orders where parents can be placed under an order of the court requiring them to do certain things, to curb their children’s conduct.

At the end of the day, you can do all of these things – and goodness me, I suspect every order, every power under the sun, has been thought of. But if we think back to the Prime Minister when he was then a politician in opposition and he started talking about tackling crime – he said he was going to tackle crime and the causes of crime – and of course legislation, tough talk and tough legislation does not in itself address why it is that people are taking drugs, why it is that kids have got nothing better to do than to hang around on street corners possibly getting into trouble and just giving the police wider and wider powers of arrest doesn’t solve those problems.


Anthony Bullock has written to us from Leeds, he says: I’ve just heard on the news an interview with a youth who’s broken his order 15 times. What is the point of these, if he is still free to re-offend time and time again?

Also Steve in Kent says: Some youths apparently see an ASBO as something to be proud of. Where do we start to deal with this problem if that’s the attitude?

Shami Chakrabarti:

Exactly. The Government has been celebrating today – and obviously this is a partly electioneering by politicians – celebrating that there’ve been more ASBOs made than ever. So it is considered successful just to make ASBOs rather than to look at how they’re succeeding. But with Government’s own statistics it appears that at least one-third of ASBOs are breached and result in people having to come back to court. The Government hasn’t said how many times they’re breached and how and how times people come back to court.

But I come back to one of my original points which is that if somebody is really seriously offending and terrorising their neighbours in the way that the Government is suggesting, why on earth are they not ultimately being prosecuted for a criminal offence.

The second point about the badge of honour is also really, really serious. Naming and shaming of kids with ASBOs is not only uncivilised and it is not only a public order danger, it can in some cases lead to certain messed up kids thinking that this notoriety is some kind of badge of honour and that is not the message that anybody wants to get across


Quite a few of people who’ve written in want to know a little bit more about Liberty’s approach. Diane who’s written to us from London says: I understand that Liberty have opposed ASBOs on human rights grounds. What alternatives would Liberty propose for the problem of anti-social behaviour?

Shami Chakrabarti:

In years gone by, Liberty was concerned that ASBOs would lead to people effectively being convicted without a proper trial – lower standard of proof, hearsay evidence and so on. I’m happy to say that the House of Lords has said that actually when courts are making ASBOs they really do have to give some fairness to even the person who is being accused of anti-social behaviour. So that’s a good thing.

So it seems that ASBOs are capable of complying with human rights. As long as somebody is given a fair hearing and as long as the particular ASBO is necessary and proportionate and is actually dealing with the harm that it is looking at rather than just gratuitous – over-broad ASBOs that can last for 10 years, ASBOs that say you can’t go anywhere near your own home or that say that you can’t swear in public. So it’s really about making sure that the content of specific ASBOs is right and they’re not just over-broad and tough for the sake of it.

As to whether we have magic solutions for fighting crime - I’m afraid that we don’t. I think serious crime should be prosecuted in the conventional criminal way. I think injunctions, like ASBOs, may sometimes have a part to play in protecting people when there hasn’t yet been a criminal trial.

But ultimately, when we’re talking about low-level offending and in particular when we’re talking about really troubled children who have the possibility of being re-engaged with society or the possibility of beginning a career of offending, I’m afraid that there is going to have to be a bit of social intervention, not just tough talk and tough criminal justice measures.


Sharmi, just to conclude then. We’ve got an e-mail from Kay who has written to us from Lewisham and she wants to know: Overall, would you rather the Government bring legislation like this or not?

Shami Chakrabarti:

Overall, I wish that the Government would look at the causes of crime and stop bringing new criminal justice legislation into force every year or every other year.


Well that’s all we have time for. My thanks to our guest Shami Chakrabarti, and thanks to all of you for your questions. But for now, from me Luisa Baldini, goodbye.