Snap into position

Here are three scenarios; see if you can spot the differences between them.

More people were found guilty of car theft in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

One of four things has happened. The police and the courts are functioning as before but there’s more car theft going on; the police are sending more suspects to court, perhaps because of a crackdown on this type of offence; the courts are processing cases faster; or the courts are returning proportionately more guilty verdicts. The first of these obviously isn’t good news. The third (more efficient courts) is good; the second and fourth (more arrests, more convictions) may be good news or may not be. Second scenario:

More people were cautioned by police for suspected car theft in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

Now we’re down to two possibilities: either there are more car thieves or the police are working harder on nailing them. But this second possibility is not necessarily a good thing, and doesn’t necessarily mean that justice is being done more effectively: remember the case of the 1989 gross indecency figures (misrepresented by Nick Cohen as the product of a passing obsession with public toilets in Slough). Cue the third scenario:

More people were cautioned by police for being “nasty little toerags who we can’t actually pin anything on at this stage” in the first nine months of 2005 than in the whole of 2004.

The point here is that figures for police activity don’t record crime; what they record is police activity, which doesn’t necessarily track anything but itself. Tell the police to arrest more people and arrests will go up. Tell the police to arrest people for looking at them a bit funny, and there will be a dramatic rise in the level of looking-at-police-a-bit-funny offences – although this will be accompanied, encouragingly, by a highly effective police crackdown on the offence.

All right, let’s be serious. Here’s what’s actually happening:

Between January and September last year judges used 2,679 Asbos, compared with 2,660 during the whole of 2004. [This also compares with 1,043 in 2003 and 976 between April 1999, when the ASBO was introduced, and the end of 2002.]Home Office minister Hazel Blears said: “Antisocial behaviour can be a harrowing experience that no one should have to endure. Today’s statistics show that local authorities, the police and the courts are not hesitating to use Asbos to clamp down on the problem. I am extremely encouraged that they continue to be used.”

The first sentence of Blears’ statement is true, of course, although ‘can be’ is the operative phrase: ‘anti-social behaviour’ is defined, in law, as behaving ‘in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household’, which not only gives thin-skinned neighbours a limitless licence to be offended but gives the police a licence to take offence on their behalf (caused or was likely to cause). In practice ‘anti-social behaviour’ is pretty much whatever you want it to be (actual criminal offences apart). As Bev Hughes said in 2003,

It can mean very different things from one place to the next. In one area it’s young people causing problems on the street, in another it’s noisy neighbours or abandoned cars. In one town centre it’s street drinking and begging, in another it’s prostitution.

If you think it’s anti-social, in other words, then it probably is.

The second sentence of Blears’ statement is also true, but only up to the word ‘Asbos’. There is no necessary connection between a rise in the imposition of ASBOs and any consistent or identifiable pattern of behaviour. Certainly the police are not hesitating to request ASBOs, nor are magistrates’ courts hesitating to grant them; beyond that, it’s literally impossible to say what’s going on. More offensive behaviour? A progressive crackdown on existing levels of offensive behaviour? A progressive and expanding crackdown on ever less extreme examples of offensive behaviour? Or a crackdown on whatever and whoever police officers might feel like cracking down on, secure in the knowledge that the Home Office is right behind them? It could be any of these; it’s probably a combination of all of them.

The danger here isn’t just that the government endorses police harassment, as with ‘sus’ under Thatcher. An ASBO is a court order to refrain from certain, lawful, patterns of behaviour – which may include going to certain places or being seen with certain people, as well as behaviours such as wearing gloves or being a passenger in a car. The order may have a fixed term or run indefinitely; while it’s in force, violating the order is a criminal offence. Since obtaining a court order does not require a full trial, courtroom standards of proof do not obtain in an ASBO hearing and hearsay evidence is admissible. In other words, someone who is accused of behaving in ways which might upset somebody – someone who has not been accused of any crime, let alone convicted – can be prevented by law from carrying out an arbitrary range of other non-criminal actions, at any time in future; if they do, they can be jailed. The danger here is that policing turns into long-term social control. Blears again:

“Over the past 12 months we have seen enthusiastic take-up of Asbos, which sends out a clear message to those people who persist in this behaviour that action will be taken against them.”

Bad people! You bad people out there, stop it now! No more badness!

There’s something very New Labour about the lightness of all this. (So, what we need is something that is free, universally popular and that we can roll out instantly…) A consistent authoritarian conservative – a Tory of the old school, say – would know very well what anti-social behaviour was and how you dealt with it: you define it, you make laws against it, you put more bobbies on the beat and you arrest the anti-social yobs and hooligans who are causing the trouble. New Labour have always had the problem that, while they wanted to get the working-class law-and-order vote, it wasn’t really their thing – they didn’t really know those people, and when push came to shove they didn’t much care about them. So how do we define anti-social behaviour? Then the brainwave: We don’t. They’re worried about it, so we let them define it. We give them the tools to combat it, and how they do it is up to them. It’s democratic, it’s decentralised, it’s empowering – and the tabloids will love it!

The trouble with this approach to policy-making is that it’s always liable to grow beyond the government’s control: it’s easier to start a snowball of public outrage than stop it. Having said that, the recent rash of news stories about people getting Fixed Penalty Notices (and that’s another story) for offences such as wearing an offensive shirt, using the word ‘fuck’ in conversation or putting an envelope in a litter bin suggest that this trend may be soon exhaust the available supply of natural outrage and grind to a halt. I wonder what they’ll think of next?

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