Labour targets ‘violent minority’ to cut crime
By Andrew Grice, Political Editor
07 March 2003
Although crime has fallen overall since Labour came to power, there are “deep-seated public perceptions that crime is increasing”, the Government admits in its White Paper on antisocial behaviour to be published next week.
The document, leaked to The Independent, attributes this fear to a small number of high-profile, violent crimes and antisocial behaviour, such as harassment and intimidation; creating alarm or fear; noisy neighbours; drunken and abusive behaviour; people begging at cash machines; vandalism and graffiti; damage to property; and dumping rubbish.
The White Paper, Winning Back Our Communities, which will be followed swiftly by an Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, proposes new measures to tackle these problems, many of which will prove controversial.
The document says: “The behaviour of a persistent minority can sometimes ruin whole communities. No one should have to put up with behaviour that causes misery and distress. It is time to support the majority against this minority.”
It says the Government wants to “shift the culture away from protecting the rights of the perpetrator to protecting the rights of decent people to a decent way of life”.
Reflecting Tony Blair’s “rights and responsibilities” agenda, the report says antisocial behaviour “shows a failure to understand that one person’s rights are based on the responsibilities we have towards others and towards our families and our communities. And the rights we have as members of society are based, in turn, on the responsibilities to that wider society”.
But the document concedes: “No amount of measures, new powers, new schemes, new ideas can solve these problems alone. A cultural shift is needed and one that is in the hands of the public.”
As well as proposing a big extension of the fixed penalty fines of £40 or £80, the White Paper says that the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme, the most rigorous non-custodial sentence for persistent offenders, will be made “simpler and tougher” to improve its effectiveness.
Youth offending teams will be able to intervene at an earlier stage and draw up “parenting contracts” to cover antisocial behaviour and other offences, under which the mothers and fathers of offenders will often have to agree to attend parenting classes.
The teams will be able to ask the courts to impose compulsory parenting orders when parents do not take active steps to change the child’s behaviour. Parents could be required to attend residential courses to improve their parenting skills, a breach of which would be a criminal offence.
The White Paper proposes that those making excessive noise at night be given a warning and 10 minutes to stop. If they do not, local authorities can issue a £100 fixed penalty notice. If that is not paid or does not work, the TV, video recorder or equipment making the noise can be removed or the offenders will be made the subject of antisocial behaviour orders.
Environmental health officers will be given new powers immediately to shut pubs and clubs that persistently make excessive noise.
Police and councils will be able to apply for fast-track injunctions to stop “low-level antisocial behaviour” on the same day a complaint is made, to put an immediate stop to the problem. It will be an offence to sell spray paints to people aged under 18. Police will get the right to search for items intended to cause criminal damage, such as spray paints. Legislation will allow councils to clear land and force businesses to clean up graffiti and damage. The probation service will be urged to make offenders clean up graffiti.
Council and housing associations should publish “antisocial behaviour” policies. They will have greater powers to take out injunctions, including a power of arrest to exclude people behaving badly “from a specified area and if necessary from their home”.
The White Paper says: “Anti-social tenants will lose their secured or assessed tenancies and be demoted to probationary tenancies until their behaviour is addressed. They will lose their right to buy and eviction will be faster if their behaviour does not improve.”
Police and councils will be given powers to close “crack houses” within 24 hours and seal properties for up to three months to stop other drug dealers moving in. Laws that cover outdoor raves trespassing on private property will be extended to allow police to tackle smaller, indoor events. It will be an offence to attend a rave within 24 hours of being directed to leave another one.
The courts will be given powers to take away the licences of motorcyclists who drive off the roads in rural areas. Police will be given more powers to crack down on travellers, including evicting them from unauthorised camp sites when a council provides other places for them. Courts will be allowed to issue driving bans to those convicted of kerb crawling. To reward victims or witnesses who give evidence, the Government will bring in a Community Awards Scheme
Only 60 per cent of fines are collected, the White Paper admits, saying: “This must be improved.” There will be a discount for prompt payment or increases if the defendant fails to pay on time.
A new scheme will allow offenders to convert fines into community work, by, for example, repairing the damage caused by the antisocial behaviour, if they cannot pay.
The White Paper confirms plans already floated by the Government to crack down on airguns and replica weapons. There will be new offence of “having an imitation firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse”.
There will be a ban on the sale, manufacture and importation of air weapons that can be converted to take conventional ammunition, which have been used in seven murders. People who already hold them will have to obtain a licence. The age at which people can own an air weapon will be raised to 17.
‘The kids have no respect for authority’
The Egghill estate in Northfield, on the outskirts of Birmingham, was once a rundown eyesore, housing hundreds of families within its graffiti-covered concrete walls. The estate was a dumping ground for old tyres, needles and rubble; bricks were used by teenage tenants to smash windows on the lower floors.
Jo Brooke, a 27-year-old single mother, moved to the estate of five eight-storey towers in 1997, when she was pregnant. It was meant to be only a short-term tenancy – before she moved in, she was well aware of the estate’s notoriety. But only recently was she allocated new accommodation, and for five years she had to endure a daily barrage of verbal abuse, excessive noise, litter and graffiti.
She says local authorities were slow to respond to her pleas for help and says an understaffed police force contributed to the council’s failure to crack down on troublemakers. But she does not believe a fixed penalty system would have been effective. And rather than attempting to target individual troublemakers, to ease the lives of residents the council chose to demolish the entire site.
“I lived through five years of hell and came to realise too much bureaucracy and red tape always gets in the way,” she said. “The teenagers that vandalised my house had no respect for authority – I used to overhear them bragging about how they had just broken a window and that the police would never catch them.
“These kids know it takes time for fines to be processed and, like the rest of the litter on the estate, will just end up as bits of rubbish, thrown on to the floor.”
Before the blocks were pulled down, most of Ms Brooke’s troublesome neighbours were evicted, but such antisocial behaviour orders as had been implemented did not deter vandals from returning.
“Even though we’ve moved to a new area, it saddens me to see my son has become a nervous child and feels scared even in his new home,” she said.