The PM’s tabloid-pleasing ‘War on Yobs’ will only worsen problems in crime-hit communities, writes former Anti-Social Behaviour Officer Nick Pettigrew
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Object permanence is the cognitive ability to appreciate that even when something cannot be detected by your senses, it still exists. It’s one of the formative developmental stages in the human brain, usually kicking in by the age of two. Unless that is, of course, you’re a Conservative policy maker dealing with anti-social behaviour.
As part of the slow rumble toward the next general election, like a 2003-model Vauxhall Corsa with a knackered gearbox creeping its way up a steep incline, Rishi Sunak has announced a range of, by now, incredibly familiar policies to deal with the blight of anti-social behaviour.
These include a plan to let communities decide how perpetrators of anti-social behaviour (ASB) do unpaid work as punishment, which you might be forgiven for thinking looks exactly like the ‘Community Payback Scheme’ which has already been existence since way back in 2005.
Other policies include the much-vaunted ‘Hotspot Policing’ method of targeting areas that have suffered from a particular type of ASB. Again, this looks very familiar to the existing system whereby every local authority has a multi-agency panel (police, social housing, youth workers, etc.) that meet on a regular basis, discuss which areas have become hotspots of ASB and target resources accordingly, as they have done for about two decades.
One actual new policy is Sunak’s ban on nitrous oxide gas, with a possible two-year prison sentence attached for anyone found giggling on a park bench. However, this plan also breaks with the usual approach to social policy-making, whereby you employ research and the input of experts to try and tackle something that is making the nation suffer.
Instead, Sunak has targeted something that isn’t a major health or social issue, while going against all the advice of his own advisory panel on drugs, and will actually make the (relatively minor) problem worse.
Indeed, a major focus of Sunak’s anti-social behaviour policy has been drugs and as one might expect he has decided to push hard for total abstinence. All the usual Conservative rhetorical flourishes relating to drugs have been dragged out of the cupboard and dusted down – ‘scourge’, ‘zero-tolerance’, ‘gateway drug’ and so forth – and Sunak has proposed widening the range of offences that would allow police to test people for drug use when arrested.
This is essentially Stop & Search Mark Two – another power given to police that will inevitably result in statistics a few years down the line showing that certain communities tend to get tested for drugs much more than others, in the same way that recent studies showed that black kids in England and Wales were eleven times more likely to be strip-searched by police.
There is currently a sort of logic to the police drug-testing regime when somebody is arrested. The ‘trigger offences’ almost all relate to stealing stuff and people tend to steal stuff if they have a drug addiction that requires attention. Widening this to include anti-social offences might one day see police demand a saliva swab to see if somebody fly-tipping a fridge did so while under the influence of ketamine. While this is a pleasingly surreal mental image it has no obvious practical purpose in reducing ASB.
Underlying all of this is a refusal to tackle the real cause of ASB, which is poverty. Personal, institutional and political.
That might be the poverty of the person causing problems, denied access to social housing that doesn’t exist, support on leaving prison to stop them reoffending or services to address the addiction and/or mental health issues that feature overwhelmingly in those presenting ‘anti-social’ behaviour.
Or the poverty of the person suffering from the effects of anti-social behaviour, stuck in substandard housing they can barely afford, their ability to tolerate minor external annoyances blunted by hunger and cold.
The poverty of young people looking at a future without a decent job, further education they could ever dream of affording or one day owning a home of their own. The things that might stop them drifting into ASB – Sure Start centres, youth clubs, sports facilities, etc – are just as impoverished.
Instead of dealing with any of this, Sunak has taken on the mindset of an infant playing peekaboo. If you can’t see it, it’s not happening. When viewed through this prism of object impermanence, his party’s recent announcements make a kind of sense.
If a shivering rough sleeper asking for change at a cash machine reminds you of the abject failure of the social safety net, the obvious answer is to arrest them or shoo them away into the next doorway so you can no longer see them.
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If teenagers – or ‘hordes’ as Suella Braverman referred to your kids in Parliament – can be seen hanging out in parks because the system has given them nothing else to do, then just make what they are doing an arrestable offence. If you can no longer see teenagers “loitering” in parks, as one minister put it this week, or those little silver canisters lying next to a park bench, then all must be well.
Of course the existence of graffiti and fly-tipping might make you wonder why people feel such a lack of engagement in their own communities. However, rather than even consider this, or seek to deal with it, Sunak is instead determined to merely appear ‘tough’ on exactly the people he should be helping.
Chain gangs in dayglo jumpsuits scrubbing walls. Rough sleepers corralled out of sight. ASB wardens on buses. These are the same tired tabloid-friendly solutions we’ve seen rolled out for decades and are now seeing rolled out once again.
Dealing effectively with ASB needs a serious, adult approach. Unfortunately, all we have from Sunak this week is yet another politician who thinks that all of society’s ills can disappear by simply putting our hands over our eyes.
Nick Pettigrew is the author of the bestselling memoir, ‘Anti-Social: The Secret Diary of an Anti-Social Behaviour Officer’
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