Britain cracks down on petty crime and sarcasm

Associated Press

Tuesday, Aug 31, 2004

London — A teenager is forbidden to say “grass.” A great-grandfather is banned from being sarcastic. And two record companies are told not to put up advertising posters.

All have fallen foul of the British government's latest weapon against petty crime, vandalism and hooliganism — the antisocial behaviour order, known popularly as an ASBO.

Prime Minister Tony Blair on Tuesday hailed the growing use of the orders as a response to the concerns of voters who live in the less genteel parts of Britain — where disputes are more likely to end in a head-butt than a biting witticism.

“It doesn't always get the headlines but if you've got really difficult people living next door or down the street ... it makes life absolute hell,” Mr. Blair said during a visit to Harlow, 40 kilometres northeast of London.

The orders have been used to ban thousands of people, some as young as 10, from associating with certain people or engaging in activities as varied as shouting, swearing, spray-painting, playing loud music and walking down certain streets. Breaching an order is a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Supporters say ASBOs are a valuable tool against persistent offenders.

But Rob Allen, director of the think tank Rethinking Crime and Punishment, criticizes ASBOs as one-sided, relying totally on punishment instead of including incentives to better behaviour.

Some local authorities have been accused of interpreting “antisocial behaviour” too broadly. In June, record companies Sony and BMG were threatened with ASBOs by a local council in north London upset that they were putting up advertising posters without authorization.

Critics say orders can be sweeping or hard to obey, like the four Manchester teenagers banned from saying “grass” — slang for “informer,” and allegedly used to intimidate neighbours — or the prolific burglar banned from visiting unannounced or phoning any house in the country for five years.

Supporters acknowledge that ASBOs function in the grey area between boorish behaviour and outright crime. The British Crime Survey found that 33 per cent of respondents cited teenagers “hanging around” on local streets as a big problem.

A problem, perhaps, but not a crime. Critics also point to cases like that of Alexander Muat, 87, a great-grandfather brought to court in Liverpool for breaching an ASBO that bars him from shouting, swearing or making sarcastic remarks to his neighbours.

“The last time I looked it wasn't a crime to be sarcastic,” wrote columnist Nick Cohen in the Guardian, slamming the government for “the criminalization of everyday incivility.”

Antisocial behaviour orders were introduced in 1999 to counter “loutish and unruly conduct,” and given a boost in October when the government launched an Antisocial Behaviour Action Plan, vowing to tackle everyday incivilities from “nuisance neighbours” to begging to graffiti.

It is rare for an order to be refused — 2,455 orders were issued in Britain to the end of March, more than half of them within the latest year. Only 42 requests were turned down by the courts.

Advocates say ASBOs are overwhelmingly popular with people affected by vandalism and petty crime.

“We've seen what happens when you've got no control, when people are running wild,” said Peter Cuming, who helps lead a Neighbourhood Watch group in north London. His group, a multi-ethnic mix of middle-class and lower-income families, says ASBOs helped clear away drug dealers, beggars and prostitutes.

“A year ago, you could have looked out my window and seen five or six drug dealers at any time of day,” Cuming said. “We've gone from bleeding-heart liberals to absolute reactionaries on this one.”

Orders against children have caused the most controversy, because the subjects of ASBOs can be named. Some councils have put up posters and distributed leaflets carrying offenders' pictures and encouraging residents to report violations.

Mr. Allen, the ASBO skeptic, cites a local newspaper headline that branded two boys aged 10 and 11 as “imps of Satan.”

“That's potentially quite a destructive approach to kids as young as 10 or 11, many of whom have serious family difficulties,” he said.