By Dorothy Thornhill
Date Posted: Tuesday, 22 May 2007
In this article Dorothy Thornhill considers the political and social dilemmas faced when Watford has attempted to tackle the issue of anti-social behaviour of some young people in Watford. She argues that making an effective response which satisfies everyone requires treading a precarious path between caring about the problems the young people face and responding to the government’s demand that local councils take up a more active and hardline approach in dealing with delinquent and criminal behaviour which is often associated with young people.
Dorothy Thornhill has been Liberal Democrat directly elected Mayor of Watford since 2002. Before this she spent 25 years teaching in comprehensive schools, specialising in special educational needs and pastoral care.
Tackling anti-social behaviour – ‘toughness’ versus effectiveness
According to a report in the Independent newpaper last year, the current government has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences since it was elected in 1997. Many of these have been a response to problems of low-level nuisance caused by young people – persistent noise, rowdyism, vandalism, graffiti etc. At the same time the government has increasingly put responsibility on local councils rather than the police for dealing with these problems.
At one level, this may be just a case of political manipulation. Passing new criminal justice acts every few months creates the aura of taking a hard-line against crime. And in encouraging people to blame councils if young people misbehave, the government may be seeking to deflect blame from failings in their own policies.
Yet there is a genuine problem that needs to be tackled. It is not just right-wing propaganda to say that people do feel intimidated by gangs of teenagers engaging in various forms of anti-social behaviour, and as a result feel unsafe and afraid. When I became involved in local politics back in the 1990s it was only with the greatest of difficulty that I managed to get anyone to take action against a group of young people who were waging what amounted to a terror campaign against residents on a local council estate. There was a general washing of hands by the authorities. The police weren’t interested, believing they had more serious crimes to deal with, and the council was reluctant to evict tenants, no matter how bad their behaviour.
So it is positive step that, prompted by the government, public agencies are starting to work together to identify and deal with problem behaviour by young people. In Watford, we have tried to respond to genuine community concerns without engaging the macho posturing about how many ASBOs we issue. Our crime and disorder partnership brings together the district council with the county’s children, school and families services, together with the police other agencies to work with each other and with the wider community.
Traditionally, there have been problems in achieving genuine cross-agency working for the benefit of children. Different organisations have their own cultures and it can be hard to break down mutual suspicions. At the same time, legal issues around data sharing can cause difficulties. However, we have worked at this and are developing local protocols that enable more effective co-operation. Our approach is not just about catching and punishing offenders, but about changing behaviour, so that young people understand the consequences of their actions and, we hope, cease to offend. We also appreciate that we can’t deal with the young people in isolation, so we work with families too.
We have engaged in some innovative ‘restorative justice’ programmes, working with other agencies. For example, when there was a serious spate of graffiti across the town, the council contacted local schools to identify the perpetrators. (It was a good bet that they were ‘tagging’ in school as well as out of it.) Several of the offenders were caught and, with support from their parents, we arranged for them to spend time clearing off their own graffiti. Most importantly, this has been about making sure people understand the damaging effects of their ‘hobby’ on the wider community.
We have used ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’, a form of voluntary ASBO, in which young offenders work with public authorities to stop their offending behaviour. And where we do issue ASBOs, they are always accompanied by a programme of support to encourage young people into more positive activities. We also work with partners in the police and the county council’s youth service to promote creative diversionary activities.
Yet the danger is that all this positive work gets lost amid the constant emphasis on ‘toughness’. I know of one council in South London that faces a relentless campaign from its local newspaper to routinely ‘name and shame’ ASBO recipients, even though this may actually hinder the chances of encouraging people back towards good behaviour.
It is a brave politician these days who talks about rehabilitation rather than retribution. And in a sense, if we lose elections because were are seen to be ‘not tough enough’ then that is our lookout. We shouldn’t seek or expect sympathy. But questions of how to deal with challenging, anti-social or criminal behaviour by young people are too serious and important to be conducted in soundbites about whether a particular candidate is hard or soft on crime. This means that those of us who do appreciate the complexities of these issues, in our roles as politicians, citizens or childcare professionals have a duty to challenge some of the more extreme and simplitistic rhetoric about ‘toughness’.
Otherwise, there is a danger that legitimate concern about a genuine social problem leads to a general demonisation of young people.