The yob culture
yob culture Thousands of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders have been made in England and Wales. But less than 10 have been served in Northern Ireland. Crime Correspondent Jonathan McCambridge examines the controversial legislation
07 January 2006
Teenagers in high-powered tractors recently caused a stir by annoying residents in sleepy Ballycastle, Co Antrim, by revving their engines outside homes in the early hours of the morning. Last summer rioting youths caused millions of pounds of damage in north and west Belfast when they went on the rampage during the marching season, leading to scores of arrests and injuries to hundreds of police officers.
While on the surface it might seem that these two sets of events are at separate ends of the crime scale, they might have a common resolution. Controversial Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos) have been suggested to control and deter both the Belfast rioters and the tractor boys.
Asbos were introduced in England and Wales as part of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act as one of the major planks of New Labour's 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' agenda. They were designed to help prevent graffiti, abusive and intimidating language, excessive late night noise, dropping litter or drunken behaviour on the streets.
They were the Government's attempt to hit back against the lawless youth culture best represented by Little Britain's Vicky Pollard - the teenage delinquents who hang outside off-licences trying to persuade those passing-by to buy them 10 fags and a bottle of strong cider.
Asbos involve a court order which can include restrictions on entering a geographical area or impose a ban on a specific act. The original legislation determined that juveniles, usually protected by law from being named, would be identified to ensure the community involved knew about the Asbo. An Asbo is not a criminal sanction but breaches of the order are punishable by up to five years in jail and they can be used against children as young as 10.
The gimmicky Asbos immediately proved both hugely popular and hugely controversial in England, with police and the local councils taking out thousands of the civic orders. Their "name and shame" principles were a delight to the red top media brigade.
Some communities who had previously been terrorised by gangs of young thugs, reported that their lives had been transformed overnight since an Asbo had been served. Critics argued however that Asbos were merely displacing an anti-social problem, rather than solving it.
According to figures obtained this week 6497 Asbos have been issued in England and Wales since their introduction in 1999. Of these 2,057 have applied to children aged 10 to 17.
Inevitably - as with most high profile legislation - pressure grew for the laws to be extended to Northern Ireland, also suffering from the scourge of yob culture.
The Government announced Asbos were to become law in Northern Ireland in August 2004.
However, almost from the beginning, the laws ran into problems on this side of the Irish Sea. Several human rights groups sought a judicial review to block Asbos, claiming they had been introduced without a proper consultation process. A legal challenge was launched and subsequently rejected in court.
There were also concerns that Asbos could criminalise children through the back door and possibly leave them exposed to paramilitary punishment attacks, although the Northern Ireland legislation included provision which gave magistrates discretion not to name children.
It also emerged that some local police commanders were, at best, lukewarm about the new Asbos. Several told their local district policing partnership meetings that they did not think the orders were the solution to low level crime. But at the same meetings more and more people were coming forward to tell how their lives were being ruined by the scourge of young people engaged in anti-social behaviour - exactly the problem Asbos were supposedsolve and which police otherwise have limited powers to deal with.
In the six months after Asbos were first introduced in the province not a single order had been served, causing much anger within the political parties who had lobbied hard for their introduction.
Following months of preparation work by the PSNI, Housing Executive and local councils, a small number of Asbo applications were eventually brought to court.
One of the first cases was against a south Belfast resident who, neighbours complained, was playing his music too loudly.
Another was against members of the Travelling community who were prohibited from entering the centre of the town of Larne in a vehicle following complaints of illegal camping.
There have also been calls for Asbos to be used against unruly students who created havoc in the Holy Land area of Belfast during Saint Patrick's Day celebrations.
While the number of Asbos served in England and Wales has soared to over 6,000, in Northern Ireland only six Asbo applications had been made in courts towards the end of 2005.
However, the Belfast Telegraph can now reveal that police have recommended to the Public Prosecution Service that Asbos should be used against rioters who brought shame and disgrace to Belfast last summer.