New Labour’s moral panic

Submitted by Anon on 5 June, 2005 - 3:21

By Pat Murphy

Less than one month back in power, and New Labour has it sights on a fresh enemy. Popular opinion, so distrustful of politicians and leaders, is being encouraged to work out its frustration and discontent on a new public enemy number one. The latest anti-social scapegoat is…..young people.

A major London shopping centre (the Bluewater Centre) has banned the wearing of “hoodies” on the basis that some customers find groups of young males wearing them threatening.

The use of ASBOs has proliferated, and teenagers find themselves heavily targetted. In one recent case, an entire school on the Isle of Dogs had an ASBO imposed on it, limiting the pupils to a space within a short distance of the school site during the day. Part of the reason for that particular ASBO was the need to keep these noisy and scruffy kids out of the way of traders in the adjacent City of London. It wouldn’t do for hardworking and public-spirited investors to be reminded of the existence of unruly working class youth.

(Though one look at the trading floors of the stock exchange might suggest that the children of Millwall were mere novices in loutish behaviour.)

The Government have become extraordinary keen to feed the idea that modern youth are out of control and in need of a strong dose of law and order. They have set up a special task group — a “Respect Committee” — to consider ways of dealing with unacceptable behaviour in schools. They are encouraging the use of ASBOs. They have followed up their election victory with a promise to restore “a culture of respect”. But what is the reality behind the rising panic about youth?

First, there is no point pretending there is no problem. The reason Labour has been able to use ASBOs as a popular and cheap way of holding on to support in traditional working class communities is because too many lives are made a misery by certain kinds of behaviour — persistent vandalism and low-level violence, backed up by intimidation and victimisation for those who complain.

However ASBOs and other punitive measures of this type (e.g. curfews), do nothing about the causes of anti-social behaviour and can become a charter for score settling against innocent neighbours. At best they can provide short-term relief for a few, at worst they feed salacious headlines for tabloids looking for “Britain’s worst family” or “the real Vicky Pollard”.

While there are real problems, exploited by New Labour, the overall picture is nothing like the free-for-all crisis painted by the press. Youth crime, like all crime, has fallen. The regular moral panics about youth are generated by exceptional stories rather than trends or statistics.

There is also nothing at all new about the scapegoating of the young. For most of the twentieth century governments have fostered fear of youth culture and fashion — newspapers were keen to follow in their wake. There is something so tired and dreary about a 21st century Labour Party repeating about “hoodies” what previous generations of politicians trotted out about bikers, mods and rockers and punks. They look threatening, they don’t speak like us, they’re rude and abusive and they make us feel uncomfortable. Something must be done!

The whole anti-youth project is a toxic mix of rose-tinted nostalgia and middle-aged paranoia. Young people hanging around shops and bus shelters looking bored (and being bored) isn’t a new phenomenon. On the other hand the young of 2005 have a few advantages over previous generations when it comes to attitudes, morality and behaviour.

I have two children, aged 13 and 10, and their understanding of racism and sexism is leagues above anything around when I was their age. Not just learned reactions or rules either, but a real sense that racism is unacceptable lunacy. They are mystified by prejudices which I grew up with and accepted. Their knowledge and understanding of other cultures and religions is already greater than mine. And they are typical, it seems to me, of their age group.

Nieces and nephews who still live in small-town Ireland are less cosmopolitan and much less likely to have black and Asian, Muslim and Sikh friends. They are, nevertheless, a long way ahead of where I was at their age on tolerance, race, sex and sexuality.

This is the generation that goes on vigils and marches to end world poverty, to stop wars.

Yet this is the generation being demonised by government and press. Demonised not because of what it does, or any real threat it poses, but because, in common with young people for decades, it dares to be different.

We should reject out of hand the attempt to use young people as scapegoats. Violence, racism and intimidation are anti-social wherever they come from. A Government that targets asylum-seekers, bombs Iraqi civilians and lies to Parliament and press, has no business lecturing anyone on morality.

What's wrong with ASBOs?

First introduced in 1998, ASBOs have been the centrepiece of the Government’s anti-social behaviour strategy. The numbers of ASBOs has gone up every year since 2000. They have been widely used since 2003. In the nine months to September 2004, 1826 were issued (compared to 1035 for the whole of 2003). ASBOs are particularly popular in Greater Manchester, where nearly twice as many have been issued as in Greater London.

The Orders ban individuals from specific acts for a minimum of two years. They can currently be applied for by the police and social housing agencies. The Government plans to soon let ordinary members of the public apply for an ASBO.

The standard of proof for obtaining an ASBO in an Magistrates court is lower than for criminal cases. Hearsay is allowed as evidence. People who breach an ASBO can be locked up for up to five years.

What else is wrong with ASBOs?

  • They criminalise people for often non-criminal offences.
  • According to research, around two thirds of people issued with an ASBO are vulnerable in some way — are victims of abuse, chronic drug and alcohol users, or are mentally ill. For instance, a 37-year-old drug addict, who turned to begging to fund his habit, was jailed for three months under the terms of his order for “courteously” asking a motorcyclist for money. And a 50-year-old woman with a paranoid personality disorder was served a six year order after she threw three sticks of rhubarb at her brother in the latest instalment of a family feud.
  • ASBOs have been increasingly used to evict ill pensioners (perhaps with some kind of dementia) from their sheltered housing.
  • Children as young as ten can be served with an ASBO. Behaviour which in the past may have been thought of as “cheeky” or “naughty” is now considered wild and dangerous. For instance ten-year-old twin brothers were served with an order for misbehaving on their housing estate. Simply looking through the windows of other flats on their estate would have constituted a breach.
  • ASBOs were meant to be targeted on adults, but so far 45% of them have been served on juveniles. There are 1001 better and positive ways to improve the behaviour of childre, starting with better youth, play and sports facilities, and more financial and other kinds of support for their parents. What about better educational and job opportunities, or drama and music groups? And the less expensive befriending, and mentoring?And simply somewhere to go to “hang out”?
  • The definition in the legislation of anti-social behaviour is subjective — anything that is considered “harassment” by the “victim” is a high enough standard of proof of offence. The risk is of an escalating number of ASBOs being served for trivial offences or for “offensive viewpoints”. For instance one man was threatened with an ASBO for publishing a joke about the Pope’s death on his website.
  • ASBO are used to “police” what would have been considered in the past normal friction between neighbours. For instance an 87 year man in Liverpool was given an ASBO to stop him swearing, shouting and saying things that are sarcastic to his neighbours.
  • ASBOs cover a wide range of offences — from opening a crack house to dropping litter.
  • None of the underlying causes of each type of behaviour is dealt with by an ASBO.
  • ASBOs don’t work even in the short-term. 42% of all ASBOs served on juveniles are breached. 50 children a month are incarcerated as a result of breaching their ASBO.
  • Because ASBOs don’t work authorities have taken to issuing “name and shame” leaflets about persistent offenders, putting those people — including the youngest of children with ASBOs — at risk of violent recrimination.
  • People who have been convicted of a criminal offence can have an ASBO served on them at the end of their punishment. They are effectively punished twice. A 40-year-old builder, jailed for three and a half years for deception and theft, had to serve an order upon his release which banned him from self-employment in the building industry, advertising his services, or actively seeking money from people for building work.
  • ASBOs are increasingly being used to stop protestors. A 38-year-old animal rights activist was served a five-year order banning her from going within 500 metres of a number of the country’s largest animal research laboratories.
  • ASBOs are used to “clean up” areas councils want to gentrify.

Partly in preparation for the Eurostar extension to St Pancras station, Camden council has handed out a total of 38 orders to beggars, drug users and prostitutes in the area.

Sick children victimised

Children with autism and other serious psychological conditions are being targetted for ASBOs, according to reports from mental health charities and professionals. In one case in the south west, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, was given an Asbo to stop him staring over his neighbours’ fence into their garden.

In other words, police gave in to the prejudice of this boy’s neighbour. In other words, the police and magistrates had no knowledge about Asperger’s Syndrome and couldn’t be bothered to find out.

People with Asperger's syndrome have a normal intelligence but can display obsessional behaviour and a tendency towards repetitive routines which may seem peculiar to people not familiar with the condition or have not had it explained to them.

This young man had no previous criminal convictions, but if he breached the order by “continuing to stare” he faced jail — a completely inappropriate and inhumane place for anyone with his condition to be.

ASBOs have reportedly been used against a number of autistic children.

In one case in the Midlands, the authorities applied for an Asbo against a 12-year-old girl with Asperger’s who had been swearing in the street. It later emerged that she had heard her parents arguing with neighbours and had mimicked them.

Don’t stereotype youth!

Nicky Laville, 17, Hackney:

I think banning hoodies is out of order. It’s basically stereotyped to people that any youth wearing hoods is a bandit or a crook. Now, apparently, in Bluewater, you can wear a hoodie but you can’t wear the hood up. But funnily enough, in Bluewater they sell hoodies! Does this make sense?

Now, all youth are being scrutinised to feel like if we’re seen with a hoodie, the police may stop us or that we’re going to cause some damage. When, really, the hoodie has been a fashion since how long? Maybe since the 80s or 90s.

And now, we’re being made to feel like we’re outcasts. It only means that people are going to go out there and buy more hoodies to wear!

The youngsters are the ones that pay, and give the shops their money and their business. It’s not older people that go to buy the latest Akademiks, it’s youth.

I don’t think it’s a very good idea at all, because not all youths that wear hoodies are bad. Say if it’s raining or you’re having a bad hair day, you’re going to wear your hoodie. We all do it, cos it’s quick and something you can just pull up.

I think it’s a real shame that that’s what our country’s coming to. Soon they’ll be banning caps, because they can’t see your face, or bandanas cos they’ll say it’s gang colours or something.

Banning hoodies is not cracking down on young kids doing crime. What would maybe help crime go down is if they opened more youth clubs, but the Council doesn’t want to help, and Blair obviously is not interested.

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