Authoritarianism: the Greatest Hits 1

With barely three weeks to go now before the Convention on Modern Liberty, we bring you a quick refresher course (courtesy largely of the Guardian’s excellent Liberty Central A-Z) in how we’ve arrived at today’s crisis in civil liberties. The tour will be chronological, so cast your minds way, way back to 1998, the last age of innocence, and the bullishly named Crime and Disorder Act

So what’s in it?

Some perfectly workable stuff – barring of sex offenders from activities and areas frequented by children, and obliging police forces to draw up crime and disorder strategies for their areas which, to the best of my knowledge, works.

But the Act is best known for creating a new approach to youth justice, setting up a national board, abolishing the presumption that children aged between 10 and 13 couldn’t form criminal intent and, most notoriously of all, creating new measures to deal with youth offending such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). ASBOs could be imposed by magistrates on individuals who had behaved in a manner “that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”.

That sounds pretty vague

It got worse later. As a result of concern over “low take-up” the government passed the Police Reform Act 2002 to widen the potential remit of an order. The pattern of usage seems to have changed accordingly. Barnardo’s chief Martin Narey pointed out in March 2006 that ASBOs had been originally intended as an “entirely exceptional” response to youth disorder. Yet the number of ASBOs issued to under-18s rose from only 61 altogether in 1999 and 2000 to over 1,000 in total by 2004.

What did the Lib Dems think of the bill?

Sir Alan Beith, then the unknighted Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary, welcomed some administrative changes to police force operation and backed the general idea of a new, more comprehensive approach to youth crime. But he reiterated the Lib Dem position that imprisoning more people for longer is not a solution to crime, and in particular expressed disappointment that Labour had not lifted prison terms on remanded 15- and 16-year-olds, as promised in opposition.

On the whole, the Bill is heading in the right direction, but we feel that, in some respects, it is unnecessarily authoritarian, that some measures are not based on sound research and that it does not do enough to channel resources into constructive action. We welcome the introduction of local multi-agency crime prevention bodies: that is a sensible and constructive measure, which may be why it was not introduced during all those years of Conservative government, despite the recommendation in the Morgan report.

And more specifically on some of the authoritarian measures:

We are opposed in principle to local child curfews. We think that they are a heavy-handed gimmick. It was a good idea for grabbing headlines in the run-up to the election, but it is not a good idea in practice or an appropriate response to young people under the age of 10 being on the streets at night. It is impractical to such an extent that the Home Secretary seems to be admitting that it is an experiment rather than a solid proposal.

I asked what research the proposal was based on, and I received a vague answer. I do not think there is any research evidence to show that a child curfew system is needed or will work. There is nothing it could do that powers in the Children Act 1989 or common-sense action by a police officer who sees a child wandering around late at night could not do. It could have damaging effects in terms of signalling to younger people that they will be subject to collective punishment and that their overall civil rights can be taken away.

So has the ASBO worked?

Not according to the Institute of Public Policy Research, who published a report in December 2007 which argued that ASBO culture was becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy”, effectively encouraging young people to take to crime and treat ASBOs as a “badge of honour”. This echoed the findings of research carried out in 2006 for the Youth Justice Board. IPPR’s report also found that the remit of ASBOs was being used very widely and inconsistently.

Three months later, in March 2008, Home Office figures showed that breaches of ASBOs had risen to 61% of cases. A breach of an ASBO is a criminal offence carrying a prison term of up to five years which effectively means, as Liberty point out, that a child as young as 10 who has committed a non-criminal offence can be criminalised by the system and sent into a criminal culture. ASBOs, once the flagship measure of Blair’s tough-on-crime stance, are now being quietly pushed aside – recently released figures show a 34% drop in the number of new orders issued in 2006.

Carey Oppenheimer, IPPR’s co-director, summed it up for liberals in December 2007 when he said, “The problem with ‘kids these days’ is the way adults are treating them. Britain is in danger of becoming a nation fearful of its young people: a nation of paedophobics.”

Aren’t there any bright sides to all this?

The Act abolished the death penalty for treason and piracy. Arrrrrr.

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