Select Committee on Home Affairs Written Evidence

18. Memorandum submitted by Manchester City Council

  1.  The Nuisance Strategy Group has, for almost 10 years, acted to stop anti-social behaviour and prevent its repetition.

  2.  We have a significant body of experience of detailed casework and have secured some 4,500 successful legal actions to protect individual witnesses and the wider community around them. Our principal and main focus is the protection of witnesses and communities. Whilst we rarely evict or imprison perpetrators, we will do so wherever this is necessary.

  3.  However our preferred legal tool is the Injunction (either Housing Law Injunctions or Anti-social Behaviour Orders). Our experience is that these work and have lasting impact. Injunctive action is fast and effective in offering urgent protection to witnesses and avoids unnecessary social exclusion.

  4.  We have recognised, both in Manchester and from our observations of casework in other parts of the country, that eviction in and of itself and the use of possession notices do nothing to protect witnesses and, indeed can (by themselves) put witnesses at greater risk—a warning shot across the bows of the perpetrator can land in the witnesses' living room.

  5.  This is why we have, from their inception, committed to the use and development of the injunctive ASBO. We have never regarded them as an order of last resort, but as an authoritative and credible establishment of a sustainable standard of behaviour which can be owned and policed by our communities. We are clear that this is an order for witnesses, designed to give them respite and relief from anti-social behaviour of perpetrators. The amendments introduced by the Police Reform Act, if they can be made functional, are the significant step forward, providing an ex parte form of the order which protects the witness and gives notice of action to the perpetrator only after the order has been made. This and the availability of the ASBO in the County Court will create real advances in the protection of our communities. We must, however, realistically make the Committee aware that these potential advances are not fully realised and face hostility and oppositions from both risk-averse advocates and from legal advisors to Magistrates' benches.

  6.  The additional failure of the justice system signified by failure across the Country to use committal for proven breaches continues to threaten to bring the ASBO into disrepute with the witnesses and communities they are designed to protect.

  7.  The experience we have of the span of service provision on anti-social behaviour includes an observation of a tendency to imbalance. Services for perpetrators massively outweigh any service for witnesses. The functioning of the justice systems (criminal and civil) has little or no regard for the health, safety, well-being, or interests of witnesses. This intolerance fosters and sustains distrust within our communities so that witnesses, sometimes terrorised by perpetrators, consider that the justice system will inevitably make things worse for them rather than better.

  8.  We have the most serious concern that the few orders focused exclusively on the needs and well-being of witnesses and their communities might be adulterated with additions which bend its focus onto the needs of the perpetrators (for their support, diversion and rehabilitation). Witnesses need a clear statement from the justice system that a part of it is functioning for them. The ASBO is such a part of this system and must be sustained with this clarity of purpose if it is to remain a credible and creditable feature of our work.

  9.  As regards the effectiveness of the Order, we are repeatedly perplexed at the aggressive and negative public accounts of the functioning of ASBOs. In our experience, the publicity which suggests a breach rate of 35% fails constantly to report an effectiveness rate of 65%. The fact is that an order made tells the community that the authorities have listened and acted to protect them. This in itself is a huge success.

  10.  We do not use Acceptable Behaviour Contracts. In the case of juveniles (where the anti-social behaviour doesn't require urgent, ex parte applications) we conduct a formal warning interview, confirmed in writing which uses our reputation (as reported in both the media and leaflets) to establish an authoritative and credible intervention. Because we have the justified reputation of taking legal action whenever necessary, our warnings are heeded more often than not. In two-thirds of all cases the warning is sufficient to stop the anti-social behaviour.

  11.  Our observation of other areas' use of ABCs does not lead us to consider adopting them. These areas do not use Injunctions or ASBOs and the ABC offers nothing to witnesses other than a potential prolongation of their distress.

  12.  The competence of the CPS to engage in the application for orders or prosecution of breaches is at best variable. Some crisp direction and training appears necessary.

  13.  Whilst District Judges and Magistrates in Manchester have, in the main, recognised the injunctive, preventative nature of the ASBO and the huge importance of appropriate (custodial) disposals at breach, we observe our colleagues around the country suffering reversal at application stage, both from benches and from the negative advice provided by the Magistrates' Clerks. Declarations by Courts of their impartiality are too often accompanied by judges and their clerks using words like "Draconian" about proposed terms and "juvenile" about the perpetrator by way of refusing the making of Orders in terms which will effectively protect witnesses. In fact they are acting as a second Defence for perpetrators with such a focus on their needs and interests.

  14.  Confronted with the argument that the ASBO is a process for criminalizing juveniles, we must point out that:

    —  the majority are abided by and change the behaviour and association of the subject for the better;

    —  the majority of juvenile subjects are already in the justice system which has, so far, not succeeded in protecting the community from their behaviour; and, finally,

    —  many of the orders are made to protect other juveniles from the subject's behaviour.

  15.  Finally, we respectfully ask the Committee, in reviewing the effective impacts of the various developing initiatives on anti-social behaviour to establish the cost effectiveness of these initiatives with regard to interests and well-being of the wider community.

  16.  We are clear that our legal interventions have re-established standards in our communities in particular cases which involve some 9,000 witnesses and the communities around them. This action has established and nurtured aspirations for security and well being in our City. We have, at the same time, persuaded our Courts of the integrity of our evidence and the proportionality of our applications in the terms which they are made.

  17.  Our concern is with balance in giving our communities a reasonable expectation of supportive and effective interventions whenever and wherever they report the destructive anti-social behaviour which disrupts their peace, health and well-being.

30 November 2004

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