Mention 2003 to anyone working with young people or involved in criminal justice and you’ll hear tales of folk mysteriously going grey overnight… some even went mad, they say. It was the year that saw in some of the most draconian legislation that ever disgraced the HMSO printing presses: the Sexual Offences Act, the Criminal Justice Act and the Antisocial Behaviour Act.
It was the last of this dreadful triad that gave us the ASBO – a new hybrid to sit in the cracks between the civil and criminal law: civil as far as human rights to a fair trial or to have an offence clearly defined in law were concerned. Criminal because any breach could send you straight to gaol.
When the White Paper was published on 13th March, the phone lines were jammed with NGO types asking where the address for responses had gone, and complaining that it read more like a hateful pub rant than a government policy document. Good old David Blunkett, eh? The man of the people. (Well, Annabel’s, dinner parties and duchesses apart.)
As for where responses should go, Blunkett told us. Consultation? There was no consultation. The Bill followed a scant fortnight later (mercifully with the language toned down) and the Home Office stuffed its ear plugs in as everyone from the voluntary sector to local authorities and the police told them why ASBOs were an appalling idea.
Fast forward a few years, and the Youth Justice Board has just issued a report cataloguing the great ASBO disaster zone in terms remarkably similar to the briefings that fell on deaf ears back in 2003 when the Bill was going through.
Is the Government chastened? Not a bit of it. If you read the response delivered by Lord Bassam on Wednesday, you’ll see that they are distinctly upbeat about the whole thing.
First, the report shows that almost half of the sample breached the terms of their ASBO. It is important to note that the sample of young people was not representative of the ASBO population and therefore those results cannot be generalised or be indicative of overall ASBO compliance rates. Furthermore, I reject the proposition that any breach rate is an indication of failure.
The man is a true adept, managing to combine the reverse toe-loop and triple axel of spin in a single paragraph. There’s some impressive ‘failure is success’ doublethink, but note also the subtle ‘faulty research’ technique in operation: if an opinion poll of a few hundred people delivers the desired answer, then the people have spoken. However, if a report fails to come up with the goods, it’s because the sample wasn’t representative, and thus the YJB report
…should in no way be read as representing the experience of all YOTs or, for that matter, crime and disorder areas.
Nice try, YJB. Pity about the audience.