Craig Hoy is a former Downing Street Lobby correspondent and a member of the Scottish Conservative Party.
After anything but a Merry Christmas, the last thing our struggling high streets need is to be blighted by anti-social behaviour. But all too often our villages, towns and cities are marred by low-level violence and intimidation, which reveal a stubborn stain on the character of modern Scotland.
Earlier this year, The Scottish Sun reported on ‘ASBO Avenue‘, where five individuals presided over a “reign of terror” on a small cul-de-sac. The number of dangerous dog notices issued across Scotland is up by 270 per cent in six years. Crime rose by 1.7 per cent in Scotland last year, with offences involving a weapon up by 3.4 per cent and robberies surging by 8.4 per cent.
In my home town of Haddington in East Lothian – where I now spend much of my time, following a decade running a business in the sharply different environs of Asia – authorities recently agreed a so-called ‘Problem Solving Partnership’ to tackle a spate of extreme anti-social behaviour. The actions of a small number of visible individuals alarmed local residents and angered weary local businesses. A series of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) followed, including one which bans a 38-year-old woman using “aggressive, abusive or intimidating language or behaviour” preventing her entering the street “in a group of more than two people”.
At the heart of this problem lies the vexing balancing act between personal rights and responsibilities. If you speak in private to those responsible for enforcing ASBOs, or pursuing tenant evictions, they admit that the pendulum has swung much too far in the wrong direction.
Those seeking to prosecute this behaviour say they are doing so with one hand tied behind their back. Cash-strapped local authorities and over-stretched police often lack the capacity to respond effectively – or react at all. The legal processes can be drawn-out and complex – and biased in favour of the offender.
While it’s un-PC to advocate hard-line early intervention, there’s mounting evidence that we’re still too reluctant to respond decisively to damaging and dangerous behaviour. Or, in the East Lothian case, the response is wrong: to house anti-social residents in the same locality, to make it easier for relevant agencies to monitor their behaviour – or, worse still, alongside good neighbours in the vain hope that it will make them change their ways.
The structural language of the mechanisms deployed hints at this sense of misguided logic. Take ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contracts’. These voluntary written agreements between councils, landlords and tenants have no legal status.
Think about it for a moment. It has come to something when adults have to explicitly agree in writing “not to threaten or abuse residents or passers-by” or, worse still, “not to throw missiles” at them. People ought to know that this sort of behaviour is unacceptable and act accordingly, without having to sign a piece of paper.
Tony Blair’s much-vaunted “respect agenda” has been lost by governments of all political persuasions over recent decades and more.
What strikes me most, and should worry us all, is that many now believe this is a problem we simply have to learn to live with. They view it as a battle too complex – or too costly – to tackle through the penal system or via social or welfare policy. It is, say some on the Left, an undesirable but inevitable outcome of unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation. I doubt that this is completely true but no political party is without blame. Two years ago, one of the starkest problems which struck me on my return to Scotland after a decade in Asia was the level of “everyday” anti-social behaviour. That could be kids on bikes “buzzing” an elderly pedestrian, or hooded youths using unleashed dogs to passively threaten those who walk by.
I accept comparing Scotland to countries such as Singapore is probably a fruitless exercise. Crude comparisons fail to take into account different cultural norms, legal and penal systems, the role of the family and the impact of different levels of wealth and the welfare system on an individual’s behaviour.
But it’s worth trying to assess precisely why significant levels of anti-social behaviour have been “priced in” to the everyday currency of life in Scotland today when other countries still adopt zero tolerance. If the respect agenda works elsewhere, then we shouldn’t give up on it here.
Scotland is prepared to think out of the box. Moves towards tackling knife crime through a “public health” approach have been successful in Glasgow. But it is worth stressing that finding “reachable and teachable moments” to educate offenders were deployed alongside deterrent based measures, including, for a period, increased stop and search and tougher sentences.
Finding a lasting solution to anti-social behaviour and violence might mean having difficult conversations about relying less on community sentencing, increasing fines and using custodial sentences more.
Community Justice Scotland (CJS) says the criminal justice system has to be “swift and visible”, but “balanced and fair” – allowing offenders to “build better lives” for themselves and their families. But we must be very careful we don’t create a dangerous imbalance in the same way we have over rights and responsibilities.
The Management of Offenders (Scotland) Bill, currently before the Holyrood Parliament, suggests further use of electronic tagging. CJS is calling for more ambitious measures still. Such calls should be resisted until it’s proven they reduce crime and re-offending across the cycle.
With attention focused on Brexit and the threat of Indyref2, it would be all too easy to push complex policy issues aside. But it would be completely wrong to admit defeat by failing to wrestle with these intractable issues.
Anti-social behaviour hits the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. Taking action must remain a top-level policy priority for the Tory Party in Scotland, just as it should be for our political opponents.