Antisocial behaviour is back on the agenda – it’s time to take a smarter approach


Antisocial behaviour (ASB), and low-level crime, is once again back on the political agenda, with Yvette Cooper’s speech last week kicking off Labour’s ‘crime week’.

It’s clear Labour is looking to capitalise on the current crisis in policing and ultimately win the battle of who can appear the “toughest” on crime. As well as framing it as a product of Conservative austerity, Labour has even described itself as “the party of law and order”.

So what has Labour actually announced? Among its proposals have been plans for bolstering neighbourhood policing and new ‘Respect Orders’ (which sound eerily similar to ASBOs) to give local authorities more powers to tackle ASB.

While it’s important to analyse and debate Labour’s policies, it’s also important to look at the broader context. That includes asking whether or not Labour should actually be focusing on ASB in the first place. The evidence is mixed.

The Crime Survey, run by the ONS, is the best way to assess crime and ASB trends because it’s not influenced by levels of public reporting, police recorded practices or changing priorities.

It shows between 2016 and 2020 the proportion of crime survey respondents who witnessed or experienced ASB increased from 28 per cent to 39 per cent. Yet the proportion of respondents reporting ASB as a big problem has declined steadily since 2003 across all categories (from 21 per cent to just 7 per cent) (although it’s important to note this picture differs depending on which research you read.)

This may suggest people are more tolerant of ASB because they recognise there are more severe social problems requiring attention. This argument is supported by the Police Foundation, which found people would rather see the police prioritise more serious and harmful issues. That said, we should not diminish the impact ASB can have. It can be seriously distressing, escalate to serious crime and it’s right for social justice reasons to prevent it.

But another important consideration is whether Labour, and its attempts to win the battle of who can talk the toughest, have grasped the scale of the challenges that lie ahead (which go far beyond ASB).

Our view at Demos is that we’re in need of wider, more wholesale change. The ‘tough’ vs ‘soft’ on crime paradigm needs shifting. We need to be smarter. We need a whole-society reorientation towards crime and harm prevention; one which looks beyond police enforcement and reduces the need for a response in the first place.

We know policing is important, but on its own, it has a limited ability to prevent ASB, crime and harm. Instead we need properly funded social services, strengthened local partnerships and early intervention – the Troubled Families programme is a great example of this in action and, more important still, is something that worked.

We believe this kind of work should now be bolstered and supplemented with investment in other areas such as mental health treatment, something Labour has indicated they will consider.

Our work on public services speaks to the importance of citizen engagement, participation and deliberation, and this is definitely applicable with policing – moving from a transactional to a relational service was something we called for in our ‘Move on Upstream’ report.

Where ASB is found to be high, we’d like to see communities having their say in what the solutions should be. Restorative justice initiatives cut reoffending, satisfy victims, are low cost and have public support. IPPR provide an excellent model for practice:

  • Where a resolution can be achieved with a simple apology and making amends, police officers should facilitate street-level restoration.
  • Where there are numerous victims or community-level impact, neighbourhood justice panel should facilitate dispute resolution.

The renewed attention on ASB is intriguing – it’s unclear whether the public see it as a pressing concern for the country. Equally unclear is whether Labour is taking the right kind of approach if it wants a low-crime, low-harm society.

What is clear, however, is we have a police legitimacy crisis and that Labour sees it as an easy win. We should therefore expect crime and policing debate to feature lots more ahead of the next election.