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The Crime and Disorder Act - overlapping legislation or a forgotten philosophy?

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On 14th July 2011 we saw the amendments to the Crime and Disorder Act (1998). This act, in short, granted local authorities greater responsibilities (and equally importantly statutory obligations) with regards to producing crime audits and developing strategies for reducing crime and disorder but to most people will be remembered for the birth of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) amongst other new measures. The initial Act was a watershed moment in criminal justice in the UK introduced onto the statute books by the Labour administration and to many was a leitmotif of New Labour's adoption of  the philosophy of 'Communitarianism' informed by the work of Amitai Etzioni and the third Way of shunning both the full-on individualism entailed by the Thatcherite maxim that 'there is no such thing as society', without subscribing to the traditional social-democratic recourse to a strong state as the tool by which to realise the aims of social justice - most notably, equality.

Moving to 2012 and the current coalition government, 'crime and disorder' is, as ever, one of the high profile and heavily mediated issues that Home Secretaries and governments can often live or die on.  Anti-social behaviour has certainly not gone away, nor has the introduction of communitarianist-based policies apparently ameliorated decaying social bonds (although official statistics show violent and serious crime has dropped in same period) - or so we are led to believe.   To what extent has the Crime and Disorder Act been a success in incorporating local authorities and key agencies to form partnerships (or CDRPs - Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships) to increase the quality of life for communities in their area and reduce disorder, crime and the fear of crime?  Furthermore, how does one effectively and robustly measure the success or failures of the act over a reasonable bedding-in period of almost 15 years now? 

If we look at the basic official data on ASBOs, applied for year on year since their introduction, and the concomitant number of breaches we see two trends:  firstly, that breaches run at a lower level yet almost completely parallel - telling us that there is a standard failure rate of ASBOs - somewhat of a blunt instrument when applied too early.  We can, secondly, deduce that there has been an upward increase in the numbers of ASBOs nationally in the first couple of years reaching its zenith in 2005 and then showing a quite drastic (over 50% reduction in many areas) and consistent drop in that figure up to the present day. 

Teresa May sounded the death knell for the ASBO in 2010 as new official statistics showed breach rates rising above 50%, and that use of the orders has fallen to the lowest level yet. She said it was now "time to move beyond the asbo", with replacement, simpler sanctions that were "rehabilitating and restorative rather than criminalising and coercive.  Well this may be, but is this not a simplistic reading of the statistics that takes the ASBO in isolation of other measures and programmes that will be curtailed and are failing to be delivered? 

In the wake of the CSR and the austerity cuts in general across public services, the 'Third Sector', police and local authorities staff reduction, to what extent is the legislation relevant or workable anymore vis-a-vis the claim of insufficient resources to be able to deliver the statutory obligations - such as a three yearly audit and strategy document and the actions and 'programme roll-out' commensurate with said strategy?

I recently spoke with a number of councils who said that they no longer have a CDRP or Community Safety Unit due to cuts and even one where I was put through to he Assistant Director of Leisure Services who claimed that the whole remit hat been transferred to him since the cuts!  If the statutory obligations are not being met due to lack of resources then two outcomes are highly likely and there is significant evidence that these are happening already.  Firstly there will be potential to challenge councils in the courts for their failure to deliver statutory obligations – this as we all know they can ill afford in terms of time and resources. Secondly the financial costs to a struggling council of increased policing bills, increased crime, lack of inward investment etc is exponentially higher than any annual spend on maintaining a sleek and effective CDRP.

In a post-Blairite, post 7/7, post-2011 riots UK, the Communitarianist gospel may appear somewhat outmoded, naively optimistic and even unworkable. However the issue here is not the shift in the political philosophy but rather the landscape of the world and state within which we live (to paraphrase and bowdlerise Will Hutton).  In fact, David Cameron, Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg have all been recently addressing the nature of 'Responsible Capitalism’, as too have much of the UK public and beyond in the wake of the banking crisis, yet they are simply invoking the spirits of Etzioni and Hutton's prescient works back in the early 1990s.

Certainly we now live in a very different world.  A world where such philosophies may still find some root and like much political and religious dogma if they appear to be providing palatable answers to societal ills then almost certainly they will garner such attention and support.  Yet one of the initial criticisms of Communitarinaism which appears to have been borne out over the last two decades is that it was predominantly a descriptive narrative characterised by sound-bites and sloganeering as opposed to a set of problems and solutions. Describing Civic Society is one thing but getting people to recognise that their actions or potential actions are precisely that is another thing.

Community-based groups have hitherto always been engaged in effective leverage on the powerful and political institutions but they can get things done. They do not see this as communitarianism though. They do require support, advocates and some funding.  If that is not going to come from the usual agencies then how do people feel about, consultants, financial services organisations, supermarkets and private sector organisations in general pitching in? 

The commissioning of local services and the pots of money hitherto available for community-based groups to bid for will now all be shifting. To where is still unclear - as is The Big Society - yet one thing is clear is that legislation and public sector money alone has not been sufficient to reduce crime and disorder on a sustainable level.  The financial crisis - like many historical periods of economic change and austerity - should be seen as a crucible of innovation where civic society and communities reinvent themselves with the aid of funding and other forms of capital - intellectual capital, skills, time etc.  Strategies should be developed on a more democratic basis and that will inevitably be on smaller areas such as Neighbourhood Agreements rather than borough-wide top-down strategies. 

The ratification of the Localism Bill (November 2011) has provided us with a certain level of déjà vu. Have we not seen all this talk of government finally claiming to recognise the importance of communities and community groups and organisation?  Is there too much new legislation and perhaps we may be suffering from 'legislation-overlap'?  Why introduce new legislation where powers and freedoms already exist?  Another problematic area could be the issue of continuities and change so characterised by the British parliamentary system: one government is succeeded by another of a different party (or parties!) who then avoid repealing former legislation (not politically expedient) but introduce new legislation that may conflict and confuse with what is already in place. It is like asking a child to finish off their meat and veg before they dig into their chips or pudding.  So many questions; but a certain degree of optimism that this innovation is not only what is required but also what is already happening in islets of good practice and communities who are grasping the mettle of social media and IT to drive through changes in their own areas without being performance managed from the centre and the top.   Is this what Etzioni was talking about all along perhaps?

Laurence Grant BA MPhil. Director and Co-founder Grant Moar Communities

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