Asbo City

26 March 2006
The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday

Bill Pitt, the former head of Manchester council’s Nuisance Strategy Unit and now the leading expert on asbos in the country, is a wiry and intense man. ‘The yobs in Manchester are frightened of us,’ he says proudly. ‘We have a reputation for being callous, brutal, obsessive and single-minded. This is an important myth to cultivate when you are dealing with the guys we are dealing with.’
Pitt has been instrumental in bringing into being asbos (Antisocial Behaviour Orders). An asbo is a civil order used to pre-empt trouble. It says if you continue throwing stones at shops, mugging, fighting, you will be fined or go to jail.
I spoke to Pitt during my investigation into Britain’s yob culture. The savagery and hooliganism I had seen on council estates and city centres throughout the country suggested a bleak future. I’d experienced plenty of yobbery in the London comprehensives where I taught, too. Now I wanted to know how we could beat the louts and reclaim our streets.
‘We are the asbo capital of Britain,’ says 58-year-old Pitt. ‘That’s because we are acting in the interests of the innocent victims of Manchester. This legislation works. And actually, it keeps a lot of kids out of jail. We prevent trouble before it happens.’
When I ask him about complaints from civil liberties groups like Liberty that asbos find people guilty before they have been tried, Pitt becomes angry. ‘They are only interested in the rights of the perpetrator. What I want to say to them is: “What about the rights of the victim?” Aren’t the vast majority of us entitled to live lives which are free from the fear of being abused and attacked? These middle-class lawyers who make vast sums of money and live in their big houses do not live on the estates where the mob rules. They don’t know what it is like to get bricks through the window, to be insulted on a daily basis, to cower before a gang of drunken thugs. So I wouldn’t listen to the libertarian claptrap of Liberty if I were you.’
Pitt told me what happened when he laid down the law to yobs. ‘When we TELL them in no uncertain terms how to behave, they often blink at us and say that this is the first time that anyone has ordered them to do anything. We are often dealing with people who have had no codes of behaviour imposed upon them.’
While I had no doubt Pitt’s intentions for asbos were honourable, I could see this kind of pre-emptive justice could be used to muzzle legitimate political protest. Asbos at their best are a much-needed remedy, but at their worst a thuggish government could use asbos to stop its critics from protesting on the streets.
So what more can we do to stop the yobbery? I had seen and listened to first-hand accounts of crazy, pointless attacks on innocent passersby up and down the country. I had been the victim of a beating myself. In Ayia Napa, I watched young men goading each other into drinking ever more potent alcohol with chaotic and violent consequences; and middle class girls out of their heads flaunting themselves semi-naked for the benefit of men. Most of us think this sort of behaviour is repellent, but what can we do about it?
First, cultural attitudes. Again and again in the testimonies I listened to while researching my book on yobs, I heard how responsible adults no longer felt able to challenge yobbish behaviour. They no longer felt able to stop children from misbehaving in public. All of us need to feel more empowered to intervene if we see antisocial behaviour.
Unfortunately, we are too often getting the message that it is OK to be yobbish. Our politicians, our leading sportsmen, our celebrities are, for the most part, celebrated for behaving in highly antisocial ways. The most striking aspect of the testimony of older people was that their communities used to be self-policing, in a way that they are not anymore. That needs to be reversed.
The media could also tone down the violent and semi-pornographic content of its programmes on television, and in magazines and newspapers, and, increasingly, the internet. In addition, we need to change cultural attitudes towards drugs, most particularly alcohol. The British are afflicted by attitudes towards alcohol that threaten to destroy our culture. Binge drinking, and the violence it brings to our town centres, should be acceptable.
Second, education. Many parents and children must be taught the values of civility and resolving conflict in a calm and rational way. By giving schools more autonomy and by making sure they are more involved in their communities, more parental involvement will become possible.
Schools need to be accountable to their communities. They also need to provide a more meaningful education to pupils who don’t want the National Curriculum. There needs to be a serious overhaul of our vocational education so all pupils are literate, numerate and have a ‘trade’ of some sort by the time they leave school.
Third, the justice system, which seems antiquated and unable to deal with the challenges of our new yob culture. It needs to be a lot more flexible and innovative in its approach so that it acts quickly when crimes happen and dispenses punishments that match the crime. It must stand up for the victim, not the perpetrator.
In 2005, at midnight, I found myself again in Leytonstone High Road, East London – in the same situation I had been in six years before when I had been attacked by a teenager who asked for money and then punched me in the face.
My wife told me not to take the bus home. ‘Just get a cab from the pub,’ she said. ‘You don’t want to get smacked in the face again, do you?’ I hadn’t taken the journey in six years. I was still a little traumatised by the event. But I was determined to show the yobs they couldn’t frighten me.
So there I was, standing by a deserted bus stop. As I watched a few drunken kids stagger out of the nightclub, I thought what an idiot I was. I saw several youths approaching me. I sensed danger. They were shouting loudly and had the obligatory sports tops, baseball caps and white trainers.
I started to walk away from the bus stop. Better to avoid trouble than cultivate it. As I was walking past a brightly-lit window, a drunken boy plunged out of the door of a gaudy takeaway, nearly bashing into me. I dodged out of his way and ran to the next junction. I looked back. There was no sign of the bus. The drunk was leaning over the curb being sick. He was, like so many of us, a victim of the inability of the British to hold their liquor. He was also the victim, like many of us, of a merciless and remorseless campaign by the drinks companies to profit from getting the British drunk.
I ran past a series of dreary high-rise flats and thought about my time spent in the bleak, deprived estates of London, Manchester, Glasgow and Belfast. Young children there were not being properly supervised. Left to their own devices, they were drinking great quantities of alcohol, taking drugs and beating up people. Where were the adults? Locked away in their homes and their offices, wishing the problem would go away.
I got on the bus and found myself a safe seat at the bottom. I had been uplifted by what Pitt had told me. But while asbos seemed to be an effective stopgap, they weren’t the solution. We need to re-educate parents about their responsibilities and make sure our children are not indoctrinated by the older generations into yobbish behaviour. We need to make proper after-school provision for them so they have more constructive things to do than throw stones at buses or victimise neighbours. We need to break the cycle of yobbery that is turning in ever-widening circles across the land.
The only way we are going to do that is to curtail the worst excesses of our media, businessmen and politicians. Everyone – parents, teachers, policemen, bankers, bus drivers, football players – must be involved in inculcating the values of decency and civility in our children. We need not only to lead by example, but also to get involved in shaping the society we want instead of leaving it to everyone else.
Above all, we need to be much more forceful with parents, with teachers – and ultimately with ourselves – about instilling high standards of behaviour in our children. We need to catch them before it is too late. We need to ration the amount of television they watch and demand that they are respectful of authority. We also need to put a heavier tax on the sale of alcohol. We will only curtail Britain’s violent binge drinking culture if the punters think twice before buying a drink.
I got off the bus clenching my fists. Yes, we need to be aggressively liberal with our children and their parents. We have to force civility and decency down their throats, as Bill Pitt was doing.
I felt I had gone full circle. My experiences in the classroom had been at the root of my desire to investigate our yob nation. From there I had gone on to travel widely around the country to see what was really happening. Now I was back to the classroom: education could be at the heart of solving our problems. Not wishy-washy, take-it-or-leave-it education, but tough, demanding insistent education that grabbed people by the throats and ordered them to listen. Yes, if decent people learned a few tricks or two from the yobs it could be done.
I dodged out of the way of the drunks and prostitutes at the top of Brick Lane, crossed the road to avoid inebriated clubbers coming out of the 24-hour bagel shop and raced home, where I quietly slipped into bed. My wife, Erica, was sleepily pleased to see that I hadn’t been beaten up.
‘Of course, I wasn’t,’ I protested. ‘That kind of thing doesn’t happen to me any more.’
‘I’m glad to hear it,’ she replied, eyeing me doubtfully. She wasn’t convinced. Unfortunately, nor was I.

Extracted from Yob Nation by Francis Gilbert (Portrait)

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