Like many of my countrymen, I find the cantankerous figure of Charles Clarke somewhat alarming. In fact, I think on balance I would rather live next door to David Boag. It would certainly be more entertaining. Boag, a 28-year-old warehouseman from Dechmont, West Lothian, is a man of unusual habits. He likes to watch the film An American Werewolf in London, after which he spends some time howling. Not only that; neighbours who have taken to watching him through his curtainless windows have spotted him climb up a step ladder, leap on to his sofa and then dance around the room with a Christmas tree.
Whether Mr Boag is a little mad or just eccentric I don’t feel qualified to say. Perhaps he needs to meet some girls, or at least broaden his taste in films a little. What Mr Boag certainly didn’t need was prison, but that is where he ended up. Last December he was jailed for four months at Linlithgow sheriffs’ court. There is, it turns out, no specific statute in Scottish law against howling, still less one against jumping on to your sofa or against dancing with a Norwegian spruce. But that mattered not a bit when it came to imprisoning David Boag; not when the police, egged on by Mr Boag’s neighbours, had at their disposal the catch-all powers of the government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Orders — Asbos as they are widely known.
Last week Tony Blair began his third term in office by launching a campaign against ‘disrespectful behaviour’. ‘I cannot solve all these problems,’ he said. ‘I can start a debate on this and I can legislate. What I cannot do is raise someone’s children for them.’ What he omitted to say was that he had already attempted to legislate against anti-social behaviour, in the shape of Asbos, introduced in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and that the results have not been so much ineffective as bizarre. They have targeted the mad, but done little to stop the bad.
Until recently it was taken for granted that in order to be sent to a British prison one had first to breach a clearly defined law. That all changed, however, with Asbos, which made it possible for the courts effectively to invent imprisonable offences at whim. In passing an Asbo, magistrates simply have to be satisfied that an individual has committed behaviour ‘which causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more people’. Upon receiving an Asbo, which can be imposed for a lifetime, the individual must abide by stringent rules, personally tailored for him. Any slight breach can lead to the recipient being jailed for up to five years.
On the face of it, there is little to stop a voter in Norwich South applying for an Asbo against the Home Secretary on the grounds that she feels harassed by the sight of him plodding up to her front door. Why not, considering that Bristol publican Leroy Trought was served with a two-year Asbo for the grievous offence of adorning a sign in his car park with the words ‘The Porking Yard’? Poor Mr Trought was brought before Bristol magistrates after Muslims from a nearby mosque complained that they found the reference to pigs offensive. Given that the street in which the mosque stands used to be known as Pork Alley and there is still a pork butcher’s there, one might have thought it a poor choice of location for a thin-skinned Muslim to choose to worship, but never mind. If Mr Trought displays any other sign containing the word ‘pork’, he faces up to five years in jail.
Voters may remember the unedifying sight of Cherie Blair the morning after the 1997 election opening the front door of her Islington home in a rather gruesome grey nightdress. Was her offence against good taste any less serious than that of Caroline Shepherd, a 27-year-old woman from East Kilbride who in March was served with an Asbo prohibiting her from appearing at her front door in her underwear? She received the order after neighbours, issued by the police with ‘Asbo diaries’, recorded a string of sightings in which she performed domestic activities semi-clad, culminating in her digging the garden in a bikini from Ann Summers.
In spite of the obvious absurdities of Asbos, it has become politically very hazardous to make a case against them. Anyone who raises the issue is accused by ministers of living a sheltered life and not knowing what it is like to live on a tough estate: to be against Asbos, in other words, is necessarily to be in favour of anti-social behaviour. Yet, as is pointed out by Asbo Concern, a pressure group launched by a group of charities recently, it isn’t so much thieves, vandals and drug-dealers who get caught out by Asbos — they can be prosecuted under existing laws where there is the will to catch them. Rather, most of the 3,826 people who have been served with Asbos since they came into force on 1 April 1999 fall into six categories: the mentally ill, the elderly, young children, drug addicts, prostitutes and beggars.
Typical of them is 23-year-old Kim Sutton of Bath who three times has been fished out of the River Avon after attempting suicide. On another occasion she had to be rescued after being caught dangling by her fingers from a bridge over the Great Western railway line. The result? An Asbo which bans her from jumping into rivers, canals and railway lines. The absurdity of this order defies belief. If Ms Sutton feels suicidal again, she is unlikely to be deterred by the threat of jail. But even if she were, there is nothing in her Asbo which bans her from casting herself off a motorway bridge — or for that matter into the sea. One foresees Ms Sutton being pulled shivering from the Bristol Channel, to be followed by several days of learned argument in court as to whether at the point of her immersion that body of water constitutes a river, which would mean Ms Sutton being sent to jail, or the open sea, which would not.
No less bizarre was the case of a man served with an Asbo which prevents him sniffing petrol anywhere on Teesside. Clearly he needs help, but he isn’t going to get it from an order which prohibits him practising his addiction in Middlesbrough but leaves him free to do so on the forecourts of Durham. One youth was served an Asbo prohibiting him from congregating with three or more people. Deciding to reform himself, he went to a youth club — only to find himself arrested for being caught in the company of several dozen youths.
A damning indictment of their ineffectiveness, 47 per cent of children and 30 per cent of adults served with Asbos in Greater Manchester have gone on to break them. Manchester, indeed, has earned the title ‘Asbo city’ for the fondness of its courts for making the orders. Those courts have at least succeeded in producing my favourite Asbo story: that of Danil Wilson, a convicted car thief who was in the habit of cycling the streets to survey his targets. Mr Wilson perhaps deserves to be behind bars, but instead has been served with an Asbo prohibiting him from using a bicycle anywhere in Greater Manchester, or of walking in parts of the city unless he is with his mum, Linda, or his sister, Davika. In other words, if he needs to go out and Linda or Davika are not available to escort him, his Asbo would appear to leave him only one option of getting about: to nick a car. Let’s just hope it’s Mr Blair’s limo.