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To the dismay of liberals, politicians are backing voter demands for a tougher stance on anti-social behaviour, say...
To the dismay of liberals, politicians are backing voter demands for a tougher stance on anti-social behaviour, says Chris Mahony

As he has done so often during the past decade, prime minister Tony Blair summed it up best.

It came after one of his 'Big Conversation' sessions, when he was discussing crime with people in Leeds. Mr Blair was justifying his government's tough stance against young people indulging in anti-social behaviour. He said: 'There gets to be a point at which we say, 'Here's the deal, we'll help you with some of these problems but you've got to behave like everybody else does'.'

Libertarians would argue that Mr Blair neatly, and possibly inadvertently, laid bare the deep-seated roots of anti-libertarian measures - controlling or caging those who are not like us.

It is a debate that can defy assumed political allegiances: one would not expect, for example, to find outspoken Tory right-winger Teresa Gorman even metaphorically in bed with gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. But Ms Gorman, a member of a parliamentary party that brought us a legislative ban on the 'promotion' of homosexuality by councils, counts herself as part of the libertarian right and she professes to be unconcerned about what consenting adults get up to in private.

This is a debate that touches a large number of local government activities. In many policy areas, councils can carve out their own libertarian or authoritarian identity.

Obviously, however, their policies and practices are circumscribed by central government, most famously or notoriously - depending on your sexual orientation or own outlook - with the aforementioned ban on the promotion of homosexuality.

And, indeed, it is with gay rights, together with matters to deal with young tearaways, that the Labour government has swum most frequently in these dangerous waters. Often this involves handing new powers to councils or overturning existing ones.

Take anti-social behaviour orders, the use of which has varied markedly between councils. ASBOs were a key early signal of New Labour's determination to ensure that troublemakers 'behave like everybody else does'.

Mr Blair's first home secretary, Jack Straw, countered criticism from Guardian columnists with a bit of reverse class war: his measures would improve the quality of life on the most disadvantaged estates, he said, places of which his middle-class newspaper critics knew little. Each evening, he said, they went off to their agreeable abodes in the home counties or Hampstead after flaunting their liberal sensibilities.

The point about an ASBO is that it can be imposed without a criminal conviction - and the standard of proof required in the civil courts is rather lower than is needed to secure a conviction in a criminal court.

Mr Blair, again after his Leeds meeting, recognised

this situation, and said: 'Taking back control would inevitably mean short-cutting elements of the criminal justice system'.

Speaking of the need to 'take back control', he said: 'In my view, the only way we can do this is to recognise there will be an element of rough justice in this.'

We do not know what his human-rights barrister wife Cherie makes of such thinking, but it has certainly perturbed pressure group Liberty.

Both Mr Straw and his successor, David Blunkett, have castigated councils for being slow to seek ASBOs from the courts.

Between April 1999, when they reached the statute books and December 2003, 1,982 orders were issued.

In his Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, Mr Blunkett handed councils yet more powers to tackle the menace - including the right to seek a legal ban on congregating in specific areas.

Liberty also identifies the over-enthusiastic installation of CCTV cameras as a sign of a council with authoritarian leanings. Although local authorities have competed enthusiastically for government funding for CCTV schemes, Liberty says CCTV should be a last resort after measures such as improved street lighting have been tested in crime hotspots.

Working with the police and the courts, councils can now also display 'name and shame' posters of those banned from specific areas by ASBOs.

But given that obtaining such orders reportedly costs around£5,000, others would argue that an investment in early intervention for troubled teenagers, mediation and better youth facilities would be both more cost-effective and a lot less authoritarian.

The tone set by councils in working with their partners, notably through crime and disorder partnerships, can also influence the official response to other activities. Police recently acquired the power to impose a curfew on under-16s being out after 9pm without an adult, although it is likely they would consult their council partners before imposing one.

They can also shape the community's response to a wide range of other activities that the more upstanding and conventional pillars of society might find threatening, unpleasant or just downright disturbing. These include begging and the work of that fin de siècle phenomenon, the squeegee-merchant. This extends to attitudes towards rough sleepers. Some authorities adopted a significantly less tolerant attitude in recent years, partly in response to the exhortations of Louise Casey, the former Shelter boss who turned into a devout Straw/Blunkett follower after her appointment as the government's homelessness czar.

By-laws allow councils to 'sweep' people off the streets, and some councils have enthusiastically employed them.

The recent high-profile jailing - twice - of an Oxfordshire mother for failing to ensure her daughter attended school won Oxfordshire CC both praise and criticism.

It was perhaps the ultimate in the 'get tough' approach now supported by some of the teaching unions.

Addressing his union's annual conference last month, National Association of Head Teachers general secretary David Hart took the issue of sanctions against parents and children head on: 'Parental support for behaviour policies [inschools] is crucial. This means not spuriously asserting that sanctions attack the civil rights of their children.'

He urged schools and local education authorities not to be cowed by 'lawyers, barrack-room or real, or by self-appointed pressure groups waving the civil libertarian flag and threatening damages or other mayhem'.

Mr Hart placed his argument in the distinctly Blairite context that 'rights and responsibilities' need redressing.

As noted above, homosexuality is always a good bet to split a party or group.

Following the lead of the Greater London Authority, which has had a partnership register open to same-sex couples for three years, at least 15 other councils now offer this option to gay men and lesbians. According to gay-rights pressure group Stonewall, that list of libertarian virtue extends beyond the usual gay-friendly suspects in Brighton and Manchester to less likely gay champions, in places such as Dorset.

Councils also have different policies and records in accepting gay people as foster carers or as a prospective adopter. Stonewall says: 'In practice, some authorities welcome lesbian and gay applicants and others do not, but gradually the picture is changing.'

Another of the many issues likely to throw up strange political bedfellows is the availability of council facilities to extreme right-wing political groups such as the British National Party. Many would argue that the principles of free speech should not be applied to those who would seek to destroy that very right. Libertarians respond that this means tolerating those with whom we mildly agree while gagging those, to adapt Mr Blair's words, who are very different to us.

Robocop...Middlesborough's mayor lays down the law

Given that he is proud of his Robocop nickname, it is perhaps no surprise that Middlesbrough's elected mayor, Ray Mallon, gave the definitive non-libertarian municipal speech of our times when launching his first crime strategy in 2002.

The worry for the metropolitan-based liberals at Liberty is that where Robocop has led, the government has soon followed.

The crime strategy pledged a 650% increase in street wardens, 'active intelligence mapping' and a rapid-response squad to tackle 'junk jobs, graffiti, vandalism and noise'.

As well as a 15% reduction in crime, he pledged to rid the town centre of beggars and residential areas

of prostitutes, pimps and

kerb crawlers.

The latter were warned that their number plate would be captured on film when they entered the city and they would be named and shamed. But it was the language in his speech that sent a warning to Middlesbrough's erring population that they had better conform.

'As a tide of litter, graffiti and muggers blight Britain's streets and public buildings, we in Middlesbrough say enough is enough. For the first time in this country, the town hall is truly taking charge of affairs.'

Standing beneath the flag of the 9th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment of Volunteers, Mr Mallon invoked thespirit of past conflicts: 'Today, the enemy is not on some foreign battlefield but on the streets of every British town and city.

'The time has come for every decent, law-abiding citizen to decide what sacrifice they are prepared to make to protect our society and provide a secure future for our children.'

He was ready to take on 'lily-livered liberals' who might quake at this approach. Referring to the 'aggressive demands of

so-called beggars' who intimidate visitors and 'lone females', the mayor said: 'We intend to remove them from the streets. If that makes us unpopular with the politically correct brigade, so be it.'

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