The Government's flagship criminal justice measure, the anti-social behaviour order (Asbo), is being widely misused by police and local authorities, MPs have been warned.
Since they were launched in April 1999, the number of Asbos granted by magistrates' courts has risen dramatically and now totals 4,000, many of them against children.
Civil liberties groups have raised concerns that authorities are increasingly relying on the powers of the orders as a short-cut to imposing criminal punishments. The warning forms part of a report by the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee's investigation into anti-social behaviour in Britain, which will be published on Tuesday.
An Asbo is granted as a civil power but a breach of the order is treated as an offence punishable by up to five years in prison. Of nearly 1,300 Asbo applications from local authorities in England and Wales between 2000 and 2004, only 13 were refused by the courts.
In some cases Asbos are being used to tackle long-standing social problems, such as begging and prostitution by turning offenders into criminals.
The wide terms of the legislation mean that a magistrate can grant an Asbo by being satisfied only on a balance of probabilities that the accused's behaviour is "likely to cause alarm, harassment or distress".
As a result, children risk being sent to detention centres for swearing or spitting in the street. In one case a child suffering from Tourette syndrome was banned from swearing in public.
Groups such as the British Institute for Brain Injured Children (Bibic), a national charity working with young people with behavioural difficulties, warn that the Government's targeting of "families from hell" could lead to the demonising of children with Asperger's syndrome or other problems.
In the first year of the Asbo only a few dozen applications were made to the courts. Since then, Labour has introduced new laws to strengthen their use while giving councils and police more money to fund applications. In many cases, an Asbo against a child is now accompanied by a naming and shaming order.
The human rights group Liberty warns that this not only targets the individual but also their brothers and sisters. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, says that such a measure can destroy the lives of innocent and often vulnerable children.
The Children's Society, said yesterday that it was "very concerned about the government policy to 'name and shame' children who receive Asbos".
Liz Lovell, a policy adviser at the Society, said: "The policy is not only counter-productive, it puts children and young people at risk. We are also opposed to the proposed extension of this policy in the Serious Organised Crime & Police Bill. Another concern is that, although an Asbo is a civil order, breaching it is a criminal offence, the penalty for which can be imprisonment. Asbos were not designed with children in mind."
In six years since the first Asbos were granted, evidence is emerging that they no longer have a deterrent impact on anti-social behaviour. Liberty has told MPs that such an "indiscriminate and excessive" use of the legislation is "undermining any benefit they might bring". A Liberty spokesman said: "We are aware of anecdotal evidence of Asbos being treated as a badge of honour. If this is so then what must be the principle purpose of Asbos, deterrence from anti-social behaviour, is undermined. "Displacement of aggressive youths from one estate to a neighbouring one does not address the cause of their behaviour."
The Home Affairs Committee report will also consider the impact of police powers to impose curfews on children under the age of 16 and dispersal orders for groups of teenagers congregating in the street.
In its evidence to the committee, Liberty says: "While people might find the presence of a group of young men with hoods covering their faces intimidating, it does not always justify the police taking action. These powers are the consequence of the Government's blank-cheque policy on policing."
Social-welfare charities are also concerned about the widespread imposition of Asbos. Research carried out by the National Consortium for Sheltered Housing (Erosh) for possession or eviction in sheltered housing during the first quarter of 2004 found that, for the first time, anti-social behaviour was cited as a cause for more actions than rent arrears.
Erosh is concerned about incidents of early onset of dementia, paranoia, depression, or manic conditions, for example, which can lead to behaviour that many consider "anti-social" but are in reality evidence of health breakdowns.
WHAT'S BANNED IN ASBO BRITAIN?
ANSWERING THE DOOR IN UNDERWEAR
Caroline Shepherd, 27, was given an Asbo after neighbours complained about her wearing skimpy underwear when answering her door or using the garden. The Asbo also banned her from making noise, shouting and swearing, holding drunken parties, abusing neighbours and letting her friends use her garden as a lavatory. Before the ban was imposed, Ms Shepherd, of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, said she had been wearing a new bikini for gardening. On Wednesday, Hamilton Sheriff's court was told Ms Shepherd had pleaded not guilty to two charges of breaching her Asbo.
Kim Sutton, 23, has tried to kill herself four times by jumping off bridges. Ms Sutton, who suffers from a personality disorder, first attempted suicide in August last year when she was seen in the river Avon at Bath, Somerset. Three months later she was rescued from the same river twice in two hours. After being convicted of three public order offences by Bath magistrates, she was given a 12-month conditional discharge and a five-point Asbo for two years. It bans her from going into rivers, canals or open water, loitering on bridges, going on to railway lines, entering multi-storey car parks unaccompanied, or acting in a way that causes harassment or alarm.
Brian Hagan, 62, has a pig farm in Briston, Norfolk. Last year he was given an Asbo after his animals repeatedly damaged crops in neighbouring fields. His lawyer argued that it was the wrong intervention to use. The human rights group Liberty said this use of an Asbo could set a dangerous precedent. The case was dropped in January.
©2005 Independent News & Media (UK) Ltd.