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May 8, 2019

The nightmare of anti-social behaviour – is the community trigger the answer?

Anti-social behaviour never seems to hit the headlines any more. Even the recent news that 37% of people had suffered or witnessed anti-social behaviour (the highest percentage recorded on the Crime Survey of England and Wales) sank without trace. Instead, all the focus is on sex crimes, serious violence and domestic abuse.

Yet anti-social behaviour blights the lives of thousands of individuals and communities and can lead to more serious crime. Last week the Victims’ Commissioner, Baroness Newlove, whose own husband was killed after complaining persistently of anti-social behaviour, published her final report on the subject. She called for better use of the “community trigger”, a mechanism created in 2014 to help victims get help. The community trigger is activated when a number of people or organisations complain to their council about a particular anti-social behaviour problem. When triggered, the council is then supposed to convene a multi-agency meeting to discuss how to resolve the issue.  But hardly any victims know the community trigger exists, hardly any ASB multi agency meetings result, and even if a meeting happens, it’s not clear what actions are taken and who is accountable to victims.

When I read about new policies which have failed (as this one seems to have done) I always wonder whether the problem lies with the policy or its implementation.  The community trigger was conceived by the Home Office to answer the criticism that local government (and partners) were not sufficiently accountable to communities for out of control anti-social behaviour. This was probably true but there were, and are, a myriad of ways to make local agencies more accountable.

The community trigger was totally new and forced agencies to create new processes which don’t fit into existing ones. It was trialled but never properly piloted or evaluated . As such it was probably doomed to failure. Even more so given that it has not been prioritised by the Home Office or Ministers since launch, and local authorities have suffered huge budget cuts. ASBHelp and Baroness Newlove want to promote and increase use of the community trigger. But I wonder if it’s a dead duck which should be abandoned altogether and resources diverted to more effective ways of resolving anti-social behaviour? It is now effectively a complaints mechanism, used when all other routes appear to have been exhausted. But victims could complain instead to their housing provider/local authority and/or their local police in the normal way, and turn to the Local Government Ombudsman if that doesn’t work.

The community trigger also only works if the remedies available to it work. Social housing tenants can be evicted and the council can seek via the courts to get a civil injunction imposed on someone committing anti-social behaviour, but these sanctions can create more problems in their wake. Anti-social behaviour causes victims great harm, but it is frequently perpetrated by very vulnerable people who need help – people with learning difficulties, mental health and/or addiction problems, often without stable housing. Evicting such people, or serving them with punitive civil injunctions, is unlikely to stop them committing anti-social behaviour either in the short or long term.

There is no easy answer to stopping anti-social behaviour but I’m not convinced the civil justice system is fit for purpose. The examples given at the end of the report of neighbourhood harassment (including verbal abuse and criminal damage) are actually crimes and should be treated as such. The only hope for stopping genuine anti-social behaviour is to address the issues faced by the perpetrators – addiction, mental health etc – and to use restorative justice.

Restorative justice (where a trained facilitator supports the perpetrator to engage with and make amends to the victim) is having a hard time at the moment – its not political flavour of the month. It doesn’t get a mention in the Victims’ Commissioner’s report on anti-social behaviour. But it’s just as effective as ever at resolving the pain and harm caused by crime and anti-social behaviour. And in a recent report on restorative justice (RJ) the Commissioner herself called for all victims of crime to be offered RJ: “I recognise that victims who have participated have found it hugely beneficial to their recovery. It can help them come to terms with what has happened and how it came about”.

There is no point continually reinventing the wheel, particularly if its quite capable of spinning. The community trigger was a unpiloted innovation. With a huge amount of effort it could still work, but RJ is the tried and tested approach to addressing anti-social behaviour. Lets invest in and promote RJ and help communities to heal themselves.