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Anti-social behaviour: living a nightmare

A promotional poster for ASB Awareness Week. It says: "Making communities safer. ASB Awareness Week."

Anti-social behaviour (ASB) is often treated as ‘low-level crime’ or even as sub-criminal but its impact can be deeply injurious and it is often targeted against people who are vulnerable already. It is high time tackling ASB became a top priority for government.

This article was first featured in Dame Vera Baird’s 2021/22 Annual Report, published on 21 June 2021. It is being republished to coincide with ASB Awareness Week, 18-24 June 2022.

As Victims’ Commissioner, it is one of my responsibilities to represent victims of anti-social behaviour (ASB). ASB can make victims’ lives a living nightmare, causing stress, misery and despair. It can also often be the precursor to serious crimes including knife crime and gang activity. It’s so important that it is taken seriously by the agencies responding to it. Yet I have found victims of ASB are often treated as second class victims, unable to access the support and resolution that victims of crime can.

With the Victims’ Bill on the horizon, it’s time this was remedied. Victims of persistent ASB, whose suffering has made them entitled to activate the Community Trigger provisions, must be recognised as victims of crime in their own right, with all that entails. Accordingly, the Community Trigger must be actively promoted, with agencies required to meaningfully engage with it and Victims’ Code rights delivered to those victims.

Increasing awareness and response

The first ASB Awareness Week took place in July 2021. This week of activities sought to throw a light on ASB and to highlight good practice that is underway. It brought together hundreds of housing associations, councils, police forces and charities. I was delighted to speak at events in the week, on behalf of victims and come together with stakeholder groups to work to make communities safer. In doing so, I have been able to highlight the impact of ASB on victims and raise its profile as an issue to challenge.

I have also been pleased to be a part of the Home Office ASB Strategy Group. This has got a new lease of life in the past year or so and brought together, more effectively, key agencies including the police, the Local Government Association and ASB charities with the Home Office to work to develop principles and an action plan. This work has real potential to make a difference for victims.

Victims frustrated and let down

Reporting ASB is not straightforward. As ASB escalates, victims often face a frustrating experience in trying to engage with the agencies that should be helping them.

Tackling ASB is rarely the responsibility of a single agency, so victims can find themselves being passed from pillar to post, from the police to their council to a housing agency. Meanwhile, the ASB continues unabated.

We need agencies to come together to resolve ASB. We know that early intervention is key, and partnership working across police, councils and housing, as well as other agencies, is essential.

Agencies must embrace and enact good practice in their area. The results of the Police and Crime Commissioners’ role, currently being implemented must encourage them to deliver. Future legislation from the PCC Review must encapsulate what works and embed accountability in order to secure improvements for the future.

A lack of support

Your home should be your sanctuary, but for too many victims of anti-social behaviour this has been far from reality. Victims of ASB need and deserve support, but do not currently qualify for basic victim entitlements. The Victims’ Bill must address this imbalance.

An online delivery may be stolen from my front step, but that will have little impact on my well-being. However, as a victim of that crime, I would be eligible for support services to help me to cope and recover. As a victim of crime, I would also be eligible for all the rights under the Victims’ Code, including to have my complaint recorded and to be provided with information.

As a victim of ASB, however, I face a different situation entirely. I may have people parked outside my home, drinking and being rowdy, chucking beer cans into my garden, kicking a ball against my wall, swearing and spitting. That will make me feel persecuted in my own home, so targeted that I might become afraid of going out and perhaps traumatised, but as a victim of ASB, I have no such victims’ rights and no guarantee of support. This disparity needs to end. Victims of ASB are not second-class victims and they don’t deserve to be treated as such. Some Police and Crime Commissioners do fund support for victims of ASB although they cannot do so through the Ministry of Justice Victims’ Fund but only from local sources. It is very clear from those areas that victims of ASB can benefit immensely from professional victims support or by befriending an ex-victim of ASB volunteer. However, these victims also need the rights in the Victims’ Code. The Victims’ Bill must acknowledge the pernicious harm that ASB creates and deliver repeat victims with the same rights that a victim of crime can expect.

The Community Trigger and the ASB Pledge

My principal work on ASB as Victims’ Commissioner has rightly focussed on the Community Trigger. I have advocated use of the Trigger at innumerable conferences and lobbied ministers better to promote its availability and use. The Community Trigger was designed early in the last decade (and enshrined in the 2014 Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act). It empowers a victim to bring agencies together to commit to purposeful action to bring an end to repeat ASB. It can represent the best hope for victims to escape their nightmare. But it remains poorly promoted and underutilised.

The Community Trigger can be activated through notice to a local authority, a Police and Crime Commissioner or to the police when a victim or victims have reported ASB incidents three or more times within a six-month period and no effective action has been taken. A councillor or a member of Parliament may also activate the Trigger for their constituent. It is intended to be an opportunity for citizen empowerment, an important part of our democracy. When the victim or victims have activated the Trigger all the agencies, such as the police, the local authority and housing associations must come together to address the situation and, ultimately, fix the problem. No longer should a victim be passed from authority to authority.

However, despite the intention that the Trigger should be a solution to a complex problem, it has not delivered the results I would hope to see. My predecessor’s report, ‘Living a Nightmare’, outlined the challenges associated with the Trigger and recommended solutions to them. Awareness of the Trigger remains low amongst the public and even some of the relevant agencies and it is underused. Where it is used victims have found that they aren’t given the opportunity to attend the joint meeting the authorities should organise to enable them to tell their story and to voice their concerns.

This is why I was pleased to help to launch the ASB Pledge with the organisation ASB Help. The Pledge includes a commitment to promote the Trigger and to use it strongly to ensure that victims are put first and perpetrators are dealt with firmly. The Community Trigger is capable of being a powerful tool and I am pleased to say that the Pledge seems to have increased its use. However, it must be fully embraced by agencies and victims must be invited in to present their experiences for it to be effective.

PCC Review

In my response to the second part of the Police and Crime Commissioner Review, I argued that PCCs have a role in ensuring that victims are aware of the Trigger process and can access it, that resolution meetings following activating the Trigger are chaired by an independent professional and that victims are able to participate.

National leadership and momentum

While ASB is a challenging and complex issue to respond to, I have worked with many committed stakeholders trying to improve the lives of victims. These organisations are bringing improvements that can be built on in the future. But it is also time to push the issue up the agenda and make it a top priority for government. The Home Office-led ASB principles and action plan focus on putting the victim first and need to be promoted nationwide by government leadership. The first step is to make victims of ASB full victims with all the entitlements to the Victims Code, including support services and the second is to powerfully promote the Community Trigger and ensure that all the agencies deliver solutions through it to highly damaging ASB.