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BLOG: Anti-social behaviour and the hidden harms in our communities

Although there has been little coverage in the press, we know there has been a surge in anti-social behaviour over the past 9 months.

This article first appeared in Resolution (Issue 91, December 2020),  the magazine for members of Resolve.

Over the past 9 months we have all been pre-occupied by Covid-19. The number of deaths has been truly shocking, and my heart goes out to those families who have lost a loved one.

As Victims’ Commissioner, much of my time has been spent focussing on the “hidden harms” which come from having communities and households living under lockdown. Your home is meant to be your sanctuary, but for many who live with abusive partners, this is far from reality. There has rightly been a great deal of focus on the spike in domestic and sexual abuse and on fears about the wellbeing of children. It is essential those who are at risk of harm receive the support they desperately need.

But hidden harms do not only exist within families, but in communities too. Although there has been little coverage in the press, we know there has been a surge in anti-social behaviour over the past 9 months. We should not be surprised. When individuals are at home all day, every day, perhaps isolated and against a backdrop of the stress of a pandemic, tensions are bound to rise and lead to conflict. I am concerned there many vulnerable people suffering in silence in their own homes, due to thoughtless and in some cases aggressive neighbours or others.

The cumulative impact of continuous anti-social behaviour which cannot be escaped can be devastating.

I have raised my concerns with government who say that any recorded increase in ASB is solely due to complaints of lockdown regulations being breached. I accept that police data on ASB has become conflated with data on breaches of lockdown regulations. But I do not agree that this alone is the cause of the increase and I am not alone:

  • The NPCC and Resolve ASB, YouGov poll shows four in 10 respondents saying ASB was a problem where they lived and 36%saying ASB had got worse since lockdown, with high numbers showing dissatisfaction with police and council responses.
  • Even when Covid-19 related incidents, such as complaints over breaches of social distancing regulations, were stripped out, the NPCC analysis showed levels of anti-social behaviour were still 12 per cent higher than last year.
  • Victim Support, which supports victims across the UK, has recorded a 41% increase in victims being referred or self-referring for support as a result of ASB. Victims do not seek emotional and practical support from local victim services because a neighbour has breached a social distancing regulation.
  • Feedback from my own fortnightly meetings with local victims’ hubs from different parts of the country repeatedly highlights sharp spikes in ASB compared to similar period in 2019 and the general consensus is that this is a result of lockdown.

The police, victim services and the third sector are sending a unified message of sharp increases in the level of ASB whilst communities are under lockdown conditions. The government must take notice of this message, particularly as anecdotal evidence from third sector partners is that some police forces and councils are struggling to cope with the volume of complaints. This can only mean victims are suffering as they are not receiving the support they need.

On 29 April 2019, my predecessor, Baroness Newlove, published the report “Living a Nightmare” in her last act before stepping down as Victims’ Commissioner.  The report highlighted systemic failures in handling the victims of ASB and she called on the Government to reform the way that cases are dealt with so that victims are given a voice and can challenge authorities who fail to act.

Sixteen months later, I am disappointed to see that, with one exception, none of her recommendations have been fully implemented. Victims still do not have a voice and in many parts of the country, the Community Trigger process – which is supposed to empower the public to challenge authorities who are failing to deal with anti-social behaviour– has been implemented poorly.

The government must use this situation to put in place measures to combat ASB effectively, not just in response to Covid-19, but for the future.

As a first step, we want to see existing Community Safety Partnerships encouraged to set up “Nightingale taskforces” in areas where there has been a sharp rise in ASB, to quantify and tackle the backlog of anti-social behaviour complaints. This will only happen if Government is prepared to offer the resources to make it happen. These taskforces must incorporate practitioners and legal teams who have knowledge and expertise to use the array of existing statutory measures to keep people safe. Taskforces must include representatives from mental health services. And they must be accountable where no meaningful resolution to the anti-social behaviour is provided.

At the same time, the government needs fully to implement the recommendations in “Living a Nightmare”, including:

  • Recognising the impact of persistent ASB on victims, by affording them the same rights to support as all other crime victims, when they reach the ‘three complaints’ threshold needed to activate the Community Trigger.
  • Involving victims fully in the Community Trigger by giving them the right to attend resolution meetings to explain in person the impact the behaviour is having
  • Making resolution meetings a real opportunity to challenge officials by having them chaired by an independent person.
  • Making a legal requirement for agencies to display accurate guidelines on the Community Trigger prominently on their websites, notice boards and publications.
  • Considering replicating legal powers available to police in Scotland who can serve warnings, fines and seize noisy equipment.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014 was meant to empower victims and ensure swift and effective action. This has not materialised. The advent of COVID-19 has brought this into sharp focus, with lockdown and social distancing giving perpetrators of anti-social behaviour easy targets, particularly the vulnerable.

We need to send a clear signal to those who bring so much distress to their neighbourhoods that their behaviour will no longer be tolerated. We can do this by making sure reports of ASB are being handled swiftly and effectively; where the ASB is persistent, the voices of the victims are always heard; and where local agencies fail to respond, they are held to account.