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Les politiques de la jeunesse au Royaume-Uni et en France

Sarah Pickard
Corinne Nativel
Fabienne Portier-Le Cocq

Des politiques axées sur la répression

Anti-social Youth and Asocial Communities: Are our youth intolerant or intolerable?

Jeunesse antisociale et quartiers asociaux : la jeunesse britannique est-elle intolérante ou intolérable ?

Nathan Hughes


This article explores the problematic relationship between young people and adults in many British communities. It questions whether the apparent alienation of British ‘youth’ from the communities they live in is a result of the increasingly intolerable behaviour of young people, or due to a growing intolerance amongst the adults they encounter. In doing so, it examines the dominant British media portrayals of young people, and the associated responses of politicians and the public. Through a critical analysis of the policies and practices introduced by the Labour government of 1997 to 2010, the author discusses the focus on ‘empowering’ communities and the associated danger of simultaneously disempowering or even victimising young people. The article concludes with some reflections on the developing approaches of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government that came to power in May 2010, emphasising the need to engage young people in the drive to empower local communities to tackle problematic anti-social behaviour.

Cet article analyse le problème relationnel entre les jeunes et les adultes dans de nombreux quartiers britanniques. Il cherche à comprendre si l’exclusion manifeste des jeunes Britanniques est le résultat de leur comportement de plus en plus intolérable ou si elle est également liée à une intolérance grandissante de la part des adultes de leur quartier. L’article étudie les principales représentations de la jeunesse véhiculées par les médias britanniques ainsi que les échos qu’en font les hommes politiques et le public. Par une analyse critique des politiques et pratiques mises en œuvre par le gouvernement travailliste de 1997 à 2010, l’auteur examine la « responsabilisation » dans les quartiers et les dangers liés à la fois à la déresponsabilisation des jeunes, voire à leur victimisation. L’article se termine par des réflexions sur les approches du gouvernement de coalition libéral-démocrate en place depuis mai 2010. Celles-ci mettent l’accent sur la nécessité d’impliquer les jeunes dans les dynamiques participatives au sein des quartiers pour s’attaquer aux comportements anti-sociaux.

Texte intégral

  • 1 In this article the definitions of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ are based upon the delineation within (...)

1Through a theoretically-informed critical analysis of media representations, policy discourses and recent research, this article will explore the apparent alienation of British ‘youth’1 from the communities they live in. It begins with an examination of accusations of increasing intolerance amongst young people in the United Kingdom as voiced by the media, politicians and the public. With reference to concepts of ontological insecurity and moral panic, an apparent parallel intolerance amongst adults will then be explored, plotting a growing concern with what might be considered normality in young people’s behaviour. In doing so, I consider Stuart Waiton’s (in Squires (ed.) 2008: 337) assertion that “the ‘anti-social offender’ and the ‘easily offended’ should be understood as two sides of the same asocial coin.”

2Through an examination of policies and practices in tackling anti-social behaviour, as introduced by the Labour government (1997-2010), I conclude by questioning whether approaches to ‘empowering’ communities are in danger of disempowering or even victimising young people. Ultimately, therefore, the article seeks to question whether the apparent problematic relationship between young people and adults in many British communities is the result of anti-social youth or asocial communities: are British youth intolerant or intolerable?

3In making this argument I do not seek to deny the very real and significant impact of anti-social behaviour on its victims. The concern of this article is the potential misuse of legislation and powers designed to tackle such behaviour in its application to the everyday lives of young people in the United Kingdom. In attempting to make this distinction, I recognise that there is no clear or simple divide in such behaviour. Indeed this complexity of interpretation is central to the argument I will develop.

‘The kids of today’: Images of ‘problem youth’

4At the start of the twenty-first century in the United Kingdom, we are surrounded by images that portray the unacceptable and intolerable behaviours and attitudes of a whole generation of young people. Various forms of media regularly depict young people to be increasingly violent and disrespectful. Negative and highly emotive newspaper headlines appear to be the norm, as the following illustrative examples demonstrate:

  • Today’s youth: anxious, depressed, anti-social” (The Guardian, 13 September, 2004)

  • “‘Out of control’ British Teens Worst in Europe” (Daily Mail, 26 July, 2007)

  • Hoodie hell on streets every 8 secs” (Daily Mirror, 4 February, 2009)

5Leading the way has been the tabloid The Sun, which has described a “scourge of feral youngsters” as being “the most important issue now facing Britain” (Mayer 2008).

  • 2 Performed by adult comedians in highly popular primetime sketch shows, these characters play recrea (...)

6Other forms of media also contribute to this popular perception. The lyrical content of ‘R&B’ and rap music (popular with the younger generation, but frowned upon by their elders) is frequently criticised for endorsing violence and glorifying the use of guns, whilst representations of anti-social teenagers such as the television programme Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard and the comedian Catherine Tate’s character Lauren2 provide pervasive images of a generation of thoughtless, uncouth, obnoxious teens. Such imagery has itself fuelled numerous newspaper headlines purporting to have identified “real life Vicky Pollards” (for example, Wainwright 2005; Newling, Allison 2006; Paton 2008), demonstrating the clear and ready transfer of fiction to reality.

7British political leaders seem happy to reflect such media portrayals. After the Labour Party were re-elected in the 2005 General Election, Tony Blair promised to tackle what he presented as an escalation of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour amongst young people: “there is a disrespect that people don’t like… whether it’s in the classroom, or on the street, or on town centres on a Friday or Saturday night” (Blair 2005). After becoming Prime Minister in June 2007, Gordon Brown voiced similar concerns that “Kids are out of control… roaming the streets… out late at night” (as reported by Mayer 2008 and Roberts 2008). The current Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, has also joined the chorus. Despite encouraging us all to “hug a hoodie” and show “more love” to adolescents in recognising the challenges of youth (Hinsliff 2006; see also Alexandre-Collier in this volume), more recent portrayals of a ‘Broken Society’ (Cameron 2010a) (illustrated by issues such as teenage pregnancy, gang culture and poor parenting, as well as youth crime) have been criticised for politicising the attempted murder carried out by two young people in Doncaster in April 2009, exaggerating the relevance of a horrific, yet isolated incident, and in doing so further fuelling a contemporary ‘populist paranoia’ regarding youth behaviour (Cecil 2009; Lyons 2010).

  • 3 The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB) is the non-governmental body responsible for mo (...)

8Of course, such representations are not without a basis in reality. A recent analysis of youth crime statistics carried out by Nacro (2009: 2) suggests an overall continual rise in youth crime since 2003, reversing more than a decade of declining offending rates. During 2007, 126,000 children and young people aged 10-17 received a reprimand, final warning or conviction for an indictable offence and this, while still some 12% lower than the equivalent figure for 1992, represents an increase of 20% since 2003. A rise in the frequency of some serious crimes by young people is also apparent. Analysis by the Youth Justice Board3 (YJB 2008) suggests violent crime against the person by those under 18 to have risen by 39% between 2005 and 2008, whilst, in the same period, robberies committed by young people increased by around 45%. The picture is not straightforward, however, with the YJB reporting “a 7.5% fall in the number of reoffences committed by children and young people from 2005 to 2007” (YJB 2009a), as well as “a 21.6 per cent drop in the numbers of young people receiving a reprimand, warning or conviction for the first time in England” in 2008-2009 (YJB 2009b).

9It is of little surprise that the perceptions of the British public appear to resemble those presented by the media and politicians. Rather than the official crime figures, it is the stereotyping and emotive headlines that seem to have the greatest influence, with perception of the extent of youth crime far out of kilter with reality. In an Ipsos MORI (2006) survey of 1,001 British adults, over a third of respondents suggested that young people were responsible for over half of reported crimes, with 14% suggesting the proportion was 70% or more. Taking a mean average across all responses, young people were seen as being responsible for 47% of crime. Such a perception is drastically different to the official figures in that same year, which suggested that young people committed 12.6% of all detected offences (Nacro 2008: 2). The accuracy of crime statistics is, of course, much debated (for example, Maguire, in Maguire et al. (ed.) 2006). However, notwithstanding a healthy scepticism, the disparity between perception and reality appears profound.

  • 4 This campaign sought to highlight and challenge pervasive negative opinion and stereotyping of youn (...)

10Of further concern is the lack of an apparent distinction in popular perception between an offending minority of young people and the law-abiding majority. The Barnardo’s campaign, Children in Trouble4 sought to identify and challenge negative views regarding young people. Drawing on a poll of 2,021 British adults, conducted by YouGov, the campaign argues that a large proportion of the adult population hold a negative view of all children under 18. For example, 49% of those surveyed believed “that children are increasingly a danger to each other and adults”, and 43% agreed that “something has to be done to protect us from children”. A review of readers’ comments made to local and national newspapers revealed the frequency of powerfully emotive language and phraseology, such as: “Shoot a few and if that doesn’t work shoot a few more”; “To hell with their human rights”; and “Let’s sort these parasites out”.

11Recent research suggests such opinions to be widespread – if less dramatically expressed. A report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research (Margo, Dixon 2006) presents a society gripped by ‘paedophobia’ – a fear of its children and young people. Symptoms of this phobia are seen to include a reluctance to intervene when young people might be behaving in an anti-social manner compared with adults in other European countries, yet a growing likelihood to perceive young people ‘hanging around’ as a problem. Extrapolating from the sample interviewed, the survey suggests that:

  • 1.7 million British adults admitted avoiding going out of doors after dark for fear of conflict with young people; and

  • 1.5 million Britons considered moving away from their local area in the last twelve months as a result of young people ‘hanging around’.

12The report offers a detailed analysis of the complex influences on this seemingly growing divide between adults and children, emphasising not the behaviour of young people but the day-to-day interactions and relationships between young people and adults. It is this interaction within local communities that I seek to explore in the remainder of this article, firstly in considering the causes of the apparent divide, and subsequently in examining the efficacy of the associated policy and practice response.

A moral panic over youth misbehaviour?

13Jock Young (1998: 64) traces “the transition between the Golden Age of the post-War period within the First World to the crisis years of the late 1960s onwards”. Labelling the latter as ‘late modernity’, he describes a diversification of behaviour and culture that has “challenged our notions of material certainty and uncontested values, replacing them with a world of risk and uncertainty, of individual choice and pluralism, and of a deep seated precariousness both economic and ontological” (Young 1998: 64). Young cites Anthony Giddens’s (1991: 70-88) analysis of “late modern life”, characterised by “heightened choice” and “a constant questioning of established beliefs and certainties”. This has fuelled an ‘ontological insecurity’ throughout the population, ca using the dominant majority to try to impose their own values on wider society in an attempt to ‘create a secure base’:

That is to reassert one’s values as moral absolutes, to declare other groups as lacking in value, to draw distinct lines of virtue and vice, to be rigid rather than flexible in one’s judgement, to be punitive and excluding rather than permeable and assimilative (Young 1998: 73).

14Such an analysis leads Stuart Waiton (in Squires (ed.) 2008: 337) to argue that “the problem we face is ultimately not one of an anti-social society but of an asocial society”. Stuart Waiton (in Squires (ed.) 2008: 345) cites Lynne Truss (2005) who describes an introverted society of fragmented communities and social networks. This has given rise to a “my bubble, my rules” mentality, through which a self-defined ‘elite’ perceive others as breaking these rules and attempt to address this; for example, by limiting the wearing of ‘hoodies’ or drinking on street corners. Certain sections of society are therefore cast as ‘folk devils’ and made the subject of what Stanley Cohen (1980: 9) defined as a ‘moral panic’, whereby:

A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests… The moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible (Cohen 1980: 9).

15It appears that young people are particularly prone to being cast in such a way. Stanley Cohen’s original analysis emerged from a consideration of public concern with the Mods and Rockers: two conflicting British youth subcultures of the 1960s. A parallel analysis is equally possible in relation to punks, raves, or many other youth cultures that have developed since.

  • 5 Leah Betts died aged 18 having taken an Ecstasy tablet. Whilst her cause of death was determined to (...)

16Whether the label of a ‘moral panic’ can be applied to the current concern with youth anti-social behaviour is debatable. Whilst it lacks the singular, high profile event, such as the violence of the Mods and Rockers on Clacton Sands or the death of Leah Betts in 1995 having taken ecstasy,5 youth anti-social behaviour is certainly portrayed as a ‘threat to societal values and interests’ and is seemingly prone to the exaggeration by the mass media that Stanley Cohen sees as a significant characteristic of a moral panic. As discussed above, emotive headlines and stereotypical portrayals feed perceptions of ubiquitous ‘problem youth’, whilst the ‘hoodie’ has provided a symbolic focus of concern.

17Perceptions of vulnerability are increased through isolation, with people feeling more exposed to incidents of crime and anti-social behaviour, and less able to react. Over recent decades, society has seemingly become increasingly private, with neighbours less likely to know each other, and more readily erecting physical and emotional barriers between themselves. Paradoxically David Donnison (1998: 8) argues that this makes us feel even more exposed: “Fear then becomes cumulative: if others fear us, they are more likely to behave in ways which make us fear them”. The lack of a personal network of family, friends and ‘good neighbours’ in close proximity, who can be relied on at times of difficulty, might accentuate a sense of vulnerability, particularly where there is a specific cause of fear or concern. This is effectively articulated by Nils Christie:

If I am acquainted with my neighbours and have some sort of network close to me, I have an easy time if some youngsters misbehave in my hallway. I can call for someone who might know some of them, or I can turn to the athletic neighbour one floor up – or perhaps better still – I can ask for help from the little lady I know as particularly good at handling local conflicts. But without a network, and with all the information on the increase in crime in mind, I would have locked the door and called the police. I would therefore have created conditions for encouraging unwanted behaviour, and for giving unwanted behaviour the meaning of crime (Christie 2004: 69-70).

18Isolation from our neighbours leads to a lack of collective community capacity to deal with problems or concerns, or to provide a sense of security should such problems arise. Denied the informal means to tackle such problems, we have instead become increasingly reliant on formal intervention through state authorities in the form of heightened policing and the development of a range of new legislative powers to tackle what has now become commonly and officially labelled as ‘anti-social behaviour’.

Empowering the law-abiding (adult) majority

19The statutory definition of ‘anti-social behaviour’ in the United Kingdom is provided by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The Act defines behaviour as ‘anti-social’ if it “caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household” as the alleged perpetrator. The significant difficulties that have emerged in attempts to apply this definition are well documented (Brown 2004; Burney 2005; Millie et al. 2005; Millie 2008). This definition is deliberately ‘subjective’, allowing the alleged victim to determine that a particular behaviour caused ‘harm’, and was therefore, by implication, anti-social. A Home Office review (2004) provides a list of the sorts of behaviour that it considers likely to be experienced as anti-social. However, this list merely adds to the breadth of the definition, with a number of the behaviours listed remaining undefined, including ‘noise’, and ‘intimidation’. In addition, the inclusion of a number of criminal offences (such as ‘criminal damage’, ‘arson’, ‘shoplifting’ and ‘prostitution’) exemplifies the overlap between concepts of ‘anti-social behaviour’ and ‘crime’.

20This subjectivity in interpretation means that its application varies from context to context. As Andrew Millie (2008: 384) suggests, “the subjectivity and context specificity of anti-social behaviour means some behaviours will be unacceptable in one situation, but accepted, or even celebrated, in another context”. Andrew Millie offers several examples, particularly highlighting the markedly different reactions to graffiti, with the work of the artist Banksy being considered as ‘street art’ by some, yet as vandalism by others. It is similarly clear that variation is likely in considering whether ‘noise’ is ‘harmful’ or ‘distressing’. For example, what is considered to be excessive noise within a rural neighbourhood may go unnoticed within an urban area. In combination, the flexibility and subjectivity of the statutory definition of anti-social behaviour therefore ensures that:

[…] virtually any activity can be anti-social depending on a range of background factors, such as the context in which it occurs, the location, people’s tolerance levels and expectations about the quality of life in the area (Whitehead et al. 2003: 4-5 cited by Jacobsen et al. 2005).

21This is, of course, deliberate, supporting one of the primary objectives of this policy strand: to protect the law-abiding majority from the minority in their neighbourhoods who are making their lives a misery. Such an approach is reflected in key policy documents. The stated aim of the White Paper Respect and Responsibility – Taking a Stand Against Anti-Social Behaviour is to create:

[…] a ‘something for something’ society where we treat one another with respect and where we all share responsibility for taking a stand against what is unacceptable. But some people and some families undermine this. The anti-social behaviour of a few, damages the lives of many (Home Office 2003: 3).

22Similarly, the key Labour Government guidance provided in the Respect Action Plan (Respect Task Force 2006: 5) seeks “to empower individuals and communities, enabling them not just to feel secure but to be more able to act together to make their neighbourhoods safer and better”. Whether an exaggerated moral panic or a justified public concern, recent British policy therefore seeks to enable the law-abiding majority to define what is unacceptable in their local area, and then empower state authorities to tackle this.

Disempowering ‘problem youth’?

23The Respect Action Plan clearly and repeatedly highlights the importance of shared community values in successfully tackling anti-social behaviour. “Respect relies on a shared understanding and clear rules and is strengthened by people acting together to tackle problems and improve their lives” (Respect Task Force 2006: 7). Thus, “The conditions for respect… depend ultimately on a shared commitment to a common set of values expressed through behaviour that is considerate of others” (Respect Task Force 2006: 5).

24The notion that a community can define “clear standards of behaviour” (Home Office 2003: 7) is, however, problematic. The idea that there might be a community consensus, or even majority view regarding what is unacceptable behaviour appears flawed. Whilst there may be certain behaviours that are universally considered unacceptable in a ‘modern’, ‘civilised’ society, this does not readily extend to the range of behaviour listed by the Home Office (2004) as ‘anti-social’, nor is it likely to capture the broad subjectivity of the statutory definition. Instead, ideas of what constitutes ‘acceptable’ behaviour are likely to vary widely within a community, particularly between different age and cultural groups. Graffiti and noise again offer clear examples of behaviours where different perspectives might be apparent.

25If we accept this variation, it is important to consider whose perspectives are dominant. If particular perspectives are able to define what is and is not acceptable behaviour, this allows certain sections of a community to label the behaviour of others as problematic. There is therefore a danger that the labelling of behaviour as ‘anti-social’ may not reflect its distressing or harmful effect, but instead emerges from the particular concerns of more vocal and dominant sections of society. The apparent growing intolerance of young people’s ‘misbehaviour’ within many communities in the United Kingdom means that young people are therefore particularly vulnerable to having this legislation used against them (see, for example, Squires, Stephen 2005 and Goldsmith in Squires (ed.) 2008). The political focus on anti-social behaviour in Britain is almost synonymous with youth, indelibly linked to an imagery of ‘hoodies’, intimidating street corner ‘gangs’, and a lack of ‘respect’. Given its intention to empower potential victims against the risk of distress and harm, the extensive use of such anti-social behaviour legislation against young people is therefore unsurprising. The statutory definition and the associated legislative framework provide a terminology for, and therefore a legitimization of this fear, anxiety and mistrust, as well as the means to address it.

26The disproportionate use of legislation against young people is repeatedly identified in recent research. Squires and Stephen (2005) found that the behaviour of young people was consistently identified as the major concern in local communities. Reporting on the management of anti-social behaviour in one social housing estate, Carlie Goldsmith (in Squires (ed.) 2008: 223) presents a dominance of adult definitions of ‘anti-social’ that often leave “children and young people exposed to intervention for a range of behaviours not necessarily identified by them as ‘anti-social’”. As a result, forms of behaviour that might be perceived as ‘normal’ by young people become the target for intervention. Playing football in the streets, ‘hanging around’ in groups in public places and on street corners, and talking loudly after dark might all now be labelled as ‘anti-social’. Unsurprisingly young people reported confusion in their understandings of exactly what is ‘anti-social behaviour’ and therefore how to avoid it (Goldsmith in Squires (ed.) 2008: 228, 235).

Tackling anti-social behaviour amongst young people

27The new legislative framework provides significant new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, as well as a statutory duty to do so. A series of Parliamentary Acts have established an array of new sanctions and orders. Whilst many of these powers are designed to be used against adults and young people, some are disproportionately used against under-18s, and others appear to be intended specifically to deal with behaviours particular to young people. In addition, as well as measures that seek to tackle the behaviour of individuals (such as the Anti-Social Behaviour Order), sanctions able to curtail potential anti-social behaviour amongst groups and even populations of young people are also prominent, including the Dispersal Order, and the banning of the ‘hoodie’ in Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent in 2005. I describe these in turn below.

28By far the highest profile measure, an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (or ASBO) is a court order which prohibits specifically-named threatening, intimidating or disruptive actions. An ASBO serves as a contract, the breaching of which is a criminal offence, even if the behaviour that results in this breach is not in itself a criminal act. Conditions might include curfews, not associating with named persons, or not going to certain places. Such conditions can only ever be prohibitive; recipients cannot, for example, be required to engage in particular activities or interventions.

  • 6 Available to download at

29Whilst the ASBO was not originally designed with the intention of use with young people (Burney 2002), data recently released by the Ministry of Justice6 reveals that just over 40% of people made subject to an ASBO between June 2000 and December 2007 were under 18. Of 14,668 ASBOs in which the age of the recipient is known, 6,028 were imposed on young people under 18.

30In addition to individual contractual approaches such as the ASBO, recent legislation has also provided powers to deal with the behaviour of whole communities. This is exemplified by the Dispersal Order which enables the police to disperse groups of two or more people from areas where it is designated that their presence or behaviour might be experienced as harmful or distressing. Whilst again such powers are used “in a wide range of areas to address a diversity of social problems”, a review of the implementation and impact of Dispersal Orders suggests that they “are most commonly used in relation to perceived problems with groups of young people” (Crawford, Lister 2007: ix).

31Crawford and Lister suggest that a disproportionate targeting of young people can ‘antagonise’ and ‘alienate’ recipients, leading to feelings of stigmatisation and subsequent resentment towards the police and communities imposing these constraints. Of particular concern to those young people interviewed were feelings that all young people were perceived as problematic “regardless of their actual behaviour”, as illustrated by one 15 year-old female:

Some of the powers like being able to take us home after nine or disperse us, they make it out that we’re all doing something wrong. It puts across the message that every young person is delinquent. We’re always portrayed for the bad things that some of us do, it’s never the good things (as quoted by Crawford, Lister 2007: 69).

32By applying Dispersal Orders to entire populations within an area, the measure is seen to criminalise all young people by assuming their presence to be problematic, as much as their behaviour.

33Particular concerns are also voiced over the implications of Dispersal Orders for the use of public spaces by young people. The importance of public space in the lives of young people is emphasised (Crawford, Lister 2007). Young people seek to live their lives in public places, away from the watchful eye of their parents. This need for independence from adults is arguably a necessary and healthy aspect of a young person’s maturation, with Crawford and Lister (2007: 70) suggesting that it “constitutes a fundamental aspect of developing their own sense of identity, and provides space in which to forge their independent capacity to manage risk and danger”.

34Similar criticisms were raised in relation to the banning of the wearing of ‘hoodies’ in Bluewater Shopping Centre, in May 2005. Again the ban is universal (leading to numerous cartoons in newspapers demonstrating its application to monks and babies), yet is clearly intended to target young people, and is experienced as such. It also demarcates particular public spaces where a young person can expect to be heavily monitored and treated with suspicion.

35More pertinently, the targeting of an item of clothing represents the clearest attempt to pander to fears and anxieties within society, without regard to the impact of the specific behaviours that are being addressed. It is difficult to perceive how the wearing of a ‘hoodie’ is in itself harmful. Instead it appears to be merely a symbol of the distrust of youth, and a willingness to transpose a concern with the inappropriate behaviour of a minority of young people to any young person who might choose to follow this mainstream fashion. As is apparent in the descriptions of the ASBO and the Dispersal Order, this broad and exaggerated concern with the behaviour of young people then has an outlet in the array of measures available to the police and other authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour.

The likely future for anti-social behaviour policy in the UK

36The current emphasis on youth in political and media discussions of anti-social behaviour in Britain presents images of a generation out of control, increasingly violent and lacking the morals of previous generations. However, an analysis of social dynamics within local communities might instead suggest a growing intolerance of ‘normal’ behaviour, deriving from an increasing isolation from our immediate neighbours, and associated perceptions of insecurity and vulnerability. Whilst this is not to deny or excuse the negative behaviour of some young people, such an analysis suggests that, through the current policy agenda, the “demonisation of children and young people” (Davis, Bourhill 1997) is given fresh impetus, with Elizabeth Burney (2005: 67) arguing that: “Anti-social behaviour has become a convenient peg on which to hang general prejudices about young people and their activities”.

37The policies and interventions discussed so far were all introduced by the New Labour government of 1997 to 2010. The subsequent Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government will inevitably bring a change in such approaches. Indeed soon after her appointment as Home Secretary, Conservative MP Teresa May (2010) announced “a review of the anti-social behaviour powers available”, arguing that it was “time to move beyond the ASBO” in order to consider sanctions that are “rehabilitating and restorative, rather than criminalising and coercive”. The measures announced following that review are billed as “radically simplifying and improving the toolkit” available to statutory authorities to tackle anti-social behaviour (Home Office 2011: 1). Whilst the development and implementation of these new orders is in its infancy, the core principles declared to be at the heart of the reform signal their direction. Mirroring a central theme of much coalition social policy, the new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour are intended to empower local communities by giving “people more power to shape the way the police and other agencies respond to the issues that matter in their area” (Home Office 2011: 24). Specifically a “community trigger” has been introduced whereby statutory forces are required to respond to repeated complaints made by five or more individuals from different households (Home Office 2011: 25). This is driven by the assertion that “fundamentally [anti-social behaviour] is a local problem, and the answers to it can only come from local people who are close enough to understand the root causes” (May 2010).

38This representation of the problem of anti-social behaviour reflects aspects of the analysis presented in this article. However, crucial to this aim and approach is an understanding of power relations within local communities. In understanding anti-social behaviour as a community issue, it is axiomatic that community relationships, dialogue and conflict gain increasing relevance. When seeking ‘community justice’, how ‘community’ is understood, configured, and engaged with will have a clear impact on how ‘justice’ is understood, configured and experienced. Power differentials within communities ensure that young people are readily defined as the problem, but far less often engaged in the solution. Young people interviewed by Carlie Goldsmith (in Squires (ed.) 2008: 223) were left “feeling vulnerable, angry and frustrated at their perceived inability to influence these developments”. This reflects an apparent lack of dialogue between young people and adults in relation to issues of anti-social behaviour. In some communities, young people appear to lack the voice to influence definitions as to what behaviour is or is not acceptable in their locality. As such approaches to ‘empowering’ communities are in danger of disempowering or even victimising young people.

39To successfully tackle this, a dialogue between the accuser and the accused must be established:

The people (children and adults) whose behaviour needs controlling are equally part of the syndrome and part of the community. Policies that fail to recognise these connections cannot provide any long-term answers (Burney 2005: 170).

40There is therefore a need to consider approaches that engage with anti-social behaviour as a ‘whole community’ issue, including young people in understanding and responding to concerns with their behaviour. Thus, whilst concern about the intolerable behaviour of British youth may not be unfounded, increased tolerance amongst British adults is the basis for the dialogue and understanding through which anti-social behaviour can be tackled. Only through such a dialogue may the potential for repression of youth in the UK through anti-social behaviour policy be redressed.


1 In this article the definitions of ‘youth’ and ‘young people’ are based upon the delineation within the United Kingdom criminal justice system, and therefore the terms refer to those aged 10 to 17 (unless stated otherwise).

2 Performed by adult comedians in highly popular primetime sketch shows, these characters play recreate popular stereotypes of modern day youth. Both characters can be readily found on YouTube, including Lauren’s unique take on the French language:

3 The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB) is the non-governmental body responsible for monitoring the youth justice system, placing young people in custody, promoting effective practice, and reporting to the Ministry of Justice. In October 2010 its abolition was announced, with plans to return these functions to central government in 2012.

4 This campaign sought to highlight and challenge pervasive negative opinion and stereotyping of young people amongst adults in the UK. This high profile campaign included a video broadcast on national television that can viewed at

5 Leah Betts died aged 18 having taken an Ecstasy tablet. Whilst her cause of death was determined to be water intoxication caused by the large quantity of water she consumed, the extensive media coverage attributed this behaviour to her concern regarding the dehydration caused by taking Ecstasy, and campaign posters were based upon the slogan that: ‘Just one ecstasy tablet took Leah Betts’.

6 Available to download at


Lecturer in social policy and social work at the University of Birmingham. His core research interests include policy and practice in relation to young people and their families. Specifically he is interested in the impact of policy discourses, services and interventions on those who are labelled as ‘at risk’ or ‘in need’. Relevant recent publications include: ‘Models and approaches in family-focused policy and practice’ (Social Policy and Society, 9(4)) and ‘Young people ‘as risk’ or young people ‘at risk’: comparing discourses of anti-social behaviour in England and Victoria’ (Critical Social Policy, 31(3)).

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