Tough crime policies may win votes, but as debate on the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill begins, many are wondering whatever happened to 'education, education, education' and community support services, reports Raymond Ross
Gangs of youths hanging around street corners, annoying the neighbours, thieving from shops and breaking into houses, terrifying pensioners, spray-painting walls, bullying other kids, sniffing glue, drinking, popping pills and smoking dope: these are the stereotypes of young Scots that some would argue are being perpetuated by measures proposed in the Scottish Executive's Anti-Social Behaviour Bill.
It is, of course, a tabloid newspaper image. Indeed, one Scottish tabloid even claims that it and its readers "played a huge part in drafting the new rules", declaring that the Bill "pledges to take on the 'ned culture' which blights too many communities".
The key provisions of the Bill include extension of anti-social behaviour orders to under-16s; parenting orders; electronic tagging of under-16s; banning the sale of spray paint to under-16s; targeted powers to disperse groups; closure of premises seen as drinking or drug dens and fixed penalties for anti-social behaviour.
These are reactive measures rather than pro-active and what seems to disturb many professionals working with challenging young people is that being tough on crime and (allegedly) the causes of crime is being emphasised to the exclusion of that other government mantra, "Education, education, education".
Money, they say, can be found for untried, expensive draconian measures, while tried and tested early intervention schemes are underfunded and under-utilised.
In introducing the Bill, First Minister Jack McConnell was careful to say:
"The vast majority of young Scots are a credit to themselves, their communities and Scotland. They are as fed-up as the other law-abiding people in our communities of the intimidation and disruption to their lives caused by mindless thugs."
If this is so, then the Bill represents an unfortunate overreaction, says Maggie Mellon, head of public policy with the leading children's charity NCH Scotland.
"The Executive says anti-social behaviour is caused by a minority of young people, about 700 in the whole of Scotland. The Bill, then, is a huge hammer to crack a wee nut. As a result, the fear of teenagers has been exaggerated.
"We recognise that anti-social behaviour is a real source of concern to communities. However, it is worrying that the Executive can find resources for unproven initiatives such as anti-social behaviour orders and electronic tagging when money is needed for essential support services such as home help, health visitors, nursery and school support.
"We need to do more to support families and prevent problems developing rather than to punish them when things go wrong.
"We also fear these new powers will increase conflict between the police and young people and are not the best solution for what is a complex problem."
NCH Scotland has shown effective ways to work with children to improve behaviour and with parents on how to control them, she says. "It's enormously cost-saving. To send a young person to a residential school costs around pound;1,500 a week and secure care costs around pound;3,000 a week."
Other agencies have also voiced concerns about the measures being proposed.
Children in Scotland, the national agency for voluntary, statutory and professional organisations and individuals working with children and their families, has consulted widely with organisations and children. "There is not unequivocal support for the proposals," says the director of policy and research, Jennifer Turpie.
"The strongest message to come out of the report is the need not just to do something about anti-social behaviour but to do something that will have a genuine impact in addressing the causes of anti-social behaviour and thereby improve the lives of Scotland's communities in a lasting way.
"The consultation responses revealed concerns over whether this could be achieved by the proposals in the Bill. In particular, the report emphasised the need to take evidence-based approaches, fully utilise and resource current systems (particularly the children's hearing system) and link plans for tackling anti-social behaviour with other areas of Scottish Executive activity.
"These messages must now inform the upcoming debates and discussions on the Bill," she says.
Shelley Gray, the young people's participation officer at Children in Scotland, agrees that full advantage is not being taken of existing approaches that work.
"They are funded on an ad hoc basis and we would argue that what is needed is a strategic approach rolling them out across the country in a sustainable way.
"There is also not enough attention being paid to early intervention schemes such as the Incredible Years programme in Wales.
"Early intervention is one of the areas we would argue needs significant development in Scotland.
"Such schemes could be linked into the early years curriculum and would dovetail with the new community schools programme which is being rolled out across Scotland," she says.
Preventive and diversionary support services are what is required, says Simon Jaquet, chief executive of the national youth agency YouthLink Scotland.
While welcoming the Executive's recognition that the majority of young Scots are a credit to themselves and to their communities, he says: "Many of the key provisions of the Bill clearly target young people. We would like to see a greater emphasis being given to preventive and diversionary support services, including youth work."
ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR BILL
The key provisions of the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill are:
* Extension of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) to under-16s
* More effective anti-social behaviour orders
* Parenting orders
* Community reparation orders
* Electronic monitoring (tagging) of under-16s
* Ban on the sale of spray paint to under-16s
* Closure of premises seen as drinking or drug dens)
* Targeted powers to disperse groups
* Enhanced noise nuisance powers.
* Environmental measures tackling fly-tipping and litter
* Fixed penalties for anti-social behaviour
* Anti-social behaviour strategies in local authority areas
* Local authorities to be held accountable for duty to implement supervision requirements and educate children excluded from school.