IN PARLIAMENT, my colleagues and I spend a lot of time discussing high profile crimes. However, we rarely discuss anti-social behaviour, which can have a major impact on the quality of peoples’ lives; the cohesion of their communities and the amenity of the spaces in which they live. Although it is considered ‘low level’ crime it can nevertheless be as devastating as higher profile criminality.
I’m sure at one level or another we have all experienced the following:
- People coming into the garden or the communal stair and relieving themselves;
- The guy so drunk he cannot stand, shouting at our kids;
- The neighbours blasting out music that shakes the floor, and then when you make a perfectly reasonable request to quit, you’re met with a barrage of words of one syllable;
- The window of the community centre being smashed yet again;
- Your local corner shop being tagged with spray paint;
- Coming out of your house in the morning to find every car in the row keyed.
I’ve witnessed all these incidents in recent months in Aberdeen. Sadly, this does not surprise me because Scottish Government statistics show that there are around 41 incidents of anti-social behaviour PER DAY in Aberdeen alone.In fact, through Scotland there are nearly 1,000 incidents of anti-social behaviour every day, and those are just the ones reported to police. That’s over 340,000 anti-social behaviour incidents last year.
These occurrences don’t make the evening news. But make no mistake, these kinds of incidents, on a repeated and escalating basis, are inconvenient for some, aggravating for others, and debilitating and terrifying for many.Lying there each night knowing the music will probably come on at some point leaves many unable to relax, regardless of whether the music actually comes on or not. Others are kept up, listening as they hear the muted conversations on the corner outside their window at night, punctuated by smashing glass.We also know from the Crime and Justice Survey that deprived communities still suffer the most from crimes like vandalism, litter and property crimes.
If we allow this to continue unchecked with no new initiatives in place to deal with it, we are telling communities that they do not deserve to live free of this low-level intimidation and disruption, that they are not worthy of living in a safe and stress-free environment. Perhaps more importantly, it sends the message that we will allow their community cohesion to suffer, not only failing to address the issue, but sending a signal that more serious criminal activity will similarly go unchecked.
Unless we try something new to arrest the fact that such behaviour is rising each year, we are telling the elderly, parents with young children, and even night shift workers unable to rest properly each day, that the impact of anti-social behaviour on them, their community, and their health is not important.
The current situation is that, since 2004, under the Anti-social Behaviour Act, police officers have the power to impose fixed penalty notices to people aged 16 and over, behaving in an anti-social way.
There are three key advantages to an on-the-spot fine:
- It’s a swift and effective punishment for low-level, anti-social and nuisance offending.
- It’s a highly visible deterrent to others.
- And it frees up police officers to spend more time on our streets dealing with more serious crime.
It is an on-the-spot fine of £50, payable within 28 days. If the offender fails to pay this fine, it will increase to £75 and become a court debt. Once paid, the matter is over – a short sharp shock with no criminal record attached.
However, fixed penalty notices issued have declined 75 per cent – from around 55,000 issued in 2013-14 to around 11,000 last year.
In England & Wales, a similar scheme is in place with a crucial difference: penalty offences are divided into lower and upper tier offences depending on seriousness and attract penalties of £60 and £90 respectively.
In Northern Ireland, again, there is a two-tier system in which the fine will be £45.00 or £85.00 depending on severity and nature.
In Scotland, a review of fixed penalty notices concluded that whilst police felt having them gave greater opportunities to deal with anti-social behaviour offences, the existing fines are too low for more serious behaviour.
There seems to be a disconnect, and the motion I raised sought to provide a solution.It was a simple proposition which aimed at reminding those communities blighted by anti-social behaviour that the Parliament had not abandoned them; that we will stand up for those living with these daily intimidations and corruption of public and private space which can have such a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those affected.
The motion asked Parliament to support the principle of an increased penalty for those incidents of anti-social behaviour which are more serious.
Looking at the English model, this could include things like the misuse of fireworks, breaching curfew, criminal damage of less than £300, minor shoplifting on a first offence and the selling of alcohol to an under 18. These situations exemplify just a small section of ways in which this fine can be used to ensure that more criminals are punished, and that direct, swift justice is delivered to low-level offenders, ensuring that they understand a clear link to the offence and the punishment. It would also provide, perhaps more importantly, a more effective deterrent than we currently have in place.
Now, for the purposes of debate, I suggested that whilst the £50 baseline is retained, the more serious tier be fixed at £100. This was based on my assessment of the rest of the UK and what I believe can achieve a more genuine deterrent value.
I firmly believe that everyone deserves to live in a safe community, free from the menace of vandalism, noise and disruptive drunken behaviour.
A higher level of fixed penalty notice for more serious antisocial behaviour is a straightforward piece of secondary legislation which would have given our police on the ground more tools that they desperately need to keep our communities safe and punish those who disrupt our neighbourhoods. It would have delivered instant justice for victims and communities and countered the feeling that low-level offending is ignored and unpunished by the authorities. It would have ensured that criminals saw a strong, immediate link between their behaviour and their punishment.
Hopefully the SNP will see that their ‘soft touch’ approach to justice isn’t working, and that if they want to show our elderly, our young and our communities that they haven’t abandoned them to suffer anti-social behaviour, they will need to give more thought to my solutions and show that they have the teeth to stand up for the people they say they care so much for.
What happened in the debate? Reader, the SNP voted against.