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Labour party shadow home secretary urges young people to show a little respect

Yvette Cooper’s proposal of a new 'Respect Order' hints at the future of policing under a Labour government. StopWatch volunteer Ella Thomson takes a closer look at these new civil orders.

Originally announced in February 2023 by Labour party shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, Respect Orders are a civil order intended to tackle anti-social behaviour. While only briefly mentioned in her Labour conference speech, the introduction of Respect Orders will have worrying and wide-ranging impacts.

This article will investigate what exactly Respect Orders are, and what the possible consequences of the policy might be. Will they be effective in curbing 'anti-social behaviour', or will they enhance the police’s punitive powers, with harmful consequences for racialised, marginalised, and vulnerable communities?

Labour couched the announcement of Respect Orders in an alarmist narrative on the scourge of anti-social behaviour. Introducing the policy in February, Cooper stated that, ‘last year, the police recorded 3,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour every single day. In many places it’s getting worse.’ In a speech on Labour’s crime and justice policy plans in March, leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer stated that the Labour party intended to fight ‘the virus that is anti-social behaviour.’ Starmer then characterised such behaviours, continuing: ‘fly-tipping, off-road biking in rural area, drugs – now some people call this low-level – I don’t want to hear those words.

Another key part of Labour’s argument for bringing in ‘Respect Orders’ is that the Conservative party have been weak on policing and preventing anti-social behaviour. Shadow justice secretary Steve Reed claimed that under the Conservatives, ‘anti-social thugs are left to riot without facing any consequence.’ According to Labour logic, the abject rise of anti-social behaviour and its criminal consequences, requires a ‘stronger’ (read: harsher) policy intervention to address it: Respect Orders.

Respect Orders - the specifics

Respect Orders are a civil order that restricts people from doing certain behaviours deemed anti-social. However, breaching a Respect Order would be a criminal offence, meaning it could be punishable by prison sentence. This effectively means that an adult can be given a criminal sentence for behaviours that are not themselves against the law. So, street drinking, noise and nuisance, fly-tipping – behaviours that are deemed to go against social order, and according to Labour are ‘anti-social,’ would be punishable by arrest, and are thus criminalised. To imagine an example, a homeless person who repeatedly drinks alcohol in a public space is given a Respect Order, when breached, the homeless person can then be arrested and charged with a criminal offence. The ‘criminal’ behaviour in question? Drinking alcohol in public. If they win the next general election, Labour promises 13,000 more police officers ‘on the beat’ to monitor anti-social behaviour and enforce Respect Orders, as part of the party’s desire to revitalise community policing.

Respect Orders or ASBOs?

If the prospect of Respect Orders sounds familiar to you, it’s because they are. Respect Orders are effectively a re-introduction of New Labour’s infamous ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders). Indeed, Labour is even recycling former prime minister Tony Blair’s famous catchphrase, with Yvette Cooper stating, ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime – that’s what Labour said 30 years ago. It was right then and it’s right now.’ Predictably, Blair is a fan of the proposed Respect Orders, stating ‘I welcome so strongly this initiative.’

ASBOs were introduced by New Labour in 1998 through the Crime and Disorder Act. Like Respect Orders, they were a civil order that targeted certain anti-social behaviours by restricting people’s freedoms and monitoring their movements, and if breached, resulted in a criminal offence and potentially prison time. In 2014, the coalition government replaced ASBOs with civil injunctions. An assumed key difference is that civil injunctions do not carry the sanction of a criminal offence if breached. For Labour and their Respect Orders, this appears to be a sticking point, and a vehicle to prove they are tougher on crime than the Tories – they are ready to criminalise anti-social behaviour.

Their claim overlooks the fact that breaching a civil injunction can still result in up to two years of prison. Or, that research has shown that civil injunctions actually further enhanced the punitive social control of behaviours and people deemed to be anti-social, which were initially facilitated by ASBOs. Indeed, if Respect Orders are ASBOs with a new name, they can be expected to have a similar impact as ASBOs did in the early 2000s. ASBOs resulted in the criminalisation of behaviours considered by the government to be anti-social, which had a negative impact on vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged people and communities. Specifically, Black communities, minority-ethnic and working-class communities, homeless people, sex-workers and other marginalised groups, already discriminated against by the police and wider criminal justice system. Whether or not you assess ASBOs to have been successful depends on whether you believe that poverty and relating social issues can be solved through policing, criminalisation, and harsher criminal sanctions. Can you arrest your way out of poverty?

So, keeping the history of ASBOs in mind, what are the possible implications of Respect Orders on stop and search and policing more widely?

Stop and search and policing

Respect Orders and the accompanying introduction of 13,000 more police officers on our streets may have concerning implications for stop and search. Respect Orders promise to give the police ‘tough new powers,’ specifically, more powers to arrest people for ‘anti-social’ behaviours. This may incentivise police to stop and search more often, and given the ethnic disparity figures, we know that Black people will bear the brunt of this. The police consistently racially discriminate against Black people; according to official data, Black people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched, and the Met police are four times more likely to use force on a Black person. Young people are also far more likely to be stopped and searched, with over half (54%) of people stopped being between 10 to 24 years old in the year ending March 2021. In their time ASBOs were also disproportionately used against young people. This paints a worrying picture where Respect Orders could end up being disproportionately used on Black youths, facilitating further policing of an already overpoliced and thus criminalised group. Indeed, Starmer’s speech on the orders employed a moral panic over cannabis use, a dangerous trope that in the past has resulted in the criminalisation of the Black community. For example, a study in 2018 found that Black people were nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs, despite using drugs at a lower rate than White people. This points to a racial overtone on what behaviours are considered to be ‘anti-social,’ which means the enforcement of Respect Orders could have racist and discriminatory results.

In the same speech, Starmer also promised that Labour would restore the public’s trust and confidence in the police. However, it is unclear to me how an insistence on rebuilding trust is going to be achieved through increasing police numbers, presence and punitive powers. This will only serve to further criminalise the communities where faith in the police is understandably most broken. When a police force has been found to be institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic, how is increasing the power and presence of it going to solve these structural issues? Equally, Labour’s insistence that confidence in the police is low due to a lack of ‘bobbies on the beat’, and that people do not trust the police because they do not see them enough, wilfully ignores the reality and voices of Black communities, and also ethnic-minority and working-class communities. The police have a disproportionate presence in such communities, resulting in the consistent experiences of over-policing, police discrimination and violence, especially for Black people and other ethnic minorities.

‘Broken windows’ policing

The focus on policing and punishing anti-social behaviour as a form of crime control relies on the logic of broken windows policing, popularised in New York in the 1990s. The broken windows theory stipulates that minor forms of social disorder, such as graffiti or vandalism, cause community decline and thus more serious forms crime. Therefore, police should focus on low level crime and social disorder, with the idea that this will prevent serious crimes occurring. This results in a heavy and harsh police presence in marginalised, racialised, poor and disadvantaged communities. Broken windows policing has been shown time and again to be racist, classist and ineffective; the over-policing and criminalisation of such communities does little to impact more serious crime. In many cases it has an adverse effect, pushing communities further into poverty. Broken windows theory is evident in Labour’s presentation of and rhetoric around Respect Orders.

In her conference speech, Yvette Cooper stated that, ‘when communities fracture, antisocial behaviour grows and organized crime and extremists step in.’ After describing how the ‘virus of anti-social behaviour’ will be combatted through Respect Orders, which will make repeated vandalism or fly-tipping a criminal offence, Starmer concluded that ‘cleaner streets are safer streets’. Meanwhile, former PM Blair praised Respect Orders, stating ‘zero tolerance is the right approach. Tolerate anti-social behaviour and you create an environment in which more serious crime flourishes.’

Respect Orders are not just merely a recycled New Labour policy, but in fact a rehashed theory of policing that has been widely discredited at reducing crime, and heavily critiqued for facilitating more punitive policing, which further criminalises Black and other marginalised communities. After 13 years of Conservative rule, I truly believe there is space for Labour to introduce new and imaginative policies to combat current issues with policing, crime and poverty, especially focusing on the root causes of crime. Indeed, investing in social institutions, the welfare state and communities would have a much more radical impact on crime than increasing police presence and their powers. Labour are letting us down by sticking with the tried and failed policy of Respect Orders.

All blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of StopWatch UK.

About the author

Ella Thomson.

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