Use your mop quietly

Observations on antisocial behaviour orders by <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

To the occasional visitor, Camden must seem like one of the more liberal and tolerant of London's boroughs. Gay pubs fly the rainbow flag at full mast on Hampstead High Street; every variety of urban tribe descends on the alternative lifestyle bazaar that is Camden Market; King's Cross is peppered with bookshops where you can browse the works of Marx and Lenin.

Yet behind this progressive facade, there lurks a petty authoritarianism. Camden has just issued its 100th antisocial behaviour order (Asbo), putting it far ahead of any other London borough. Hounslow and Westminster come a poor joint second, having issued 22 Asbos each since the government first introduced them five years ago. Asbos deal with bad behaviour that lies beyond the remit of the criminal justice system: persistent vandalism, nuisance neighbours. However, if you break an Asbo, perhaps forbidding you from repeating a certain type of behaviour or from visiting a certain part of town, you can face criminal penalties.

Camden uses Asbos - it has issued 31 in the past five months alone - to punish or even exile the undesirables that this "tolerant" borough is unwilling to tolerate. Asbos have been deployed to eradicate fly-posting and to banish homeless irritants. In August, Matthew Lock, a drug-addicted homeless man, was banned from entering the London boroughs of Camden, Islington or Westminster, and from begging anywhere in England and Wales.

This month, the council issued a further seven orders on a single day against beggars around Tottenham Court Road who were said to have harassed, alarmed and distressed the public. The middle classes aren't safe from this war, either; one Asbo was served on a barrister who had a habit of banging her walls and floors with a mop.

Camden even has "a good practice guide" to implementing Asbos. "Hearsay evidence - even anonymous statements - is admissible," it explains to council workers, encouraging them to seek the orders "proactively" and apparently thrilled that there is no need to go through all that tiresome criminal justice stuff about proving a case beyond reasonable doubt.

Camden says this is all about "making a positive impact on the lives of all our tenants and residents". Tell that to the residents of Fitzrovia, next door to King's Cross. They complain that the beggars, addicts and prostitutes expelled by Asbos from the area around King's Cross Station are turning up on their doorsteps. So, far from making the problems go away, Asbos have just pushed them from one part of Camden to another. Perhaps, if they had spent more time in those radical bookshops in King's Cross, Camden Council officials would have realised that there are no quick-fix solutions to poverty and homelessness.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of Spiked (www.spiked-online.com)