A pain in the ear

Observations on teenagers by <strong>Brendan O'Neill</strong>

If you want to see the future of youth policing in Blair's Britain, look no further than the West Country, the region that has become a sinister laboratory for testing Orwellian ways of keeping teens off the streets.

Back in April, we learned that the superpubs and clubs of Yeovil, in Somerset, had started finger-scanning their youthful patrons. Biometric scanners were installed at various watering holes, and revellers now have to provide a mugshot and a finger-scan so that their details can be stored on a computer.

If they get into trouble, a black mark is put against their name, which means that the next time they stick their finger in the scanner at their favourite bar the alarms go off and they are turfed out. You've heard of RoboCop; meet RoboBouncer.

Police in Weston-super-Mare, meanwhile, have taken to blinding young people in the effort to disperse them. Like something out of occupied Iraq, cops in helicopters are shining super-bright halogen lights down on youngsters drinking in parks. The spotlight temporarily blinds those in its beam. Sergeant Gareth Starr says that it will be used "to move them on, as they don't like the light shining in their faces". Well, would you?

Now another youth policing initiative is to be launched in nearby Worle which will make those earlier antics look almost liberal by comparison. North Somerset police have purchased something called the Mosquito, described by the local press as an "anti-youth gadget", which will be placed in the Mead Vale shopping precinct. The Mosquito emits a noise that carries over a distance of roughly 20 metres and which to most of us registers as no more than a faint buzz. To people under 20, however, it is apparently so high-pitched, so piercing and so unbearable (though harmless) that they can't remain in earshot. They are literally screeched off the streets.

"I've heard it is like the noise made by a dog whistle," says Terry Crees, the antisocial behaviour co-ordinator for North Somerset police. "It is sad that we have got to use equipment of this nature," he admits. "But we're using it against a minority of young people who make life miserable for the majority."

Yet the Mosquito will buzz in the ears of all people under the age of 20 - including those popping to the shops or walking to school - and not just in the lugholes of an apparently unruly minority.

Gully Hayer, manager of Hayers in the Worle shopping precinct where the Mosquito will be trialled, tells a different story. Yes, "young lads" hang around outside his shop, he says, but mostly they just kick a ball against a wall. "It is pretty minor," he says. "We're trying to get the local community centre opened, where they could play, but it always seems to be locked up."

The launch of the Mosquito sums up the fear and loathing that is driving policy on young people. We seem scared of our own youth, imagining that "hoodies" and "chavs" are dragging society down. We're so scared, in fact, that we use impersonal methods to police them: we use scanners to monitor their behaviour, we blind them from a distance, and now employ machines to screech at them in the hope they will just go away. With no idea of what to say to them - how to inspire or socialise them - we seek to disperse, disperse, disperse. It will only heighten their sense of being outsiders.

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

This article first appeared in the 07 August 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Blood on his hands