The Conversation

‘Cracking down’ on antisocial behaviour is a classic pre-election strategy – but this government owes young people better

For a government that is committed to “levelling up”, Rishi Sunak’s administration seems to have taken a major shift towards “cracking down”.

A new action plan on antisocial behaviour has certainly ratcheted-up the rhetoric. Perpetrators will face “swift and visible” justice as part of a “zero-tolerance” approach. “Hotspot trailblazer areas” will be piloted and a new “immediate justice” scheme launched. Offenders will be expected to repair the damage they have “inflicted on victims … as soon as 48 hours after their offence”, but they will also be made to wear “high-vis vests or jumpsuits”.

Laughing gas is also not funny.

Nitrous oxide is highlighted as the drug of choice for 16- to 24-year-olds and will be banned to prevent “intimidating gangs” of giggling youths hanging around. Those responsible “will be quickly and visibly punished” – possibly even forced to wash police cars – as the government moves to “stamp out these crimes once and for all”.

The shift to a very hard stance appears almost designed to promote a moral panic, with young people framed as contemporary folk devils existing on the wrong side of a politically defined moral barricade.

It’s a very old trick. But what it lacks is any evidence-based understanding of young people today.

The young people the government are targeting are the very same generation whose opportunities to be young were ravaged by COVID. The impact of lockdown – its scarring effects – are only just beginning to be understood. Add to this the fact that this is a generation who have lived through austerity, and who now face precarious employment as the new normal and a future that will see their living standards fall below those of previous generations.

And yet this is not a lost generation. It is, in fact, a resilient generation.

The 2021 Prince’s Trust Tesco Youth Index discovered that almost three-quarters of the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed were positive that “theirs is the generation that can change the future for the better”. The Talk Together project also concluded – having engaged with almost 160,000 people across the UK – that an upsurge in community spirit exists and needs to be cultivated.

Even during the pandemic, it was young people that generally massed ranks of initiatives, including the NHS volunteer responders scheme and the RSPCA’s volunteer network.

It’s difficult to understand the central logic of government thinking. One minute there are “ambitious plans to level up activities for young people”, but these are almost immediately followed by a youth-focused action plan “to crack down on antisocial behaviour”. The very next day, the message is all about youth facilities being “transformed with new investment”.

When reading the government’s action plan on antisocial behaviour, I could not stop thinking of Keith Dowding’s book It’s the Government Stupid and its central argument that governments often try to blame citizens for their policies.

Youth services have declined by nearly 70% in the past decade. Against this backdrop of long-term decline, the £378m youth investment fund is undoubtedly a welcome measure but it is not “transformational”.

This is not an excuse for antisocial behaviour. It’s a statement of reality. Young people who lack access to basic support services will find things to do.

If the government wants to “rebuild social capital and self-reliance” across the country, then it might start by listening to what local communities and young people say they need. As the Institute for Community Studies report Why don’t they ask us? highlighted, local communities are keen to engage in co-producing and co-delivering policy to fit with local priorities.

The government will say it has listened. The 2022 Youth Review led to the launch of a National Youth Guarantee. But this review was not youth-led or even co-produced. The “guarantee” is therefore narrow – the rebuilding of youth clubs (mentioned above), increased access to the National Citizen Service, and support for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Scheme and other non-military uniformed youth groups.

Ask them

Engaged, embedded and peer-led research suggests that youth clubs and cub scouts are not top of the list when young people are asked what they need. They want a broader choice of flexible opportunities to engage in social action projects, volunteering and practical politics. They need to be listened to and brought into decisions.

The National Youth Guarantee may offer the basis for a transformational approach to supporting young people – but realising this potential demands a more agile, aligned and ambitious approach.

Agile in the sense of focusing on key transition points in young people’s lives, and making sure that new forms of safety net and civic scaffolding are put in place to catch those who fall through the cracks.

Aligned in the sense of an integrated set of policies that seeks not to put young people “on the right track” – the approach of the antisocial behaviour plan – but to support young people through a “civic journey” where they get the chance to learn new skills, make mistakes, develop confidence and engage beyond their own communities.

And ambitious in the sense of a whole of government approach, where the starting point is not to prevent young people “spiralling” from antisocial behaviour into a life of crime, but instead forged around a belief in the capacity of future generations to flourish in a changing world.

There are enlightened Conservatives working in this space. MP Danny Kruger’s work on a “new social covenant” offers a far more positive and inclusive approach..

The latest crackdown on antisocial behaviour is, if we are honest, to some extent a theatrical performance. It is the pre-election chest thumping of a government that wants to be seen as tough on crime in order to bolster its position among those older voters who are generally enraged by antisocial behaviour.

As a result, however, a government that “hugged the experts” during COVID now goes directly against the experts when it comes to banning laughing gas.

The problem is that demonising young people for votes really is no laughing matter.

Matthew Flinders does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.