Font Size: A A A

Home > Reviews > Neighbours from Hell: The Politics of Behaviour

Neighbours from Hell: The Politics of Behaviour

Author Frank Field

ISBN No 184275078X

Review date 03/07/2022

No of pages 136

Publisher Politico's

Publisher URL

Year of publication 27/04/2003


Our Review


£ (Second hand)

Occasionally we review an old book, for what it has usefully to say about now. The book Neighbours from Hell by the then Labour MP for Birkenhead, Frank Field, is one of them - for the debate about anti-social behaviour may have moved on, or rather politicians are trying to pretend it's not there; except that the problem hasn't.

It's a paradox; for no fault of its own, Frank Field's book has become out of date since it came out in 2003; and yet it is as relevant as it ever was. It's outdated in that there's no sign of the online world of social media, which a few years later for good or bad became part of everyday life. That anyone using social media, let alone those in public life, are subject to anonymous online abuse and threats, amounts to a further argument for what Frank Field then had to say - about the need for society to do more against unacceptable behaviour.

As the title suggests, anti-social behaviour affected people in and around their own homes. As Field set out early on (page 7) he was describing 'the degree to which the established order of his constituents' lives has been broken asunder'. As a long-serving constituency MP he took it personally; he reacted with shock, then anger, at the unfairness faced by constituents (page 7); angry, also 'at the impotence I felt when authority, which included myself, was found to be without adequate weapons with which to fight back'. Something had to change; notably in how Britain was policed, but also how schools and others in authority treated those who stepped out of line.

The title, then, spoke to 'those who are continually on the sharp end of anti-social behaviour'; typically the old and the poor. As the sub-title suggested, Field's argument was political, both about the problem and the remedy. Evangelical Christianity and mutually owned welfare had moulded civilised behaviour in Britain (recently, Frank Field has reiterated the need for a 'Social Highway Code'). They had faded, and nothing - or nothing sufficient - was in their place. Hence some parents would not or could not control their children; they formed gangs, and their behaviour was unchecked and got out of hand.

Field had seen it coming, and saw it as political; once, in the 1980s (he started as an MP in 1979) constituents came with problems about social security, housing and unfair dismissals from work. By the 1990s they were asking 'what can be done to stop their lives being made a misery by the unacceptable behaviour of some neighbours, or more commonly, their neighbours' children'.

Field correctly identified two sides to the problem or as he put it the 'abyss'. First the anti-social youths 'who ran across their bungalow roofs, peed through their letterboxes, jumped out of the shadows as they returned home at night' and tried to break windows. Second, the hurt this did to the victims; the strain on their lives, the affront to basic justice. The police could not touch them. As an aside, we might ask if the failure by Labour to deliver basic peace to their own constituencies may have played a part in the fall of the fabled 'red wall' of long-time Labour constituencies first in Scotland and then in northern England in the 2010s.

The book becomes yet more relevant to today when Field pointed out the wider damage done to society by the anti-social. He gave a Birkenhead example (page 16), that the town's ambulance station had to be closed temporarily. In the 1990s, ambulance workers' cars were attacked so often on the street that they were moved inside the station. "Then the station came under attack and defensive grills were screwed onto each of the windows, which proved an example of one step forward, two steps back. These security fences provided a means for access to the roof. Cars leaving the station were stoned. One ambulance worker was 'bricked' while working inside the station, and the new fuel tank came under bombardment. This slide into anarchy at the ambulance station is a parable for our time."

Further relevance: Field wrote of how police commonly tasked paramedics with dealing with drunks and taking them home, though the drunks sometimes went on fighting, and 'Wirral ambulance vehicles are regularly looted' even as the crews attended a home in an emergency. A service for fellow citizens (that the yobs might need one day) was 'fair game'. Field's constituents were telling him of the 'collapse of basic decencies' thanks to the aggression of some.

Anti-social behaviour, then as now, was in truth behind many things; much of the crime against business, and aggression and violence against teachers and others in the 'front line' (an interesting phrase, implying that society has had to become militarised against the anti-social).

The Labour government of 1997 had already brought in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which had given local government a responsibility for crime and disorder in their districts; and had invented the tool of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs). It entered the language for a time. Field could already report: "In practice, ASBOs turned out to be not only difficult to register but immensely time-consuming to secure." By 2002, despite efforts by police, Birkenhead had not one. Field was having to propose 'a new strategy to counter anti-social behaviour'. For again, the failure was two-sided: just as the anti-social carried on, so those who failed to address the bad behaviour (let alone the victims) felt demoralised.

Just as the flaw in the ASBOs was that they took such attention to detail - in gathering evidence to satisfy a court and then to enforce - Field proposed that the state go into that greater detail. Notably, he suggested a 'penalty points system' against offenders, that would lead to restrictions placed on the offender if breached; and that police officers become 'a substitute parental figure'. As that implied, this was 'a new role' to say the least for policing, and an extension of the 'welfare state' onto some people. For as Field concluded (page 94) much anti-social behaviour arose from 'dysfunctional families failing to teach their children common standards of decency centring on respect for other people'. Field wanted to help families to succeed; and those parents in difficulties 'needed to be supported by surrogate parents', someone in authority to reinforce 'the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour'.

Readers might spot the flaw; quite apart from whether officers joined the police to be a surrogate father or mother to scumbags, was there the money to afford it? Field accepted (page 134) police were 'so under-staffed, crime and anti-social behaviour cannot be taken with the utmost seriousness'. As he hinted, there were so many anti-social acts, they weren't being recorded by police, let alone leading to any decision by the criminal justice system. Strikingly, Field suggested local reforms - 'a new tax contract' and local referenda, and some elected local prosecutors. Instead we have police and crime commissioners, and Conservative candidates at the May 2021 PCC elections with their gormless slogan on the ballot paper, 'More police, safer streets'. When the experience of the 2010s has been a halving of the number of courts in the country, and a retreat (including during the covid pandemic) from any face to face policing except in fire brigade style responding with blue lights to emergencies, unable or unwilling to record or follow up on countless acts of anti-social behaviour.

The pandemic and social distancing and mask-wearing rules that the anti-social ignore or kick off against proves the rule; for those who will not wear a mask on a train or bus are also the ones putting their feet on the seats and abusing anyone who objects. Society has made its own compact since Field wrote, by turning a blind eye, only validating the anti-social.

Note that private security profits from this social ill, whether the physical grills and fences around all public buildings; and security staff and stewards who are the ones enforcing rules at pub doors, in shopping centres and, on the eve of the pandemic, increasingly on high streets. As the Home Affairs Committee of MPs heard this month, from the Co-op and Boots, retailers have made their response; bringing in body-worn cameras for staff and monitoring centres, to police themselves. It was telling that the committee chair, another senior Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, called the evidence of violence against shop staff 'unacceptable'; whereas in truth it has become accepted, in schools, in shops, on public transport; the anti-social do as they please.

Yet private security people (like police and anyone else) are parents and neighbours too, and do not want the anti-social to hold sway over society. Field ended with the point that anti-social behaviour needed a programme, that had to be 'multi-faceted'; that took in schools and the law, and family welfare, and applied sanctions, to enforce 'a new contract culture' (if you offended and you were receiving state benefit, why should you keep getting it?!). All that would require government to take it seriously; it has not.