threatening youth revisited: youth policies under new labour

Bernard Davies revisits Threatening Youth and its thesis that during the late 1970s and 1980s ‘a coherent and centrally controlled youth policy’ had ’gradually but in many respects knowingly been developed. He concludes that the original aim remained relevant and indeed that it and the commitments to human rights and civil liberties on which the analysis rested need more than ever to be asserted and defended.

contents: introduction · threatening youth in its time · twenty years on: the new labour economic context · a culture of fear · beyond fear in the making of policy: two examples from history · disporportionality’ in current youth policy-making · so – what’s going on here? · the second front: young people at risk · so what’s to be done? · further reading and bibliography · how to cite this article

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
(Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the USA, 1933)

detail of cover - bernard davies' threatening youthThis paper is based on a talk given on 7 July 2005 as part of an evening seminar arranged by Manchester Metropolitan University’s for community and youth workers in the North West. The aim of the talk was to revisit the arguments advanced in my book Threatening Youth (Davies, 1986) - particularly its central thesis that during the late 1970s and 1980s ‘a coherent and centrally controlled youth policy’ had ’gradually but in many respects knowingly been developed’. The intention was to locate this re-examination in the context of the current policy and political environment – something which, with the explosion of the four bombs in London, radically changed its shape on the very morning of the talk. Though these events made some parts of my analysis seem especially sensitive, I concluded that the original aim remained relevant and indeed that it and the commitments to human rights and civil liberties on which the analysis rested needed more than ever to be asserted and defended.

The talk was prepared at the same time as I was drafting a ‘manifesto for youth work’ - an attempt at an extended definition of youth work as a distinctive practice with young people (Davies 2005a). This paper needs therefore to be seen in the context of the arguments in that publication and also of my response (Davies 2005b) to the Youth Green Paper, Youth Matters (DfES, 2005).

Threatening Youth in its time

In this paper, I make no assumption that anyone remembers Threatening Youth. Why should they? It was published nearly twenty years ago, at the height of the Thatcherite onslaught not just on public services but – even more importantly - on the fundamental ideology on which the welfare state had rested since its emergence in the 1940s. When Threatening Youth was written this reconstruction was being led within the youth policy field by the Manpower Services Commission – a high profile Government quango dedicated to serving Thatcher ‘s vision of an uninhibited free market economy.

From a specifically Youth Service perspective Threatening Youth now also feels very dated. It was written before the ‘ministerial conferences’ through which the Thatcher Government sought to get the Service to adopt a ‘core curriculum’ as part of its wider centralising social policy agenda. It was also of course well before the New Labour project was even a gleam in eye of Blair, Brown or that former British Youth Council Chairperson, Peter Mandelson.

The book’s datedness is exposed particularly sharply by chapter headings tinged with an optimism which strikes today as very naïve. For example:

British Youth Policy – Can Diversity Survive?

Dealing with Delinquents – Welfare, Justice or Law and Order?

Youth work – Social education or Distraction through recreation?

And it is revealed, too, in the suggestion that a ‘progressive’ struggle around juvenile justice might be mounted in the defence of the interests of working class young people and in the conclusion that, for the radical right of the day, ‘atrophy (for the YS) was by far the best policy’.

Even at the time, the book’s basic premise about the construction of a national youth policy was challenged, with one reviewer at least judging it over-stated. Looking back it is indeed possible to see how far the argument rested at best on the knitting together of circumstantial evidence culled from a wide range of journalistic as well as more academic sources. This was then used to demonstrate that widespread anxieties existed amongst policy-makers about the way traditional and dominant (especially youth) policies were failing ‘the national interest’ - economic and social. As a result, a range of institutions and services were seen as being required to operate according to much more joined up intentions and coherent priorities. In the process ‘person-centred’ policies and practices, including the liberal education tradition out of which (in part) youth work had sprung, were being sidelined, even treated as subversive.

Within this developing ‘national youth policy’ two particular overlapping agendas were being given renewed emphasis. One was the ‘re-moralisation’ of the young in general: the reshaping and refocusing of their values and behaviour so that - as workers, as future parents, as citizens – they achieved a better ‘fit‘ with the new, Thatcherite economic and social order. The other was focused directly on deviant, especially delinquent, young people. Here the priority was to ensure that they were at least contained and if possible rehabilitated – but ultimately, when all else failed, that they were very firmly controlled and punished, as a minimum by the application of ‘short sharp shocks’.

In its implicit and explicit explanations of why all this was happening, Threatening Youth stopped short – just!!? – of conspiracy theory. Its concern was more the culture of values and preoccupations which more and more policy-makers were sharing and which increasingly were shaping key areas of youth policy-making.

Twenty years on: the New Labour economic context

That was Threatening Youth twenty years ago. But what about now? The short answer is: even if Threatening Youth did exaggerate the coherence of a national youth policy in the 1980s, such a policy certainly exists in 2005. Indeed, since 1997 under New Labour, not only have more coherent policies been constructed. The mechanisms for enforcing these have become more inflexible and more ruthless, including being deliberately constructed to by-pass basic judicial procedures seen as obstacles to achieving key populist political and social goals.

At the time of Threatening Youth implementation of the national youth policy was largely indirect via a re-shaping and re-directing of key welfare state institutions such as schools and colleges, the juvenile justice system, education welfare and income maintenance services as well as the Youth Service. Today such approaches are still being used. In addition however, as a core strategy, ‘undesirable’ behaviour is being confronted much more full-frontally, through a systematic recasting of both the law itself and how this is enforced. In addition, since Jamie Bulger’s murder in 1993 a nineteenth century notion of ‘in-born ‘evil’ in children has again put down deep roots as the explanation for some of the youth behaviours being targeted.

When analysing developments like these, two key questions need to be addressed. One is: ‘Why are they happening?’; and the other ‘Why now?’. In seeking answers to these questions, as always the economic context is crucial. Underlying assumptions about this re-surfaced during the debates prompted by the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes on the EU constitution in May 2005 and following a general election in which the Germans rejected crude free market solutions to their economic difficulties. In Britain these events prompted dismissive comments on the ‘social model’ of welfare – code for such ‘Old Europe’ practices as generous social security benefits, employment protection for workers, high spending on public services and state investment in public transport. Within a global market, it was repeatedly asserted, this model could no longer sustain the low wage/low tax economies which multi-national businesses demanded if, as untrammelled as possible, they were to pursue maximum returns on their investments.

The British – especially the New Labour - position is not of course one-dimensional. Since 1997, there are been significant increases in spending on health, education, regeneration and child care. Nonetheless the UK made its fundamental choice against the now derided post-1945 social model at least two decades ago, under Thatcher. That choice has since been confirmed and deliberately reinvigorated by Tony Blair, and by Gordon Brown too, as evidenced for example by their rejection of income redistribution as a social policy objective and their determination to ‘liberalise’ the economy, pursue business-friendly policies and encourage further ‘flexibility’ in the labour market.

New Labour (and Tony Blair in particular) has mirrored these core economic perspectives through repeated attacks on old-style welfare provision and welfare professionals and by offering as the alternative radical ‘modernisation’ of those elements of the Old Labour welfare state which have survived Thatcherism. A range of initiatives have resulted: joint public-private financing of hospital- and school-building, foundation hospitals, ‘contestability’ between NHS and private provision even if this means NHS hospitals going bankrupt, school academies controlled by private donor-sponsors. This by-the-back-door privatisation programme has been underpinned by the commissioning of services through tendering – something which, it is clear, the Youth Service will need to get used to in the very near future. It has been reinforced, too, by an insistence that business management styles and methods are to be applied to welfare services through, for example, targeting and the ‘hard’ measurement of ‘outcomes’. Increasingly the professional and public service ethic which – with all its flaws and limitations - had previously shaped welfare delivery and organisation is being overridden by the managerial, the instrumental and the technical.

Under New Labour this modernisation agenda has penetrated the Youth Service and youth work more and more deeply. Its vehicle – some might say its Trojan horse – has been Transforming Youth Work (DfEE, 2001); the benchmarks for reach, participation and recorded and accredited outcomes set out in Resourcing Excellent Youth Services DfEE, 2002); and OFSTED’s standards and measures of value for money. These pressures have squeezed open access youth work particularly hard, with consequences which have direct relevance to arguments developed later in this paper. For, again despite its many flaws and limitations, this kind of informal on-demand leisure support and stimulus has always been the form of provision which many, especially poor and ‘excluded’ young people have preferred - and could afford. (See for example Rose, 1998; Hilton, 2005; Robertson 2005).

A culture of fear

Though these economic drivers are fundamental, today there is a second crucial one: the ‘culture of fear’ which now shapes so much policy-making. If we needed any confirmation that as a society we are facing extreme dangers then the London explosions on the day this talk was delivered provided it with tragic clarity. Even before those deaths governments and their populations were increasingly battening down the hatches, particularly against anyone or any group posing (or seeming to pose) a threat.

These reactions are not of course entirely separate from the economic imperatives. Global markets and the free(r) movement of trade it encourages in its turn prompts pressures for a freer movement of labour - that is, of people, ‘economic migrants’. This then encourages renewed surges of political and popular anxieties over these strange new ‘Others’ and their encroachment on ‘our’ territory.

The present culture of fear clearly has other more extensive roots, however, particularly of course in the events of 9/11. Understandably, these made national and personal security a high profile political issue, in the process shifting fundamentally the weighting politicians and other policy-makers give to popular fears when deciding how to act. As fear has seeped further and deeper, young people have become one of its main focuses - one of the most suspect ‘Others’ apparently threatening our society – mainly because of their need and their determination, especially in public places, to don less conventional roles and images.

Popular fears of this kind are of course far from new. Indeed, at times in the past they have had very powerful effects, including witch hunts of both the medieval and McCathyite variety. Yet, even when they are widespread and keenly felt, they don’t necessarily end up in current levels of moral panic in public policy-making. Policy-makers, after all, do still have choices. On the one hand, for example, they can deliberately ride on the back of the fears, using them to further other, often short-term political ends. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they can seek to contain them: to allay them, to divert the unfounded preconceptions and irrational prejudices driving them, particularly by addressing the economic and social factors which usually underlie them.

Beyond fear in the making of policy: two examples from history

History suggests that, even when fear is running high, it is still possible for principled policy-makers to work at the more positive end of this continuum. Take for example the mid-1960s’ overtly racist election and by-election campaigns, Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech and the march in his support by dockers and Smithfield porters which followed in 1968. Not only was Powell instantly dismissed from the Tory shadow cabinet. Roy Jenkins, the Labour Government’s Home Secretary - hardly a revolutionary – alongside tightening immigration controls, also specifically took on the fears and attitudes driving the public racism. Offering a more generous and expansive vision for the multi-racial, multi-cultural society which was then emerging, he advocated policies based on ‘equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance’ – a slogan which today may sound old-hat but which in its time was bold if only because it was not determined by crude populist demands. Clearly people did not stop being racist as a result. Work was begun, however, to develop a public, media and political climate which de-legitimised overt racism and legitimised less fearful and more tolerant and accommodating public norms and behaviours.

A second example from history – this time from the sphere of youth policy-making – comes, not coincidentally, from the same period. For the 1960s were also a time of high-profile anxieties about ‘youth’. Prompted particularly by the mods and rockers ‘riots’ in Clacton, Brighton and Margate towards the end of the decade, Stanley Cohen (1973) later coined the notions of ‘moral panic’ over perceived ‘folk devils’. The former is now so over-used and applied in such throw-away ways that it is worth reminding ourselves just how Cohen defined them originally:

A condition, episode, person or group emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to….

Yet, though the contemporary resonance in all of that is unmissable, the 1960s was also, for the Youth Service, the Albemarle decade (Ministry of Education, 1960) – the period when government commitment to the Service was as sustained and strategic as it has been at any time in its history. Amongst other things, budgets (national and local) were significantly increased; the full-time and part-time work-force was substantially expanded; new training programmes, again for full- and part-timers, were introduced; a dedicated Youth Service building programme continued throughout the decade; and a dedicated ‘development council’ acted as a constant stimulus to the development of national policy. Here again the message is: negativity need not necessarily drive national policy-making even when populist fears are strong and being loudly articulated.

Disporportionality’ in current youth policy-making

So much for history. When we turn to what is happening today, especially in the youth policy field, as ever there are contradictions: current political and policy commitments to consulting with and involving young people in decision-making are for example particularly striking, even if the reality what is needed to convert them into action is often not fully appreciated. At the same time, as we have seen, we are again experiencing an extreme moral panic over ‘youth’ and the threat young people pose to the social and moral order.

This is not to say that there is no basis for these anxieties. You don’t have to live on a neglected housing estate or inner city area to get first-hand evidence that some young people – not unlike some adults and indeed ‘senior citizens’ - are a genuine public pain. It is important not to deny this or romanticise all young people’s behaviour or under-estimate the grief they can bring to the lives of some sections of the population, not least other young people. All this needs collective responses, if only because otherwise individual – vigilante, not to say extreme right-wing – activities will be left freer to operate and gain legitimacy. And these responses certainly need to include appropriate and proportionate application of the law and of law enforcement procedures.

However, in the youth policy field what is crucially different from the 1960s is that today a strategy is being developed based on deliberately exploiting popular tensions and frustrations – on playing directly on fear and prejudice. The result is to encourage blanket demonising and dehumanising of a whole generational segment of the population by resort to, and then the widespread and continual recycling of, labels such as ‘yob’ and ‘feral youth’. In order to turn the full weight of the state against these demons, disproportionate public and policy responses are then endorsed, which involve serious distortion of the operation of judicial and law enforcement procedures.

Here in fact are examples of a significant rebalancing of policies towards an exploitation of public fears and prejudices and away from more strategic and positive responses to the causes of those fears and prejudices and the insecurity they bring. This rebalancing shows up most clearly in two key elements of the Government’s anti-social behaviour legislation – in anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) and in disposal orders (curfews).


The rise and rise of the ASBO since it was introduced in 1999 has been relentless and apparently unstoppable. With courts refusing only about 3% of applications, over 4600 had been imposed by December 2004 – 768 in the last three months of the year, a 116% increase on same period of 2003. Forty six per cent of orders were on juveniles - 31% where no other offence was involved. (Home Office, 2005) With breaches running at 40 percent to Dec 2004, research by the Youth Justice Board revealed that in any month in 2004 between 50 and 70 young people were in custody for breaching an ASBO (Lloyd 2004) – probably the main cause of the increase in young people getting custodial sentences.

The bewilderingly vague definition of what may attract an ASBO – ‘ behaviour which (has) caused or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to others’ – puts young people at particular risk simply because they wish to live so much of their leisure lives in public. Though the House of Lords has now ruled that a case must be proved beyond reasonable doubt, civil law rules of evidence still apply. Hearsay and third party evidence often bordering on gossip is therefore allowed, with heavy weight being given to the testimony of the police and other ’professional witnesses’ such as housing officers. With automatic reporting restrictions now lifted, this evidence then acts as the basis for the naming and shaming of even very young children, often circulated throughout whole neighbourhoods via glossy leaflets with full colour photos and maps delineating restricted areas. Breaches of an order can mean up to five years in custody even when the original offence was not criminal.

A great deal of the media coverage of ASBOs, certainly initially, has been on bizarre individual (mainly adult) behaviour: a suicidal woman prohibited from going near bridges; a neighbour not allowed to appear at her window in her underwear; a farmer not controlling his pigs. By attracting derision this may do something to undermine credibility. In fact, though ASBOs and their impact on people’s – especially young people’s - lives are no joking matter.

Nor are their wider effects which, like their intentions, go much deeper. What originally was justified as necessary to protect neighbours from the vandalism, graffiti and other kinds of ‘youth nuisance’ seen as making their lives impossible is being increasingly used to, for example, re-instate prison for prostitutes; clear beggars and the mentally ill from public view - and of course to remove young people from anywhere where their elders might be offended. The state of our public policy-making in this area was vividly captured in June 2005 by the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights in a report on UK human rights (Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, 2005). In this he talked of:

This burst of ASBO-mania …

… excessive political encouragement being given to Local Authorities by Westminster …

… the ASBO being touted as a miracle cure for urban nuisance.


However, ASBOs are only part of any examination of ‘threatening youth’, 2005-style. Such an analysis clearly also needs to take in curfews. At the last count some 79% of police forces in England & Wales (34 out of 43) had imposed 9pm curfews on under-16s (Liberty, 2005). With 100s already in place all over country, one forecast for the summer of 2005 was for at least one hundred ‘special zones’, one-third in London, over twenty in Liverpool, others in Manchester, Newcastle and other cities, with breaches carrying the threat of a £2500 fine or a prison sentence. (Goodchild and Johnson, 2005)

Here too, the effectiveness of such measures is highly very questionable. One study of 10 to 17-year-olds placed under curfew in the first quarter of 2003 suggested that just over 75% were reconvicted within 12 months (BBC, 2005). Much more fundamentally however are their impact on young people’ individual rights and freedom. I’m not the greatest statistician, but let us just assume for argument’s sake that 2 per cent of the 5.5M 10-16 year olds in this country really are absolute rogues who need rapidly and ruthlessly to be taken out of circulation after 9pm. That means that, as curfews sweep the nation – including, let us make no mistake, countryside as well as town - well over five million young people who have done absolutely nothing wrong may be ending up with their right to walk street arbitrarily taken away. Which adult group could you do that to? And get away with it? Legally? Without paying a serious political price?

So – what’s going on here?

Underpinning my argument so far is that what is happening with youth policy and beyond is not the result of mere absence of mind. Something much more deliberate, and dangerous, is taking place. I certainly do not want to be misunderstood to be suggesting that the violence of 9/11 in the USA or of 7/7 in the UK is equivalent to what hoodies do in shopping malls to frighten adults. Nonetheless, I do think it is important to take that risk in order to make explicit that what, through ASBOs and curfews, is being inflicted on young people (and others) in the name of the law is, in crucial ways, all of a piece with the anti-terror legislation. Imposing legal sanctions (‘control orders’) on people (‘suspects’) without a trial in open court and without the accused knowing the evidence against them or even perhaps their alleged offence is merely at the extreme end of a strategy designed to take out of public circulation anyone seen as threatening, deviant or just plain ‘undesirable’. What particularly marks out this strategy is its impatience with all those long-winded and costly judicial procedures - juries, tough rules of evidence, rights of appeal and other key checks and balances - which can get in the way of the Daily Mail’s ‘middle England’ populist will getting its way and which Blair himself has now labelled outdated left-overs from the nineteenth century.

Against this background, ASBOs and curfews can be seen as operating as a form of street cleansing ‘to get rid of any sort of unacceptable behaviour, whether it is eccentric or anti-social’ (Fletcher, 2005). Indeed, the European Commissioner for Human Rights has accused the UK of using proceedings ‘drawn up in such a way as to permit a range of behaviour that is merely disapproved off (even by only very few people) to be brought with their scope.’ On all this in fact, Martin Bell (2005), the former independent MP, has let the cat out of the bag. Without disguise or embarrassment he explained to Guardian readers exactly why New labour has been promoting ASBOs:

… (they) bypass the criminal justice system and ultimately mean seriously disruptive youths can be locked up. This may be a rough form of justice but it instils respect for authority in their peers by demonstrating that if they take society on, society can be tougher than them.

The second front: young people at risk

Nor is that the end of it for young people’s rights and their freedom to make their own choices. A second front has been opened up trained on young people’s safety and the risks they face of abuse and exploitation, especially sexual. Again, powerful realities are driving these anxieties. No policy-maker can ignore the high levels of bullying and harassment amongst young people: a June 2005 NCH report, for example, revealed that 1 in 10 eleven-nineteen year olds had been bullied via their mobiles. (Carvel 2005) These everyday forms of harassment, intimidation and bullying, young person on young person - often indistinguishable from racial harassment or gay bashing – are then mirrored by high (and often hidden) levels of adult abuse and harassment of young people, some of it violent and persistent. Given media treatment of high profile cases, policy-makers and practitioners are likely to resolve these dilemmas with a firm eye on protecting their rear.

Again however, in the present policy-making climate, we have to ask – where is the balance? Why are so many of the responses at the negative/panic end of the continuum? Who amidst all the pressures is trying to filter the choices through young people’s perspectives and expectations?

Take for example the Sexual Offences Act 2003. Even during its passage serious concerns were expressed that young people engaged in mutually consensual sexual activity in public might find themselves being prosecuted and criminalised. Though ministers offered clarifications and reassurances, how in the present climate, with the provisions on the statute book and professionals therefore seeing themselves as having legal obligations to react - how could services not get busy, if only to make sure that they steer clear of a public scandal?

And sure enough that is precisely what had happened. Following the Bichard enquiry into the Soham children’s murders and prompted particularly by an Act which, as one senior Metropolitan Police Officer out it, ‘makes it a criminal offence for a child under 13 to be penetrated (Children Now, 2005), in June 2005 the London Child Protection Committee circulated its ‘Pan-London Protocol’ Working with sexually active young people under the age of 18 (London Child Protection Committee, 2005). An ‘interim’ arrangement until the government produces its national guidance, this requires all professionals to carry out risk-assessments on any person under 18 known to them as, or likely to be, sexually active. Drawing on police, health, social services and education records, procedures could include checks on the young person and their ‘partner’ carried out without their consent; and, where the young person is seen as in need of protection, referral to social services possibly with police involvement. The information gathered might then be held on record by the police as ‘soft’ intelligence.

Clearly, given how the Soham murders happened, complacency is not an option. However, where in all this are young people’s rights to privacy? To making decisions about their own lives and how they wish to live them? To getting advice which they can be sure is confidential and won’t lead to their personal details being spread across organisations and amongst professionals? Are there no limits in fact to what adults think they can do to – even for – young people just because they are young people?

Both out of fear of young people – of the threat they seem to pose - but also out of fear for them – because of their perceived vulnerability – the answer, it seems, is: ‘No’. The result is that, increasingly, youth policy-makers are bearing down on the young: curtailing their freedom and independence, overriding their rights, restricting their liberty; intruding on their privacy. If youth was once a foreign land mysterious to its elders, today it is open country just waiting to be invaded.

So what’s to be done?

New evidence on how youth policies are developing twenty years after the publication of Threatening Youth seems to be appearing by the day. Developing the kind of commentary attempted in this paper has therefore taken on something of a life of its own. Indeed, hard-headed analysis of policy has never been more necessary – indeed, it has to remain a first tool of practice.

The much more difficult task however is to know how to respond to those at the cutting faced with the question: ‘What do I do about all this on Monday morning – what credible and value-driven strategies and tactics are available to me, not just for holding in check what is being done to a whole generation of young people in the name of ‘respect’ and ‘law and order’, but, even more importantly, for making creative, young people-friendly inputs?. No easy or single prescriptions for such action exist. What follows merely indicates some broad and ‘unfinished’ possibilities.

Political pressure

Largely as a result of the determination and drive of some dedicated individuals, 2005 saw the establishment of ASBOConcern ( – an alliance of independent organisations and individuals committed amongst other things to ‘a full public government review of asbos and the way they are being used’ and to ‘properly funded, high quality youth services and support for vulnerable people’. Launched in London in April 2005, within its first six months it had lobbied the Home Office, presented a dossier of ASBO cases compiled by the National Association of Probation Officers to Home Office ministers, launched itself in the SBO capital of the UK, Manchester, and gained space and time in the media as the voice of an alternative view on ASBOs. A national conference was also being planned.

As a route to exerting pressure on policy-makers it offers practitioners and their managers one of the few possibilities for developing some collective political action against the present Government’s assault on the rights of a range of politically weak groups, including young people. The experience and expertise of youth workers thus have much to offer to its activities.

The legal route

On 20 July 2005 a judge ruled on a test case on the legality of curfews on young people brought by the civil liberties organisation Liberty under the Human Rights Act. It concerned a 15 year old young man living in Richmond who, the court had been told, was unable to get to band practice without a lift from parents or to meet friends in the street or even to do family errands to his corner shop because of the curfew imposed in his area of the Borough. The young man was described in court as ‘churchgoing’ and ‘a model student’ who was taking his GCSEs the following summer and who had had no involvement with the police. The judged ruled that, although dispersal orders as such were not illegal, it was a breach of the Human Rights Act for the police to force a young person to go home: ‘All of us have the right to walk the streets without interference from police constables or CSOs (community support officers) unless they possess common law and statutory powers to stop us.’ Forcibly removing children from the zones had not been Parliament's intention because, he concluded, that would be contrary to the UK’s international obligations to ‘treat each child as an autonomous human being’.

For those in regular face-to-face contact with young people, this case highlights one important lesson: the difficulty Liberty had in identifying a young person willing to go to court, even when anonymity was guaranteed. Clearly many barriers stand in the way of young people making such a commitment. For their part, workers are likely to meet employer resistance to something seen as not within their remit – indeed as too ‘political’. Another blockage may be, however, that ‘going the legal route’, even when the support of an organisation like Liberty is on offer, is outside the professional mind-set of youth workers or their managers – even those working for voluntary or community sector agencies which see themselves as more ‘radical’ and ‘progressive’. In the current youth policy mania, critical review of such reactions is long overdue.

Principled pragmatism

A third possible way for workers and especially their managers to seek to ameliorate some of the worst effects of our deeply flawed youth policies is by adopting the well tried strategy of operating ‘in and against the state’. A modest example of this approach was set out in an email by a local authority youth officer:

I sit on an anti social behaviour implementation group which consists of police, social services, education, housing, Youth Service, etc. So far it has worked hard to prevent young people being asbo-ed and with some success… All asbos are considered at this group other than asbos on conviction which are dealt with directly at the courts… It has meant that agencies have begun to work better together to address some of the issues with young people and the Youth Service has a substantial part to play in this - though, as ever, funding is an issue; trying to encourage a proactive rather than reactive approach is a challenge.

This form of ‘principled pragmatism’ can feel very compromised and compromising. It is not be devalued, however, least of all by those of us who now sit a long way from the action. Often indeed it is the best, and on the ground the only, form of manoeuvring available to workers and managers committed to the best young person-centred practice they can achieve in unsympathetic or even hostile environments.

It’s the structures, stupid

Whatever day-to-day strategies or tactics are adopted, however, and without letting the young people off the hook of responsibility for their actions, practitioners need also to keep faith with their understanding of how wider economic and societal pressures help shape young people’s behaviour. It was after all Tony Blair himself, in the sound-bite which did so much to lift his political career, who insisted on the need to be ‘tough on causes of crime’ – a perspective which can be seen to survive in, for example, the commitment to halving child poverty by 2010-11 and eradicating it within twenty years

The Government also now has with quite specific evidence presented to it by the Social Exclusion Unit on the links between offending and some of the very ‘problems’ - homelessness and mental and physical ill health - which, it now seems to think can be addressed by slapping on an ASBO. (See Nick Davies, 2005). One challenge to policy analysts and practitioners alike is therefore to struggle for similar connections to be made between these conditions - particularly the poverty which shuts young people off from so many leisure options – and the ‘problem of youth disorder’.

A second reason for holding onto even modest versions of a structural explanations of young people’s behaviour is that, still lurking within many popular reactions to young people’s behaviour is a yearning for solutions which are more positive and more effective than those currently being provided by youth policies. Take ASBOs. Eighty two per cent of those interviewed for a MORI survey (Mori 2005) supported them - 70% because they saw them as sending out a clear message that action to deal with anti-social behaviour was being be taken. Yet nearly half (46%) thought they weren’t very or at all effective - an (at the very least) ambivalence which would seem to support the European Commissioner’s conclusion that:

The purpose (of ASBOs might be) more to reassure the public that something is being done – and, better still, by local residents themselves – than the actual prevention of the anti-social behaviour itself. (Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights, 2005)

Moreover, when public attitudes were interrogated more intensively through a research project sponsored by the Rowntrees Foundation (Jacobson, McDonald and Hough, 2005), two-thirds of those questioned came out in favour of preventive rather ‘tough’ action. All of which suggests that, despite government and media ‘get-the-yobs’ campaigns, strands of popular opinion and feelings are waiting to be tapped which want much more positive and constructive responses to young people’s frustration and alienation and the public behaviour which adults find discomforting.

Because a last – though certainly not the least - reason for pressing for responses which take on the deeper causes of this behaviour is that, persistently and often very articulately, this is just what young people themselves are demanding. What so many of them experience, daily and directly, on edge-of-town housing estates, in run-down inner city areas and in isolated rural communities are the effects of the loss of those open access leisure-time facilities decimated during the Thatcherite era. The result, in the words of one young person, is that ‘I’m bored by my own boredom’ (Edwards and Hatch, 2003). This precisely captures the condition of so many of this generation who, across the country, usually with great feeling and, eerily, often in the very same words, tell anyone who stops to ask:

We’ve nowhere to go and nothing to do.

That’s why we get into trouble.

All we want is somewhere to meet our friends, in half-decent surroundings.

Urgently, sometimes desperately, what lie behind and beneath these responses are demands for some break in the daily boring routine, a chance to do something stimulating and rewarding, an escape from the recreational and cultural deserts to which they have increasingly been abandoned by public services at least since the 1980s - all underpinned by the plea that, just for once, they get some respect, that someone listen to what they have to say and then act on it.

This cannot of course be the whole answer. It will not, for example, tackle the economic and social neglect which fuels the drug cultures gripping some areas and the gun crime that goes with it. On the other hand, what young people are asking for isn’t exactly rocket science. Most of is modest and achievable. And, coming as it does straight out of their lived and grounded experience, it still offers practitioners and manager the most authentic, credible, hopeful and creative platform from which to launch their fight-back.

Further reading and bibliography

Martin Bell (2005), ‘Antisocial politics’, Guardian (letter), 13 June

BBC (2005), ‘Curfews “don’t stop reoffending”’,, 2 February

John Carvel (2005), ‘Thousands of pupils bullied by camera phone’, Guardian, 7 June

Children Now (2005), ‘Child protection: London action on Bichard concerns’, 24 May

Stanley Cohen (1973), Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Palladin

Bernard Davies (1986), Threatening Youth: Towards a national youth policy, Open University Press

Bernard Davies (2005a), ‘Youth Work: A Manifesto for Our Times’, National Youth Agency, 2005a (Reprinted from Youth and Policy, No 88)

Bernard Davies (2005b), ‘If youth matters where is the youth work, Youth and Policy, No 89

Nick Davies (2005), ‘Lifeline that failed victim of system’, Guardian, 22 June

Department for Education and Employment (2001), Transforming Youth Work: Developing youth work for young people, DfEE

Department for Education and Skills (2002), Transforming Youth Work: Resourcing Excellent Youth Services, Department for Education and Skills

Department for Education and Skills (2005), Youth Matters, DfES

Laura Edwards and Becky Hatch (2003), Passing time: a report about young people and communities, Institute for Public Policy Research

Harry Fletcher (2005), ‘Anti-social behaviour orders: the first six years’

Sophie Goodchild and Andrew Johnson (2005), ‘Curfew nation: summer curb on yobs’, Independent on Sunday, 12 June

Home Office (2005), ‘New measures will tackle causes of anti-social behaviour’, Press release, 29 June

Zoe Hilton (2005), ‘Space, Autonomy and Respect: The potential contribution of youth clubs to the lives of disaffected young people’, Youth and Policy No 87

Jessica Jacobson, Eraina McDonald and Mike Hough (2005), Anti-social behaviour strategies: Finding a balance, The Policy Press

Liberty (2005), ‘Police curfew’,, home page, 4 June

Tom Lloyd (2004), ‘Youth Justice Board head fears anti-crime promises’, Young People Now, 1-7 December

London Child Protection Committee (2005), ‘Pan-London Protocol on sexually active young people’

Ministry of Education (1960), The Youth Service in England and Wales, London, HMSO

Mori (2005), ‘Public Concern about ASB and support for ASBOs’,, 10 June

Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights (2005), Report by Mr Alvaro Gil-Robles, Commissioner for Human Rights, on his visit to the United Kingdom, 4 – 12 November 2004, Council of Europe, 8 June

Sue Robertson (2005), Youth Clubs: Association, Participation, Friendship and Fun, Russell House Publishing

Celia Rose (1998), Touching Lives: A personal history of Clapton Jewish Youth Centre, National Youth Agency

How to cite this article: Davies, Bernard (2005) 'Threatening Youth revisited: youth policies under New Labour', the encyclopaedia of informal education,

© Bernard Davies 2005