A nation of shoplifters? Britain’s anti-social society

Buxton Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 25 November, Devonshire Dome, Buxton


Over a million incidents of anti-social behaviour were recorded last year. The problem has been making headlines, from the government’s ban on the ‘laughing gas’ canisters that litter parks to the home-invasion trend that saw the infamous Mizzy walking into random houses with his fellow TikTokers. But how big a problem is it? Is anti-social behaviour a perennial problem caused by young people hanging about on the streets, or is there something else going on?

According to research, 43 per cent of victims of anti-social behaviour suffer mental-health impacts, while vandalism and disorder blight many areas. As for the perpetrators, the shadow justice secretary, Steve Reed, has spoken of ‘tackling the effects of the trauma that leads them to offend’. But is this therapeutic approach to young people and to those on the receiving end of anti-social behaviour just as disempowering as the punitive approach also advocated by both main parties?

The government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan promises to treat it ‘with the urgency it deserves’ and to take a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach. The campaign group Manifesto Club, however, describes it as a ‘significant increase in police and local authority powers to direct individual behaviour, ban public activities, and issue on-the-spot penalties’.

Shoplifting seems to be on the rise – with John Lewis and other corporations announcing profit losses linked to ‘steal-to-order’ shoplifters. In big supermarkets, many items such as baby formula or cheese are kept behind the counter or are security tagged. For some, the kinds of products being targeted signifies that the increase in criminality is linked to the cost-of-living crisis. But others argue that the inability of the police to respond to shoplifting calls means that thieves know they can operate with impunity. Earlier this year, Derbyshire’s police and crime commissioner announced her Action Against Anti-Social Behaviour Plan, with £4.4million from the Home Office to help with ‘hot spot’ policing, as well as ‘further resources to the CCTV upgrades, youth diversionary projects, and the provision of sports activities’. While some argue that anti-social behaviour is the devil making work for idle hands, others are sceptical about solving the crisis with youth clubs.

Is the political and media response excessive or are we too easily resigned to youthful misbehaviour, petty crime and incivility? Is it just the young ones we have to worry about? From dangerous dogs to shoplifting-to-order, age no longer seems to be the defining factor in many instances of anti-social behaviour. Has the interference of mobile phones in public life – creating a bystander society keen to film but not to act – meant that social shaming no longer plays a role in combatting anti-social behaviour? Do we have a role to play in ‘policing’ our communities ourselves or are we too scared, or disinclined, to intervene?

Tom Andrews
police historian; lecturer in policing, University of Derby; former police sergeant; author, The Sharpe End: murder, violence and knife crime on Nottingham’s thin blue line

Lisa McKenzie
working-class academic; author, Getting By: estates class and culture in austerity Britain and Working Class Lockdown Diaries

Dr Elizabeth Peatfield
senior lecturer in Criminal Justice, Liverpool John Moores University; presiding justice, Merseyside Criminal Bench

Jane Sandeman
chief operating officer, The Passage; convenor, AoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny

Paul Thomas
civil servant; co-founder, The Leeds Salon