This week the House of Lords quite rightly rejected government proposals to replace the ASBO system with IPNAs. This change of acronyms may at first glance seem like meaningless bureaucratism, but if IPNAs are implemented they bring with them some chilling new powers for the state. This lies in the ambiguous wording of the proposals. If passed, a court injunction could be given to anyone ‘engaged in conduct which is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. The government intends to make being annoying a criminal offence. Where will the state stop?
Freedom of speech is in place to defend unpopular opinions, opinions that some may find annoying. Obviously there need be no protections to defend opinions that the majority of people agree with, because there would be no desire on the part of the people to see those opinions silenced. No free society can flourish without the right to say something without fear of persecution from the state: it kills off new ideas, it frightens innovators, and it establishes rank conformity. As such, none of us should find it acceptable that the state is so blatantly trying to quash our freedoms. Many of us find street musicians and church bell-ringers annoying, indeed they may even pose a nuisance, but does this justify criminalising them? Of course not.
Former Commissioner of the Met Police Lord Ian Blair even came out against the legislation- using the example that a man dressed in a Union Jack outfit outside 10 Downing Street in 2007 was annoying Gordon Brown, but because that was not a criminal offence at the time, he was powerless to do anything about it. He claims that the term ‘annoy’ is so far reaching that police will be forced to act on almost any complaint from one individual against another, even if many of us would say that criminality has not occurred.
As such, IPNAs threaten to make everyone a criminal. But it also throws up questions about when annoyance is no longer deemed acceptable. If I am a busker who is the victim of an IPNA complaint on the basis that I am annoying, am I justified in saying that the individuals annoyance annoys me? Say I am annoyed that this individual considers me a nuisance when I am just doing the job I have been doing for years. Can I file an IPNA complaint against this person for complaining about me? As it stands, the wording of the legislation means I can. It’s beginning to get clearer why the House of Lords rejected the proposals.
I’ll continue with the example of the street musician. Say that the aforementioned individual finds the busker annoying and files an IPNA complaint, which the police are forced to uphold because it is reasonable to assume that the individual is annoyed by public music. As such the musician is stopped from playing in that particular street, or in the surrounding area. What if there were hundreds of commuters whose daily grinds were massively improved by the presence of music? One person being annoyed has deprived hundreds of people of enjoyment.
The worst part is that we are sleepwalking towards a world where this is possible. There is no public outrage over the IPNA proposals. The state finds it rather easy to assert itself on all of us, and that’s bad news for all of us.
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