Could the ASBCP Bill restrict liberties?

The Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill is one of the Coalition’s flagship reforms in the realm of crime and civil liberty reform. Whilst the Coalition modernises many areas, it is also introducing two powers, IPNAS and PSBO’s, that are even more interfering and nanny-statist than the government they replaced.

Like many political geeks, I was enthusiastic about the opportunity for a fresh start for civil liberties under the Coalition. David Cameron seemed to have succeeded in demonstrating to his party the hypocrisy of opposing the ‘nanny state’ and yet holding so many authoritarian positions on law and order.

In any case, even if the “hang ‘em and flog ‘em” elements of the Tory party bubbled to the surface, the Liberal Democrats at least had a long tradition in upholding civil liberties and would surely veto such laws.  The Coalition Agreement acknowledged the erosion of freedom and civil liberties that had taken place in the past decades, and promised a litany of reforms that ought to satisfy even the most persistent civil libertarian. This included the restoration of rights to non-violent protest and preventing the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

The Coalition has certainly had some success in this area, such as scrapping ID cards and halving the number of days one can be held without charge, from 28 to 14. Nevertheless, more recently the Coalition parties seem to be proving the assertion that it is easier to be support civil liberties when in opposition than when in government.

This week the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill reached the Committee stage of the House of Lords, having passed the House of Commons last month. It is expected to enter law before Christmas. To its credit, the Bill improves the law in many areas, such as restricting Schedule 7 ‘stop and search’ powers and improving the thoroughly ineffective and much maligned Dangerous Dogs Act.

However, other aspects of the Bill are less commendable.  In particular, the Bill introduces Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAS) to replace ASBOs. These injunctions can be brought against any individual over the age of 10 engaged in “conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. They have been described by Liberty as “easier to obtain, harder to comply with and have harsher penalties” than ASBOs.

Earlier this week, a senior police officer warned that ASBOs had criminalised youthful indiscretion leading to worse problems in the future. Had this Bill been passed a century ago, half of the Just William stories would have undoubtedly ended in a court-imposed injunction and a criminalised childhood! The vague language that qualified people for ASBOs also led to a number of Onion-like stories, such as the 87 year old man banned from speaking sarcastically and a chicken owner banned from owning noisy chickens! Rather than taking on board these criticisms and refining the language to more accurately target anti-social behaviour the government has instead proposed to make it illegal to be annoying!

The Bill also grants local authorities, police and private security firms Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO). This gives them the power to bar citizens from assembling in public spaces, orders which can last up to 3 years. The Manifesto Club described the introduction of these orders as evidence that the government’s primary aim was to remove as many barriers as possible to local authorities taking action without considering the need for checks and balances to prevent exuberant and over-the-top application of the powers. If the legacy of the Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act is anything to go by, such checks and balances are needed to preserve liberty from the interfering and overprotective tendencies of a few local authorities.

It is important not to be alarmist or sensationalist on such matters as these. This Bill does not signal the dawn of a Police State epoch in which a tyrannical state incarcerates people for enjoyment. Nevertheless, there is no reason that an idea has to become despotic before it becomes a bad idea.

The Coalition Agreement, which promised to restore the right to non-violent protest and prevent unnecessary new criminal offences, is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the coalition supposedly following its agenda.

Will Archdeacon

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