The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which completes its committee stage today (Monday), is set to join a growing list of parliamentary acts that are used in ways that were not intended by lawmakers. Many of the champions of the freedom to live and roam freely (and, alas, smoke) are raising concerns about the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, including Liberty (pdf), the Manifesto Club (pdf), and the Ramblers. For me the real danger in this bill lies in its potential to illiberally suppress protest.
Like so much modern legislation, the bill is something of a miscellany, dealing with dogs, drunks and druggies. What drives the bill is the perceived failure of existing antisocial behaviour measures and the desire for a simpler, comprehensive package. So it is ushering in IPNAs – Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance –and throwing ASBOs out. Designated public places orders, gating orders and dog control orders will be replaced by the all-embracing Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO), which aims to tackle a wide range of dysfunctional behaviour.
This all sounds good in principle, but I fear it will not be long before local councils, often acting for the police or commercial interests, will use PSPOs to clamp down on public protest.
There are precedents for this. The Harassment Act 1997 has protected hundreds of vulnerable people from terror and violence. But it has also been used by an energy company to slap injunctions on environmental protestors. An attempt under the Act to prevent Climate Camp pitching at Heathrow led to an injunction so badly conceived it might have applied to five million people.
Local authorities will be able to impose a PSPO if there are persistent activities in a public place that have “a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality” or if it is likely those activities might occur. The order can ban individuals, groups or even everyone from almost any space that the public has access to. Or it can prevent them carrying out a specific activity in that place. The ban can last for three years and is renewable. A breach of the order, including trespass, is a criminal offence, punished by fixed penalty notices or a fine of up to £1,000.
Drug dealers peddling, youths necking back cheap cider, owners of defecating dogs and kids skateboarding are all set to find their actions constrained by the new PSPOs.
But if a local authority was so minded, it could also shut down protests in the mould of Occupy, Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and even Meriden Residents Against Inappropriate Development. A group that meets in the same location every week to chant slogans could easily be banned with a PSPO. (So could outdoor prayer meetings.) The wording of the bill allows almost any protest that is not a spontaneous to be blocked by a council, providing it takes place on publicly accessible land. And where else do protests take place?
The right to protest, to collect together to protest, to do it repeatedly and to be something of nuisance while doing it, is a fundamental freedom. It should not be restricted by loosely worded legislation.
* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice