Opinion: Antisocial behaviour bill set to restrict public protest

February 15th 2003 - Iraq war demo in LondonThe 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 councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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  • over last 40 years iv seen freedom eroded police abuse powers given them all to try control conform to make it easier for those in political like to restrict control us for there ends under Maggie anti union an protest laws under Blair anti terror laws under collation even more WE ARE SLOWLY CREEPING TO A CONTROLED DICTATORSHIP mad mad Iv told my Family get out before it too late we are going to be controlled by un-elected officials an German governments SAD SAD what happened to Britain and Freedom Hence UKIP and others

  • “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.”

    Yes!!!! Now try and build HS2!!!!

  • Another problem with this bill are Injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance “The first condition is that the court is satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person (“anti-social behaviour”).” [section 1 (2)]

    This is wider and the test weaker than in Asbos. The test in Asbos is the criminal one of “beyond reasonable doubt” and anti-social manner is defined as “that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”.

    Also a criminal behaviour order for those over 18 can be applied for an indefinite period. The good thing is one can only be arrested if there is a threatened use of violence or significant risk of harm to others.

    Criminal behaviour orders are better but it still talk of “likely to” and this is an opinion rather than fact.

  • Stephen Rice 15th Jul '13 - 8:35pm

    Naturists in the know are worried sick by this bill. Injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance, community protection notices, closure notices , closure orders, and even police dispersal powers, could be used to prohibit naturism for periods ranging from 48 hours to indefinitely. Simple nudity has never been illegal in England and Wales, but some police and councils harass naturists determinedly. There are 3.7 million naturists in the Uk, but most know nothing about this bill because they are not members of any organization.
    Many people will think that further measures to deal with anti-social behaviour are to be welcome, but this is not really an ASB bill at all – it is a draconian “we can ban anything we want to” bill. Soon, the nation will wake up to find it has sleepwalked into handcuffs.

  • A good article – showing “rational liberalism” (my phrase from the recent Naked Rambler article) in action!

    Andy Boddington hasn’t tried to argue that freedom is always by definition bound to be a good thing. Instead, he has identified what kinds of freedom he thinks really matter, and told us why. He hasn’t fallen into the trap of slagging off all those ordinary people who would just like to see less anti-social behaviour happening. Instead, he has called for tighter legal drafting so that the new Bill does not throw the baby out with the bathwater. That’s the way to go.

  • Andy Boddington 16th Jul '13 - 5:14pm

    Thanks very much for your comments.

    It is the nature of liberalism that it is only rarely eroded by big actions – for example after 9/11. Freedom and fairness are usually chipped away at the edges, a little bit here, a little bit there, often unintentionally or in the belief that nothing important is being lost.

    Anti social behaviour must be tackled more quickly and effectively than at present. But we should not confuse different life styles and different ways of going about things as ASB. That is what this bill as currently drafted will allow.

  • Andy Boddington 19th Jul '13 - 8:06am

    I’ve now read the bill as amended at committee stage in commons. Nothing has changed on the PSPO front. It remains a threat to the liberal tradition of protest and undermines our claim to be a freely democratic country.

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