Sexual Risk orders: something liberals should be worried about?

Over the next two days, the Commons will complete its debates on the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Liberty have already expressed concern about some of the measures within it:

The Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill proposes to replace existing orders (such as ASBOs) with a new  generation of injunctions which are easier to obtain, harder to comply with and have harsher penalties. The Bill would also introduce unfair double punishment for the vulnerable, as social tenants and their families will face mandatory eviction for breaching a term of an injunction. Other measures in the Bill include some restrictions on Schedule 7 stop and search powers which, while welcome, unfortunately come nowhere near addressing the dangerous breadth and intrusiveness of these powers. The Bill also weakens key safeguards in our already heavily-criticised extradition system by removing the automatic right of appeal against extradition orders.

In July our own Andy Boddington expressed his concerns about the effects of the bill on the right to public protest.

However, last week, the Government announced that it was giving the Police sweeping new powers to restrict the activities of people they suspect to be at risk of sexually abusing children, even if they have not been charged with an offence. Those affected could find themselves being prohibited from foreign travel, have their internet use restricted and be forbidden from being alone with a child under 16. These are huge and major restrictions of liberty and could be imposed on people who have not been charged or found guilty of an offence.

It’s not a new idea. Labour brought in the first generation of such orders in 2003. Reading the actual legislation worried me a bit. Here’s one of the things that put you at risk of being put under one of these orders:

giving a child anything that relates to sexual activity or contains a reference to such activity;

It’s pretty sloppy wording. I gave my daughter not exactly this book, but one of its predecessors as part of what I would think any reasonable person would consider essential education. Come to think of it, I’ve encouraged her to read some good works of fiction, like Della says OMG by Keris Stainton which very sensitively explore some of the questions young people have as they’re growing up. I’m a huge fan of that book, actually, because it has some very clear themes about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. I don’t think anyone has been subjected to an order for something like this, but if we value our liberty we shouldn’t be allowing such wording into our laws.

It worries me that these new updated orders could be placed on people who don’t present a threat to children with very little scrutiny and possibility for appeal. If the Police think someone has done something, why not charge them with it? If they are grooming a child online, then there will be the evidence to prove it, for example.

Zoe O’Connell blogged about this on Complicity the other day, highlighting just some of the problems that could arise:

In other words, you can have one of these orders slapped on you because the police don’t like you. The restrictions on the person who is unfortunate to receive such an order are quite severe. That’s particularly true in this day and age of the internet use clause as it’s not even possible to claim some benefits without internet access.

She draws a stark conclusion:

It probably goes without saying that likely targets of such orders include sex workers, those involved in consensual BDSM and anyone trans. (Particularly in the wake of McNally – imagine a “You must out yourself to anyone you meet” order) This would apply even if the activities you engage in would not be considered unlawful by a jury, because the police only need to convince a magistrate you might pose a risk.

Basically, round up the usual suspects.

I am not persuaded that these orders protect any more children, but I do worry that they could pose a risk to the liberty of innocent people. The debate on this is supposed to run until 7 pm tonight. You can watch on BBC Parliament or via Parliament TV online.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Callum Leslie 14th Oct '13 - 12:24pm

    Yet another disappointingly illiberal measure from our Government. Why is that our MPs in Government seem happy to help railroad through social conservatism?

    As for giving children anything containing reference to sexual activity, that would include every parent who bought their child the final Twilight book. That’s quite a lot of people.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 14th Oct '13 - 12:45pm

    I was so stupid over that book – Anna had finished book 3 just as Breaking Dawn came out so I let her read it, not having come across anything too un-chaste in the first 3 books. I was more bothered about what a control freak Edward Cullen was than anything else. It was only when my friend warned me on a comment on my blog that I sought to intervene – just as Anna had got to one of the most dramatic bits in the book. Oops. She survived that experience, though.

  • As someone who was sexually abused as a child and got through it I do see the problem(s) that this bill was designed to address, and I also acknowledge that something ‘as ever’ should be done to improve matters. As ever the devil is in the detail and the law of (hopefully) unintended consequences applies, some of the solutions illiberally supplied by the bill as is will detract police attention from where it should be and I fear at best inconvenient many others if not seriously blight their lives. Justice should be seen to be done through the courts and with a fair trial. If we unbalance our system so police may restrict citizens freedom so sweepingly are we not empowering them as our judges not just as our watchmen?

  • Simon McGrath 14th Oct '13 - 2:32pm

    This sounds like a very illiberal piece of legislation – I gave my son a copy of ‘Game of Thrones’ when he was 14 – sounds like I could get one of these orders served on me.

    But the point about the Mcnally case is very different. That about whether tricking a 16 year old who thought she was having sex with a boy ( but was in fact having sex with a girl) was a crime.
    It clearly was since there was no consent.

  • We all know what devastation predatory people such as Jimmy Savile (especially those with a measure of power and /or celebrity) have wreaked, violent rapists have ruined people’s lives, sometimes for ever. But it seems to me that we are bringing in a new puritan order under the guise of protecting people, and at the same time, criminalising many people for behaviour now being classified as sexual crime. The sexual revolution of the 60s is in serious danger of being overturned. Also, as some above have commented, children need to learn about sex, they will continue to learn from playground contacts – surely it is better that they also hear from responsible adults as sex education, to ensure they get proper information and understanding when they are ready and mature enough to do so. There is such a volatile atmosphere around this subject, that I feel I should point out that I have not encountered, or sought out, so-called hardcore porn – involving children, animals or violence.

  • It seems to me that this differs from Russia’s law against “homosexual propaganda to minors” only in being more sweeping.

  • Cheering you on, Layla.

    My daughter is 10 and I have no doubt that some of the entertainment media she consumes would fall foul of this. I don’t mean the more esoteric stuff like old Hammer horror movies either; she watches soaps when she visits my mum, and there’s references to shagging every five minutes in Eastenders.

  • @Antony Hool
    “I think we should be clear that an order cannot be made simple because “the police don’t like you”.”

    From everything I’ve seen about this it is very very clear that it gives the police license to accuse anyone and have controls imposed on them for no reason whatsoever. Our only hope is that the European Court of Human Rights will put a stop to it.

  • Simon McGrath 14th Oct '13 - 10:11pm

    @anthony – thanks for clarifying. the fact that it has to go to a magistrates court does make a big difference.

  • And how much faith do we have in the often socially conservative magistrates? Lib Dem MPs have to challenge and vote this down. ‘Evidence’ ? Well if there’s evidence arrest and charge someone . Suspicion is not enough in my opinion. It wouldn’t be for any other crime so why for this? Why have we started grading alleged crimes? This again boils down to our inability to have a proper open debate about issues involving OMG ‘sex’, the discussion of it and how it manifests itself often quite naturally in our lives. Abuse is abuse but prove it through proper investigation . This is opening the floodgates for lots of miscarriages of justice. What some seem to be saying is that’s a sacrifice worth making around these (and only these sorts of alleged crimes). Sorry but to a liberal anything that endangers and undermines the principles of our justice system must be opposed. Ill be watching with interest what happens tonight.

  • “the fact that it has to go to a magistrates court does make a big difference.”

    You should do stand up. I love a comedian.

  • Rather than trust police and magistrates to use sweeping, broadly defined powers correctly, why not have a system of objective, written law which specifies which behaviour is and isn’t acceptable?

  • I am very concerned about these proposals especially any reduction in the in risk requirements or widening of remits, as the current Orders are already a risk to liberty of unconvicted citizens. Police DO apply for these orders just because they don’t like you, I KNOW as it happened to me. I rebuffed the attempt and they withdrew their Application, had to pay my costs and I received a letter of apology from Avon and Sometset Police. I sued them in the County Court for breach of HR, and the District Judge was highly critical of the police’s approach, he ruled my Human Rights were breached by threat of order hanging over me for 6 months, but I did not win compennsation as they did not act ILLEGALLY. At the very least any application for an order as serious as this should have to be made before District Judge sitting in Magistrtaes’ Court, or better-still before a Crown Court Judge, as magistrates usually rubber-stamp policed requests. I have lobbied Jeremy Browne to this effect. These orders do make judge and jury of police, and they have indeed as other contributor says prejudice against anyone felt to be on the fringes of society. In my case I dared to be a photographic Artist who photographed 17 year-old young women – clothed! My work had already been ruled totyally decent and legal by a unanimous Jury at Exeter Crown Court, yet police still strove to sentence me later – without either CHARGE or CONVICTION. Now you see the dangers here. CAUTION!!

  • Alison Smith 7th Jun '14 - 10:56am

    Those who are reassured by the necessity of the police to approach a magistrate to apply an Order, you should not be. Remember that this new Order differs greatly from previous in that it is not aimed at anyone who could be even charged with an offence. No conviction or even a charge is necessary, as the government’s own publicity makes almost gleefully clear. What kind of evidence is needed? Hearsay? Opinion? Well, it’s very sad and detrimental to the rule of law, but the majority of Brits want ever-tougher action against minor-attracted men, so British people have only themselves to blame if they get stung.

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