The Independent View: Anti-Social Behaviour Bill – A new legal threat to public protest

The Coalition Government is introducing a law which could seriously hit the right to protest. The Home Office wants to replace Labour’s ASBOs with something called an IPNA – Injunction Preventing Nuisance or Annoyance. But the threshold is so low and the safeguards are so weak that it could catch ordinary legitimate protest, charity collectors, or even street performers.

An IPNA could apply inside a private dwelling (ie your own house) as well as in a public place. It could apply to any activity which has merely the ‘potential’ to be annoying or a nuisance. Courts can grant an IPNA on the basis of ‘convenience’. The proposed law requires only a civil burden of proof (balance of probabilities). There’s no defence of ‘reasonableness’. The Bill also includes provisions to give the police powerful new dispersal powers. You can see it’s quite a heady cocktail. It all adds up to an incredibly dangerous law.

Lib Dem Peer, Lord Macdonald of River Glaven is the former Director of Public Prosecutions. He knows a thing or two about these things, and he has written a scathing legal opinion on the proposed new law. You can read the opinion in full for yourself here.

But here are some highlights:

…it is difficult to imagine a broader concept than causing ‘nuisance’ or ‘annoyance’. The phrase is apt to catch a vast range of everyday behaviours to an extent that may have serious implications for the rule of law.

…In my view, the combination of a low and vague threshold for the behavioural trigger, coupled with the civil standard of proof, creates an unacceptable risk that individuals will inappropriately be made subject of a highly intrusive measure that may greatly impact on their fundamental rights.

…Of course political demonstrations, street performers and corner preachers may be ‘annoying’ to some. They may even, from time to time be a ‘nuisance’. The danger in this Bill is that it potentially empowers State interference against such activities in the face of shockingly low safeguards and little apparent acknowledgment of the potential effect of its provisions on the ability of citizens to exercise core rights without undue interference.

…It is easily foreseeable that these powers may be invoked by the police in situations where their use impacts bluntly upon the exercise of rights to free expression and free assembly, as well as other core rights. In these circumstances, it is a matter of great concern that the Bill is drafted in such broad terms and includes so few safeguards to limit the potential effect of its provisions upon those rights.

When free speech and the right of protest is challenged in such a draconian way, you start seeing unusual alliances spring up. We saw it over the successful campaign to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act. The dust hasn’t yet settled on that successful campaign against criminalising “insults”, yet the Government is back again with a new law against “nuisance” and “annoyance”. That’s why The Christian Institute has again teamed up with secularists and civil liberty campaigners to oppose this planned law.

It is a crazy law. It will not deter thugs and hooligans who are normally already breaking lots of other laws anyway. But it will give massive power to the authorities to seek court orders to silence people guilty of nothing more than legitimate protest. The threshold must be raised, and proper safeguards introduced. Otherwise, a big chunk of our freedoms will be given away.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Simon Calvert is Deputy Director of Public Affairs at the Christian Institute

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11 Comments

  • Julian Tisi 13th Nov '13 - 1:29pm

    Excellent post. Thank you for highlighting this. Can someone senior in the party please explain our view on this and urgently? I would hope that we’re either trying to amend this to death else come out and say publicly we won’t be supporting this. I know the ASBO regime needs reform but this sounds much, much worse.

  • It would be good to have some response to objections to government policy on any issue. It is very easy to assume that the blogosphere is ignored by those in power. If the party is serious about outreach as a way of encouraging people to vote Lib Dem, a good place to start is to show that serious objections to policy are taken seriously.

  • Based on the case presented above, what a terrible bill! We must oppose!

  • This bill is an outrage. It creates a legal toolkit aimed squarely at the heart of traditional liberties and freedoms – and all for no good reason. What on earth are the Lib Dem contingent in the Coalition doing? I fear there are no good answers to that question.

  • I really do hope this IPNA – Injunction Preventing Nuisance or Annoyance legislation goes all the way, to the statute book. It will show once and for all the incompetence and impotence of a Coalition government unable to cope with reality.
    Nuisance and annoyance is in the eye of the beholder. If I decide that a LibDem foot soldier, shoving a Focus leaflet through my door is a constant nuisance, you may be getting a knock on your door followed by an injunction.
    Don’t say you weren’t warned.

  • Surely anti-social behaviour can be better defined?
    1. No drug dealing.
    2. No swearing at people as they walk past.
    3. No congregating outside peoples homes.
    4. No littering.
    5. No graffiti .
    6. No threats to injure others .
    7. No blocking peoples movement. One can protest at a place of work but not stop people entering or leaving.
    8. No spitting.
    9. No forcing people to detour around oneself .

    The above would allow protest outside peoples place of work but not their homes. Walking up to front door to post a piece of mail would be OK unless there is sign not to do so. I would suggest there several factors working here

    1. People take offence too easily and want to be victims.
    2. Reduction in manners.
    3. Lack of physically robust prepared to stop unruly behaviour , partly because they are worried of being accused of assault . As number of men undertake physically robust work, box, play rugby and/or have been in armed forces es , there are less to intervene . Rugby playing miners who have spent some time in the army tend to be very good stopping anti-social behaviour.

  • Is this proposed Injunction Preventing Nuisance or Annoyance in the Antisocial Behaviour etc Bill currently going through parliament? Because elsewhere (the Independent?) the threat this Bill presents to the right to demonstrate peacefully is highlighted – local councils will be given powers – Public Spaces Protection Orders – which will enable them to prevent demonstrations. A twofold attack on democracy?

  • So will LibDem MPs vote against the bill, then, if the definitions of ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’ are not made properly specific? Presumably, as it stands these vague words could also apply to any organisation or private individual that posts anything online that certain parties, like the Tories, don’t like as well? If LibDem MPs do vote against it en masse, it will be a first.

  • Tubby Isaacs 12th Dec '13 - 1:01am

    Coalition Agreement:

    “We will restore rights to non-violent protest … We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.”

    Congratulations on junking ID cards, but otherwise we’ve not seen this “great reform bill” we were promised.

    Vote against this, for starters.

    The Free Democrats, who Clegg bizarrely takes as his model, are good on civil liberties. At least copy the good bits they do!

  • Tubby Isaacs 12th Dec ’13 – 1:01am
    Coalition Agreement:
    “We will restore rights to non-violent protest … We will introduce safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.”

    Ch4 News last night reported on the police action against university students in London in the last few days.
    Some very worrying examples of police going onto private university property (uninvited according to the university authorities)and fighting with students.
    Even the most generous interpretation of the film footage shown, reveals heavy-handed police tactics. Apparently this film is now also on YouTube.

    The only person Ch4 News could get into the studio to defend the police was the ridiculous failed MP for Surbiton – Richard Tracey
    It would appear that Tracey has been brought back from the political grave to be a Tory member of the GLA. As was always the case he did not know which way was up. This is the sort of embarrassing dim- wit that the Coalition forces Liberal Democrats to associate with.

  • Charlie 15th Nov ’13 – 4:01pm
    “Rugby playing miners who have spent some time in the army tend to be very good stopping anti-social behaviour.”

    Charlie have you been advising the Ukrainian Government on how to deal with those pesky demonstrators ?

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