Three reasons why criminalising “annoying behaviour” makes me really uneasy

This afternoon, the House of Lords will debate amendments to the Government’s Anti Social, Crime and Policing Bill. Clause 1, which currently states that the new Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) can be granted if:

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”)

is one of the main points of concern.

These provisions should make any liberal feel extremely uncomfortable. Campaigners, including the National Secular Society, the Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Institute have joined the usual suspect like Liberty and Big Brother Watch  in mounting vociferous opposition to this clause. George Monbiot, in the Guardian today, takes a very dim view of the legislation:

These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.

That might sound a bit hyperbolic, but could it happen?

Our man in the Home Office, Norman Baker, who doesn’t have an authoritarian bone in his body sought to reassure those who were concerned about the legislation when he wrote for this site in November:

Today the Independent published a story about the Coalition Government’s plans to reform anti-social behaviour legislation.  I know that many Lib Dems may well be concerned by the story. Indeed, if it were true I would be worried! But it is not. It is utter nonsense to suggest we are targeting skateboarders, ramblers, youngsters playing in their local park, or anyone else going about their daily lives perfectly reasonably.

In reality the new anti-social behaviour powers are designed to protect such activities. Rather, the power is designed to stop problem drinking, aggressive begging, dog fouling – any behaviour that spoils the rights of people to walk or play locally without fear of yobs.

He has since made further amendments in an attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to quell fears about the Bill. Some peers, including our own Baroness Hamwee and Lord Greaves, are making further attempts to tighten up the provisions, such as inserting extra defences to an IPNA application.

Despite these additional safeguards, I still feel very uneasy about these clauses for three reasons:

It’s not going to be Norman Baker making the decisions

If it were, we probably wouldn’t have to worry so much because he’d be liberal and sensible. It’s not, though. It could be any manner of authoritarian people who decide what behaviour could be construed as annoying. That’s in the eye of the beholder. There are lots of things that annoy me, but that doesn’t mean to say people should be stopped from doing them. I try not to annoy people, but I’m sure I do. Delivering a leaflet to their door that they don’t agree with is all it takes for some people. Others can be remarkably intolerant of children playing, teenage boys wearing hoodies going for a walk, charity collectors, door to door salespeople.

Those in authority take liberties

Nick Clegg once famously said:

You shouldn’t trust any Government, actually including this one, full stop. The natural inclination of Government is to hoard power and information, to accrue power to itself in the name of the public good.

You have to be very careful that powers that you give to anyone in authority are proportionate. Otherwise it’s not a matter of if they might be abused, it’s when.

People could lose their homes or be locked up on the basis of what others might find annoying

One of the provisions of this bill is that it makes it much easier for people to be chucked out of social housing. One member of a family with problems could mean that everyone else, including any children, are made homeless. What good is that going to do? Sally Hamwee’s amendment up for debate today restricts the behaviour to only people who live in the property. If that doesn’t pass, presumably a violent and rowdy ex partner could be responsible for a whole family being evicted. That should have been sorted out a long time before it got to Report stage in the Lords.

We’ve seen in the case of the Naked Rambler, who spent six years in prisons in Scotland, what can happen when the authorities react disproportionately.

With this law, they don’t even have to do anything “annoying”, just look like they are going to. That could mean that our very own Stephen has an IPNA slammed on him just for saying he’ll run naked down Whitehall if we get less than 24 seats in the 2014 General Election. In all seriousness, though, those who fall foul of it are likely to be pretty vulnerable people anyway. Part of the Bill’s provisions mean that kids could be locked up for 3 months. I thought we were supposed to be against short sentences like this. Perhaps more attention should be directed towards prevention of anti-social behaviour rather than cure. Certainly, the government is putting in effort to help troubled families with social and financial problems, but is that effective and is it enough?

I remain far from convinced that this law is the answer. The clause as it’s worded is a recipe for injustice even if I don’t think it’s the apocalypse that Monbiot suggests, but it pains me that this, secret courts and cuts to legal aid have come in while Liberal Democrats have been in Government.

The balance seems to have shifted too much in the direction of the state and that should worry us.

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

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16 Comments

  • Liberal Neil 8th Jan '14 - 2:02pm

    If this goes through it will mean that a large number of parliamentarians will have, on the balance of probabilities, have engaged in conduct that has annoyed a lot of people. Will we be able to prosecute them?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 8th Jan '14 - 2:11pm

    I’d say beyond reasonable doubt.

  • There are some laws that no reasonable person can expect to be enforced in an even-handed manner, without discrimination by class or age or ancestry. This is one of them.

  • Matt (Bristol) 8th Jan '14 - 2:25pm

    I am amused at the idea of the NSS, the EA, Liberty and the Christian Institute all finding themselves on the same side simultaneously and not knowing where to look, but hopefully this will quell some hyperliberals on here who tend to assume that certain of those bodies are _always_ on the wrong side of any argument.

  • Look the Conservative party have always been authoritarian, prone to banning stuff and were exactly the same the last time they were in power in power. That’s what this bill reflects, that and the fact that their membership is old and cantankerous and wants youngsters to stop skateboarding or whatever is annoying them that week .

  • On radio 5 this afternoon it was stated that the wording in this Bill is far more lose than that required to secure an ASBO. There are many examples of ASBO use that should make anyone with a liberal viewpoint concerned, and if this wording is less stringent then I would hope it is amended to be at least as restrictive in use.

  • This is the single most dystopian piece of legislation I have ever seen. It will be abused terribly:

    * for petty neighbourhood wars: IPNAs against one house for noise, retaliatory IPNAs for cooking smelly foods, IPNAs against people displaying political posters in their windows / gardens, IPNAs against people smoking in their own gardens “where my children could see it”
    * IPNAs against tasteless / overly bright Christmas decorations, IPNAs against lack of Christmas decorations…
    * IPNAs against people for requesting too many IPNAs to be imposed on others
    * for collective punishments. Families kicked out of council housing because of a wayward son or daughter
    * it will clog up the courts

    And the provisions that are not just against individuals, but for public spaces, will set the country up for conflicts of as-yet-unseen proportions:

    * PSPOs banning Islamic headscarves
    * PSPOs banning people from speaking languages other than English in some areas
    * PSPOs banning English from being spoken in Welsh-speaking areas
    * PSPOs effectively bringing about Shariah Law in majority-Muslim areas, banning unmarried couples from kissing or holding hands, banning women from wearing revealing clothing
    * PSPOs banning groups of young people, or asylum seekers, or immigrants, or homeless people from some areas
    * PSPOs enforcing a formal dress code in some posh areas
    * PSPOs banning certain types of cars from some areas
    * PSPOs in airports enforcing one queueing system over another (e.g. banning people from standing at the gate counter before the boarding call has been issued)

    This legislation is designed to bring out the pettiest, meanest aspects of people and to vastly increase conflict and strife. It seeds conflict – if I were cynical, I’d say it is a perfect example of “divide and rule”, as it could fundamentally change everyday life and make all the minor tensions and abrasions that are part of life into protracted, lengthy conflicts that keep the population busy and take up so much will and energy that no one will have any time left to worry much about politics.

    Everyone gets annoyed sometimes, and everyone likes the idea of being able to ban people from doing annoying things. But everyone forgets just how many personal tics each and every one of us has, just how often we inadvertently annoy others. And frankly, when one person is grumpy about something, seeing someone else being happy or exuberant is annoying in itself – the letter of this law will allow grumpy people to ban others being (or displaying) happiness. And that alone should tell us that something is very very wrong with the principles behind this law.

    (Also, a warning: I will consider to personally seek to take out IPNAs against every MP who might vote in a way which annoys me, on any matter and any future legislation)

  • Andrew Emmerson 8th Jan '14 - 6:14pm

    Robert, whilst you’re right that this legislation is pretty bad, did you not see anything labour passed in the last 20 years?

  • “Our law is bad, but the other guys were bad too” is a kindergarten argument.

  • Cllr Mark Wright 8th Jan '14 - 10:25pm

    Happily, looks like this has been mauled in the Lords:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25648019

  • Ian Hurdley 9th Jan '14 - 7:44am

    The AntiSocial Behaviour Order was introduced with the best of intentions. Intentions which were swiftly subverted when they began to be applied to people the ASBO was never designed for; those whose behaviour, whilst antisocial, was outwith their control – the addicted, the mentally ill, the homeless and others whose behaviour was a consequence of their condition, not their volition. Something very similar will happen if this proposal becomes law.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th Jan '14 - 8:05am

    Mark, we now have to see whether the Government is prepared to change the Bill. I’m far from convinced it can change it to make it satisfactory.

  • Paul Reynolds 9th Jan '14 - 11:17am

    This legislation, even as amended, is just ASKING to be misused by the state. So much so that it has a flavour of ‘Yes Minister’ about it. How many more times do we have to go through this process where the unintended consequences are shouting loud and clear at those parliamentarians who have bothered to read and understand fully the legislation that the civil servants have prepared for them. As we know too well, promises to only use the powers in narrow circumstances are almost never kept. In the end his legislation will be used to tackle political opposition to the authorities. Is naivety a special requirement to be a parliamentarian these days ?

  • I’m afraid Norman Baker’s “the bill’s OK anyway but I’ve managed to change it so that it’s even more OK” smacks of Tom Brake’s approach to the Lobbying/gagging bill. Disingenous and/or stupid defences of misdirected legislation.

  • Simon Banks 9th Jan '14 - 2:04pm

    In my experience both canvassing and delivering leaflets annoy some people. Anything controversial posted on a social media site will annoy people. Of course this law won’t be used to ban all political activity or lobbying, but it could be used selectively against people the government doesn’t like and the opposition won’t stand up for. Some years back I was in Wales when it hit the news that a police chief in North Wales had advised England football supporters (whose team, unlike Wales, was in the finals, World Cup or Euros I forget) not to display flags, banners, posters etc. Many Welsh people were outraged, but without doubt, displaying England colours did annoy some local people.

    Aggressive begging and dog fouling are covered by existing laws, which could if necessary be strengthened.

  • Tony Dawson 9th Jan '14 - 10:28pm

    Who would be first to be imprisoned under this ludicrous ‘annoying’ legislation? Danny Alexander for his ministerial broadcasts or me for my postings on this site? 😉

    I suggest that the most annoying person in the UK is whoever came up with this annoying legislation!

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