In a similar fashion to the reader stumbling upon this article during a habitual, aimless wade through cyber-space, I was unaware of the new Anti-Social Behaviour, Policing and Criminal Bill until I bumped into the issue online over Christmas. Considering the content of the Bill, I’m surprised that there has been such little media coverage and fuss.
The Bill was vetoed on the eighth of January in the House of Lords, but worryingly a dangerous and audacious piece of legislation very nearly slipped its way into being. Moreover, the issue has not quite gone for good.
What would the Bill have entailed? ASBOs were on the verge of being scrapped in favour of IPNAs, or Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. Finally, it would have been possible to be jailed for that most deplorable, terrible and disgusting of crimes, a crime that has haunted and terrorised these fair streets of Britain for far too long: the crime of being a nuisance.
Well, it’s not really a crime. Firstly, it’s not a crime in a figurative sense. One might find a stranger chewing gum with their mouth open, a baby crying on a crowded train or a member of One Direction irritating, annoying and a bit of a nuisance, but these are personal, trivial gripes with life and do not make the perpetrator deserving of punishment or intervention (I’m talking about Niall).
Secondly, it’s not a crime in the literal sense that it is not a crime and would not have technically become one if the Bill had passed. The IPNA differs from the stand-alone ASBO as it carries a civil sanction. The new CBO (Criminal Behaviour Order) is reserved for more serious offences. For the time being at least, being annoying is not a criminal offence according to law. (Hoo-bloody-ray.)
yet the punishments for breaching an IPNA included two years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine
However, breaching an IPNA would have been perceived as contempt of court and thus carry a custodial sentence. The Bill stated that those who breach the civil injunction ‘will face serious consequences, but will not be criminalised,’ yet the punishments for breaching an IPNA included two years imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. (Hoo-bloody-thought-of-that -idea.)
Both the IPNA and the CBO also gave the option for ‘court mandated positive requirements.’ To reiterate, those caught breaching an IPNA could be subjected to a form of community service – which could be imposed for a lifetime theoretically – despite that petty detail (again) of having committed no crime.
The government attempted to replace the 19 current powers of front-line officers with 6 new ones. The Bill would have also introduced public space protection orders, which could prohibit the public from doing anything, anywhere, for 48 hours if ‘there is, or likely to be, a nuisance to members of the public.’ These new closure powers would have allowed the police to exclude any amount people from a particular area, regardless of whether or not they had actually been ‘annoying’.
For a court to grant an ASBO it must be satisfied ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that a person has behaved antisocially and also conclude that an ASBO is necessary to protect others from further antisocial acts, whereas the court would have had to believe only that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ a person had behaved antisocially in order to grant an IPNA.
The ‘balance of probabilities’ is ominously ambiguous. If you fit a social stereotype, would the balance be in your favour? If the police or local council believed that a weekly kick-about among a group of teenagers in a sports cage is capable of annoying residents based ‘on the balance of probabilities,’ they could appeal to the court for an injunction against the players. If the players defied the injunction and were over 14 it would be possible for them to be imprisoned in a young offenders’ centre for up to three months.
In a letter to the Observer Dr Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England, and other signatories – including the chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, Dr Hilary Emery – vilified the Bill, stating that it “promotes intolerance of youth” and “will damage children’s relationship with the police.”
The parameters ‘nuisance and annoyance’ are also dangerously vague. Lord MacDonald, formerly the Director of Public Prosecutions, pointed out that “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.”
he vagueness of the Bill encouraged the police to take the law into their own hands
A great deal of emphasis would have been placed upon the on-duty officer’s interpretation of nuisance and annoyance by the proposals, perhaps unfairly. You (a person, a human, an imperfect sentient being culpable of error and ill-judgement) could have faced jail-time if an officer (a person, a human, an imperfect sentient being culpable of error and ill-judgement) adjudged your behaviour to be ill-judged. The vagueness of the Bill encouraged the police to take the law into their own hands, which defeats the point of having laws in the first place.
The proposals were rejected by 306 votes to 178 in the House of Lords and peers repeatedly quoted Lord Justice Sedley’s 1997 ruling “freedom to only speak inoffensively is not worth having.” This, however, might not be the last we see of the INPA. The defeat means the Bill will return to the House of Commons, where MPs will perhaps undertake a radical reconsideration of their approach to freedom of speech. MPs will also have to act under the scrutiny of what political blogger Mike Sivier describes as “a general public that is now more aware of the threat to it than when the Bill was first passed.” Let’s hope he’s right.
Coining Lord MacDonald’s phrase, the proposals would have paved the way for further unnecessary ‘gross state interference’ and were an invasion of personal freedom. Worryingly, our representatives in the House of Commons thought that the legislation was viable and, more worryingly still, something similar could rear its ugly head again. Liberty- an independent campaign organisation also known as the National Council for Civil Liberties – stated that the injunctions “set the young, vulnerable or mentally ill up to fail”. If you don’t agree I might resort to calling the police, you annoying nuisance. You’ve seen the coalition’s hand. Beware the INPA.