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Nag Your MP to Save Your Freedom to Protest

The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill poses dangers to civil liberty: freedoms of protest and of association are threatened.

The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill poses dangers to civil liberty: freedoms of protest and of association are threatened. I wrote about this in extreme terms here, but a sober evaluation was needed.

Below is an abbreviated letter to my MP - more boring than my blog, but hopefully more important. Feel free to quote parts for your correspondence. Find your MP's details here.

Dear Mrs Buck,

I write in a personal capacity to draw your attention to potential flaws in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, currently at Report Stage in the Commons.

I have great respect for the police and local authorities, and understand the need for order. Nevertheless, authorities have historically abused power - the Hillsborough disaster, ASBO misuses, 150+ officers' sexual misconduct - meaning laws which increase the scope for abuse by 'bad eggs' are especially daunting.

Firstly chapter 12, paragraph 132 amends protocol on awarding compensation for miscarriage of justice. It allows compensation "if and only if the new or newly discovered fact shows beyond reasonable doubt that the person was innocent". This suggests a presumption of guilt. Worse, it's not in authorities' interests to continue searching for evidence to exonerate an individual already determined not guilty - the burden of proof of innocence is unduly high.

Secondly I'm alarmed by provisions within the new 'Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance' (IPNAs). I suspect motivation for this 'new ASBO' is to reflect Conservative 'tough on crime' values, which courts populism and implicitly demonises the 'chav/hoodie/'yob subcultures.

The IPNA widens the scope for expansive interpretation: whereas the ASBO required someone to have caused 'harassment, alarm or distress', IPNAs require only that someone 'on the balance of probabilities...engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person'. [1,1]

This subjunctive, future-oriented language requires that courts determine what might construe antisocial behaviour, but does not break any laws or even social norms. The terminology is too vague - all manner of legal activities cause 'annoyance'. Giving anyone power to arrest the same is absurd. Annoyance is highly subjective - activity such as whistling on the bus could be appreciated or scorned by fellow passengers. Other irksome activities are sometimes biologically unavoidable - flatulence, burping, sweating on public transport.

The IPNA is applicable to children as young as 10, can be granted in perpetuity, and those breaking them can be penalised by the revocation of social housing. [See evaluation by Steeles Law Solicitors]. It's draconian to suggest a family's home/stability is contingent on the unfaltering behaviour of a pre-teen. Conflated with human error and subjectivity (above) this appears beyond reason.

The other worrying provision is the Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO). I appreciate the need to control littering, late-night street parties, drug dealers etc. However, PSPOs suffer from the same hopeless scope as IPNAs. They too have a pre-emptive element: 'activities carried on or likely to be carried on in a public place... will have or have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality' [2,55,2.,a-b]. PSPOs can last three years and be renewed ad infinitum [paragraph 56]. Analysis by think-tank The Manifesto Club shows PSPOs will be easier to serve than alcohol protection zones, and can target specific groups (e.g. ethnicities, protesters). Those breaching PSPOs can be subject to on-the-spot fines of up to £100 (summary:152).

The most troubling aspect is PSPOs' augmentation of 'dispersal powers'. Allowing authorities to disperse groups that they think might harass, alarm or distress others (para32) is a civil liberties nightmare. Human rights group Liberty note the Bill fails to define 'locality', so bans could cover districts, cities or even counties (p.17).

PSPOs could be used against lawful protest - as a disincentive or actually to prosecute. Meanwhile indiscrete use of these instruments will waste huge chunks of court time on misdemeanours and prosecutions of 'children being children' (Matthew Reed, Chief Executive, The Children's Society, HuffPo UK).

This comes as many coalition moves and historic abuses contribute to an oppressive state atmosphere. The Snowden revelations demonstrate that GCHQ monitors citizens' correspondence more than was thought possible or legal. A spectre is entirely imaginable, in which citizens' communicate to organise a legal/peaceful protest, are spied upon, then prevented from gathering via PSPO.

This combines with the Home Office's 'GO HOME' van; Chris Grayling's astonishingly poor criminal justice, legal aid & appeals reforms; new prohibitive price of taking employers to court for unfair dismissal; revelations that the friends/relatives of Stephen Lawrence were illegally monitored during his murder's investigation; and Cameron's ill-considered internet/pornography policies.

Criticisms have been aired in The Times in a letter signed by charities/academics including Barnardos, The Children's Society and Play England; Liberal Democrat Voices; news website Liberal Conspiracy; and civil liberties website Trebuchet. However, the concerns above were not raised, discussed or mitigated in the second reading or committee stage of the Bill (insofar as the minutes reflect). Nor have these issues received attention from mainstream media.

I urge you to investigate these concerns, raise the issues with relevant ministers/committee members, and to support amendments to ameliorate such concerns.

This blog/letter is posted in full at Haywire Thought.