Last night the House of Lords rejected by a majority of 128 the Government’s proposed Anti-social Behavour, Crime and Policing Bill (pdf).
Aspects of the Bill were intended to replace Labour’s highly controversial Anti-social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with a new system of Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs), and essentially represented an exaggeration of an already failed and discredited regime – easier to apply, with harsher sentences, whilst addressing none of the shortcomings. Notably, and as the name suggests, these injunctions could be imposed upon anyone who commits ‘nuisance or annoyance’ – a far lower threshold than the ASBO.
ASBOs are provided for by s.1(1) Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and can be granted when the individual has:
“acted in an anti-social manner, that is to say, in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons…and…that such an order is necessary to protect relevant persons from further anti-social acts”
By contrast, s.1(1) of the new bill would allow for IPNAs to be granted when:
“the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person (“anti-social behaviour”) [and] the court considers it just and convenient to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing the respondent from engaging in anti-social behaviour”
The injunction need not even be ‘necessary’ to prevent further acts – merely ‘just and convenient’.
Conservative Peer Lord Dear won backing for an amendment put forward by Liberty that would replace the requirement of causing ‘nuisance or annoyance’ with that of ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ – bringing it in line with the more measured s.5 Public Order Act 1986.
The bill, with its proposed nebulous wording and ludicrously low threshold would have represented a step in entirely the wrong direction and if successful would have been a huge blow to freedom of expression, particularly after promising shifts in policy such as the removal of ‘insults’ from the Public Order Act and an overhaul of the way in which social media users are prosecuted under s.127 Communications Act.
IPNAs could have been applied to anyone in a public space, including children and buskers. Perhaps most conspicuous was the potential for political protesters to be caught by the wording of the law, and – as critics pointed out – could have led to a perverse situation in which IPNAs be handed out in order to deter individuals from attending peaceful demonstrations. I have little doubt that this was borne in mind by those drafting the bill – one only has to look at the subversion of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (originally intended to criminalise stalkers) to see that civil injunctions are a highly effective tool which can be used to deter protest, and IPNAs would have been another addition to the arsenal.
The decision of the Lords should be welcomed and it is refreshing to see the excesses of a Government all too keen on stifling protest being curbed. However, there are still flaws – I am concerned that a Court need only consider it ‘just and convenient’ rather than ‘necessary’ in order to grant an injunction – and Liberty has pointed out problems with other provisions of the Bill relating to extradition and eviction of social tenants. It is crucial that the campaigning continues in order for these issues to be rectified; it is all too easy to let injustice slip under the radar.