What constitutes a public nuisance? Since the late 1990s and the birth of the Antisocial Behaviour Order (ASBO), British society has been struggling to answer that question. On the one hand, the ASBO has allowed the authorities to take action against drunken youths and noisy neighbours. On the other, ASBOs have been handed out for singing in the bath and gardening naked; even an unborn baby has received one. Research suggests that at one point nearly half of all ASBOs had been served to children aged between 10 and 17. They have also proved largely ineffective at actually dealing with antisocial behaviour. Perhaps, even after 15 years, we still haven’t quite worked out what ASBOs are for.
However, the ASBO’s time is up. Back in 2010 the newly elected Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government called for an end to Antisocial Behaviour Orders and the start of a ‘common sense’ approach to tackling problems in communities. However, the reality is that attempts are being made to replace the ASBO with something much worse.
Earlier this month the House of Lords blocked a new piece of legislation, the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which looked to give the police sweeping new powers to deal with antisocial behaviour. Instead of ASBOs, miscreants would now be handed IPNAs – Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. Does that sound vague and woolly to you? It certainly did to the cross-party group of peers who voted it down, a group which included both a former Police Commissioner and a former Attorney General.
The bill allowed IPNAs to be doled out to anyone, above the age of 10, for life – without requiring criminal evidence. Breaking an IPNA could result in a prison sentence. An IPNA is designed to stop ‘conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’, an ambiguous bill hanging over those guilty of perhaps little more than breaking taboos.
I ask you again, what constitutes a public nuisance? To me it might be taxis sounding their horns outside at midnight or the next-door neighbour hammering nails into the wall on a Sunday morning. It could be a group of noisy student protesters in the next street or carol singers knocking on your door. In truth, it doesn’t really matter what the ‘nuisance’ is; everyone has his or her own set of pet societal peeves. The IPNA is an attempt to write this lack of continuity into law, giving individual police officers and judges the power to decide what is ‘decent’ behaviour based upon their personal experiences and prejudices.
The bill was voted down by over 100 votes, with one peer describing the bill as having the potential to ‘undermine our fundamental freedoms’ and ‘be used to curb protest and freedom of expression’. However, it is deeply worrying that such a bill made it as far as the House of Lords in the first place.
That such a draconian piece of legislation passed through the lower chamber with little comment shows just how low a premium is placed upon freedom of expression by the current government. The jargon of ASBOs, IPNAs and other such acronyms might be mind-bending, but the underlying message is clear. Rather than trying to tackle societal issues through hard work, community outreach and long-term investment, two successive governments have been happy to criminalize mostly poor, young people.
Now it seems that we are to have our collective freedoms threatened as well. Maybe it’s time to make some noise before, quite literally, it becomes a crime.