Am I a public nuisance?

Flashmobbing

What constitutes as a public nuisance? Flashmobbers, buskers, people displaying too much affection could have all been subject to an IPNA. Artberri under a Creative Commons Licence

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.

Universities are the new battleground for free speech

Student protest outside London university

Debate should be encouraged on campus, not violently quashed. Occupy.com under a Creative Commons Licence

Almost three years to the day after the student protests of 2010 – when the BBC’s Ben Bradshaw was seen wearing a flack jacket in Whitehall – students are now back on the streets, making their voices heard. During the past two weeks, police have used excessive force to crack down on students demonstrating outside Senate House. Ironically, this London University building was the inspiration for George Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ in his novel 1984.

A month ago the president of the University of London Students’ Union, Michael Chessum, was arrested after arranging a small but vocal protest over the future of the Union. On 4 December students occupying part of Senate House to campaign for better pay and conditions for contracted workers at the University, were violently evicted. A video of the eviction shows punches thrown at protesters by a police officer – just one of many instances of unwarranted violence, witnesses say.

If you, like me, have seen any of the past fortnight’s protests you will know the sense of anger among those on the streets. The day after protesters were evicted from Senate House, over 30 arrests were made at a ‘Cops off Campus’ demonstration at the University of London.

Hundreds of police surrounded protesters and groups of fewer than 10 students were kettled by twice the number of officers. There appeared to be blood on the pavement next to one group and witnesses reported seeing one person having their crutches kicked from under them before being hauled into the back of a riot van.

Universities should be places of learning and debate, where students and academics need not be afraid to air controversial opinions. If the management of a university invites the police in large numbers onto campus with a mandate to use excessive force, this space for discussion is torn apart. Such institutions have a duty to protect property and staff, but for London University to allow a number of its students to be beaten, arrested and then, because of bail conditions, be denied entry to their own campus,  is not part of this duty of care. One journalist who contacted University management after the Senate House evictions was told there had been ‘no violence or criminal damage’ prior to the police being called and ‘no threats of violence to staff’. There was, however, ‘swearing’.

What is it about student protest that illicits such a forceful response? There is little evidence that the police were provoked to act in the way they did. And when you are stuck in a police kettle, there is no option to ‘move along’. As riot vans surrounded the university and a police helicopter droned up above, the obvious question was, ‘are we paying for the past?’ Is the suspicion that greets the free assembly of young people a hangover from the student protests and nationwide riots of 2011?

These issues affect not only London University. Last week the University of Sussex excluded five students for taking part in a sit-in. After a public outcry, the exclusion was reversed pending a disciplinary hearing. If universities want to retain the respect of their students, something has to change.

Freedom of speech and the right to assemble are not idle things that can be thrown away when someone says things you disagree with. If universities wish to serve their students they should engage with debate, not shut it down. As long as their voices are not heard, students will keep going onto the streets and eventually the chanting will be so loud that the suits will have to listen.

Patrick Thompson is a student at University College London and a freelance journalist writing about politics, current affairs and science.

Britain's bedroom tax shame

Child's bedroom

The impudence of children having a room each in a family that receives housing benefit is being corrected by the British government's Bedroom Tax. Moyan Brenn under a Creative Commons Licence

Housing is a human right. That isn’t just my opinion, but also that of the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 25 of the declaration, concerning the right to an adequate standard of living, is clear on the matter:

‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’ (emphasis on housing is my own).

Not only does the above present housing as an integral part of an ‘adequate’ standard of living, it also highlights the need for security to be provided to those who have fallen upon hard times. The British benefit system is sometimes described as a ‘safety net’, designed to fulfil this role. In the case of housing, it is anything but. For those in British society who are most vulnerable – disabled people, the unemployed, single parents – the scuttled remains of the welfare state provide little help.

This is, of course, due to a disastrous piece of law: the Bedroom Tax. By reducing the housing benefit paid to those who have ‘too many’ bedrooms, the state is denying individuals part of their human rights and placing a financial squeeze upon the vulnerable. Just over a third of working-age housing benefit claimants are affected: approximately 660,000 people. While a yearly reduction of around £800 ($1,300) is just manageable for families where all the adults are working, it is disastrous for the more vulnerable.

People with disabilities are the most affected, with the Bedroom Tax not allowing for the adaptation and extra space many disabled people need to live comfortably. If, for example, your disability forces you to sleep in a separate bedroom from your partner, you will still endure a benefit cut. Families with more than one child are also singled out, with children under the age of 10 expected to share a room regardless of gender, and those under the age of 16 of the same sex are likewise expected to double up.

Education Secretary Michael Gove accidentally criticized this facet of the Bedroom Tax when he said in early September that: ‘There are children, poor children, who do not have rooms of their own in which to do their homework, in which to achieve their full potential.’ He is right, of course. The Bedroom Tax has resulted in more children being disadvantaged in this way.

Aside from these two groups, there is a wider issue: anyone receiving housing benefit payments is, by definition, in some way vulnerable and disadvantaged; otherwise they would not need support from the state. While certain groups can be singled out as being especially affected, the truth is that all those who have lost benefits have had their right to adequate housing infringed upon.

The Bedroom Tax is such an infringement that the UN sent Special Rapporteur Raquel Rolnik to Britain to investigate the law in relation to Article 25. While her full report is not due until next spring, the statement that she made at the end of her visit was damning. So damning that the government had to resort to a xenophobic, borderline sexist response delivered by ex-housing minister Grant Shapps to try to discredit her.

It doesn’t end with the Bedroom Tax. Housing is too complicated a field for a single policy, however unfair, to be the source of all the problems. There is a broader issue with housing in Britain, a legacy perhaps of the sale of council houses under the Thatcher government. Last year’s law criminalizing squatting, also has a part to play, making it even harder for people at risk of homelessness to find any housing at all.

In Britain we often flatter ourselves with how humane our society is. Why else do so many people come to settle here to escape oppression? However, at the edge of our vision, one of the most fundamental human rights, as important, even, as free speech, has been trampled upon. Is this right?

This blog is part of New Internationalist's series on human rights for Blog Action Day 2013.

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