The Conservative-led Coalition government has suffered a major setback in its plan for an oppressive law to criminalise any behaviour that may be deemed a nuisance or annoyance.
The Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill was intended to allow police the power to arrest any group in a public place who constables believe may upset someone. It was rejected by 306 votes to 178, after peers on all sides of the House condemned the proposal as one that would eliminate carol-singing and street preaching, bell-ringing and – of course – political protests.
It seems the Lords are more interested than our would-be tyrants in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Cabinet in the basic assumption of British law – that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
The politics.co.uk website, reporting the government’s defeat, said the new law would have introduced Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) to replace Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs).
It explained: “Whereas an Asbo can only be granted if a person or group is causing or threatening to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ to someone else, an Ipna could be approved merely if a judge believes the behaviour in question is ‘capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’.
“Opinion could have been swayed by a mistake from Lord Faulks, the Tory peer widely expected to shortly become a minister who was asked to give an example of the sort of behaviour which might be captured by the bill.
“He described a group of youths who repeatedly gathered at a specific location, smoking cannabis and playing loud music in a way representing ‘a day-by-day harassment of individuals’.
“That triggered consternation in the chamber as peers challenged him over the word ‘harassment’ – a higher bar than the ‘nuisance or annoyance’ threshold he was arguing in favour of.
“‘I find it difficult to accept a Conservative-led government is prepared to introduce this lower threshold in the bill,’ Tory backbencher Patrick Cormack said.
“‘We are sinking to a lower threshold and in the process many people may have their civil liberties taken away from them.'”
It is the judgement of the general public that this is precisely the intention.
Peers repeatedly quoted Lord Justice Sedley’s ruling in a 1997 high court case, when he declared: “Freedom to only speak inoffensively is not worth having.”
It is interesting to note that the government tried a well-used tactic – making a minor concession over the definition of ‘annoyance’ before the debate took place, in order to win the day. This has served the Coalition well in the past, particularly during the fight over the Health and Social Care Act, in which claims were made about GPs’ role in commissioning services, about the future role of the Health Secretary, and about the promotion of private health organisations over NHS providers.
But today the Lords were not fooled and dismissed the change in agreement with the claim of civil liberties group Liberty, which said – in words that may also be applied to the claims about the Health Act – that they were “a little bit of window dressing” and “nothing substantial has changed“.
A further concession, changing the proposal for an IPNA to be granted only if it is “just and convenient to do so” into one for it to be granted if it targets conduct which could be “reasonably expected to cause nuisance or annoyance” was torpedoed by Lord Dear, who rightly dismissed it as “vague and imprecise“.
That is a criticism that has also been levelled at that other instrument of repression, the Transparency of Lobbying Bill. Lord Blair, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, invited comparison between the two when he described the Antisocial Behaviour Bill in the same terms previously applied to the Lobbying Bill: “This is a piece of absolutely awful legislation.”
The defeat means the Bill will return to the House of Commons, where MPs will have to reconsider their approach to freedom of speech, under the scrutiny of a general public that is now much more aware of the threat to it than when the Bill was first passed by our allegedly democratic representatives.
With a general election only 16 months away, every MP must know that every decision they make could affect their chances in 2015.
We must judge them on their actions.
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