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The British government is about to pass legislation which will effectively criminalise any behaviour perceived to be “annoying”, it has emerged.

Under the  Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, those who gather lawfully in public places could potentially be barred by local authorities, police and even private security firms.

If such orders are refused, citizens could face arrest, fines and even prison time.

Since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) the government has imposed legislation controlling who can use public spaces. The legislation also covers noise, graffiti and dispersal orders.

It also saw the introduction of Clearing Notices which can even regulate how homeowners are allowed to keep their gardens.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently going through the House of Lords. If it gets through, will create further ambiguous, generic orders which will enable both public authorities and private organisations to have even greater powers to issue tougher sentences, with fewer checks and balances to protect the public.

The Bill introduces Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) to replace ABSOs.  Whilst the abolition of ASBOs will undoubtedly come as welcome news to many, the orders are likely to add to the problems associated with ASBOs.

Some of the bizarre abuses of these types of power include the following examples:

·         Manchester Council applied an ASBO to prevent a mobile soup kitchen from feeding the homeless
·         Councils placing ASBOs on homeless people resulting in prison sentences for begging ‘earnestly and humbly’
·         An 87 year old man was given an ASBO threatening a prison sentence if he was sarcastic to his neighbours
·         A 13 year old was banned from using the word ‘grass’ in England or Wales
·         Stuart Hunt of Loch Ness brought to court 100 times since 2007 for breaching an ASBO.
Not only do ASBOs and IPINAs increase dependency on government organisations to resolve problems which could easily be settled through mediation or discussions, it is just one step further towards the criminalisation of “annoying” behaviour with excessive punishments being meted out instead of alternatives such as resolution or support.
In short, it blurs the distinction between criminal behaviour and annoying habits.
The criteria for deciding whether an ASBO should be given often included wording to the effect that ASBOs could only be issued where an actual act of ‘harassment, alarm or distress’ had occurred.
But these new IPNIAS introduced under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will  have a much weaker test, applicable where on the ‘balance of probabilities’ a person has or ‘is likely to’ engage in behaviour ‘ which has the potential to cause annoyance’ to another person.
This could include things like, talking too loudly on the phone, using informal words, walking too slowly or quickly.
While all of these things are a nuisance to many people, should they really be illegal?
Worryingly, there is no limit on how long an IPNA can be applied to a person for.  A person could receive an IPNA for 10 years and retain it their entire life.
An IPNA can be applied by local authorities, police, some transport bodies and some NHS authorities.

The consequences of breaching an IPNA are serious.  The breaching of an IPNA has been added to the conditions for securing possession of a home – meaning a 10 year old child breaching their IPNA could result in the entire family being evicted from their council house. Breaching the orders can also result in jail time for anyone over 14.

Even the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), when giving evidence on the proposals, argued that this could lead to further criminalisation of children and called on the government to think again.

But the Bill remains unchanged. Critics have also argued that it could be used to stifle protests, force people out of an area – even if they live there.

The new powers  require substantially less consultation than current legislation and rather than applying to everyone, they can be applied to specific groups of people (the homeless, the unemployed, racial/religious groups etc.) – opening the door for discrimination, in a very similar way to the disproportionate use of stop and search powers against minority groups in the UK.  These rules could see homeless people or young people lawfully excluded from public spaces.

Citizens would then be subject to ‘on the spot’ fines, rather than attendance at a Magistrates’ Court, reducing the scrutiny and checks on police power.

For example, current Dispersal Orders mean a Police Superintendent (or an officer with specific written authority) can disperse groups of two or more people in areas where there has been ‘persistent anti-social behaviour’ or take home any young person under the age of 16 who is in a dispersal zone between 9pm and 6am.

However, these new IPNAs mean police constables and even Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) can issue dispersal orders if they think a group of two or more persons might harass, alarm or distress others in the vicinity. Use of such powers were seen in the run-up to the royal wedding where police officers carried out pre-emptive arrests of those who they believed may protest, regardless of whether they had stated their intent to or not, and jailed them to prevent them from attending the event.

The legislation has already attracted much criticism and a petition has been circulated in order to stop this Bill in its tracks before it becomes law. You can view the petition here.

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