Peaceful protests could be outlawed on the sole grounds that they might annoy nearby residents under contentious new powers being granted to councils, campaign groups warn.
The “shockingly open-ended” orders could also be used to ban youngsters from skateboarding, forbid teenagers from using local parks and prevent demonstrators from gathering outside council offices, it has been claimed.
The powers are contained within a little-noticed section of the Government’s Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.
The new public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) are intended to give town halls the authority to tackle drinking, aggressive begging, and dog-fouling, in specified areas. The Home Office said it would stop public spaces being turned into “no-go zones”.
But campaigners claim that the legislation is so loosely worded that the new powers could be used to stifle legitimate demonstrations and criminalise youngsters.
They raised the alarm on the 30th anniversary of the women’s peace camp being set up at Greenham Common in Berkshire, which critics claimed was the sort of protest that could be thwarted by the new powers.
Concerns about the illiberal nature of some of the Bill’s provisions centre on plans to establish PSPOs, which are replacing alcohol-control zones, dog-control orders and gating orders as well as local by-laws.
They can be used by councils, following consultation with police, to restrict any activity deemed to have a “detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality”.
The vague wording, and the failure to define the size of the areas to be covered, has led to fears they could be deployed to impose blanket bans on lawful activities.
People falling foul of the new restrictions would then be punished with on-the-spot fines, which could be issued by private security guards working on commission for councils.
The orders, which would last for up to three years, would be directed at “all persons or only to persons in specified categories”, a stipulation that has raised fears that certain groups – such as trade unionists or rough sleepers – could be discriminated against.
They could, for instance, be used to ban young or homeless people from a park.
The scheme appears driven by the Government’s commitment to a “localism” agenda and its determination to reduce the bureaucracy facing town halls.
The Home Office’s risk assessment of the measure acknowledged it could increase pressure on police, courts and prisons, but said the impact could be mitigated by the use of on-the-spot fines.
Peers are planning an attempt next week to amend the plans as they scrutinise the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.
Josie Appleton, the convener of the civil-liberties group the Manifesto Club, said: “This Bill has shockingly open-ended powers within it that could allow councils to ban everything from protests, to outdoor public meetings, to children’s skateboarding. The list is endless.
“The Home Office say they don’t think councils will use the law in this way, but this is not good enough. They should not be handing councils open-ended powers in the first place.
“While people will have the right to appeal, the processes involved are so expensive and complex that they will be beyond the reach of most protest groups.”
Isabella Sankey, the policy director for Liberty, said: “These next-generation antisocial-behaviour powers are bigger and badder than ever.
“Dangerously broad powers granted to regulate the ‘quality of life’ of the community will allow local authorities effectively to shut down activity in public places. Just like stop-and-search without suspicion, the collateral damage will be peaceful protest and other basic rights and freedoms.”
Janet Davis, the senior policy officer at the Ramblers Association, said she was worried that the orders could be applied to areas traditionally used for leisure and recreation.
“They could be used on wide-open areas, they could be used on commons, any land to which the public has access,” she said.
But Norman Baker, the minister responsible for crime prevention, said: “The Coalition Government is simplifying the complex array of antisocial powers introduced by the last government.
“This power will make it easier to stop the behaviour of those who act antisocially, turning our public spaces into no-go zones.
“It is not aimed at restricting legitimate users, such as walkers, whose activities are in fact better protected by this power than by the restrictive gating orders it replaces.
“Local authorities will consult ahead of putting an order in place and those affected will be able to appeal if they feel the order is not valid.
Protests that might never have been…
* Activists from Occupy London set up camp in October 2011 outside St Paul’s Cathedral to protest against corporate greed in the City and inequalities. Bailiffs moved in to clear the site the following February.
* The late anti-war protester Brian Haw first pitched his tent outside the Houses of Parliament in 2001 as Britain joined military action in Afghanistan. He was rapidly joined by large numbers of sympathisers, who remained for another two years after his death in 2011.
* Climate-change campaigners organised an eight-day-long protest in 2007 against airport expansion outside Heathrow. Similar demonstrations were mounted at Stansted airport, Essex.