You remember ASBOs, right? The New Labour measure to ostracise unprivileged teens, harass prostitutes and stop a pensioner being sarcastic. You’ll be glad to know the government is passing a shiny new update. They’ll be in law by Easter: Super-ASBOs will make it super-easy to ban just about anything.
Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (catchy) can be slapped onto anyone who "on the balance of probabilities…engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person." Tell the future? Check. Massively subjective? Check. Fines and jail-time? Check. Can last forever? Checkmate.
This super-ASBO is a serious threat to free demonstrations, especially to students engaging in peaceful protest. A loud, non-violent, legal march could be seen as potentially annoying, especially if (say) your poster reads ‘GET OUT TORY SCUM’ and the annoyee in question is Conservative. You don’t need to be breaking a law – breaking wsiind is enough to land you an IPNA if Officer A finds your wind offensive. If that sounds like exaggeration, remember the Oxford student fined for calling a police horse ‘gay’.
It’s difficult to stress how ambiguous the law’s wording is. I can get annoyed by commuter flatulence, by certain types of music, by babies screaming. Should I be able to ban them? The law is so wide that even the former head of public prosecutions – the lawyer the Blair government used to fight terror – has warned of ‘shockingly low safeguards’ for protesters, street performers and corner-preachers. ‘The danger in this Bill is that it potentially empowers State interference,’ Lord MacDonald continued.
Not worried yet? The law also replaces Dispersal Orders. The new PSPOs are just supposed to stop 3am singing, dog-littering and aggressive begging. However, analysis by liberal think-tank The Manifesto Club shows specific groups can be targeted, for example X footy fans, Y ethnic groups or Z uni’s undergrads. Now all you need to do to be moved along, or intimidated before arrival, is indulge in ‘activities carried on or likely to be carried on in a public place… [that] will have or have had a detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the locality’. Like a sit-in. Or an Occupation. Or a march.
Human rights group Liberty reveal the new law fails to define ‘locality’, so bans could cover districts, cities or even counties, making the likes of the Sussex Uni Occupation impossible from the start. Those who planned the St Paul’s Cathedral tent city or pivotal demonstrations that stopped Britain attacking Syria could’ve been stopped at inception. The police already have the power to arrest student leaders who don’t warn councils of political action – this is the next logical step.
Anyone who turns up and breaches an order gets a £100 spot-fine. Fines can be delivered by private security firms like G4S, whose recent record includes alleged fraud, mucking up the Olympics and manhandling a pregnant woman. You could refuse to pay and face a trip to court, costing you £1,000 on conviction. Enough to terrify most cash-strapped students. Thanks, tuition fees.
This boost to policing comes on the back of the government’s general lurch towards heavy-handed authoritarianism. Secret footage recently emerged of Cambridgeshire police trying to recruit a mole in university activism, with promises of reimbursement and advice not to ‘think too deeply’ about spying on fellow students at anti-fracking and anti-fascist movements. We know from Eddy Snowden that GCHQ can tap your communications and pre-empt you if you’re planning a protest. If you’re frightened into staying home, watch out for Dave’s Porn Crusade. If you pop out for milk, look out for the ‘GO HOME’ van.
The not-so-Liberal Democrats have quietly supported the law in question, as part of the government’s fuzzy commitment to empowering local communities. The bill is so complicated that Labour’s opposition is virtually useless. I asked the Tory Prisons Minister, Jeremy Wright, about the concerns raised by the new powers. His response demurred, then concluded: "We have taken a careful, principled and pragmatic approach to finding this balance and as a result, both security and the protection of cherished civil liberties have been strengthened."
Jonathan Lindsell is a research fellow at Civitas think tank.