Warning: underwear at large

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The Independent Online

The Government is proud of its antisocial Warning" behaviour orders, making a point of mentioning them in its general election manifesto. Introduced six years ago, Asbos are designed to stop behaviour that causes alarm, distress or harassment to one or more people who do not live in the same household as the offender. Most people, if asked to explain an Asbo, would hazard that they are a way of dealing with a persistent nuisance - noisy neighbours, for example. I doubt whether they'd have much sympathy for the recipients of two recent Asbos, music fans who played Eminem at full volume in one case and the ghastly Band Aid single over and over again in the other.

The Government is proud of its antisocial Warning" behaviour orders, making a point of mentioning them in its general election manifesto. Introduced six years ago, Asbos are designed to stop behaviour that causes alarm, distress or harassment to one or more people who do not live in the same household as the offender. Most people, if asked to explain an Asbo, would hazard that they are a way of dealing with a persistent nuisance - noisy neighbours, for example. I doubt whether they'd have much sympathy for the recipients of two recent Asbos, music fans who played Eminem at full volume in one case and the ghastly Band Aid single over and over again in the other.

The newest example to come to light was served on Friday on a DJ who ran a pirate radio station from the top of a tower block in east London. Dean Fullman has been banned from the roof of every building above four storeys in Tower Hamlets for five years, reflecting the Nimby element in many of the orders issued so far; presumably there is nothing to stop Fullman, otherwise known as DJ Slimzee, relocating to a neighbouring borough, whereupon the entire process of tracking down his equipment will start again.

In 1999, the Home Office explicitly stated that Asbos were aimed at "criminal, or sub-criminal behaviour, not minor disputes between neighbours", but there is evidence that they are being used in increasingly creative ways. Only last month, a young Scottish woman received an Asbo banning her from answering the front door or going into her garden in her underwear. In Harrogate, police tried and failed to obtain an Asbo banning known criminals from entering the town; in Manchester, the council was luckier, succeeding in getting an Asbo to stop mobile soup kitchens operating in the city centre, claiming local people had complained about mess.

All these examples come from a campaigning group called Asbo Concern, which was set up earlier this month by a coalition of organisations, including Liberty and the probation officers' union Napo. They point out that while Asbos are civil orders, breaching them is a criminal offence and around half the people who do so end up in jail; they also say they are being used against addicts and people with mental health problems. But the most astonishing examples have emerged since the group's launch, in circumstances that suggest Asbos are beginning to be used in cases that are highly political.

The Government has had to delay its controversial attempt to make incitement to religious hatred a criminal offence until after the general election, but an Asbo is being threatened against a man who made a joke about the Pope on a spoof village website. "Fancy a new job? The Vatican is now looking for a new Pope now that the current one has snuffed it," wrote Mitch Hawkin, who is involved in a feud with the original village website in Lyneham, Wiltshire. "What Mr Hawkin has said about the Pope is disgusting and outrageous. Mr Hawkin should be charged," says Andy Humm, who runs the site. Wiltshire police have said only that an investigation is under way, but North Yorkshire police and the Ministry of Defence went to court last week in an attempt to get an Asbo served on a veteran peace campaigner.

Lindis Percy, a 63-year-old midwife from Hull, had already been found guilty of five counts of obstruction. She is a member of a group that holds a weekly protest outside the US eavesdropping base at Menwith Hill, and the Asbo application accuses her of frightening, harassing and alarming the community, including babies and children. I can't see why holding up US flags with the legend No More Meddling Please is so terrifying for the local infants - but hang on a minute, I'm starting to feel nervous myself. I've been a peace campaigner, I sometimes take in the post in my underwear and I'm not averse to jokes about His Holiness. Could this become the first column to be served with an Asbo?

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