Liberties

IPNAs: don’t thank the Lords, win the debate

How can you take Liberty’s belief in democratic rights seriously when it sings the praises of the unelected House of Lords?

It’s easy to understand the desire to see the UK government’s Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) crushed in their cradle. As has been argued on spiked previously, these proposed successors to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) are so mind-blowingly broad that anyone whose behaviour is deemed by another to be ‘annoying’ or a ‘nuisance’ could find themselves having an IPNA slapped on them. And flouting these injunctions could lead to three months in prison. 

From carol singers to contrarians, IPNAs could potentially criminalise all sorts of activities because someone, somewhere, happened to find them annoying. The injunctions could further sterilise public spaces and, as numerous campaigners have pointed out, have a detrimental impact on democratic freedoms in the UK.

Yet it became hard to take some of these campaigners’ concerns about democratic freedom seriously when they started cheering the roadblock IPNAs met in the House of Lords last week. The upper chamber voted 306 to 178 against IPNAs. Is the sight of unelected Lords throwing out proposals passed by elected MPs really something for freedom-loving democrats to celebrate?

But many did celebrate, taking to Twitter to thank the Lords. One dedicated campaign group tweeted that they were ‘Still smiling about this!’ following the result. Human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell tweeted ‘Bravo’. And the prominent campaign group, Liberty, declared, ‘The House of Lords has once again stood firm against sloppy, chilling legislation’. Now the issue will return to the Commons, Liberty claims, and ‘hopefully ministers will think again’. Liberty was particularly happy because peers had backed an amendment it had been lobbying for over the past few months, namely to replace ‘nuisance and annoyance’ in the legislation ‘with the “harassment, alarm or distress” description used for ASBOs’.

That’s not to say that many of the points made by the Lords when criticising IPNAs weren’t perfectly valid. Former attorney general Lord Morris of Aberavon, for example, was right to criticise the Home Office ‘for bringing forward “ill thought-out” proposals with “little regard for the consequences”’. This is on the nail. But the question remains: who is Lord Morris to decide that legislation passed by our elected lawmakers is ill thought-out?

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That campaigners are celebrating the Lords for ‘standing firm’ and swatting down legislation that, in this instance, they also happen to disagree with shows how blinkered they are. The Lords are just as likely to wave through chilling legislation than block it. The upper chamber’s amendments to the defamation bill last year, for example, threatened both to scupper the bill and implement harsh restrictions on press freedom. If you’re looking for consistent defenders of civil liberties you won’t find them in the House of Lords. Besides, the Lords are accountable to no one. This failure to recognise the fundamental problem with an undemocratic institution defending democratic freedoms should cast serious doubt on the anti-IPNA campaigners’ grasp of liberty and democracy.

Not that such accusations would bother Liberty – it has long been an ardent supporter of the Human Rights Act, a piece of New Labour legislation which subordinated the decision-making power of our elected representatives to the unelected power of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. 

Furthermore, as Liberty makes clear, it is not campaigning to abolish IPNAs entirely, merely to reform them so they resemble something closer to the ASBO. Evidently the detrimental impact ASBOs are having on society is palatable when it’s working-class louts, dangerous-dog owners and football fans that are primarily affected. But when it’s carol singers, people collecting for charity and religious preachers that could also face IPNAs, it seems that that’s another matter.

The sooner the whole idea of IPNAs – and their ASBO forebears – are scrapped, the better. But achieving this will require winning a public debate about their dangerous impact on society, and achieving a shift in opinion that MPs will have no choice but to respond to. Lobbying and lauding unelected officials is no substitute for this democratic process. Indeed, this Lords love-in will only raise serious questions about the integrity of campaigners who claim to be defending democratic freedoms.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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