The Queen’s Speech and the blanket bans
The Lib-Con government has tidied up the law on our use of public spaces... by making it even more illiberal than before.
The debate following the Queen’s Speech last Wednesday, which set out the UK Lib-Con coalition government’s legislative plans for the coming year, focused mainly on new immigration rules and the absence of legislation on standardised packaging for cigarettes and minimum pricing for alcohol. But what largely passed under the media’s radar were new rules that represent a broadening attack on our personal freedom.
As the Manifesto Club’s Banned in London map showed, British people face a worrying degree of public-space regulation, with hundreds of banned zones within which ordinary rights are suspended. The new anti-social behaviour legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech makes all this look very mild. Every draconian power has been replaced with something far worse.
Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPO) will replace alcohol-control zones (Designated Public Space Orders). These new, much broader orders can be used to ban any activity and can also impose positive conditions, requiring people to do something rather than simply refrain from an activity. The local authority can obtain this order if it judges that the activity in question has a ‘detrimental effect’ on the ‘quality of life’ in an area; or, if the activity has not yet been carried out, that it is likely to be carried out and is likely to have a detrimental effect. Given local authorities’ apparent dislike of most social activities, this could have a wide application.
Before introducing a PSPO, the local authority is obliged to consult with the police and ‘whatever community representatives’ it ‘chooses to consult’. At present, local authorities have to consult any residents or owners of land or licensed premises in the area, as well as advertise in the local paper. Thus, the new order gives local authorities greater freedom to impose restrictions with even less consulation than before.
Dispersal Powers are also greatly widened. At present, groups of two or more people can be asked to leave designated ‘dispersal zones’ for 24 hours. The new dispersal powers will allow any person in any public place to be asked to leave that ‘locality’, for any period up to 48 hours. To give some perspective, police forces have in the past interpreted ‘locality’ to mean an area as large as Greater Manchester. Officers can also confiscate property which they believe has been used ‘or is likely to be used’ in a behaviour which ‘harasses, alarms or distresses a member of the public’.
There is much more in the new bill. The campaign group Liberty has produced a good analysis of the new-look ASBOs, which are the much broader-ranging Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance. This injunction can prohibit somebody from doing something, or require them to do something, and requires only that someone has engaged in or ‘threatens to engage’ in conduct ‘capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. What conduct – or still more, threatened conduct – is not capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to some other person?
There is also a power to close premises if the authority believes that there is, ‘or is likely to be’, a ‘public nuisance’ or ‘disorder’ in the ‘vicinity of, and related to the premises’. They can initially close the premises for up to 48 hours (and can apply in court for the premises to pay the costs of maintaining their own closure).
A Community Protection Notice can be issued by local authorities when they judge that an activity has a ‘detrimental effect’ on the quality of life in a locality. The notice can order people to stop doing things, or to do things. This replaces environmental clean-up measures such as litter-clearance notices and defacement-removal notices, but it cleverly covers a ‘wider range of behaviour’ rather than ‘specifically stating the behaviour covered’.
The government claims that it is being very efficient in consolidating this plethora of powers into a much smaller number of powers. But what it has actually done is to create truly open-ended powers, removing any specificity about the type of behaviour being targeted. This is law as a blank cheque.
And so we have a bill to give authorities the power to ‘prohibit specified things being done in the restricted area’, or to issue ‘a requirement to stop doing specified things’ or ‘to do specified things’. It is a wonder why the government goes through the bother of lawmaking at all. Why not just replace those 170 pages with one line: ‘Bill to allow public authorities (police authorities, local authorities, and their contractors) to do whatever they like’?
Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.