IPNAs: a nuisance to public life and freedom

The Tories said they would scrap ASBOs. They didn't say they'd replace them with something even worse.

Patrick Hayes

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Topics Politics UK

Is there anyone alive in the UK who has never annoyed someone? Could there exist a person so wholly inoffensive that he or she never caused a single person to furrow his brow or quietly seethe? Actually, the mere thought of such a Ned Flanders-type individual is starting to annoy me. Help is at hand, though – because as early as this Christmas, I might be able to report this annoyingly inoffensive individual to the authorities and request that they slap an Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNA) on him.

It sounds like a joke, but IPNAs – introduced in Clause 1 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords last week – really do seem quite easy to enforce. Indeed, they make their predecessors, New Labour’s notorious Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs), seem like a level-headed intervention into community life in comparison.

The bill says that in order for an IPNA to be granted, a court needs to be satisfied ‘on the balance of probabilities that the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person’. Once satisfied, the court can issue an IPNA in order ‘to grant the injunction for the purpose of preventing the respondent from engaging in anti-social behaviour’.

It seems that for the Lib-Con coalition government, the problem with ASBOs was not that they circumvented the normal exercise of law by dishing out behaviour-controlling orders to people who hadn’t actually committed any crime, but rather that they only covered behaviour that might cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. So it has introduced IPNAs, which cover everyday nuisance and annoying behaviour, too. In fact, you don’t actually have to be annoying to get an IPNA – even the threat of behaving annoyingly can earn you one of these orders that do not require criminal-law standards of proof and can instead be handed out, to anyone over 10, at a court’s convenience. If you flout an IPNA, you face up to three months in prison.

It is a sign of the times, perhaps, that to the extent that there has been an outcry over IPNAs, it’s been led by the Christian Institute. The CI recognises how destructive of everyday social life IPNAs could be. As its deputy director for public affairs, Simon Calvert, says, ‘[P]eople going about their ordinary business, such as charity collectors, protesters, carol singers, street pastors – even people simply expressing strong opinions in public – could be classed as annoying and hauled before the courts’. The Guardian gives another example of something that could be outlawed by an IPNA – ‘a weekly basketball game capable of annoying [nearby] residents’. In short, anything that anyone finds annoying would no longer really be safe from the long arm of the courts.

The old ASBOs were used to curtail, not only daft daily behaviour, but also political activity and freedom of speech. For example, supporters of the far-right English Defence League were served with ASBOs preventing them from taking part in protests. Such illiberal interventions could expand under the IPNA system – who hasn’t on occasion found some demo or loud protest to be annoying or a nuisance?

Whatever happened to tolerance? Lots of stuff in everyday life is annoying – from trying to avoid clipboard-wielding ‘chuggers’ on the high street to being confronted by tambourine-bashing Hare Krishnas – but shouldn’t we tolerate the quirks of human behaviour and activity? The IPNA system would explicitly cultivate a climate of intolerance, inviting us all to complain about (and seek to crush) things we are irritated by. No longer would individuals be expected to informally resolve issues that are potentially annoying; instead we’d be encouraged to turn to the authorities and apply for an IPNA.

After the 2010 General Election, the Tories’ Theresa May said it was ‘time to move beyond the ASBO’. Some people thought that meant her party would take us into a post-social-order age. In fact, remarkably it has replaced ASBOs with something even worse – a tool for state intrusion into potentially any kind of human interaction, which is surely the final nail in the coffin of public life.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics UK
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