Feeding the birds is not ‘anti-social behaviour’
Not even old ladies are safe from officious local councils.
Anne Seago, a 97-year-old from Fylde in north-west England, has been threatened with a fine for putting out food for birds in her back garden.
A neighbour of Mrs Seago had initially complained about the bird-feeding to Fylde Council over two years ago. Last month, the council finally ruled that Mrs Seago has been engaging in ‘anti-social behaviour’ and warned her that if she did not stop feeding the birds then it would issue a ‘community protection notice’ (CPN) – an on-the-spot legal notice issued by council or police officers if they decide someone’s behaviour is having a ‘detrimental effect’ on a community’s ‘quality of life’. This means that if Mrs Seago continues to feed the birds in her own back garden, defying the CPN, she could be slapped with an on-the-spot £100 fine or, if prosecuted, a £2,500 fine and a criminal record.
This episode exposes the absurdities and injustices of CPNs and ‘anti-social behaviour’ policy more broadly. Indeed, it shows that what the authorities decide to classify as anti-social behaviour – in this case, a very old lady leaving food out for the local wildlife – bears little relation to popular morality or the opinions or wishes of virtually any community you care to mention. Indeed, many of Mrs Seago’s own neighbours have defended her. No doubt many of them feed the birds in their own back gardens.
This sheds light on the role that ‘anti-social behaviour’ policy and CPNs actually play in society today. They allow the state to exert power over the everyday lives of individuals. Officials can effectively order people to behave in a certain way. A CPN can be written out on the spot, without any evidence, based on an official’s understanding of what counts as ‘detrimental’ – an unbelievably vague phrase. Anti-social-behaviour interventions are arbitrary and unpredictable: anybody could find themselves slapped with threats of fines and punishments.
The state is able to justify its interventions by claiming to act in the name of the plaintiff, or the ‘victim’, as they are called in Home Office reports. The authorities can claim to be responding to the victim’s demands and needs. In this way, the figure of the ‘victim’ is the means by which arbitrary power legitimises itself, and appears in a democratic and human guise – in this case, as Mrs Seago’s disgruntled neighbour.
Such is the political authority of the victim or complainant, in many cases CPNs are issued almost automatically. It lends the whole process of classifying and punishing anti-social behaviour a computerised quality, independent of any human judgement or reflection.
The Criminal Justice Bill now going through parliament will deepen and expand anti-social-behaviour policy. If the bill passes, Mrs Seago would become liable for an extortionate £500 on-the-spot fine if she carries on feeding the birds. It will also become possible to issue CPNs to children still in primary school, with the age at which one is liable dropping from 16 to 10.
Justifying the new Criminal Justice Bill, the government has even said that it wants the powers available to be used more often. In short, the more legal orders and fines issued, the better. This shows that many anti-social-behaviour measures now exist purely to serve and legitimise state power. They do not express the needs or opinions of the public.
The government claims that these new powers will build ‘community’. But nothing could be further from the truth. Anti-social-behaviour powers tyrannise over communities, upturning our habits and standards. The only recognised rule is the whim of officialdom. Even the most respectable members of our communities, such as a retired music teacher, can now find themselves being punished.
The extension of arbitrary power, designating ever more behaviour as anti-social and dishing out more and more CPNs, is socially and individually destructive. Mrs Seago says that the stress of the warning has raised her blood pressure, leading to problems with her hands and legs. Her son says the threat of a CPN could ‘finish her off’. All the while, anti-social-behaviour policy marches on, leaving ruined lives and casualties in its wake.
Picture by: Getty.
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