Parliament is considering new laws that would allow police to disperse people taking part in a lawful assembly and arrest those that did not comply. If passed - and protest against the changes is growing fast – there would be no need for the demonstration to have been disorderly or violent – the only requirement would be that the dispersal was ‘necessary to reduce the likelihood of anti-social behaviour’.
If passed, the changes proposed could conceivably be used by Lancashire County Council, for example, to prevent protests against fracking, especially after seeing how protests against that have
gathered pace elsehwere in the UK in recent weeks.
Several charities have also expressed concern that the Bill's proposed Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) to replace ASBOs could, potentially criminalise children as young as ten, if they are considered to be behaving in a way that is capable of causing "nuisance and
annoyance". (This is instead of causing "harassment, alarm and distress",
as defined by ASBOs).
Subject to its parliamentary progress, the Government says the Bill is expected to receive Royal Assent by the end of the session in spring 2014.
Among others, Justice – an all-party law reform and human rights organisation – has already outlined its opposition to the Bill, suggesting changes.
NetPol - which seeks to monitor public order, protest and street policing - reports the Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which is currently at the 'Report' stage, proposes new powers of dispersal that allows any police officer of the rank of Inspector or above to order people to leave an area for up to 48 hours. It allows the
police to specify the time at which a group must disperse, and the
route by which they should do so.
The police would be able use this power whenever they considered that
dispersal is ‘necessary to reduce the likelihood of’ anti-social
behaviour, crime or disorder. Failure to disperse would be an arrestable
offence, with a maximum sentence of three months imprisonment. Those
who the police believe are under sixteen could be removed to a ‘place of
safety’. The police would also have powers to seize items that they
believe could be used in anti-social behaviour.
The proposed Public Spaces Protection Orders in the bill could also be used to clamp down on public protest, as Andy Boddington notes on Liberal Democrat Voice, warning it is set to join a growing list of parliamentary acts that are used in ways that were not intended by lawmakers.
NetPol notes the term anti-social behaviour’ is interpreted widely by police, who
have often applied it to any behaviour they consider unwelcome and
"This has often included protest, and they have an extensive
track record of using existing anti-social behaviour legislation against
lawful protest," the group cautions. "It is inevitable that any new powers to disperse on the
basis of a likelihood of anti-social behaviour will also be used
against people taking part in political assemblies and demonstrations."
There are protections built-in to the statute, but these apply only
to trade union pickets authorised under section 220 of the Trade Union
and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992 or political protest where
written notice has been provided under section 11 of the Public Order
Act 1986. Many lawful political gatherings do not meet these criteria.
Yet, as the legislation stands, participants could be faced with the
choice of ceasing their protest or facing arrest, merely on the say-so
of a police Inspector.
"The broad nature of these powers suggests that they could also be
misused in situations unconnected with protest," says NetPol, "where no human rights
protections apply. Any gathering of people could be dispersed without
the need for suspicion of criminal activity, merely on the assessment of
a police officer that anti-social behaviour is ‘likely’ to occur. The
potential for this power to be misused is enormous, particularly in
areas where there is little existing trust between local communities and
The proposed new power combines and replaces two existing dispersal
powers – s27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act and s30 of the
Anti-social behaviour Act. But in doing so it removes restrictions on the
way these dispersal powers could be used. Section 30 of the Anti-Social
Behaviour Act, currently in force, allows the police to act in areas
where there are on-going problems of anti-social behaviour. The new
power allows the police to disperse without prior notice, and on their
"Like so much modern legislation, the bill is something of a
miscellany, dealing with dogs, drunks and druggies," Notes Andy Boddington. "What drives the bill
is the perceived failure of existing antisocial behaviour measures and
the desire for a simpler, comprehensive package. So it is ushering in
IPNAs – Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance –and throwing
ASBOs out. Designated public places orders, gating orders and dog
control orders will be replaced by the all-embracing Public Spaces
Protection Order (PSPO), which aims to tackle a wide range of
"This all sounds good in principle, but I fear it will not be long
before local councils, often acting for the police or commercial
interests, will use PSPOs to clamp down on public protest," he warns.
Section 27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act, also currently in
force, allows police to disperse where they perceive a likelihood of
alcohol related disorder. This has been criticised by organisations such as the Football Supporters Federation,
who say that the power has been used in a blanket fashion, meaning that
law abiding football supporters have been turned back after hours of
travelling and stopped from attending games for which they had bought
tickets. Netpol have also recorded instances in which s27 has been used
to force people to leave an area, including a group (and legal observer)
at the ‘Thatcher Party’ in Trafalgar Square earlier this year.
The police already have extensive powers to disperse or contain where
there is a real threat of violence or criminality, or where there is an
on-going pattern of anti-social behaviour in residential areas. There
is no need for these extended powers, which can only result in further
restriction of freedom of assembly, and will increase the potential for
discriminatory behaviour that will inflame community tensions.
Critisicising the proposals for IPNAs, Matthew Reed, chair of the Children's Society told the Huffington Post "We believe that such sanctions are extremely disproportionate for
young people involved in anti-social behaviour, let alone those involved
in behaviour perceived as annoying or a nuisance. Nor are they in line
with the youth justice system.
"Prison is counter-productive, harmful for children and in such cases,
extremely disproportionate. Once in prison, children become trapped in
criminal networks and re-offending cycles that they cannot escape for
the rest of their life.
• DirectGov epetition against the Bill
• Change.org Petition against the Bill
• View the progress of the Bill in Parliament
• Government anouncement on the Bill
• Read the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (PDF Link)