By Duncan Heenan, with additional material by Reg Barlow
Don’t be ridiculous; you can’t make everything illegal!
You may think that, but currently before Parliament is the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill (“ASB”) 2013 and Section 1(2) defines anti-social behaviour as “…conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person,” with the provision of a Community Order – an ASBO-like banning order – for anyone falling foul of this proposed law.
“Bravo!” you might say, because no one likes truly antisocial behaviour, and this Bill was introduced to tackle yobbish behaviour that terrorises people in a small locality. However, under this definition any kind of behaviour can be deemed ‘antisocial’, as invariably there will be someone prepared to say that someone else’s behaviour is annoying, effectively making everything illegal. It doesn’t even have to actually annoy anyone, merely be capable of doing so. And it is “any person”; not even the normal ‘reasonable person’ test used in other laws. With this ludicrously broad definition who decides what, out of everything, is ‘antisocial’? Well, it’s the police and magistrates of course, and the rest of this Bill gives wide powers to both to act against perceived anti-social behaviour.
Edmund Burke said in 1780, “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.” In our view, this is not bad law; it is sloppy law.
We already have the Public Order Act 1986 being used to prosecute naturists, when it was really meant to control riots. When considering an application for a Community Order, the magistrate has to think “on the balance of probabilities” your future behaviour will be anti-social? But with the lack of a workable definition magistrates will have to fall back onto what they personally consider socially acceptable and will inevitably fall in to the hands of the same authoritarian individuals who later saw their decision in relation to the POA overturned by a higher court. This new Bill will allow them to act more easily against anything or anyone they dislike, and naturism is certainly one of them, so you’ll see why we are drawing your attention to it.
The inappropriate application of the law is not our only concern. A few years ago, a neighbour of mine had a dinner party with some friends on a warm summer’s evening. Quite late in the proceedings a cello was brought out and as beautiful as the playing was, it was 11 o’clock at night. Another neighbour complimented the musician on his skill, but pointed out the time. Apologies all round, the musician stopped, the party broke up and we all got some sleep. Under this Bill, the neighbour will be within his rights to call the police, considering the music, even well played, at that hour of night as antisocial. With police involvement, would the incident be over and forgotten about in minutes, or would it just cause an even greater disturbance and friction between neighbours? Police Services are already hard pressed, with one service announcing the purchase of alarms for dementia sufferers in their area, as searching for them when they wonder off is taking a disproportionate amount of police resources. Is this Bill helping the police or a hindrance? I think the latter.
By the time you read this, the Bill would have had its second reading in the House of Commons, and will be at the committee stage but there is still a long way to go before it is enacted and time to have this law amended. It is up to each and every one of us to make as much noise about this as we can, to get this definition changed. We all need to write to the papers, to our MPs, write blogs, tweet – to spread the word in any way you can. There is some guidance on how to do this on our website.
I’d like to finish with another quote from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Let’s all do something, and help parliament to turn a bad Bill into a law that is fit for purpose.