Advancing by sly Increments: the Assault on Liberty

A fresh look at the Criminal Justice Bill

Intro by Steve Cook

I’m featuring the following item as it throws some light on how basic liberties are eroded little by little by a progression of small “well-meaning” increments at the hands of a political class that has lost its way.

Criminal Justice Bill: an Attack on our Liberties

SOURCE: ACADEMY OF IDEAS

Josie Appleton introduces a new report from the Manifesto Club on the ever-expanding role of anti-social behaviour powers.

The Criminal Justice Bill included ‘nuisance rough sleeping’ powers, which would have allowed homeless people to be imprisoned if they failed to leave an area when directed. Thankfully, the bill has been killed off by the election, but it is likely to return in a similar or slightly different form, whoever gets in. The steady increase in arbitrary powers to tackle so-called anti-social behaviour has been one of the constants of political life for the past 25 years.

ASB powers started back in 1998, with New Labour’s ASBO, and have expanded every few years since. Today, police and/or council officers can issue on-the-spot legal orders to individuals (Community Protection Notices); ban activities in public spaces (Public Spaces Protection Orders); ’close’ your home or business premises (Closure Notices and Orders); and order you to leave an area (Dispersal Notices).

As I pointed out in a Manifesto Club report published earlier this month, the Conservative government had been increasing anti-social behaviour (ASB) powers without even knowing how the current powers are working.

There has been no government or police assessment of existing ASB powers, to see if they are being used fairly or effectively. Indeed, many police forces don’t even know how many orders they have issued. Out of 40 police forces, 11 didn’t centrally record their numbers of Community Protection Notices, and data supplied by other forces was slightly or very inaccurate. Moreover, 22 police forces were unable to state how many dispersal notices they had issued.

The one Home Office report claiming to assess the ‘effectiveness’ of the police use of powers was based on 24 interviews with 38 police officers and staff, and asked them about their ‘perceptions’ of the issue. The report didn’t include a single interview with a recipient of an order, or one analysis of court data to see who was ending up in court.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that misuse of these powers is widespread. The Manifesto Club receives weekly or even daily emails from people who have received unfair Community Protection Notices, including people banned from feeding stray cats in their garden, banned from feeding the birds, or banned from looking at their neighbours (see our case studies). Homeless people have received CPNs preventing them from receiving donations, or barring them from the areas of the town centre where they find food and shelter.

These case studies show the real-world effect of unchecked power. I have spoken to CPN recipients who have suffered mental-health problems, financial ruin and the threat of eviction as the result of the unjust use of the CPN power.

Research by Leeds University and Sheffield Hallam University has shown the effect of ASB powers on young people and homeless people, who are often targeted with little or no evidence of wrongdoing. Young people have been issued with legal notices for throwing snowballs, while homeless people were woken up and ‘moved on’ up to four times in a night for no reason. Such cruel and unfair interventions clearly do nothing to improve the situation of these communities – or their opinions of the police.

My report argues that the Home Office is setting the police on a dangerous course of ‘fast and loose’ policing. The drive seems to be to increase the numbers of orders issued, and to increase penalties, as an end in itself.

As well as the ‘nuisance rough sleeping’ powers, the Criminal Justice Bill would have allowed police officers to issue Public Spaces Protection Orders that ban activities in public spaces – a terrifying step towards police law-making that has been firmly opposed by Police and Crime Commissioners. The Bill will also allow Community Protection Notices to be issued to children as young as 10, and increase on-the-spot penalties from £100 to £500.

It is very telling that these powers are often not called powers or laws: they are called ‘tools’. Home Office and police documents talk about ‘flexible tools’ or ‘useful tools’ that are ‘convenient and straightforward’ to use. Policymakers say they want to remove any ‘barriers’ to the use of these tools (such as the need to prove a case, or attend court, or get witnesses to attend court). Powers are not seen as coercive mechanisms, but rather as neutral or benign elements – like a screwdriver or hammer – that are helpful to officers.

This is a very dangerous notion. Procedural justice should not be dismissed as simply wasting a police officer’s time and causing unnecessary work. It is essential in order that powers can be guided towards appropriate ends.

Perversely, the erratic use of power can foster disorderly conduct. The paper by Leeds academics argues that it is only when criminal justice is fair, targeted and predictable that it can ‘enhance capacities and capabilities within communities, families and individuals for self-regulation’. When powers are used erratically, they undermine communities’ systems of self-regulation. More prosaically, the Sheffield Hallam research found that homeless people would make a point of urinating in front of certain police officers, with the aim of gaining a ‘little win’ as payback for previous harassment.

The Home Office is creating an anarchic world where any ‘bully with a badge’ can tell you what to do, and you don’t know which order you’re going to receive next. This is not a war on ‘anti-social behaviour’ but a war on our liberties, and indeed a war on law itself, which will have nothing but casualties.

Josie Appleton is founding director of the Manifesto Club. Read the Manifesto Club report, The Police Use and Abuse of ASB powers, here.

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The above was featured on UK Reloaded

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