Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The State doesn't know best

We've been hearing a lot about ASBOs lately. The BBC magazine's 'Asbowatch' (Parts V, IV, III, II, I) takes a lighthearted look at some of the more bizzarre ASBOs. Apparently people can be 'banned' from saying and doing certain things and visiting certain places, so I started wondering if an ASBO could be used to silence a political opponent or stifle peaceful protest.

"Anti-social" is defined in the dictionary as "hostile to or disruptive of the established social order; marked by or engaging in behavior that violates accepted mores".

The Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 has ten parts.

Part 1 allows magistrates to close premises where drugs are used illegally.

Part 2 requires social landlords to produce policy documents concerning anti-social behaviour. The landlord may apply to the court for an injunction (which may in certain circumstances cover exclusion from an area and/or power of arrest) against a person engaging or threatening to engage in certain behaviour. The offender can also lose their security of tenure.

Part 3 provides for 'parenting contracts' and 'parenting orders' in cases of child truancy and criminality.

Part 4 covers 'dispersal of groups and removal of persons under 16 to their place of residence'. An area can be made subject to these provisions for up to six months at a time. If a police constable has reasonable grounds for believing that "the presence or behaviour of a group of two or more persons in any public place in the relevant locality has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed" he or she may require them to disperse, leave the area (unless they live there), in both cases "either immediately or by such time as he may specify and in such way as he may specify". He/she may also prohibit any of them who don't live there from returning to the area for a period not exceeding 24 hours.

The authorisation of these powers is given by a police officer, with no judicial review, although the Secretary of State (a politician) "may" issue a code of practice. If he wants to.

Part 5 extends the Firearms Act 1968 to cover air weapons and imitation firearms. You mustn't possess them in a public place, it's just as bad as being caught with a real gun. The lower age limit is raised from 14 to 17. It is an offence to make improper use of an air weapon on private property. Air weapons using a self contained gas cartridge system are prohibited. They'll probably go even further soon.

Part 6 covers the environment - noise, penalty notices for graffiti and fly-posting, removal of graffiti, advertisements, sale of aerosol paint to children, waste and litter. I'd like to draw attention to the title of section 46: "Powers of police civilians". Someone obviously forgot that the police are citizens in uniform, not a paramilitary force.

Part 7 is entitled "Public Order and Trespass". It starts by amending Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 (imposing conditions on public assemblies) so that action may be taken against an assembly of only 2 people (previously 20). It then lowers the number of ravers necessary to take action from 100 to 20 (section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) and removes the need for such an assembly to be in the open air. It goes on to provide for 'travellers' to be removed from land.

Part 8 deals with high hedges and nuisance arising therefrom.

Part 9 refers back to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which introduced ASBOs.

That Act allows magistrates to impose an ASBO on any person over 10 years old where:

"(a) ...the person has acted, since the commencement date, in an anti-social manner, that is to say, in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself; and

(b) ...such an order is necessary to protect persons in the local government area in which the harassment, alarm or distress was caused or was likely to be caused from further anti-social acts by him".

Appeal may be made to the Crown Court.

Looking back, maybe this was an early indication of the police state desired by many in power and demonstrated by the recent attempt again to legalise detention without trial (powers Blair admitted that he hoped to use against G8 protestors). Could it be said that a politician suffers "alarm or distress" when he or she is criticised? If so, then why not impose an ASBO on the offender? If they breach it, send them to prison. Who is to say that certain politicians don't find peaceful protest marches alarming or distressing? If so, then those protesters may legally be dispersed by police and banned from returning. If they do, send them to prison.

In summary, people are already being 'banned' from saying and doing certain things, while the right to free assembly may be under threat and further restrictions are placed on citizens bearing arms. It seems to be generally accepted that ASBOs are ridiculous, but are we missing their real purpose; to soften us up for more restrictive laws in the future and to get us used to the idea that our thoughts and actions can be conrolled by the State?

This post may well be considered by some to be "hostile to or disruptive of the established social order" (definition of anti-social) and may alarm or distress them. I am likely to continue to make similar posts (test for ASBO issue). Should I therefore be 'banned' from posting such things on pain of imprisonment? I could be.