New ASBO-style Bill menaces free expression

Putting up with a degree of annoyance is the price we pay for liberty

Conservative Home – London, UK – 27 November 2013


Over the years, there are many people who have accused me of pursuing human rights activism in ways that have been annoying, a nuisance or worse. I am sure they are right.

I hope, for example, that I caused a deal of nuisance to the Zimbabwean tyrant, Robert Mugabe, when I attempted a citizen’s arrest of him on charges of torture. And I am proud to have protested and annoyed the Islamist extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, some of whose members have defended the killing of gay people and Muslims who renounce their faith.

I believe that the right to protest – even if it sometimes includes annoyance and nuisance to others – is an essential part of our democracy. It is one important and very effective way that we – the people – can hold those in power to account in between elections. Hearing annoying, disagreeable views and being subjected to the occasional inconvenient nuisance is the price we pay for living in a free society.

This why I am very concerned that the Government is bringing forward legislation that would penalise many forms of protest on the grounds that they cause (or might cause) annoyance and nuisance to others.

This legislation is currently making its way through the House of Lords. It is called the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

Under Clause 1, the Government wants to replace Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) with the innocuous-sounding Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs). Their aim is laudable: to protect the public from yobs and anti-social behaviour that causes genuine nuisance and annoyance and is to the public detriment.

Sadly, a side effect of these IPNAs will be to have a chilling effect on people’s ability to campaign and cause a fuss about issues that they hold dear. The IPNAs are so sweeping that they are open to abuse in ways that inhibit liberty and freedom of expression. People expressing controversial or dissenting views, participants in a protest march that causes traffic delays or speakers using a megaphone at a rally in a public square or park – any or all of them could be liable to the sanction of an IPNA on the grounds that they have caused annoyance or nuisance to others.

To impose an IPNA the court must only be satisfied that, “on the balance of probabilities, the respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person”. Any person. Even just one person.

But the Bill fails to define what is meant by annoyance and nuisance. It open to a very wide, subjective interpretation.

The potential effect of the legislation was brought into sharp focus by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord MacDonald. He warned that a lone individual standing outside the entrance to a bank holding a sign objecting to its role in the financial crisis, could potentially meet the criteria and threshold for an IPNA. The bank could argue that such a protester was annoying them and causing a nuisance to their customers.

I have also been advised that a noisy protest outside the Russian Embassy, to highlight the anti-gay legislation passed by President Putin, could render me and other participants on the wrong side of this law.

Indeed, this Bill will potentially penalise many ordinary people because of its wide remit and imprecise language.

As Lord MacDonald points out: “a busker outside a shopping centre, or a street preacher proclaiming the end of days to passers-by, may all be capable of causing nuisance and annoyance to some person”.

The sweeping scope means that almost anyone could potentially fall foul of this legislation: children playing in a park, carol singers, charity collectors, bell ringers, football fans cheering on their team in a pub – anyone!

Regrettably, the Government has, so far, dismissed concerns about the legislation, saying the courts would not use IPNAs frivolously. However, as we have often seen with other legislation, the law may be later applied in ways different from the original intention. Moreover, the very process and cost of going to court is likely to deter many people from engaging in hitherto lawful activity that may fall within the catchment of an IPNA.

This is why I am joining a new cross-party campaign (launched today) called Reform Clause 1 – Feel Free to Annoy Me. It aims to amend the legislation before it gets on the statute book and has brought together senior backbenchers Sir Edward Leigh MP and David Davis MP, Baroness Mallalieu QC, Lord MacDonald and former Chief Constable, Lord Dear – plus organisations like The Christian Institute, National Secular Society, Big Brother Watch and the Peter Tatchell Foundation.

I hope the Government will listen to our concerns and amend the legislation. If it does not, then the Reform Clause 1 campaign is committed to fighting the Bill, both inside Parliament and outside by being, where necessary, annoying and a nuisance – all in the name of defending the right to liberty and free expression. Please think again David Cameron.