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Should being ‘annoying’ be illegal? The British government thinks so

Britain neither needs nor wants its social behaviour dictating by a higher authority, as hopefully the backlash against the UK government’s Injunction to Prevent Nuisance or Annoyance Bill will prove to an over-zealous coalition – says Sephy Hallow

How very British the suggested Injunction to Prevent Nuisance or Annoyance Bill seems at first glance: the proposed IPNA legislation, rightly defeated by the House of Lords, would prevent anyone over 10 from being a source of irritation in public. On one hand, the thought of slapping injunctions on tin-rattlers, bad buskers and children who ought to know better is a dream come true for the average grumpy Brit. On the other, it is a giant overreach of legislative power that would see our rights to liberty crushed by the powers that be. The ill-thought out proposed law comes across as the kind of policy mandated by your drunk dad in the middle of the ‘if I were in charge’ rant but, all joking aside, how did it really come to be passed through United Kingdom House of Commons?

Commons members have defended the bill’s wording, suggesting that terms such as “annoyance” and “nuisance” are clearly legally defined. However, even if this were the case – which, on the back of their Lords defeat, seems dubious as a defence – why does the UK public need protecting against being irritated? If the law is designed to serve and protect the people, this is the question we should be asking. What benefit does this bill provide to the average citizen or, more simply, why do we need it? For an insight into what the bill was designed to protect against or whom it was meant to serve, let us turn to the wording of the draft bill itself.

An interesting starting point is to look at who would be allowed, under the proposed legislation, to hit up petty tyrants with an IPNA. Tellingly, the first two agencies granted the right to ticket the annoying, under section 18 of the draft bill, are listed as local authorities and housing providers – meaning the first irritating underclass the government considered as meriting an IPNA were those in social housing. Not only does this testify to the mindset of the bill writers, and their low opinion and authoritarian attitude towards those in social housing, but also the extent of the bill. By granting the authority to bring criminal action against the irritating to housing providers, the legislation does not just cover public behaviour but creeps into our private conduct; leaving us vulnerable to prosecution for annoying actions in our own homes.

For the four million Britons who currently rent their main home, the bill would threaten to label them criminals for acts of social ineptitude or irritation committed within their own home. From a noisy washing machine to mid-afternoon violin practice, the loose wording allows for criminal prosecution for an endless variety of pet peeves. If this all sounds like an overreaction – speculating that these powers will be used inappropriately – simply look to the IPNA’s predecessor, the Antisocial Behaviour Order.

Despite its tighter regulation and wording, ASBOs have been used to subdue a variety of non-violent behaviours – as political activist George Monbiot pointed out in The Guardian: “ASBOs have been granted which forbid the carrying of condoms by a prostitute, homeless alcoholics from possessing alcohol in a public place, a soup kitchen from giving food to the poor, a young man from walking down any road other than his own, children from playing football in the street. They were used to ban peaceful protests against the Olympic clearances.”

In truth, the IPNA does not serve the people as a law which protects their rights; you have every right to be safe and unthreatened but you do not, and should not, have the right to remain blissfully annoyance-free. Furthermore, since no one is petitioning the government to make provisions for an irritant-free nation, the question arises as to why the law was considered necessary in the first place. Especially when such a rule would easily allow for political protests to be legitimately shut down on the grounds of being annoying.

If the UK parliamentarians have lost their common sense and it’s up to the Lords to protect the rational interests of the people then questions have to be raised about the competency, legitimacy and aims of the coalition – particularly when it comes to matters of legislation. This country neither needs nor wants its social behaviour dictating by a higher authority, as hopefully the backlash against this bill will prove to an over-zealous coalition. The government and MPs would be wise to consider themselves warned about such overreach.

Sephy Hallow is deputy leader of the UK Pirate Party

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