Liberty recently helped in a case where a young man challenged the police’s right to remove a person suspected of being under 16 from a curfew area after 9pm.
The court decided that parliament could not have intended for the police to have the power to drag off people who have not done anything.
It would be completely contrary to our international obligations in relation to children. As the judge in the case, Lord Justice Brook, said, “Our children are not sacks of carrots.”
The central problem from our point of view is that the police’s power to escort a young person home was not triggered by any misbehaviour, or even suspected misbehaviour.
That is not a power that you should give to a police force, or that a police force should ask for, under a democracy—end of story.
Following the curfew case, there was a lot of misinformation circulated by some sections of the media. They claimed it was the end of police power as we know it, and that young hooligans will be allowed to run amok because of Liberty’s campaign.
In fact the police already have powers to arrest people, old or young, under suspicion of committing offences. And there are powers to remove children in danger and take them to a safe place.
So this new power was both unnecessary and wrong. It also risked alienating a whole generation of people that the prime minister says he wants to teach respect to. I can’t think of a worse way to engender values of fairness and respect for yourself, let alone other people, than this new power.
The court has now said what this odd law sitting in the statute book means. If there is a young person out late at night, a police officer can ask, “This is a dodgy area, are you sure you want to be out, can I give you a lift home?” If the young person says, “Yes I quite fancy a lift home,” then the police can then use their car to take them home.
So the court has now, in a sense, neutered the police’s power. But the police already have ample powers to arrest people who are up to no good.
In a sense anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos) are a reflection of the same thing. We know that there is crime and we know that there are nuisances in society. And we know that poor people, vulnerable people, young people and old people are quite often on the receiving end of it.
All we are saying is that the power to deal with that behaviour needs to be properly focused and should deal with the behaviour, rather than alienating whole sections of society.
Politically the problem with Asbos is that they are too broad. They talk of “behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress”. Well I’m afraid that some people are very easily distressed.
Some people are distressed by seeing people begging on the street, some people are distressed by mentally ill people. And surprise surprise, when you give the police and the courts such a broad power you sweep up the vulnerable and the innocent alongside the guilty.
Alongside people who ought to be criminally prosecuted you are sweeping up people such as the suicidal woman who was banned from bridges, or the boy with tourette syndrome—which leads to compulsive swearing—being banned from swearing.
These too broad laws are being added to the statute book year in year out—a kind of soundbite legislation, graffiti on the statute book. So there is a legal, constitutional problem that parliament is passing these laws without proper rigour.
The second problem is with the political culture. Populist politicians have been saying for years that they will make everybody safer through more tough talk and more tough legislation.
With Asbos we have had politicians and senior civil servants running around the country banging the drum for the aggressive use of powers.
If we are not careful we will get to a point where the different and the irritating are swept up in our minds with the dangerous and the harmful.
That is not to detract from people’s very legitimate concerns about crime. But these too broad powers are not the way to make people’s lives safer.
What has really struck me about the campaign against Asbos is the range of people who have concerns.
It is not just your conventional awkward squad—people on the left or people in civil liberties organisations—but also people who work with children or with the vulnerable, magistrates, peers, all sorts of people have been turning up to Asbo Concern meetings. This is a campaign whose time has come.
For more information from Liberty go to www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk
For more on the Asbo Concern campaign go to www.asboconcern.org.uk