Government on defensive over legislation targeting basic freedoms

Government on defensive over legislation targeting basic freedoms

A few days ago, peers voted by 306 to 178 against government plans to criminalise being a nuisance or annoyance in public.

An Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill proposed to replace antisocial behaviour orders (ASBOS) with injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance (IPNAS), which would be even more wide-ranging. These could be used against noisy children, street-corner evangelists (like the recent cases involving Tony Miano), peaceful protesters and mentally ill people behaving in harmless but odd ways. Those who failed to comply could be imprisoned.

A persuasive, reasoned campaign has been run by Reform Clause 1 (http://reformclause1.org.uk), drawing together left and right, the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society.

The Lords recognised that IPNAS would be a breach of fundamental freedoms, but crime prevention minister Normal Baker refused to admit that there was a problem, saying, “I am disappointed the Lords fell for what appear to be scare stories.”

The government, substantially defeated by 306 to 178 votes, “will reflect further given the position the Lords have taken," but it is uncertain whether he will try to reinstate IPNAS when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.

Yet Cross-bench (politically non-aligned) peer Lord Dear, who led opposition to the plan, pointed out that anyone over the age of 10 years could be served with an IPNA, which could last for an indefinite period of time and potentially result in a prison term if breached.

The UK government has made some concessions to the voluntary sector in a bid to push another controversial bill through Parliament. Nevertheless the House of Lords has the opportunity further amend the Lobbying Bill, which would heavily restrict third sector, faith and trade union activities, while leaving corporate lobbyists largely unaffected.

An investigative report in medical journal BMJ has revealed that drinks industry and supermarket lobbyists repeatedly met ministers and officials before plans to weaken public health measures on alcohol were dropped. There were 130 meetings with the Department of Health alone.

The Lobbying Bill was meant to tackle this problem. Instead in the run-up to elections, it might silence charities concerned with problem drinking.

It also sets out to undermine trade unions, which not only seek fairness for their members in the workplace but often also play an important part in defending public services and living standards for those on low incomes. So if you got ill on a Friday night, you might have to wait even longer in an overcrowded and understaffed emergency department to see a doctor.

After criticism from many quarters, the government is willing to make a few changes to the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill 2013-14. The smallest charities will not be targeted and there will be changes to time and spending limits. Yet it remains a disturbing assault on basic human rights and democracy.

An amendment by former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, chair of a Commission on Civil Society and Democratic Engagement, focusing on the effect on voluntary and community organisations, is to be considered by the House of Lords.

In these and other cases, government ministers seem intent on further disempowering ordinary members of the public and employees, who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to powerful corporations and the might of the state. For those who want a more just and humane world, defending democracy and universal human rights – including freedom of speech, assembly and belief – is vitally important.

* More on the Lobbying Bill from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/lobbyingbill

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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