Today’s guest blog is a follow-up to Heretic TOC’s Freedom stolen by a thief in the night, earlier this month, which reported on a sneaky bid by British politician Sir Paul Beresford MP to squeeze a new law under the radar. The Bill would make possession of written material about children illegal if deemed pornographic. This guest piece was submitted by “Mr Phil” as a comment on the original blog, but I feel it needs greater prominence: it presents a lot of new information on this and other dangerous shenanigans currently in play in the UK Parliament. “Mr Phil” prefers to stay incognito at the moment, so I will confine any personal introduction to saying I know he has long been a reliable observer of the British political and legal landscape.

Note especially that the “monster” Bill to which he draws attention seeks to restrict the freedom of UNCONVICTED persons who it is thought MIGHT commit a sex offence IN FUTURE. Scary! Sounds like a job for those “precog” psychics in the movie Minority Report! Gallows humour apart, this measure is even more sinister than the prospect of a lone zealot like Beresford sneakily snatching away an aspect of free expression. This time it is the government: it isn’t just a thief in the night anymore; it’s daylight robbery by a nasty gang of muggers.

Note also the other salient effect of the Bill, which is to curtail even further the freedom of children and youth. There was a time, not so far distant, when kids could roam free, exploring their natural and social environment to their hearts’ content: a good thing in itself and with long-term benefits to their development. Now most of them have become prisoners in their own bedrooms thanks to overblown “protection”. This latest measure would leave them unable to move a muscle lest they “annoy” anyone.

Like a Thief In the Night, Part II

There is a real monster of a Bill currently going through, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

Its main purpose is to reform the system of civil and criminal injunctions that courts can impose on people deemed to have behaved anti-socially. The best known of these is the ASBO (anti-social behaviour order), often imposed on children and youths. Another is the SOPO (sexual offences prevention order), which can only be imposed on people who have committed offences deemed “sexual” (not necessarily sex offences). Since breach is usually a criminal offence, these orders are perhaps best considered criminal laws that are created arbitrarily by a court and apply to one person only, one of the nicer innovations by former prime minister Tony Blair’s Labour government.

After the new Conservative-led coalition government came to power in 2010 it was announced that ASBOs were to be abolished.

Well, I suppose this Bill in some trivial technical sense does abolish both ASBOs and SOPOs, but only to replace them with something (a) in most ways very similar and (b) to the extent they differ, very much worse.

The circumstances in which the replacements for the ASBO can be imposed have been dramatically widened, from situations that are deemed actually to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” to those that might potentially cause “nuisance and annoyance”, and the threshold for imposition lowered from “necessary” to (I kid you not) “convenient”. Liberty (the former National Council for Civil Liberties) describes it as “breathtakingly broad”.

There are two replacements for the SOPO, both in most ways very similar to the SOPO itself, but one of them, the SRO (sexual risk order) can be imposed not merely on people who have past convictions for offences deemed sexual, but on anyone deemed to have (at any time in the past) “done an act [sic] of a [deemed] sexual nature” that indicates they might commit a sex offence in future. That this is also breathtakingly broad somehow escaped Liberty’s notice, and everyone else’s.

The Bill is now well on its way through Parliament. It has passed most of its House of Commons stages and is currently in its House of Lords committee stage. This has been going through Parliament for many months, and we in Britain should really have been following. Well, we all, including me, took our eye off the ball until now, as it is about to hit us in the face.

Anyway that is all the by the bye, as background to the fact that, in addition to his Ten-Minute Rule Bill, which was the subject of the Thief in the Night blog, Beresford made the same book-burning proposal as an amendment to this Bill. As usual, he tried to sneak it in at the last minute, in this case at the report stage after the Commons committee stage, on October 14. The debate is here, and was interesting on both sides. Paul Goggins seconded, he being the former junior minister who helped Beresford sneak so many measures through under the last Labour regime, thief-in-the-night-style, just as Tom described.

Beresford said that he is proposing this on behalf of CEOP (the police’s “child exploitation and online protection” unit) and the Metropolitan Police paedophile unit. He said that the Home Secretary, Theresa May, has told him she will ask for a report from them on the necessity for this change, and that some months ago he and the Met unit made a presentation to Home Office minister Damian Green, to which they brought examples. (Is it proper for the police to use public money lobbying in this way? Apparently they can get away with it.)

Beresford claimed that his amendment would only ban possession of material that is already illegal to show or distribute, under the Obscene Publications Acts. He did not explain how it is in his power to know that, especially given that his definition is quite different to that in the OPA. He also failed to mention that the OPA is very rarely used, practically a dead letter.

Damian Green replied, saying the government are rejecting Beresford’s idea – for now: “criminalising the written word is a significant step that requires a pause.” But the government will consider it for the future. To support it, they would require evidence that such material is actually harming children. This is some relief, albeit perhaps temporary. Notably, the previous Labour government criminalised possession of “obscene” drawings without any evidence, even though they had taken evidence before banning possession of “extreme” (adult) porn.

Beresford then withdrew his amendment, and it looks as though the clause will not be in this Bill (although I am reluctant to say “never”). Whether it will return and how soon are still opaque. Presumably if he and the Met were very quick about getting together something the government accepted as evidence, time could yet be made next year for his Ten-Minute Rule Bill, though that seems unlikely.

We do however now know how active and well-supported the campaign for it is, and therefore how well-organised any campaign against needs to be, at what level it needs to pitch itself, and to some extent what it needs to argue. Individual letters to MPs do no harm but will not be enough. Some proper lobbying of government is necessary. I think that is beyond the resources of this blog and its little community, so we should be looking for allies and trying to make them aware of the implications of what is on the way.

There has been a trickle of comment pieces elsewhere about the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, all of them, like this, rather late in the day:

The Guardian — police chief says Bill will restrict normal childhood activities:
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/nov/11/antisocial-behaviour-police-chief-young-people
(This is the story that first alerted me to the Bill.)

The Independent — threat to freedom of assembly:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/councils-to-be-given-powers-to-ban-peaceful-protests-that-might-disturb-local-residents-8940535.html

Chilling effects on liberty generally:
http://www.scriptonitedaily.com/2013/11/11/the-birth-of-a-police-state-uk-police-to-be-granted-sweeping-new-powers-2/

There are petitions calling for rejection of the entire Bill, as too bad to rescue with mere amendments. Probably futile, but very little effort, so why not try?
http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/53083
http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/uk-government-reject-the-anti-social-behaviour-crime-and-policing-bill

TOC again: Amazingly, in view of all the above, the latest big news in this morning’s Sunday Times is that a leading public health expert has called for the age of consent to be lowered to 15. But the ink was hardly dry before Prime Minster David Cameron announced there were no plans to change the present age of 16.