Government suffers defeat over anti-social behaviour bill

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The government has suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords over its plans for new injunctions to tackle anti-social behaviour in England and Wales.

The government wants to replace Asbos with Ipnas, which a court could impose on anyone engaging or threatening to engage in anti-social behaviour, defined in the bill as "conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person".

But a cross-section of peers argued during report stage of the Anti-social behaviour Crime and Policing Bill on 8 January 2013 that the threshold was too low, and could put "fundamental freedoms" at risk.

The House voted by a 178-majority in favour of an amendment to reinstate the "harassment, alarm or distress" test used for Asbos.

Former police chief constable Lord Dear, who tabled the amendment, claimed the injunctions could apply to noisy children, street preachers, carol singers, and nudists.

While he supported the nuisance and annoyance test for dealing with housing issues, he strongly contested its use in the "public environment".

The crossbencher claimed the wording would open the door to "uncertainty, confusion and legal injustice".

'Too broad'

Supporting the amendment, Labour peer and QC Baroness Mallalieu told peers that "to try to prohibit behaviour which is capable of annoying someone, is a step far too far".

She feared that "there is a real prospect that clause one [of the bill] one will slow the courts down by clogging them with a myriad of Ipna applications and be of little help to real victims in need of urgent help".

Tory former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern added: "One of our fundamental freedoms is freedom of speech and it is surely clear that in exercising that, one may annoy other people, one or more."

The government tabled a concessionary amendment to introduce a new "reasonableness" test, to limit injunctions to behaviour "that could reasonably be expected to cause" such nuisance or annoyance.

This was supported by Conservative peer Lord Faulks who told the House that the proposal "seems to entirely meet our concerns". He said the fact a judge had to decide on the injunction provided another safeguard.

For the opposition, Baroness Smith of Basildon criticised the government's approach as "too broad" and argued that setting the threshold "so low" undermines "basic fundamental freedoms".

In response to peers' concerns, Home Office Minister Lord Taylor of Holbeach committed to further talks and possible concessions on the issue.

He said he would withdraw his amendment, and asked Lord Dear to do the same on the basis that the government would return to the issue at the bill's third reading.

But Lord Dear was not persuaded by the minister's reply and decided to test the opinion of the House, which voted by 306 to 178 to replace the phrase "nuisance and annoyance" with "harassment, alarm or distress".

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