Christians face new free speech threat from ASBO law

Christian street preachers and others could be caught by new sweeping powers designed to combat anti-social behaviour, a senior lawyer and campaign group have warned.

Lord Macdonald QC, the former chief prosecutor, has written a strongly-worded legal opinion on the issue, saying the proposal’s safeguards are “shockingly low”.

And an alliance of groups, which includes The Christian Institute and civil liberty organisations, cautioned that the powers will not deter people from nuisance behaviour.

Serious

Under Clause 1 of the new anti-social behaviour Bill, ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) would be replaced by Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs).

IPNAs are designed to be easier to obtain by the authorities and also require a lower threshold of evidence.

But Lord Macdonald QC says the proposals are extremely broad and could result in “serious and unforeseeable interferences in individual rights, to the greater public detriment”.

Interfere

He says: “Of course political demonstrations, street performers and corner preachers may be ‘annoying’ to some – they may even, from time to time be a ‘nuisance’.”

But he says there is a “danger” that the Bill “potentially empowers State interference” against such people and barely acknowledges their ability to “exercise core rights without undue interference”.

Simon Calvert, Director of the Reform Clause 1 campaign group which is opposing the plans, said it is a “crazy law”.

“It will not deter thugs and hooligans who are normally already breaking lots of other laws anyway.”

Chilling

He added: “It is chilling that there is a complete absence of safeguards and any clear definition of what is deemed to be annoying.

“What this means in practice is that people going about their ordinary business, such as charity collectors, protestors, carol singers, street pastors – even people simply expressing strong opinions in public – could be classed as annoying and hauled before the courts.

“I am sure this was not the intention of the Government, but this legislation was badly conceived, is badly written and will stop many reasonable and hitherto lawful activities.”

Reform

He also noted that the Government had only recently bowed to pressure and reformed another law – Section 5 of the Public Order Act – after concerns were raised about free speech.

The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is currently before the House of Lords for consideration.

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