Public Spaces Protection Orders: No poor, no groups, no skateboards. Vampires welcome.
News agencies and foul-mouthed pun-fans nationwide had a ball last week when Salford City Council hit the headlines after Liberty criticised its use of an astonishingly vaguely worded Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) to criminalise the use of all “foul and abusive language”.
The council is refusing to provide any guidelines on what actually constitutes "foul and abusive", meaning people have no way of knowing when they're at risk of breaking the law. It has replied to our request for clarification by explaining the phrase carries “its normal, everyday meaning” and “is easily understood”.
This heavy-handed curb on freedom of expression is, sadly, just one example of how easily PSPOs can be - and are being - misused and abused. Salford is not alone in banning swearing in public - Bassetlaw, East Cambridgeshire, Guildford, Hillingdon, Kensington and Chelsea, Lancaster and Wirral have all imposed similar orders.
Swearing is one thing - but councils are also increasingly using PSPOs to slap rough sleepers and beggars with criminal records and fines they cannot possibly afford, penalising our society’s most vulnerable instead of offering the support they need.
Liberty has campaigned against PSPOs from their inception, warning the power to impose them is too-widely drawn, with an incredibly vague definition of what can be criminalised considering the disproportionately punitive sanctions they bring with them.
The potty-mouthed and the poor aren't the only targets. Almost imperceptibly, council officials all over the country are being allowed to chip away at our civil liberties, often with little public scrutiny.
A common theme is to target gathering and/or loitering. As well as the obvious connotations for the right of freedom of assembly, some PSPOs are effectively criminalising friendship.
- Bassetlaw District Council has banned under-16s from gathering in groups of just three or more at any time without a responsible adult present. These ‘criminals’ are teenagers. Revelling in being away from responsible adults with friends is completely normal.
- Worse still is Guildford Borough Council’s PSPO against any gathering or loitering in groups of just two or more. So in Guildford it’s against the law to hang out with anyone.
- Coventry City Council is currently consulting on a PSPO which would criminalise groups of two or more people from behaving anti-socially in a park - but has failed to define "anti-social". Presumably this means hogging the swings brings criminal sanctions. I hope not – I’d be a notorious outlaw.
- A proposed PSPO in Kettering plans to ban the ‘misuse’ of skateboards, BMX bikes and scooters. The definition of "misuse" is a mystery known only to Kettering council officers.
- Blackpool Council, legendary entertainment capital of the north, has banned card tricks performed in front of under-16s. I suppose a good trick might lead to a crowd of youths gathering, so this is really a two-in-one. Genius.
- Gravesham Borough Council is proposing a ban on feeding pigeons. A fine of £100 – possibly even £1,000 – for dropping a few crumbs? The bright side is it’s only pigeons – Cheshire West and Chester Council once considered criminalising feeding any birds at all.
- Nottingham City Council’s anti-climbing PSPO has an unintended consequence. It covers trees – so making you a criminal for rescuing your cat.
Some councils have gone to great lengths to ban rough sleeping without directly using the phrase in their Order – with perverse results.
- Original plans for Chester included banning lying down or sleeping in the designated area. That area covered Grosvenor Park – so sunbathers could have found themselves facing heavy penalties this summer. Sadly for tanning salons the proposal has now been dropped.
- Wrexham has gone the opposite way, with the council proposing to ban sleeping in the park during the hours of darkness. Presumably anyone can sleep there all day as long as they’re up and about at night. Vampires of Wrexham, rejoice.
- Perhaps the most worrying are those in the mould of Lancaster’s and Bassetlaw’s PSPOs – already passed – which both criminalise any behaviour causing annoyance. By that definition on any given day pretty much anything could be illegal. That ought to keep people on their toes, eh?
The good news is the evidence from our recent victories is clear – shine some light on these illogical and (in many cases) illegal plans, and councils will sometimes see sense and back down.
Liberty and other groups - including many grassroots campaigners - have had some success, but we can’t get them all. PSPOs will continue to make a mockery of the justice system until the law is completely rewritten.
* Tonight comedian Mark Thomas – with whom Liberty is working to tackle Salford’s swearing ban – is performing in the Salford Quays area covered by the PSPO and plans to stage a protest against the Order outside the Lowry Theatre after the show.