As Lord Dear wrote for us yesterday, the Government’s Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is dangerous and poorly worded.
Just when we are on the verge of finally getting rid of Section 5 of the Public Order Act, which effectively outlawed insulting people, this new Bill seeks to create IPNAs – Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance.
Given that Westminster has, after 27 years, only just realised that the Public Order Act’s criminalisation of insults was a step too far – leading to people being arrested for criticising others’ religions and, famously, a student being collared for asking if a police horse was gay – it is heartily depressing that no-one in Government seems to have considered the risks of criminalising nuisance or annoyance.
Happily, Lord Dear and his fellow Peers defeated the IPNA proposal in a vote yesterday afternoon – though we will have to wait and see if that is the end of the matter.
There are a number of lessons here – on the need for better drafting of legislation, on the importance of free speech, on challenging the idea that anyone has a right not to be offend and so on.
But perhaps the most important and least discussed is the question of who is filtering Government policies.
As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a bad idea in a brainstorm. To come up with policy ideas, it’s important that politicians and their advisers can consider every possible angle, and the likelihood is that most of the concepts that come up are absolute stinkers. That’s fine – the Government’s problem is that far too many of the stinkers are getting through to become actual policies or matters for public debate, when they should be put in a sack, weighted down and dropped in the Thames.
This is not the first time that a bad idea has been allowed to see the light of day when it should have been coshed over the head shortly after it was conceived. Remember the idea of cutting free school milk for the under-5s? Or the pasty tax? The negative headlines such proposals generate should have been foreseen.
This isn’t a question of ideology, it’s one of practicality – there needs to be someone in Downing Street with the explicitly negative job of spotting these car crashes coming and killing them off. For a brief period, Andy Coulson played this role – but for obvious reasons he no longer does.
All his replacement would need is the right mindset, a pot of red ink and a big rubber stamp that reads “BULLSH*T”. The Office for the Elimination of BS would be one of the most valuable additions to the machinery of Government which David Cameron could introduce – it would save him, and us, a lot of trouble.