LibDems to Consider Regime To Limit Freedom of Movement in Cambridge


Thursday, March 1st, 2012. 3:16pm


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Later today Cambridge’s West Central Area Committee will consider a proposal from Cambridgeshire Police to introduce a “dispersal zone” under S30 of New Labour’s Antisocial Behaviour Act into part of the city centre. If approved PCSOs would be able to order two or more people to separate, and/or leave the area, if it is thought their presence or behaviour “has resulted, or is likely to result, in any members of the public being intimidated, harassed, alarmed or distressed.” Police constables would also gain the dispersal power in-relation to those whose behaviour was not alcohol related. (For alcohol related behaviour they already have such, and further, powers under s27 of the Violent Crime Reduction Act 2006)

The police proposal, and supporting evidence has been published on the committee webpage.

The committee will not take the decision. For the order to be made a senior police officer will have to put their name to it, and Cambridge’s Executive Councillor for policing, Cllr Tim Bick will have to agree to it. Despite being elected a Liberal Democrat Cllr Bick has indicated at previous area committee meetings he would be prepared to sign such an order, introducing provisions which he himself described in yesterday’s paper as resulting in:

“a regime which can limit people’s freedom of movement “

The evidence from the police focuses on the fact a dispersal zone would give their PCSOs, who predominantly patrol the city centre, powers they currently lack, enabling them to disperse groups of two or more people and require them to leave the area.

The Area

The police failed to provide a map of the proposed area as part of their proposal. I produced the one included with this article based on my attempt at interpreting the list of streets covered by, and forming the boundary of, the proposed zone.

I know the area very well and had a map in-front of me; it still took me fifteen minutes or so to identify the area; and I was left with some areas of uncertainty. One key question I have is if will those to be expelled from the area be given a map, or as last time such an order was in place, merely a list of streets. I think the list of streets is inadequate, and this is a view which was shared by magistrates called upon to sentence those who had breached orders under the provisions when they were last in-force. I want to know if the magistrate’s views have been taken into account.

Short Street and Elm Street appear to be missing from the area’s boundaries. The Elm Street omission is minor, it is clear what the intent was there, but Short Street is key because it has a junction with Willow Walk. Apparently due to the presence of the hostel on the street Willow Walk is excluded to allow residents to be expelled from the area and to return home. (Those who live in the area are not subject to exclusion from it). If Short Street is covered or not determines if hostel residents would be confined to the Willow Walk if they were expelled from the area.

There are three areas for which the evidence supporting the new zone applies to; but are omitted from the proposed area. These locations are the Brunswick area, Walkwoth Street and Claradon Street. It is unclear if this if the mistake is in the area covered by the proposed zone, or the area covered by the evidence.

Also, Mortimer Road is included in the list of streets despite being discontinuous with rest of the area and therefore not making any sense as a boundary road.

Authoritarian

I think any Liberal Democrats expressing support for the police proposals will effectively be joining Cllr Blair in jumping ship and moving to supporting the hugely oppressive New Labour authoritarian and oppressive approach to running society.

I intend to attend the meeting and use the public speaking slot to urge councillors to remember they’ve been elected as Liberal Democrats, to protect, not erode, civil liberties.

Police officers huge powers which can restrict individual freedoms. I accept that as a necessary part of running society, however in the case of the vast majority of those powers there are substantive safeguards, checks and balances. For example if I get arrested, I have to get taken to a police station, and trained custody sgt determines if he agrees with my detention; rest of the system kicks in too, I’m protected by the rules of the PACE codes and will rapidly end up in-front of a court where my fate will (on a good day, in most places) be determined following due-process.

I don’t think the appropriate safeguards are in-place in relation to the proposed zone. What can I do if I’ve been dispersed, or expelled. unjustly? There’s nothing I can do in the relevant time period the order will be in place. I could seek judicial review, but by the time that can be put in train the effect of the order will be over.

The proposal criminalises otherwise non-criminal behaviour, such as gathering in groups. I don’t want to see just gathering in a group criminalised. A gathering of people might cause alarm; be it a group of children, youths, adults, or homeless people, whoever it is, but that’s not in my view a reason to criminalise associating with others in public.

Signage and Operation

I want to know what the proposals are for signage of the area. Previous signage has been scrappy, A4 laminated sheets containing tiny black and white maps and dense text posted on lampposts. These were not posted as the areas came into force and were left in place well beyond the period.

I want to know exactly what will the orders issued to individuals will look like? Maps or a list of streets? What information about appeal routes will be included? (The orders have to be given in writing)

More Powers to PCSOs

Giving more powers to PCSO is by far the strongest argument being made in the police submission. They hardly mention the other relevant point, which is S30 applies to those causing non-alcohol related harassment alarm and distress. Cllr Bick, has been supported unanimously by the full council in giving more powers to PCSOs in another area, to tackle speeding, and at a previous area committee councillors called for more action against cyclists without lights (another area PCSOs lack powers to act on).

My view, which I have expressed in more detail elsewhere, is that we ought give those PCSOs capable of exercising them the full powers of a constable, ie. make them constables. We would keep them on duties similar to those they currently exercise via management controls restricting how they can be deployed and what they are permitted to do (in a similar way as the activities conducted by Special Constables are limited).

Reducing Arrests

I would like to know to what degree is the proposals are about reducing arrests? Many of the behaviours mentioned in the evidence are otherwise criminal, and could be dealt with by arrest; is this an effort to save money and meet the chief constable’s target of reducing the number of individuals taken into custody substantially?

Those Not Otherwise Criminal

If approved this order will end up criminalising people; who’ve not done anything criminal other than to disobey an order to disperse.

It may catch people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve had recent experience of this kind of thing, being evicted on threat of arrest from the public gallery at the council; because I was sitting in the same part of the room as someone who threw a paper airplane. I know how unjust that felt, it would be much worse if I was prevented from being in a large part of the city in which I live.

Notably the proposal is to include the guildhall in the area. The provisions could be used by the police when clearing the public gallery of the council chamber if councillors call them in, in the future.

Disaggregation

Lots of material, raising important matters, which have a massive negative impact on how safe the city centre feels, have been included in the evidence submitted by the police but utterly irrelevant to the question of imposing a dispersal zone.

I would like to urge councillors to:

  • Ignore the evidence that’s about things that would be criminal, and could be adequately dealt with without a S30 order.
  • Ignore anything that’s not specifically about why PCSOs need these powers; or identifying a non-alcohol related problem, needing dispersal.
  • Ignore anything that can be dealt with by S27 Violent Crime Reduction Act

The debate shouldn’t deteriorate into a discussion identifying and accepting we have a serious set of problems in the city centre, which I agree we do, but then moving onto support the dispersal zone, simply because it is something councillors are able to do. Councillors ought only support it if they feel its the right and proportionate response to the problems facing the city.

Confidence in PCSOs Acting Alone

A key question for councillors will be:

How much confidence you’ve got in PCSOs, acting alone?

John Fenton, who runs Cambridge Crepes, has told the Cambridge News he has “total trust in the police”. I’d like to see councillors be more cautious. I have a reasonable amount of faith in the system, this isn’t about the system as a whole, its about individuals acting alone.
Some PCSOs are excellent; but many I’ve come access in Cambridge are not in my view capable of exercising this degree of unchecked power.

I have in the past come across a PCSO delivering postcards to every house where I live saying that the police have found the property insecure. This caused some of my neighbours substantial alarm when they returned home, wondering if they’d been burgled. I caught up with the PCSO asking her what she was doing and she said she hadn’t read the cards she was delivering, and was just doing what her sergeant had told her.

No Named Police Officer

A named senior officer should will need to put their name to these proposals before they are formally submitted to Cllr Bick. As yet no officer has done so.

Lib Dems vs Civil Liberties Campaigners

The Cambridge News coverage of the proposals notes that Civil Liberties Campaigners are opposed to them. We shouldn’t have a situation where the Liberal Democrat councillors, elected on a platform of protecting civil liberties are at odds with such campaigners, we should all be on the same side. Unfortunately many councillors, like recent defector Clare Blair, don’t appear to have any deep seated liberal views, any they do have are easily overturned.

6 comments/updates on “LibDems to Consider Regime To Limit Freedom of Movement in Cambridge

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    A further point is the potential effect on safety of dispersing groups. Students and young people are often advised to go out in the evening in groups; this could result in friends, or even families being separated from each other.

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    I attended the West Central Area Committee on the 1st of March 2012 where this item was discussed.

    The police sent Inspector Poppit to introduce their proposed request for the dispersal zone.

    Inspector Poppit said the powers would be targeted against “street life people”; he said these people were the cause of “antisocial behaviour” in the city centre.

    The only new piece of information the inspector added in his introduction was that the police planned to seek the ability to use the powers only for certain times of the day. (It will be interesting to see what these hours are, as the evidence currently appears to me to cover both the daytime and the evening, and at least some of the calls for action are from traders who operate during the day).

    Inspector Poppit also made clear the main reason for wanting the new zone was so that PCSOs were able disperse, and move people on.

    I, another member of the public, and Cllr Hipkin, all challenged the inspector’s tone and specific targeting of this particular group of people. I and Cllr Hipkin both stressed the importance of treating everyone equally under the law, a concept worryingly apparently not supported by the police inspector.

    Much of the debate time was unfortunately taken up by Cllr Hipkin complaining about the impact young people drinking in the city centre have on how safe it is, and feels, to walk through late at night. Cllr Hipkin said he wouldn’t walk down Regent Street on a Friday or Saturday night out of fear of being pushed off the pavement or being vomited or urinated on. Hipkin said this was a result of the city council’s policies of encouraging the night time economy. Cllr Rosensteil argued against this saying Cllr Hipkin was being disingenuous to the city’s youth.

    Cllr Reiner asked why Willow Walk had been excluded from the proposed zone. Inspector Poppit said he didn’t know as he had not been involved in determining the area covered. Cllr Reiner suggested including Willow Walk on the grounds that people living in the hostel sometimes gathered there.

    Public comments were invited, and I was able to make most of the points I covered in my article. The inspector openly laughed when I suggested groups of students or families might be split up as a result of dispersal orders.

    I made the suggestion that Willow Walk was excluded so that those living in the hostel there could be directed to leave the zone; I noted those who live in the zone cannot be required to leave it. Cllr Reiner said, dismissively, that this wasn’t the case. I suggested that Inspector Poppit could confirm what the law says, but he apparently didn’t have a clue either.

    The law appears clear to me, Section 30(4)(b) and (c) of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, the two clauses about directing people to leave the zone, make clear they apply to:

    “persons whose place of residence is not within the relevant locality”

    I will write to Cllr Reiner seeking an apology and asking her to retract her statement at the beginning of the next West/Central Area Committee.

    Cllr Reiner expressed support for the introduction of the zone. As a Liberal Democrat, given her understanding of the powers, this is absolutely astonishing. She thought she was supporting a PCSO, acting alone, being able to prevent a person from, leave, and potentially not returning to their own home for up to twenty four hours. It is absolutely unbelievable that someone supporting such a regime could have the gall to stand for election as a Liberal Democrat.

    When I drew attention to the point about areas covered by the evidence, but not the proposed zone, I noted that if the zone was extended to include Walkworth Street then Cllr Bick would need to declare an interest as he lived there, and would therefore become exempt from being ordered to leave.

    Cllr Brooks-Gordon said she agreed with my request for a map to be produced and that she shared my concerns about the lack of due process – she said she wanted my questions on that answered too.

    Inspector Poppit responded to claims that the powers would impact those other than it was intended to, and that if people “behave” they would not be moved on. This is nonsense as the very nature of the powers is that they can be used against those who’ve done nothing wrong but find themselves in a group. You could find yourself being dispersed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time if others in the area (or you by your mere presence) are perceived as causing, or being likely to cause harassment alarm or distress).

    While Inspector Poppit wasn’t able to answer any of the points I raised I could see Cllr Bick was taking notes.

    As the discussion was summed up, the chair said he felt councillors were minded to support the introduction of the order. Only two councillors objected, Cllr Hipkin said his support would be conditional on it applying equally to everyone and not being targeted against a particular group. Cllr Brooks-Gordon indicated that she did not support the introduction of the order at all.

    Those councillors who did fully support the introduction of the zone, all Liberal Democrats, were Reiner, Rosenstiel, Bick, Kightley, and Cantrill.

    Cllr Bick’s support was conditional on the police putting forward an evidence backed request, but if they did that, he made clear he would sign it off.

  3. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have written to Cllr Reiner, copying the chair, and vice chair of the West Central Area Committee:

    Cllr Reiner,

    At the West Central Area Committee on the 1st of March 2012 I was using the opportunity given to the public to speak on certain items to comment on the proposed introduction of a a “dispersal zone” as provided for by S30 of the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003.

    You asked why Willow Walk (between Short Street and Fair Street) had been excluded from the proposed zone. The police representative didn’t know. You suggested it ought be included.

    I postulated that the exclusion of Willow Walk from the proposed zone may have been to ensure that residents of Willow Walk (particularly the hostel) were subject to the powers under discussion to exclude individuals from the zone. I stated that those who live in the zone may not be expelled from it. You interrupted and stated that was incorrect.

    I hope you have now had an opportunity to read the act and will have seen Section 30(4)(b) and (c) both only apply to “persons whose place of residence is not within the relevant locality”. The “relevant locality” being the defined and approved zone.

    http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/38/section/30

    I would like to ask you to retract and correct your statement, I suggest the best time and manner to do this would be at the start of the next West/Central Area Committee meeting.


    It appears your understanding of the provisions at the time you expressed your support for them was that a PCSO, acting alone, could order someone to leave their home, and/or not be permitted to return to their home, for up to 24 hours on the basis of a mere belief that their presence might cause harassment, alarm and distress.

    As authoritarian as they were even New Labour included safeguards in their legislation so people couldn’t be expelled from, or prevented from returning to, their homes as a result of a dispersal order. I can’t see how you can square such an extreme authoritarian stance with standing as a Liberal Democrat, pledging to preserve civil liberties and due process; if you hold those views your actions at the meeting indicate then I think you are misleading the public by remaining a Liberal Democrat, and I’m surprised the party are prepared to have you as a member.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor
    Cambridge
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    Cllr Reiner has replied; her response in full:

    Mr Taylor

    I am sorry, but you have misunderstood what I was saying entirely.

    Regards

    Clearly this is not a satisfactory response. There was no ambiguity whatsoever in Cllr Reiner’s contributions to the meeting; either her call to include all of Willow Walk within the zone, or her statement that I was wrong to say those who live within the zone cannot be expelled from it.

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    In a series of Tweets the Liberal Democrat candidate for Petersfield, Zoe O’Connell has, following my asking, outlined what her approach to dispersal zones will be.

    She wrote:

    The case would need to be made that introducing dispersal zones increases freedom, because the freedom of residents was impacted by anti-social behaviour by more than the loss of freedom on those being threatened w/dispersal. It would also need to be demonstrated that there would be no significant equalities impact and that existing police powers could not deal with it. To date, that case has not been satisfactorily made.

    I find this disappointing as I thought that as a civil liberties campaigner O’Connell might, if elected, have joined the minority of Liberal Democrats in Cambridge opposing the use of dispersal powers in the city.

    The lack of any reasonable and timely appeals process available to those who are dispersed does not feature in O’Connell’s consideration. The statement, in line with the LibDem manifesto, and practice, in Cambridge states there are circumstances in which O’Connell may vote for a dispersal zone in Cambridge, albeit given hurdles I find it hard to envisage will ever be overcome.

    The comment “To date, that case has not been satisfactorily made” could be interpreted as expressing a view that the dispersal orders approved by the Liberal Democrat run council to-date would not have been supported by O’Connell. (An alternative interpretation could be that this comment refers only to those zones recently under consideration).

    O’Connell also stated the proposals for dispersal zones in Petersfield are not being progresed; she didn’t make clear what the status of proposals relating to other parts of the city centre zone, or the other parts of East Cambridge were.

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