The Conservative party used to be the party of individual liberty. No longer, it seems – at least if the Criminal Justice Bill just introduced in the House of Commons is anything to go by.
It’s not simply the worrying powers it promises that will interfere with people at home (for example, it contains police powers to enter homes without a warrant to search for items of stolen property, or to seize the knives you keep at home, potentially without compensation, on the mere suspicion that they might be used criminally). Discreetly lurking in the Bill (in schedule 6, since you ask) is something much more serious: something which comes very close to a power in the police to legislate permanently for what you and I are allowed to do in public.
Nine years ago, local authorities got the power to issue so-called Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs). Meant to deal with a small number of perennial nuisances – noise, busking, depositing rubbish, drinking in public places late at night, and so on – they allowed local authorities to enact detailed rules, enforceable by on-the-spot fines or if necessary arrest, to prevent them. All the authority had to show was that it thought the amenity of the area was being interfered with, and had consulted with the police, ‘community representatives’ and a few others. Such orders last for up to three years, but can be repeatedly extended.
Under the new Bill, these powers are set to become exercisable under similar conditions not only by a local authority but by any ‘senior police officer’ – a slightly misleading piece of legalese meaning any officer above the pretty junior rank of sergeant. All he has to do is demonstrate that he has consulted the local authority together with community representatives and so on.