Monday, October 14, 2013

Sexual risk orders: something liberals should be worried about?

Over the next two days, the Commons will complete its debates on the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Liberty have already expressed concern about some of the measures within it:
The Anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Bill proposes to replace existing orders (such as ASBOs) with a new  generation of injunctions which are easier to obtain, harder to comply with and have harsher penalties. The Bill would also introduce unfair double punishment for the vulnerable, as social tenants and their families will face mandatory eviction for breaching a term of an injunction. Other measures in the Bill include some restrictions on Schedule 7 stop and search powers which, while welcome, unfortunately come nowhere near addressing the dangerous breadth and intrusiveness of these powers. The Bill also weakens key safeguards in our already heavily-criticised extradition system by removing the automatic right of appeal against extradition orders.
In July our own Andy Boddington expressed his concerns about the effects of the bill on the right to public protest.

However, last week, the Government announced that it was giving the Police sweeping new powers to restrict the activities of people they suspect to be at risk of sexually abusing children, even if they have not been charged with an offence. Those affected could find themselves being prohibited from foreign travel, have their internet use restricted and be forbidden from being alone with a child under 16. These are huge and major restrictions of liberty and could be imposed on people who have not been charged or found guilty of an offence.

It's not a new idea. Labour brought in the first generation of such orders in 2003. Reading the actual legislation worried me a bit. Here's one of the things that put you at risk of being put under one of these orders:
giving a child anything that relates to sexual activity or contains a reference to such activity;
It's pretty sloppy wording. I gave my daughter not exactly this book, but one of its predecessors as part of what I would think any reasonable person would consider essential education. Come to think of it, I've encouraged her to read some good works of fiction, like Della says OMG by Keris Stainton which very sensitively explore some of the questions young people have as they're growing up. I'm a huge fan of that book, actually, because it has some very clear themes about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. I don't think anyone has been subjected to an order for something like this, but if we value our liberty we shouldn't be allowing such wording into our laws.

It worries me that these new updated orders could be placed on people who don't present a threat to children with very little scrutiny and possibility for appeal. If the Police think someone has done something, why not charge them with it? If they are grooming a child online, then there will be the evidence to prove it, for example.

Zoe O'Connell blogged about this on Complicity the other day, highlighting just some of the problems that could arise:
In other words, you can have one of these orders slapped on you because the police don’t like you. The restrictions on the person who is unfortunate to receive such an order are quite severe. That’s particularly true in this day and age of the internet use clause as it’s not even possible to claim some benefits without internet access.
She draws a stark conclusion:
It probably goes without saying that likely targets of such orders include sex workers, those involved in consensual BDSM and anyone trans. (Particularly in the wake of McNally – imagine a “You must out yourself to anyone you meet” order) This would apply even if the activities you engage in would not be considered unlawful by a jury, because the police only need to convince a magistrate you might pose a risk.
Basically, round up the usual suspects.
I am not persuaded that these orders protect any more children, but I do worry that they could pose a risk to the liberty of innocent people. The debate on this is supposed to run until 7 pm tonight. You can watch on BBC Parliament or via Parliament TV online.

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