No ball games

Photo credit:   Pete Boyd

October 25, 2013 // By: Ben Estep

Recently, disorder gripped the Surrey village of Thames Ditton. It seems that a freshly re-surfaced road offered an irresistible venue to opportunistic skateboarders (all reportedly under 11) and pop up football games – mainly on Sunday afternoons.

Thankfully, the police response was swift and sure: a sharply worded flyer was dispatched to nearby houses advising that “Playing football or other sports in the street is a CRIMINAL OFFENSE...Ignore the law and you may be liable for prosecution.”

Bucolic tranquillity was restored, but at the cost of some chastened children who will now be spending more time inside in front of the television. To their credit, police quickly apologised for the overreaction and no real harm was done.

This should be the end of a faintly banal story. Instead, it may be the shape of things to come. Under proposed new measures backed by the Home Office and moving swiftly through Parliament, children as young as 10 could be subject to an injunction for “conduct that is capable of causing nuisance or annoyance.” It appears that the definition of anti-social behaviour is being drastically stretched – from doing anything that actually causes “harassment, alarm or distress” to doing anything that might. To make matters worse, the necessary standard of evidence would be lowered such that courts would only need to be satisfied that someone behaved badly “on the balance of probabilities” – i.e. it was probably them – and that granting an injunction would be “just and convenient” to stop it.

These new Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance (IPNAs) threaten to criminalise vast swathes of childhood behaviour and, in the words of the Children’s Commissioner, “punish children for being children.”  

Definitions of annoyance, in practice, are obviously variable and highly subjective. And actual anti-social behaviour undoubtedly does blight some communities. But it’s easy to imagine IPNAs being deployed in situations like the one in Thames Ditton and actually harming young people. In less leafy settings, particularly at a time when youth services are being cut back and young people already face a range of substantial challenges, the consequences could be genuinely destructive. 

Issues

Criminal Justice

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