Friday, August 13, 2010

Lewisham Booze Ban, No Thanks

As reported at Brockley Central, Lewisham Council is proposing to trial 'a borough-wide Designated Public Place Order (or Drinking Control Zone)' which 'will give police discretionary powers to stop people and confiscate, demand and dispose of any alcohol within the boundaries of Lewisham borough'. Failure to comply with a request from the Police to hand over alcohol would result in arrest and/or a fine of up to £500.

Is SE London now Straight Edge London, by order of the Mayor? Is Lewisham the new Saudi Arabia? Maybe not, but this is a pernicious plan

Firstly, there is nothing wrong with drinking in public as such. Sitting in the park watching the sunset with a drink in your hand, sipping from a can on the way to a party - these are some of life's harmless pleasures.

But wait, says the Lewisham press release, 'The DPPO is not a ban on alcohol consumption in a public place, and does not make drinking in public an offence, but is a measure that can assist in tackling problematic street drinking linked to anti-social behaviour'. So it's OK for some people to drink in parks and streets but not others, with the police deciding who can and who can't. If that's not a recipe for discrimination I don't know what is. In practice, as well documented for instance in Brighton, DPPO powers have been used to implement de facto bans on public drinking in some places, with people having drink confiscated while sitting in parks and on the beach, or even having unopened cans and bottles taken off them while walking back home from the off licence. The implementation certainly hasn't been restricted to 'problem street drinkers', but it has been used to target people who the police may not be so keen on, such as protesters.

Yes, say the advocates but this is just about tackling 'problematic street drinking'. It is true that there are places, such as outside betting shops, where heavy street drinkers tend to congregate. Some of these people clearly have alcohol problems, but for the most part don't cause anything more than minor inconvenience to other people most of the time. Sometimes drunk people do get aggressive and violent - but when they do, the police already have plenty of powers to deal with them.

There are some broader issues at stake here. The first is the use of arbitrary police powers. The historical relationship between police, courts and the individual in the UK requires the police to present evidence of wrong doing to a court, with the person accused having the right to defend themselves before a judgement is made on their guilt and a sentence passed. With the DPPO, the police officer is judge, jury and 'executioner' - they can impose a punishment on the spot, such as pouring away somebody's drink, with the person affected having no right to question their authority or decision before 'sentence' is implemented. Worse, under the Police and Criminal Justice Act 2001 (which gave Council's powers to introduce DPPOs), these arbitrary powers can be extended to other 'authorised officers' such as park wardens.

The second wider issue is the creeping hyper-regulation of public space. The nature of public spaces is that people engage in lots of different behaviours and activities, some of which other people may find irritating, annoying or even mildly offensive. As long as people aren't actually harming others, they should be left to get on it. Just because some people disapprove of others' actions is no reason to ban them. Just because a few people engaging in an activity do cause harm to others is no reason to band everybody from that activity. In this case the 'drunk and disorderly' behaviour of a few people, already covered by existing laws, is being used as the basis to affect everybody's right to drink in public. It may not be a total booze ban, but it does mean that drinking in public is only permitted if the police choose to allow it.

A further comment on the consultation. The Lewisham press release states that the plans 'have been given the go-ahead by the Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock' but that 'Before the implementation of any DPPO, the Council is required by law to consult with the public'. The whole tone of the press release suggests the consultation is an afterthought to a decision already made. The consultation information provides no real rationale for the decision, or evidence that there is a major problem that requires it. It doesn't ask for view, but only a 'yes' or 'no' on a survey monkey questionnaire. If you want to take part in the consultation, you need to do so at the Lewisham consultation site before 27 August 2010.

The Manifesto Club have lots of information about Designated Public Order Orders and their implementation elsewhere, as well as some good arguments against them.

See also Deptford Dame on this.


Anonymous said...

It has to be said that many, if not all, of the public consultations conducted by LBL are done so because they are legally obliged so to do, and they would only use them to say "i told you so" or in some way belittle the 'public' in the event of their assumption that they are right and the 'public' is wrong.

LBL, with Bullock as its leader, are so removed from reality, and their inability to recognise this, and deal with it, means the borough is prey to, amongst other things, unscrupulous developers.

The problem with alcohol, if it is a problem, cannot be approached by giving authorities the power to deal with it punitively. But, if nothing else, LBL is a punitive borough.

Anonymous said...

I completed agree with you. The police should only intervene if the person is causing a nuisance, or if the police have 'reasonable cause to believe' (i.e. can substantiate in court) that an offence is about to be committed.

Of course, the police already have powers to do the above. This new proposal is just inviting arbitrary executive power.

Oh, and the survey monkey consultation question was truly shit. I've just moved to the area and this has put my back up against the council.