The Sunday Telegraph

‘Busybody charters’ shelved in victory for free speech


FREE speech campaigner­s have declared a victory in their fight against “busybody charters” as councils have started to shelve the measures in response to legal challenges.

Local authoritie­s across the country have used Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to impose increasing numbers of fines of up to £1,000 for a range of activities, including loitering, swearing or walking a dog in the wrong place. One council is proposing to bring in a new PSPO-linked code which could ban “discourteo­us” street performers from the borough.

Breaching the terms of a PSPO is a criminal offence and can result in a fixed penalty notice. Failure to pay the fine within 28 days could lead to being hauled in front of a court and face either a prison sentence or a larger fine.

The Free Speech Union (FSU) has analysed the PSPOs of 15 local authoritie­s, and said it has found numerous examples of overreach. In some cases, it has written to councils to threaten judicial review.

Bryn Harris, the FSU’s chief legal counsel, said the use of PSPOs – known to their critics as “busybody charters” – have become “out of control”. He said: “It seems that councils are over using them essentiall­y to set their own local criminal laws. One of the main problems is that a lot of them are criminalis­ing conduct which causes ‘alarm or distress’ with no safeguards for free speech. This could end up criminalis­ing completely legitimate free speech.”

PSPOs were set up under the Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act in 2014. They were aimed at helping councils crack down on issues including prostituti­on or drinking alcohol in specific areas.

But of the PSPOs analysed by the FSU, some have been extended to cover the entire borough. Haringey council and Waltham Forest council outlaw behaviour likely to cause “harassment, alarm or distress” across the whole of both boroughs. The FSU wrote to Redbridge council – which also has a PSPO extending across the borough – threatenin­g judicial review. The council used its PSPO to outlaw catcalling, and issued its first fine for this offence in 2022.

A Redbridge council spokesman said: “Before renewing a PSPO we carefully review evidence to ascertain whether it is still required.

“In this case, evidence shows the PSPO has been effective and is no longer required for the whole area it covers. Instead, we are exploring a similar PSPO for a smaller area. The decision process is evidence-based.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom