Ministers won’t give up on law targeting ‘annoying’ people

The government is refusing to admit defeat over its attempt to make people liable for jail sentences if they continue to be 'annoying', after a major setback in the Lords last night.

Peers voted for an amendment rejecting the coalition's proposal to replace antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) with injunctions to prevent nuisance or annoyance (Ipnas), which would be much easier to impose and would affect many more people.

The Lords voted by 306 to 178 against the reforms after a heated debate in which opponents on all sides of the House pointed out the new system could be used to stop any behaviour "capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person".

A persistent breach of the injunctions, which peers warned could be applicable for carol-singing, nudism or political protests, would potentially lead to jail sentences.

Despite the Lords' clear acceptance of the need to protect freedom of speech, the Home Office remains defiant and could attempt to override the defeat when the antisocial behaviour, crime and policing bill returns to the Commons.

Crime prevention minister Norman Baker said: "The bill was never intended to ban noisy children or carol singers and does not do so as currently drafted.

"I am disappointed the Lords fell for what appear to be scare stories.

"We've already provided alternative wording to provide reassurance but will reflect further given the position the Lords have taken."

The government had originally proposed that an Ipna would be justified for any behaviour which is "capable of causing" nuisance or annoyance, but that was changed to any behaviour "that could reasonably be expected to cause" annoyance.

Campaigners fighting the proposed changes rejected that outright, arguing it is the lower threshold of 'nuisance or annoyance' – rather than the "harassment, alarm or distress" trigger which applies to Asbos – which really matters.

"The choice between those two wordings is the pivotal point of the legislation – the absolute foundation on which everything else hangs," independent crossbencher Geoffrey Dear, who pushed yesterday's amendment to a vote, told peers shortly before the division.

"We can talk for as long as we like about reasonable, just, convenient, necessary and all those adjectives, and try to make it work but, if the pivot does not work, all the rest falls away.

"The pivot suggested by the government is 'nuisance and annoyance'. We have no knowledge of what will happen if that comes into play, but we know what will happen with 'harassment, alarm or distress'; it is well proven, well tried and respected, and has never been faulted. To move away from that is a step into the dark."