Cambridge booze ban – barefaced duplicity

Cambridge City council has passed a PSPO banning the drinking of alcohol in public spaces.

It’s remarkably unclear how the order will be applied, however. Council leaders and the police insist that it won’t be used against families having a nice picnic, and so on – that it will only be used in cases of anti-social behaviour. And yet, council leaders refused an amendment by the Lib Dems, which would have restricted alcohol confiscation to cases of anti-social behaviour.

What is most likely is that the order will be applied against street drinkers, who may or may not be committing anti-social behaviour at the time.

A police inspector stated: ‘I see this as an additional tool to deal with things. We get a number of calls to the areas that have been highlighted for anti-social behaviour, we turn up and we’re faced with a group of people who are largely not doing anything, we say hello and often feel pretty powerless to actually do anything. In reality, the public won’t know, but currently the areas identified aren’t used for other things. From an operational point of view, I don’t see an influx of
people picnicking in these areas.’

This is a very telling statement. The police find it a problem that they are ‘powerless to actually do anything’, when the group of people are ‘largely not doing anything’. Surely that is right and proper? If people are ‘largely not doing anything’, then the police should be powerless to ‘do anything’ (which would involve some restriction on people’s liberty).

There is also the inspector’s statement – ‘I see this as an additional tool to deal with things’ – as if the law were a spanner, and members of the public were ‘things’ to be ‘dealt with’. This shows how far the criminal law has changed, losing both any kind of systematic definitions of crime, as well as the grounding notion of individual liberty.

Most interestingly, however, is the suggestion that deceiving the public about the application of a law is acceptable – the idea that ‘the public won’t know’ that a law will not be applied to the letter. What this means, basically, is that officers would like the blanket alcohol ban on the books, though they do not intend to enforce it, so they can use it whenever they see fit. This conscious open duplicity shows a lack of respect for the public as well as the law – they do not see it as necessary for the public to understand a law or to know how it will be enforced.

Finally, there is a very strong case that the alcohol ban is illegal anyway – since one of the few restrictions on the making of PSPOs is that alcohol cannot be banned outright (see below). This argument is nitpicky, however, since the disrespect for the idea of law is so great in this case that nobody would expect the council to have read or to follow the statutory guidance.


The powers to make ‘public spaces protection orders’ is extremely broad, but one of the few restrictions is a restriction on a complete ban on alcohol. The Statutory Guidance accompanying the Act states clearly:

‘It is not an offence to drink alcohol in a controlled drinking zone. However, it is an offence to fail to comply with a request to cease drinking or surrender alcohol in a controlled drinking zone. This is also liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 2 on the standard scale. If alcohol is confiscated, it can be disposed of by the person who confiscates it.’

That is, councils do not have the power to introduce a complete ban on alcohol in an area. What they can do is create an area within which officers have the power to confiscate alcohol.

In practice, the distinction is not much of a protection, since the officers can confiscate alcohol at any time for any reason. But at least it is something: there is a defence of ‘reasonable excuse’ for not complying with the order to hand over alcohol. This means that somebody sitting quietly on a bench having a drink could be within their rights to refuse to hand their alcohol over to a council officer, who had made this request unreasonably (the case would be a matter for the courts to decide).

By introducing a complete ban, Cambridge has removed any right of defence, and given officers complete freedom of decision.

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