(Featured image via Stephen Richards, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Lancashire Constabulary issued two dispersal orders in Lancaster city centre during Saturday 11th January and Sunday 12th January in order to tackle anti-social behaviour.

The orders were granted under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. According to Facebook posts by Inspector Mark Douglas, who issued the orders, on Saturday night 'a large number of youths left the city centre as the order was issued however one continued to cause issues and was issued a notice to leave.' He took the decision to issue a new dispersal order until midnight on Sunday, allowing police officers to disperse 'several groups of problematic youths.'

The decision to issue the orders has led to a number of people on social media questioning the state of youth services. In Lancashire, they are provided by the County Council, which has been hit with successive cuts imposed by central government since 2010. The BBC reported £5.2 million of cuts in 2010, and the Lancashire Telegraph reported £8.4 million of cuts in 2011. Children's and youth services have been a constant target of cuts, and as recently as February 2019 the County Council, led by the Conservatives, passed further cuts ranging from children's social care to school transport.

During the Sunday dispersal order, Spineless witnessed a number of patrolling police cars in the pedestrianised city centre. The streets and doorways of the city were also largely vacant. A group of children were overheard in a nearby corner shop complaining about the order, asking what point there was in having conveniences open 24 hours if they could not visit them.

Dispersal orders give police the power to disperse groups of two or more people, when their behaviour has contributed or is 'likely to contribute' to members of the public being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or the occurence of crime or disorder. In practice, this can be interpreted rather widely.

According to campaign group Repeal Section 35, which does not believe dispersal orders should exist as they currently do, 'There is growing evidence that police are misusing these ‘dispersal’ powers against vulnerable and often socially excluded people: teenagers, sex workers, the homeless, particularly in areas with a large black population. Section 35 powers are also increasingly targeting people exercising their democratic right to freedom of protest. These powers are used with absolutely no public oversight.'

Repeal Section 35 have a number of case studies on their website. Among those targeted for peaceful protest by these dispersal orders include activists of all kinds: anti-fur, anti-fascist, housing, homelessness, student, anti-fracking, anti-war, and hunt saboteurs.

Aggressive policing tactics have been roundly criticised by groups such as the Northern Police Monitoring Project (NPMP). In an open letter criticing Greater Manchester Police's tactics in carrying out 'Project Servator', NPMP wrote 'Tactics like ‘stop and search’ have been shown to criminalise people and communities, without leading to effective crime prevention. ‘Project Servator’ is another example of police forces monitoring and imposing themselves upon individuals without any legitimate justification.'

While Lancashire Constabulary has yet to adopt Project Servator, which consists of unpredictable, highly-visible police deployments, the British Transport Police, who police the railways, have. The British Transport Police is mostly funded by Britain's privatised railway companies and has jurisdiction at Lancaster railway station and along the railway line. According to their website, 'Our Project Servator officers are specially trained in spotting the tell-tale signs of criminal or terrorist intent, and you can expect to see them anytime, anywhere.'