The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is a very controversial piece of legislation. However, some of the bill’s proposals are long overdue, such as increased sentences for assaults on emergency workers and death by dangerous driving or careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs.
Hidden within this rather daunting 804 page document are some concerning restrictions on the rights to protest, which have severe ramifications for freedom of expression. Even in its earlier and less extreme drafts, the bill was condemned as authoritarian, draconian, and an assault on civil liberties.
Some writers have even said that it moves the UK one step closer to becoming a police state. However, much of the media, dominated by the right-wing press, is silent on this matter.
The Home Secretary shoved in an extra 18 pages worth of Orwellian revisions to her already draconian proposal. These changes were presented by Baroness Williams of Trafford (the Conservative Home Office Minister in the Lords) at the end of her speech, giving the Lord’s no opportunity to scrutinise the amendments before the bill was passed.
The last-minute shoehorning of these additions was no accident but seemed to be a deliberate ploy to avoid effective parliamentary scrutiny. The bill is currently in the report stage in the House of Lords, having passed in the Commons. What is so wrong about the timing of these amendments is that they were added after parliament voted. Therefore, our elected representatives have no say.
These amendments can be broken into four categories: locking on offences, protest disruption, Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, and increased stop and search powers. A transcript of the House of Lords debate on 24th November can be viewed here, and TLDR News has also recently uploaded a video discussing the amendments. All amendments are presented here, and relevant parts of the House of Lord’s debate are linked throughout.
One thing that has been banned is “locking-on” (when you attach yourself to something like other protestors, buildings, trees etc.), a common technique by protestors worldwide. Amendment 319A states that people who attached themselves to another person (even linking arms), objects or land in such a way that disruption is caused to two or more people could face up to 51 weeks in prison. 319b even has a clause meaning “equipped for locking on” is also a crime. So being at a protest with glue could also be an imprisonable offence.
One of the bill’s main provisions was to allow police to impose severe restrictions on protests based on noise levels (this predated the new amendments and was in the bill’s first draft). If a protest was loud enough to cause “serious unease, alarm or distress” to a single passer-by, the police could arrest those involved. Now protests are going to be noisy and disruptive. The new amendments increase the number of potential disruptions. Amendment 319D creates a new offence of obstructing major transport works (airports, roads, railways and ports) with a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks.
Next, we have Serous Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPO’s), similar to ASBO’s but meant to be used against people who have protest-related offences, and can be imposed for one week to 2 years (Amendment 342Q). Also, being a “named person” with get you banned from protesting.
The criteria for being a “named person” is very broad, including people previously convicted of protest-related offences (e.g., those arrested for climate protests) and if you attended a rally that resulted in serious disruption (i.e. being a bit too loud). Even posting on social media encouraging others to go to a slightly too loud protest can land you on the banned list. Breaking an SDPO can land you up to – unsurprisingly – 51 weeks in prison.
And finally, Amendment 319E and 319F amends Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 by giving the police some additional powers, such as performing stop and search without any grounds. Most police officers are good people who want to help their communities, but there is a serious problem with institutional racism in the UK police force. This is wrong as stop and search already disproportionately affects black people who are seven times more likely to be stopped than their white peers – and this increases to 14 times for suspicion-less stop and search. These additional policing powers would likely increase racial inequality. Refusing to empty your pockets could land you 51 weeks in jail.
This bill is a significant infringement on freedom of speech and expression. The right to protest is a cornerstone of liberal democracy, and such rules seem more at home in a dictatorship than a democracy. This is the latest attack on democracy by the Johnson premiership alongside the proroguing of parliament and the planned weakening of the Electoral Commission.
Of course, this does not mean you would never see protests in this country because the new bill will not be applied consistently. We have already seen how the Metropolitan Police responded to different demonstrations this summer. Still, the government also wants legal clout to ensure that the courts do not intervene. The job of the Policing bill is to give the government that legal clout.
The country should be in uproar about this, but it isn’t. The Kill the Bill protesters tried to draw our attention to this and were demonised by the police, who lied about officers having broken bones, and the right-wing press branding those against the bill as the “radical left-wing”.
The bill is so extreme in undermining human rights that the Council of Europe has spoken out against it. In a letter urging MPs to oppose the bill, Dunja Mijatovic, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, said the following:
“I have increasingly had to address instances in which Council of Europe member states have tried to introduce restrictions on peaceful demonstrations, often implicitly driven by the desire of governments to minimise the possibility of dissent … If the above-mentioned provisions were to be adopted, the UK would add to this worrying trend. In the light of this, I call on the members of both houses not to accept provisions of the bill that would add further restrictions on peaceful demonstrations.”
The right to protest is a fundamental part of living in a democratic state. It is a right protected under international law (which the UK government breaks on a whim) and enshrined in the Human Rights Act (which they are trying to do away with). This law is purposely designed to suppress (primarily left-wing) protests, peaceful vigils and undermine any criticism of the State.
Such damages to fundamental freedoms will have a devastating impact on our lives and future generations. These measures, coupled with the removal of human rights laws, could be a tipping point that leads us down a dark path.