openDemocracyUK: Opinion

England and Wales’s Police Bill threatens anyone with a cause they believe in

It now proposes new crimes that could criminalise almost any protester and give police alarmingly wide powers of stop and search

Jun Pang
6 December 2021, 10.19am
A new policing bill would severely restrict the rights of people to protest
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Mark Harvey/Alamy Live News

Just over a year ago, disturbing reports began trickling out: the British government was preparing an attack on the right to protest in England and Wales. The right through which we won many of the things we take for granted today – from voting rights to marriage equality – which allows all of us to stand up against injustice. Now we know the government is taking a sledgehammer to this right, smashing everyone’s ability to stand up to power.

In February, we at Liberty obtained proof that a bill was coming that intended to retain lockdown-like restrictions on our protest rights. Throughout the pandemic, we warned that “crisis is the ground on which long-term erosion of our rights and freedoms are often seeded”.

But when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was published the following month, it was far worse than we had imagined, containing a slew of restrictions on demonstrations, in addition to new surveillance and stop-and-search powers, and provisions that will effectively criminalise the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities.

Yet a few weeks ago it became even worse.

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Protest-banning orders

As the bill edges through the House of Lords, the government has quietly tabled a raft of new oppressive powers to stifle dissent further.

These include creating new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, or protest-banning orders, which can be imposed on people if they have previously been convicted of what the amendment calls a ‘protest-related offence’ – or even if they have just been to two protests in the past five years in which they carried out activities that could have caused serious disruption. The government just this week proposed an expansive, catch-all definition of serious disruption, which can also be redefined in the future by the home secretary of the day.

Protest-banning orders can require people to keep police up to date on their current residence and can include restrictions on who people can meet, where they go and when, and their use of the internet. Breach of these conditions could lead to a 51-week jail sentence, an unlimited fine or both.

The new additions to the bill would have outlawed the Suffragettes’ tactics

This is an attack on our right to political participation. For people engaged in social movements, the fabric of our lives is interwoven with regular organising meetings, talking to people, forming friendships and sharing information online – in short, coming together in solidarity around the issues that matter to us. Protest-banning orders threaten to criminalise these things, isolate people and devastate movements and communities.

The UK already has a shameful history of surveillance of activists and social movements. Protest-banning orders will pave the way for the further expansion of intrusive technologies and monitoring of people engaged in political activity.

Suspicion-less stop-and-search

That is not the only extraordinarily repressive measure in the government’s new amendments. They also create new suspicion-based and ‘suspicion-less’ protest-specific stop-and-search powers, which risk criminalising people for carrying items related to protests.

Increasing stop-and-search will further entrench the danger of police interactions – particularly for Black, minoritised and migrant communities, who have the most urgent need to protest and resist overbearing police powers.

Worse still, suspicion-less stop-and-search is the most unjust and unaccountable form of the tactic. One amendment raises the sentence for ‘obstructing a police officer’, in the context of this new protest-specific suspicion-less stop-and-search power, from one month to 51 weeks’ imprisonment (or a fine, or both). This could put at risk legal observers carrying ‘bust cards’, which communicate vital information to protesters.

Threat of criminalisation could deter anyone from holding the state to account – which is, of course, the point.

Locking on

Then there are the new offences of ‘locking-on’ – a technique used by protesters to make it difficult to remove them from their place of protest, which carries a maximum 51-week prison sentence, a fine, or both – and ‘being equipped to lock on’. The offences are extremely vague and threaten to criminalise not only people who engage in lock-on protests, but a wide range of other acts. These would have outlawed the Suffragettes’ tactics as well as those used by protesters outside detention centres and airports who have successfully stopped unlawful deportations. But they could also criminalise a wide range of other acts that involve attaching people or things to other people or things.

Susan Archibald, who chained her wheelchair to traffic lights with other disability rights activists in 2012 to protest against cuts made under austerity, could have faced almost a year in prison for doing so. So could the Greenham Common women, who often linked arms around air bases when campaigning for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.

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Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy joined by rights campaigners in accusing the government of bringing in discriminatory legislation

At present we have a right to choose when, how, and where we protest. But another new amendment would make it an offence to obstruct major transport works – and this would obviously have an impact on people protesting to protect the environment.

These proposals have been framed as a response to Insulate Britain, but they were consulted on in autumn 2020, long before the group first blockaded the M25. This is not the home secretary taking decisive action, but an opportunistic attempt to steamroll through oppressive legislation.

Just last week, the government has added another offence, ‘interfering with nationally significant infrastructure’, to the bill, which could be met with a 12-month jail sentence, a fine or both. And what counts as nationally significant infrastructure? Anything from transport, harbours, downstream oil to newspaper print infrastructure – a list that the home secretary can add to. This could catch protests such as those to stop the Cambo oil field.

These additions to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill must be seen for what they are: a power grab.

‘Oppressive and wrong’

Even before these new amendments, the bill had been met with fierce criticism. More than 600,000 people signed a petition against it, while more than 350 charities and 700 academics signed letters calling for it to be scrapped.

Across the country, we have seen strong and deep coalitions – led by groups such as Sisters Uncut, who know first-hand the threats posed by surveillance and policing on our communities – fight to defend our rights through the #KilltheBill movement.

Former police leaders warned that the bill threatens democracy and risks entrenching racial discrimination, while hundreds of healthcare, education, youth, and social workers have said its provisions would breach their professional duties.

Speaking to parliamentarians, one young person said that the ‘serious violence’ duty – a legal obligation (based on the Prevent Duty) that requires frontline service providers to inform police about people at risk of being involved in serious violence – risks making interactions with public services like a “police interview”, which will deter people from seeking support.

Polling has shown two-thirds of the public were concerned about threats to protest

Three UN special rapporteurs have condemned the bill, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said its proposals are “oppressive and wrong”, and polling has shown two-thirds of the public were concerned about threats to protest.

Debates on the bill have been delayed multiple times because of how big – more than 300 pages – and unwieldy it is. By publishing more than 15 pages of new amendments late into an already huge bill’s passage through Parliament, the government has yet again shown that it wants to evade democratic scrutiny.

The government is simultaneously pushing through several other pieces of legislation that will significantly restrict our rights – from the Judicial Review and Courts Bill to the Elections Bill to the Nationality and Borders Bill (the ‘Anti-Refugee Bill’) to threatening the Human Rights Act – in an attempt to overwhelm and exhaust people. This is a concerted effort to shut down dissent and make the government untouchable.

The right to protest is not a gift from the state – it’s fundamental. And the Police Bill is an attack on the rights of everyone who has a cause they believe in.

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