Peaceful protests and marches could become a thing of the past under a new policing bill put forward by the Government, as being too noisy or causing too much “annoyance” would be grounds to shut them down.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which passed its second reading in Parliament this week, has been condemned as “draconian” by experts across the political spectrum. It will effectively hand powers to police – and Home Secretary Priti Patel – to shut down protests in England and Wales at will.
“This will be the biggest widening of police powers to impose restrictions on public protest that we’ve seen in our lifetimes,” Chris Daw QC, a leading barrister and author, told The Big Issue.
“The bill hands over the power of deciding whether a protest is justified or should be allowed — decisions we as citizens have had for generations — directly to the Home Secretary. That’s an extremely chilling development. It’s completely contradictory to everything the liberty of the free citizen is about in Britain.”
The new legislation has been drafted in response to police calls for more powers to act on peaceful protests like those carried out by Extinction Rebellion, which saw activists glue themselves to trains and the ground in Parliament Square.
The bill is wide-ranging across policing, prosecution and jail terms. Experts warned the police action seen at Clapham Common, when officers handcuffed and removed women from a vigil for murdered Londoner Sarah Everard citing Covid-19 restrictions, would be allowed under the new law even when the pandemic threat has passed. These are some of the new laws causing the most concern across England and Wales.
Police could shut down peaceful protests if deemed too disruptive
The bill would allow police to crackdown on protesters if their actions cause “serious annoyance” to the surrounding community, organisations and businesses. This is just one element of the new policing bill which critics have said is too vague, allowing the Government to interpret it differently on a case-by- case basis. The new legislation also makes it easier to convict people for flouting the conditions placed on a protest.
“If the police are allowed to stop protesters from doing anything that other people can notice then that’s not protest any more,” Daw said. “If the Home Secretary decides a particular kind of protest would have that effect, she can give the police the power to stop it taking place.
“A politician could use that power to prevent protests in favour of causes they disagree with. This law gives power to whatever government is in charge to decide what causes can take to the streets.”
Police can impose start and finish times on protests
If an assembly of people is noisy enough to cause “serious disruption” to an organisation in the vicinity — such as, say, a business being targeted for unethical practices, or the Houses of Parliament, or even a business losing custom because of a protest in the area — the police can enforce start and finish times on a protest as well as maximum noise levels. The bill does not define “serious disruption” in this case nor explain how a court should interpret it.
If someone behind a protest is deemed a “public nuisance” – “intentionally or recklessly” – and causes “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity” for someone in the community, they could face a jail sentence of up to 10 years. The legislation applies this to “one-person protests” too.
Protesting around Parliament becomes more restricted
The new policing bill further cracks down on how easily peaceful protesters can gather in Westminster. Police will have the power to remove anyone restricting vehicle access to Parliament.
“That is yet another example of trying to take protest away from the ears of people who may need to hear it most,” Daw told The Big Issue. “In this case, MPs and Lords.
“We already have an enormous range of laws to restrict these things. We don’t need more. They could look to push the protests we’ve seen for many years around Parliament further and further away.
“Before you know it, parliament will be a protest-free zone. It’s a huge part of our democracy that people can protest within earshot and eyesight of people who make laws.
“That’s a hugely important part of people – particularly those who might not have a voice elsewhere – making themselves heard.”
Minorities and disadvantaged communities could be put at greater risk
The wide-ranging bill increases the power of police to act in ways which are likely to affect minorities the most, experts warned.
Parts of the bill will “facilitate discrimination and undermine protest, which is the lifeblood of a democracy,” said Grace Bradley, director of advocacy group Liberty.
“They risk stifling dissent and making it harder for us to hold the powerful to account.
“If enacted, these proposals would expose already marginalised communities to profiling and disproportionate police powers.”
Liberty and more than 150 other human rights organisations signed a letter to Priti Patel and justice secretary Robert Buckland blasting the legislation as “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens” and urging the Government to rethink the proposals.
Letting police shut down protests could make it more difficult for disadvantaged people to make themselves heard and push for change.
“The idea that a protest can be shut down because a single person is inconvenienced defeats the entire purpose of protest, which is to inconvenience people,” Daw said. “Of course it’s disruptive, that’s the only way some voices can be heard. Often the voices that need most to be heard.
“To prevent the wide majority of people from hearing the voices of Black Lives Matter, for example – which is a very real prospect under the new legislation – would be an absolute disgrace. Many people might not be aware just how entrenched issues like racism and violence against women are in our society, that’s why we need to allow people to disrupt the streets.”
The bill also widens stop and search powers for police, making it easier to search people who were convicted of carrying a knife in the past. But existing laws are well-documented as discriminating against young black men, particularly in London, who were 19 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police.
Trespass will also be criminalised under the new laws, putting the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities at risk.
What happens if the new policing bill is passed?
“We may end up relying on the discretion of police commanders and chiefs,” Daw explained. “Even if a Home Secretary decides a particular protest or assembly would be a serious disruption, that doesn’t force the police to take action and doesn’t force them to take any particular action.
“We’ve seen the pressure Cressida Dick has come under in the last couple of days in response to the Sarah Everard vigil broken up by police. Police officers don’t like to be front page news. We may end up having to rely on the good sense and professionalism of our police force.
“That’s okay so long as police behave responsibly and respect our tradition of peaceful protests,” Daw added. “The problem comes when they don’t.”
The legislation is being “rushed through” Parliament at a time when ministers know the public have grown accustomed to having their freedoms restricted as a result of the pandemic, the barrister said.
“I have no doubt there would have been a lot more objection to this legislation if we weren’t already in a state of emergency. The best evidence of that is how long it’s taken the opposition to come out against the legislation,” he said.
“For something like this to be voted upon, in the middle of a lockdown, when it effectively will affect the rights of people to get on the streets and make our voices heard, that’s a very worrying use of Parliament.”
Labour MPs were set to abstain from voting on the bill but the party decided to vote against it after Metropolitan police broke up the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard. However the bill passed its second reading in Parliament by 359 votes to 263, a majority of 96.
It will now move to committee stage, where amendments can be proposed. It will then come back to Parliament for a third reading and final vote before moving to the House of Lords.
This article was updated on March 17.