Peaceful protests and marches could become a thing of the past under the controversial policing bill making its way through parliament, as being too noisy or causing too much “annoyance” would be grounds to shut them down.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was voted through by MPs by a majority of 100, 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.
Lawyers warned the Government the proposals in the bill “clearly violate international human rights standards”.
“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 was 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 laws even when the pandemic threat has passed.
A group of MPs condemned the police handling of the vigil and a Bristol demonstration against the policing bill, with a parliamentary inquiry concluding that officers had used excessive force and breached the “fundamental rights” of people at both events by misinterpreting Covid-19 laws. The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democracy and the Constitution then called for several clauses in the policing bill to be removed as they would “unnecessarily expand police powers over peaceful protest, create excessive legal ambiguity, and are a recipe for the arbitrary use of power”.
Sisters Uncut, a grassroots organisation which led the Clapham Common vigil and has been central to several Kill the Bill demonstrations, welcomed the inquiry’s findings.
“It’s good to have on paper just how offensive and violent the police response was to us raising our voices to mourn all those lost to police brutality,” a spokesperson told The Big Issue, “especially given the feeble and manipulative excuses given by police in their own biased investigation.
“That the police already abuse the powers they have is evident. Why would we want to give them more?”
The 307-page bill also threatens to criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups if they pitch up on private land, despite an already significant shortfall in official sites available to them in the UK.
The same police powers put rough sleepers and people without a home at risk of a criminal record if they are caught bedding down or sleeping in cars on private land.
Since the bill was introduced, Kill the Bill protests have been held in cities across England and Wales as people organise against the legislation which could curb their rights. Grassroots campaign groups such as Sisters Uncut, Black Lives Matter UK and Disabled People Against Cuts continue to organise weekend protests over the bill’s potential to put marginalised people at risk and curtail their right to hold the government to account.
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.”
Anneka Sutcliffe, relationships coordinator for the campaign group, said the bill threatened the safety of both protesters and police.
“If you criminalise organisers, then you no longer have the prioritisation of safety,” she told The Big Issue, explaining that Extinction Rebellion liaises with police in advance to ensure everyone can be kept safe on the streets.
Prosecution will make it too dangerous for many people to be transparent with police about plans, she explained, adding: “You end up with more chaos.”
After the APPG on Democracy and the Constitution found police had used excessive force against protesters, Geraint Davies – chair of the APPG – warned the law must be “clear that the police have a duty to facilitate the right to peaceful protest”.
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 can be specifically applied to “one-person protests” too, something which could see people criminalised for demonstrating alone in a way which does not disrupt the community but which can be “emotionally powerful,” according to Sutcliffe.
“It shows a real desperation to take that measure as an individual, to feel so desperately concerned by the Government’s actions that you need to do a simple act of disobedience alone,” she told The Big Issue. “The bill puts even that at risk.”
David Davis – former Brexit secretary and Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden – said the government “wants to have the power to arrest people who cause serious annoyance or inconvenience”.
“These are incredibly vague terms, frankly,” he added. “Demonstrations lead to inconvenience.
“It hasn’t just been the lefty, liberal, legal fraternity worried about this.
“Every law we write must be written on the presumption it will be a government very unlike ours that oversees it at some point in the future. What if, in 20 years time, we have an extreme-right or an extreme-left wing government and have this sort of vague issue in place?”
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.”
Speaking in the House of Commons ahead of MPs’ final vote on the bill, Anne McLaughlin – SNP MP for Glasgow North East – said: “We are to see and hear nobody unless they agree with us.
Minorities and disadvantaged communities could be put at greater risk by the policing bill
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 “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.
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.
“The people who already felt vulnerable at the hands of police will feel even more vulnerable now,” Extinction Rebellion’s Sutcliffe explained. “The relationship between protests in some places may be more fraught now than it already was.
“The bill itself is going to affect a white middle-class citizen like myself far less than it will affect others, especially people in the travelling community.”
People could be trapped in homelessness while others lose their homes for the first time
Section four of the legislation is designed to crack down on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups pitching on private land. This was one of the Conservative party’s manifesto pledges, despite nearly 1,700 households still on waiting lists for 59 permanent pitch sites.
It means they could be handed hefty fines, criminal records and have their vehicles – their homes – confiscated, pushing them into homelessness.
The bill is “the single biggest threat to the traditional way of life of Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in our lifetime”, according to Drive2Survive, a campaign group formed this year to fight the legislation.
“If we join together we can make Priti Patel and Boris Johnson think again about their intention to eradicate a way of life that is many hundreds of years old.”
People already struggling to keep a roof over their heads could be at risk if the policing bill is passed with its current wording, too. The same section makes it a criminal offence to sleep rough or sleep in cars on private land.
“It could be doorways, people’s drives, any kind of farmland,” Rob Cartridge, acting head of communications and advocacy, told The Big Issue. “Lots of land that many of us would assume is public actually is not. Housing estates, for example, are often owned by the property developers, so it’s their land.
“It’s anything that isn’t owned by local or central government, basically,” he added. “That leaves people with fewer options than you might think. It applies to an awful lot of areas.”
If people experiencing homelessness don’t or can’t move on after being warned by either police or the landowner, they too could be fined and handed a criminal record, a significant barrier to securing work and housing which could lift them out of homelessness.
Those sleeping in cars – “something which happens a great dea” and “is often the first step” when people fall into homelessness, Cartridge said – could also have their vehicles seized. It means they would lose their only property and their only shelter, and would rid delivery drivers in the gig economy of their means to earn an income.
What happens if the new policing bill becomes law?
“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.”
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MPs voted in favour of the bill – with 365 backing it and 265 opposed – after its third reading in the House of Commons. It will now make its way to the House of Lords for further amendments and debate.
But activists intend to keep fighting the policing bill in the streets. “Passed by the Commons or not, we refuse to accept the bill and its racist attack on our communities,” Sisters Uncut said, “especially the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, whose very way of life is criminalised by this bill’s widely-slammed trespass provisions.
“We will be in the streets standing shoulder to shoulder with our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller siblings to say we will not let the government take away their right to existence.”
This article was updated on July 7.