How Priti Patel’s new policing bill threatens your right to protest

A new policing bill put forward by the Government could make peaceful protests and marches a thing of the past.

police crime sentencing and courts bill

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson accompanied by the Home Secretary Priti Patel visit North Yorkshire Police HQ in July 2020. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Peaceful protests and marches could become a thing of the past under the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill making its way through parliament, as being too noisy or causing too much “annoyance” would be grounds to shut them down.

After being the subject of “Kill the Bill” protests earlier last month, MPs are voting on amendments to the bill, in its final parliamentary stage before receiving royal assent.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 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, while forcing social workers to betray the trust of vulnerable young people.

The government was defeated 14 times in the Lords in January, after inserting a number of anti-protest measures into the bill at the last minute. Some were thrown out altogether, while MPs will vote on whether to agree to other changes proposed.

This means that after a mammoth series of votes in the House of Commons on February 28, the bill will enter what is known as “ping pong” between the houses. Amendments will go back and forth between the two chambers of Parliament – although usually the Lords will defer to the elected chamber if no compromise is reached.

Lawyers warned the Government the proposals in the bill “clearly violate international human rights standards”. 

More than 30,000 people have already written directly to Boris Johnson calling on him to rethink the plans, which are set to be debated in the House of Lords mid-September. MPs voted in favour of the bill without amendments in July, by a majority of 100.

“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.

Patel is facing a revolt from her own benches over the bill. A number of Conservative MPs voiced concerns about the bill’s far-reaching powers when it passed through the Commons earlier this year, including former prime minister Theresa May, who urged the home secretary to consider the “fine line between popular and being populist” because “our freedoms depend on it”.

Lord Blunkett, the former home secretary, said the bill would “drive a wedge between the police and ordinary people doing what you would expect them to do in a mature democracy – expressing dissent on issues they care passionately about”.

It will leave a “lasting and toxic legacy” for this government, he warned.

The bill is wide-ranging across policing, prosecution and jail terms. Experts warned the police action seen at Clapham Common in March 2021, 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.

The 342-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.

“Appalled” frontline professionals such as GPs and social workers have also urged Patel to scrap the bill over concerns they will be forced into surveillance practices around the vulnerable people they work with, increasing the punishment of “already overpoliced communities”.

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. 

These are some of the new laws causing the most concern across England and Wales.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill could allow police to 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.

This measure, introduced by the government during the bill’s third reading, was defeated by the Lords. It cannot be reintroduced as part of the Policing Bill, but could become law if the government decides to table it as part of future legislation.

“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.”

police crime sentencing and courts bill
Protesters at a Kill the Bill protest in April 2021. Image: Steve Eason/Flickr

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. 

David Davis – former Brexit secretary and Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden – said: “These are incredibly vague terms, frankly. Demonstrations lead to inconvenience.

“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.

“It’s a huge part of our democracy that people can protest within earshot and eyesight of people who make laws.”

Lords defeated this measure in January, but again, it could become law if the government reintroduces it as part of a future bill.

Minorities and disadvantaged communities could be put at greater risk by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

The wide-ranging bill increases the power of police to act in ways which are likely to affect minorities the most, experts warned. 

“The people who already felt vulnerable at the hands of police will feel even more vulnerable now,” Extinction Rebellion’s Sutcliffe explained.

“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.”

Prison sentences for assaults on emergency service workers would increase from 12 months to two years if the bill becomes law. This could further entrench race and gender disparities in terms of who is handed jail sentences, experts warned.

Crimes against emergency workers already make up 17 per cent of the offences which lead to prison time for young Black women, charity Agenda said, compared to six per cent for young white women.

The bill could push more vulnerable young women – many of whom are in coerced relationships or experiencing exploitation – into the criminal justice system where they are “[punished] for their response to trauma”, said Jemima Olchawski, chief executive at Agenda.

“Once in the criminal justice system they have limited access to specialist support and are left to deal with their entrenched and complex experiences of trauma, putting them at heightened risk of repeated offending.”

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 new powers will allow “individualised, suspicionless” stop and search activities by police, experts said.

Young people, working-class people and people of colour – especially Black people – are most at risk of “harassment and oppressive monitoring” under the new laws, Liberty’s Jun Pang warned, and would likely lead to even more people being put in prison.

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.

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. [It] leaves people with fewer options than you might think.”

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.

Socials workers will have to pass sensitive information about vulnerable people to the government

Nearly 670 doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers wrote to the home secretary over concerns the bill will force them into betraying the trust of the vulnerable people they serve.

In what is framed as an effort to reduce violence, the bill includes a statutory duty on public bodies such as educators and health care providers to disclose information to the government about the people in their care.

Young disadvantaged people, particularly young people of colour, are less likely to seek out vital support if they know frontline workers could pass on personal data, the professionals warned in the letter.

They said they were “appalled” by the plans included in the bill which could “directly conflict with [their] duties and will actively put people [they] work with in harm’s way”.

The legislation would “erode relationships of trust and duties of confidentiality”, the signatories said, hindering their ability to effectively support people in need.

“Most importantly, it will expand the criminalisation, surveillance and punishment of already overpoliced communities.”

Gavin Moorghen, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, said: “The duty of confidentiality is crucial to our ability to protect people’s dignity and privacy, foster relationships of trust, and deliver high quality care.”

The policing bill could force workers in the sector to “betray the hard-earned trust and relationships” they have built with young people.

Plans to cut violence as set out in the bill will be ineffective, Moorghen said, calling on the government to instead “focus on the root causes such as poverty, racism and other forms of structural injustice”.

Amendments added to the bill in the Lords give police the power to stop and search “without suspicion” in protest contexts.

Currently, these searches are only allowed when Section 60 orders are in place. These are commonly used when violence has happened or is anticipated.

But the new amendment would allow police to stop and search without suspicion in protest contexts.

In particular, “without suspicion” searches could take place when a police officer of or above the rank of inspector “reasonably believes” a person to be carrying a prohibited object, or if they believe a public nuisance offence may be committed.

These powers were rejected by the Lords in January, which imposed a significant defeat on the government. But if the government decides to reintroduce them as part of a future law, they could return.

‘Locking on’, a key protest tactic, would also be banned

Locking on – where protesters secure themselves to the ground with chains, glue, or anything else – has been used as a protest tactic for decades. Most recently and notably, Insulate Britain activists have glued themselves to roads to protest a lack of insulation in the country’s homes.

The government wanted to make doing so illegal with the bill – and to also allow police to seize any items that could be used for doing so. Locking on to cause serious disruption would also have become a criminal offence, carrying a maximum prison sentence of six months and an unlimited fine.

That was until the House of Lords voted to throw out the amendment introducing this. Because it was introduced at a late stage of the bill, this measure cannot become law as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill – but could again see the light of day if the government brings it as part of a future law.

Anyone blocking a motorway could be put in prison for six months

Insulate Britain’s road-blocking tactics have proved controversial. A group of nine of their activists have already been imprisoned for blocking the M25 in defiance of an injunction. The group were jailed for between three and six months.

But another government amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would mean that blocking a motorway could carry a prison term – without the need for an injunction. The maximum fine is currently £1,000. Under the new amendment, anyone blocking a motorway would face up to six months in prison and an unlimited fine.

In January, Lords voted to limit the offence of wilful obstruction of highway to the “Strategic Road Network” – essentially motorways and A-roads. But MPs will get to decide whether to keep or scrap this limitation in a vote on February 28.

Causing the death of a child could lead to life in prison, under a new amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Not all the amendments relate to protests. A new measure called Tony’s Law would impose life sentences for those who cause or allow the death of a child in their care.

The current maximum sentence is 14 years. It follows a campaign by the adoptive parents of six-year-old Tony Hudgell, who became severely disabled and had to have both of his legs amputated after being abused by his birth parents as a baby.

The new measures would also increase the maximum sentence for child cruelty to 14 years. Hudgell’s birth parents were sentenced to the current maximum term of 10 years.

Serious Disruption Orders could prevent specific people from protesting

The new orders – a sort of ASBO for protesting – would prohibit protesters with a history of disruption, or protest-related convictions, from being in certain places at certain times.

They could also ban people from “participating in particular activities” and even “using the internet” to organise or facilitate protests.

The Lords placed some limits on these in January – but again MPs have the power to decide whether to go along with this.

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.

“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.”

This article was updated on February 28 2022

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