Activism

Exclusive: Controversial new laws forced through to restrict noisy protests haven't been used by police

The findings show the law is "unworkable, unnecessary" and not wanted by police, a former senior police officer said

Policing bill

Police and an Extinction Rebellion protester during April 2022. Image: Extinction Rebellion

Controversial new laws to restrict noisy protests that were forced through by the government despite huge protests have yet to be used by police, The Big Issue can reveal.

Police did not arrest anybody or place noise-based restrictions on any protests in the first five months of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act being in force, responses to Freedom of Information requests from The Big Issue have revealed.

Senior police officers warned at the time that the noise powers were unnecessary and difficult to use, and The Big Issue’s findings have prompted one former officer to again claim officers do not want them.

“This investigation is revealing,” former senior police officer Nick Glynn told The Big Issue. “As I said back in February 2022, the ‘protest noise powers’ introduced are unworkable, unnecessary and the police do not need or want them.

He added: “The right to protest is essential and it must be upheld, not undermined by a government afraid of accountability.”

Even a force which initially believed it had used the new powers to limit the route and duration of a Tommy Robinson-led protest later clarified it had in fact relied on pre-existing laws to do so.

The anti-protest laws introduced by then-home secretary Priti Patel sparked the nationwide Kill the Bill movement, and resistance from the House of Lords means the government must review their effectiveness after two years.

The Big Issue asked every police force in the UK if they had used powers under sections 73, 74, and 75 of the new act, from its coming into force in June, through to October. Only one example emerged: West Mercia.

However, West Mercia Police later admitted the powers it used actually pre-dated the bill to restrict a September march led by Robinson in Telford, and on a counter-protest by Stand Up To Racism.

Authorised by the force’s acting chief constable, the conditions were imposed over a fear that “the time, place and circumstances in which the procession is to be held, and its proposed route, may result in serious public disorder, damage to property, disruption to life of the community or intimidation”. These conditions were imposed, however, using old powers.

Restrictions on protests are relatively rare, for example from January 21 to April 21 2021, police placed restrictions on “no more than a dozen” of the 2,500 protests that took place, according to data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The Met Police imposed conditions on protests 15 times in 2019, according to data from HMICFRS.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

The bill, introduced to give police greater powers to tackle disruptive protests, was branded an “orchestrated attack on the fundamental right to protest” during the Kill the Bill movement.

However, other laws introduced in the act have been used, including to arrest Just Stop Oil protesters for a new public nuisance offence. And campaigners have warned that even if unused, the more draconian powers still have a chilling effect on protests.

“All these new powers have a chilling effect, regardless of how often they’re used. While protest is not illegal, it is extremely worrying if people feel they can not take to the streets without fear of arrest, police harassment or criminalisation,” Netpol’s Emily Apple told The Big Issue.

Then-home secretary Priti Patel said the bill was needed to deal with “a significant change of protest tactics, with protesters exploiting gaps in the law which have led to disproportionate amounts of disruption.” Speaking in the House of Commons, she specifically mentioned protests by climate group Extinction Rebellion.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Under the PCSC Act, police are able to place conditions on protests if the noise it generates “may result in serious disruption”. Breaching these conditions is a criminal offence.

In June, anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray had his speakers seized by police outside Parliament, and said officers had cited the act – which had just come into force – as a reason he could not conduct a “noisy” protest. However, the Met’s response to The Big Issue said they had not formally used the noise-related powers to restrict any protests. After the event, police suggested Bray’s speakers had been taken under parts of the new law restricting protests outside parliament.

Jun Pang, policy and campaigns officer at human rights group Liberty, told The Big Issue: “Former senior police advisers and frontline officers also spoke out about their serious concerns about the practicalities of these restrictions, warning that they would be unworkable and further politicise the policing of public order. So in some ways it’s not surprising that these powers have been used so little. 

“However, for as long as these measures remain in law, protesters will be at the mercy of police, who have the power to decide when a protest is ‘too noisy’ – and potentially to shut it down on that basis. Meanwhile, the government is pushing through even more extreme anti-protest measures in the Public Order Bill – featuring measures that yet, again, have been rejected by the police for being ineffective and infringing on human rights.”

A bitter fight saw Lords try to strip the measures from the bill on its way to becoming law. During one debate Lord Coaker, Labour’s home affairs spokesperson, told the Lords the noise provision “will not work and it is not needed”. 

As a concession, the government was ordered to publish a report on the new laws within two years and present it to parliament.

Measures that were eventually pulled and did not find their way into the Policing Act have been resurrected in the government’s Public Order Bill, which is making its way through parliament. It includes measures to jail protesters for ‘locking on’, and to ban repeat offenders from attending protests.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'We are here and we exist': Inside the neighbourhood offering sanctuary to queer Russians and Ukrainians
Pride

'We are here and we exist': Inside the neighbourhood offering sanctuary to queer Russians and Ukrainians

Actor Liz Carr says it hurts to hear her younger self 'wanted to die'
Liz Carr
Disability rights

Actor Liz Carr says it hurts to hear her younger self 'wanted to die'

Feeling like change in the UK isn't possible? Let these 28 purposeful campaigns prove otherwise
Activism

Feeling like change in the UK isn't possible? Let these 28 purposeful campaigns prove otherwise

Back to Black actor Eddie Marsan: 'There aren't any no-go areas in Tower Hamlets'
London

Back to Black actor Eddie Marsan: 'There aren't any no-go areas in Tower Hamlets'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know