Opinion

The Policing Bill threatens our democracy – this is time for anger, not despair

As the government forces through unworkable and deeply unpopular laws, it's more crucial than ever that we continue to take a stand, writes Liberty director Martha Spurrier.

Protesters march at the Kill The Bill protest in London, May 2021. Steve Eason/Flickr

After a year of resistance, this week the government managed to push through the remaining anti-protest measures in its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Despite having voted three times to remove measures that would criminalise protests that are too “noisy” from the bill, peers finally voted them through – meaning the bill will now become law.

People across the country will rightly feel angry about the bill’s passing. It’s a human rights disaster. Protest is not a gift from the state, it is our fundamental right. Yet the bill will give police more powers to shut down protests for being too “noisy” and criminalise those who take part. 

Aside from new laws allowing the police to impose noise-based restrictions on protests, the bill also gives the police more powers to restrict static demonstrations and protest around parliament while making it easier for protesters to be criminalised for breaching protest conditions – even if they didn’t know the condition was in place.

These new powers represent nothing less than an attack on our right to make our voices heard, deterring people from taking part in protests, and making it much easier to criminalise those who do.

The Policing Bill doesn’t just go after protesters, however. New trespass offences are a threat to hundreds of thousands of Gypsy and Traveller people, and the sweeping new powers given to police will make it easier to surveil, criminalise and punish those who already face the sharp end of policing, particularly Black communities.

In recent years, revelation after appalling revelation – from Sarah Everard’s murder at the hands of a serving police officer to the story of Child Q being strip-searched at school – has shown that misogyny and racism run through British policing, and more powers for the police will only worsen the harms of discriminatory policing.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Policing Bill was met with such fierce opposition from across society. It was opposed by former senior police officers, parliamentarians – including three former prime ministers – as well as 700 academics who called for it to be dropped, and over 350 charities who signed a letter against the bill.

Led by Sisters Uncut and Kill the Bill, a year of public protests demonstrated the strength of feeling against the bill and pushed it to the front of the news agenda, and almost a million people signed a petition calling for it to be scrapped.

This mass movement ultimately caused huge government defeats as the House of Lords ripped many of the worst proposals out of the bill.

So while we should feel angry about the bill’s passing, we should not feel defeated. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life have come together to stand up for human rights, and to protect each other and our communities.

Now more than ever, we need to unite for the fights to come. The Policing Bill is just one among many government attempts to strip us of our rights and make it much harder for ordinary people to hold the powerful to account.

The Elections Bill, which also passed through parliament this week, will introduce mandatory voter ID – which is likely to block huge numbers of people from voting, particularly those from marginalised groups. Meanwhile, the Judicial Review Bill attempts to make it harder to challenge the government in court – and change the rules so that even winning a case might not be worthwhile.

Martha Spurrier. Image: Liberty

Perhaps most worryingly, the government is planning to replace the Human Rights Act – which for over 20 years has protected us all from abuse of power. The new proposals will weaken everyone’s rights, and make it much harder for us to challenge the powerful when our rights are breached.

The Policing Bill didn’t pass because it’s good legislation, but because the government played a game of brinkmanship to force it through. It’s just one of nine bills the government is struggling to get passed before the end of the parliamentary session, not least because many of them are unworkable and deeply unpopular. This barrage of dense and hugely consequential legislation is, in itself, an attack on our democracy.

With these attacks on our rights coming at us fast, it’s more crucial than ever that we continue to take a stand together. We must resist the government’s attempts to make itself untouchable – and instead work towards building a fair society where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

Martha Spurrier is director of human rights organisation Liberty

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