The police have been finding innovative new ways to criminalise protest for some time. In Fylde, Lancashire, in 2017, a man was threatened with arrest for honking his horn in support of an anti-fracking protest. Elsewhere in Lancashire, protesters were threatened with arrest for minor infringements such as stepping off of the pavement and onto the road.
This approach continued in October 2019, when environmental protest group Extinction Rebellion held a wide-scale protest in London. The Metropolitan Police imposed a banning order on “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion ‘autumn uprising’ must now cease their protest(s) within London” – effectively banning the protest entirely. This was later ruled to be unlawful, but in the meantime it was used to justify a crackdown that saw systematic discrimination against disabled protesters – including a disabled protester’s walking stick being confiscated as a “potential weapon”, and another disabled protester and their carer deemed an “illegal assembly” and arrested for standing outside New Scotland Yard as a pair.
This followed the initial XR rebellion in April 2019, which cost the Met £16 million and saw the force criticised for being too indulgent of the protest. Ever since, Met Police commissioner Cressida Dick has been lobbying the government for new powers, “specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt and were prepared to use the methods we all know they did to do that.”
In Priti Patel, Dick has a sympathetic Home Secretary. Patel has said that she thought the wave of BLM protests that swept the country in 2020 were “dreadful”. She also commissioned a report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary – the independent police inspectorate – into the policing of protests, which concluded that the police should do more to balance the rights of protesters and those who they might disrupt. And on Tuesday, Parliament will debate the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which aims to give police more powers to clamp down on protest.
While the Home Office denies the bill will undermine freedom of expression, human rights groups and trade unions have warned that the new police powers represent “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”.
The government has chosen a hell of a week to try and increase police powers. Protest rights are at the forefront of many people’s minds after Met officers arrested people on Saturday at a vigil that was banned by coronavirus regulations for Sarah Everard, a woman who disappeared while walking home in Clapham on the 3rd of March, whose body was found a week later in Kent. A Metropolitan Police Officer, Wayne Couzens, has been charged with the kidnap and murder in relation to the disappearance.
Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply disturbed” by footage of the arrests, and right-wing tabloid newspapers decried the scenes. Such was the outcry at the arrests that Labour leader Keir Starmer, who had been calling for his party to abstain on the bill, is now instructing his MPs to oppose it. Some Conservative MPs also have concerns, but it is not believed that there will be a large enough rebellion to defeat the government.
But what is actually in this bill, and why are human rights groups so concerned about it?
IT BANS PROTESTS THAT HAVE AN ‘IMPACT’
Among the top concerns of human rights organisations, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes to give police powers to impose conditions on protests that might have an “impact”. An example of this “impact” could be the noise generated by a protest causing people in the vicinity “serious unease”. Previously, legislation gave the police such powers only if a protest was going to be “disruptive”.
IT GIVES THE HOME SECRETARY THE POWER TO DEFINE WHAT KINDS OF PROTEST SHOULD BE BANNED
The bill also enables the Home Secretary to "make provision about the meaning for the purposes of this section of – (a) serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of a public procession, or (b) serious disruption to the life of the community.” In other words, it gives the minister the power to decide what counts as disruptive.
So, it would be easy for the Home Secretary to decide that a specific new protest tactic was too disruptive, and quickly move to ban it.
YOU COULD GO TO PRISON FOR TEN YEARS FOR BEING ANNOYING
The bill also proposes to make it an offence to cause a person “serious annoyance” and “serious inconvenience”, with a potential ten-year jail sentence. In fact, the bill proposes making it an offence to even put someone “at risk” of being annoyed. This offence carries a potential ten-year prison sentence.
Critics are concerned that a protest that has no “impact” and whose organisers have to make sure it couldn’t possibly risk annoying anyone is not much of a protest at all.
…EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T MEAN TO
You don’t need to intend to annoy anyone to be at fault, you can just be “reckless” in your actions. And if the police impose a condition on a protest demanding everyone goes home, it will no longer be a defence to say that you didn’t know about the condition – if you “ought to know”, you still have to abide by the condition. This will pose particular problems for protesters who don’t want to engage with the police and, for instance, elderly people who don’t check police Twitter accounts while out and about.
WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE STATUES?
Statues and war memorials are to be protected under the legislation, following a summer of BLM protests that saw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston toppled and thrown into the harbour in Bristol.
The bill proposes an increase to the maximum sentencing for damaging any structure with “a commemorative purpose”. Policing minister Kit Malthouse defended the measure, saying that the previous legislation ignored the “emotional or symbolic value or war memorials”.
IT MAKES LIFE HARDER FOR TRAVELLERS
Section 4 of the bill concerns “unauthorised encampments”, creating a new offence “relating to residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle.” Priti Patel has long threatened a crackdown against unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller encampments, but even the police believe that their existing powers are proportionate.
The government is carrying on regardless, and the Friends, Families and Travellers group says that this legislation “will push Gypsies and Travellers into the criminal justice system, merely for existing nomadically” and will compound existing inequalities for one of the UK’s most marginalised groups.
There are also concerns that the legislation will have an impact on the right to roam in the English countryside.