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“Dangerous,” “disproportionate,” “a power-grab,” “poorly-thought-out,” these are just some of the ways critics have described the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In a time when trust in the police has been repeatedly weakened and eroded, Home Secretary Priti Patel is introducing a bill that would afford them more power.
According to ministers, recent protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) have “highlighted gaps” in existing legislation, and this bill will address these gaps. However, many critics say that the bill poses the biggest threat to civil liberties in recent history.
The second reading of the bill comes just a few days after the brutal police response to the Sarah Everard vigil and Reclaim These Streets march. If passed, the bill will seriously endanger the right to protest and the right to free expression.
Defending the bill’s introduction, first announced on 9 March, the government has stated it will “allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public”. However, the consequences of voting in this piece of legislation will be far more sinister.
Although the police already have the power to impose restrictions on demonstrations if they threaten “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community,” the new bill goes much further.
Under the bill, restrictions will be imposed if the “noise” of a protest “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. Another clause will also impose restrictions if this noise has “a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession”. If individuals cause “serious annoyance,” they will also find themselves criminalised.
Even more worryingly, a section of the bill outlines that if a person causes “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience” to another person, they could face a fine and up to ten years in prison.
Protests exist to disturb the peace, hold power to account and create change. If passed, the bill will allow police to control the duration, noise levels, and location of protests. It will silence dissent. This is suppression.
Of course, this bill fits perfectly in line with Priti Patel’s disdain for protesters. She has condemned BLM protests in the past, calling them “dreadful,” dubbing protesters as “hooligans”. Back in September, the minister also claimed that Extinction Rebellion activists were “criminals”.
This “justice overhaul” is also backed by Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick, who has refused to resign following the police’s deeply disturbing handling of the Sarah Everard vigil. The bill’s policy paper even opens with quotes by Dick.
The new legislation, which will be voted on, on Tuesday contains some deeply concerning and draconian measures that will seriously undermine democracy in the UK.
Writing about the bill’s dangerous nature, The Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign organisation, recently stated that it seeks to eradicate one of the most important tools citizens can use to voice dissent. It argued that the bill would effectively legislate the right to protest “out of existence”.
On 14 March, the Labour Party, which previously stated it would abstain from voting on the bill, has now announced that it will oppose the bill in parliament. This announcement was a decidedly last-minute decision, despite the grave dangers of this bill being clear from the very start.
Now, shadow justice secretary David Lammy says that Labour will be voting against the bill. In a statement on Sunday, he said: “We are calling on the Government to drop its poorly thought-out proposals and instead work with Labour to legislate to tackle violence against women which is forcing so many across the country to live in fear”.
Many have publicly criticised the bill and expressed serious concern about what it means for the UK’s future.
The ex-chief constable of Greater Manchester Police voiced his concerns that the bill is disproportionate. Sir Peter Fahy said that the public should be “really worried” about this legislation.
Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy”. Alongside these comments, Fahy also criticised the “really dodgy definitions” included within the bill.
Elsewhere, Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said: “These plans are a staggering assault on our right to protest as well as an attack on other fundamental rights”. She added: “Police already have extensive powers to restrict protests, and frequently go beyond them even though it is their duty to facilitate the exercise of this right. The proposals are an opportunistic bid from the government to permanently erode our rights”.
Confronting the government about these draconian measures, more than 150 organisations have come together, writing a letter to the home secretary, Priti Patel, and the justice secretary, Robert Buckland. The letter, seen by the Guardian, was signed by human rights charities, unions and faith communities, including Liberty, Big Brother Watch, Unite, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Unlock Democracy, Cafod and Extinction Rebellion local groups.
In the letter, the group argued that the bill would be “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens” if passed. It also stated that the government needed to “fundamentally rethink its approach”.
Amanda Milling, Conservative MP and Conservative Party co-chairman, has said that by voting against the bill, Labour is “voting against tougher sentences for child murderers and sex offenders, killer drivers and measures that protect the vulnerable”. This statement is incredibly misleading.
Responding to this “disgusting” claim, Jess Philips MP and shadow domestic violence minister said: “The Conservative government’s bill does absolutely nothing currently to increase sentences for rapists, stalkers, or those who batter, control and abuse women”. She added: “It does nothing about street harassment and assaults. The bill is full of divisive nonsense like locking up those who damage statues for longer than those who attack women”.
Recent events have undeniably shown that the police abuse the powers they already have. Awarding them more powers is dangerous and dystopian. Free speech rights and the right to protest will be seriously jeopardised if this bill is voted through on Tuesday.
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