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As Conservative Party controversy hits the headlines and Plan B is activated across the UK, one piece of legislation that is not getting the coverage it deserves is the creeping, draconian Policing Bill.
This bill recently saw back-door amendments entered at an incredibly late stage to avoid parliamentary scrutiny. These 18 extra pages that have been shoved in at the last minute are terrifying and fascistic, eroding the fundamental rights of citizens in the UK.
Thousands of people have come together from all walks of life to protest against this dangerous bill since it was first announced, including in Bristol, which has resulted in 42 people facing serious charges. If the bill becomes law, it will punish anyone with the courage to stand up for their beliefs and challenge the government on their action or, in the case of climate change, inaction.
While the Policing Bill was already horrifyingly draconian, the new amendments seek to further infringe on citizens’ rights in the UK.
One of the new amendments creates a new offence of ‘locking-on’ which is the protest tactic whereby protestors attach themselves to another person, an object, or land, in a way that causes or could cause “serious disruption” to two or more people or to an organisation in a public place and they “intend this consequence” or are “reckless” about it. Those charged with this offence could face up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both. Moreover, while at first, it may have appeared that this new offence was created in response to Insulate Britain’s blockading the M25, as outlined by Open Democracy, it was consulted on all the way back in Autumn 2020.
Another of the new offences included within the amendments is the offence of ‘being equipped’. Here, an offence will be committed if a person has an “object with them” in a public place with the intention that it will be used “in the course of or in connection with” any person ‘locking on’ punishable with a (potentially unlimited) fine – the vague language here is undoubtedly troubling. Meanwhile, those found to obstruct the highway could be hit with a prison sentence of 51 weeks, a fine or both.
Elsewhere, is the creation of another new offence, ‘obstruction of major transport works,’ where an individual will commit an offence if they “obstruct an undertaker”(e.g. construction worker) taking any steps that are reasonably necessary for facilitating, or in connection with, the construction or maintenance of any major transport works” or if they “interfere with, move, or remove any apparatus relating to the construction or maintenance of any major transport works and belonging to an undertaker.” Here, punishment is again 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.
The bill now also contains further expansions to stop and search powers so that offers will be able to stop and search a person or vehicle if they “reasonably suspect” they’ll find an item intended for use in connection with:
Here, a ‘prohibited object’ is “made, adapted, or intended for use in the course of or in connection with” the offences listed above, meaning these objects could include everything from fliers to banners.
Stop and search could even be carried out without suspicion if authorised by someone of or above the rank of inspector. These powers could be in place for 24 hours or longer if given approval by an officer ranked superintendent or above. If an individual dares to “obstruct” one of these searches, they could be punished with up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.
The legislation also contains provisions for Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), ASBO-like orders banning protest. These orders can be imposed on individuals convicted of a ‘protest-related offence’ and applied to those whose activities are “likely to result in serious disruption”.
If an individual has one of these orders imposed on them, they will have to comply with a number of conditions. These conditions include not associating with certain people, not going to certain places, not carrying certain items, not using the internet in a particular way, and reporting to authorities whenever it is demanded. Worryingly, while these orders can last for up to two years, they can be renewed indefinitely, and again those found to breach their order would face 51 weeks in prison and/or a fine.
So, rather than scaling back proposals as was widely proposed by critics, the government has doubled-down, further bolstering police powers. Moreover, while it has been reported that police did not ask for more powers, back in 2019, the Metropolitan Police made a submission to the Home Office for exactly that, while Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick had lobbied directly.
Across the board, human rights organisations, experts and activists, have rallied against the bill, highlighting just how damaging this bill, if enacted, will be.
Writing in The Ecologist, David Renton, a barrister, and historian of Jewish heritage who has researched and written about fascism and authoritarianism for nearly twenty years, points to the dangers of the bill. He said: “The most recent House of Lords amendments are so badly drafted that they will allow for oppressive policing of protests far beyond anything admitted by Priti Patel, the home secretary.” Renton also outlined that with regards to SDPOs, the fact that powers are being awarded to magistrates, members of the public with “less than a week’s legal training, little knowledge of the law and too often very little interest in whether the law is applied properly,” is concerning, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti, speaking to the Byline Times, said: “They are very obviously modelled on anti-terror legislation – except they’re for protest. The former Shadow Attorney General continued: “The anti-protest provisions will affect everyone, because everyone benefits from protest and free expression in a supposedly free country and that’s the people who go out and do it and also the people who don’t but who benefit over the centuries from the fruits of their labour,” she told Byline Times. “Whether it’s all of us women who now get to vote because of brave Suffragettes or people no longer living under Apartheid. Where would the world be in the 21st Century if people hadn’t sometimes taken to the streets in previous centuries?”
When it comes to the expansion of police stop and search powers, former police have even issued warnings and underlined that such measures are discriminatory and ineffective. Nick Glynn, retired senior police officer and expert on racial profiling and stop and search, said: “This Bill represents a backsliding of policing in the UK. These are powers we would expect to see in the likes of Hungary. We know from extensive data on this issue that these blanket powers will be overused, ineffective, discriminatory and won’t work to reduce violence.”
Of course, while this assault on citizens’ rights is a terrifying power grab, it also highlights the complete and utter hypocrisy of the UK government. The UK supposedly identifies itself as a beacon of democracy, and Home Secretary has claimed that the right to protest is a “cornerstone of our democracy.” The government has called for peaceful protests to be upheld in Hong Kong and Columbia, implemented sanctions against the Myanmar military for human rights violations, and condemned Russia for its treatment of peaceful protestors, all the while introducing legislation that seeks to silence and suppress.
This bill is the latest in a long line of dangerous proposed pieces of legislation and reforms. Over the course of the pandemic, the government has worked on slowly but surely whiting away at individuals rights.
The authoritarian reform proposals to the Human Rights Act are another stark example of this and seek to erode rather than bolster human rights. The Nationality and Borders Bill, meanwhile, is a horrifying piece of legislation that ministers have claimed will help to “safe lives,” “establish safe routes for asylum”, and protect refugees and survivors of modern slavery. It does none of this and instead criminalises those seeking asylum and enables the stripping of citizenship. The Elections Bill is another fell swoop at electoral democracy and would suppress voter turnout. That’s not to mention the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which would effectively make the government untouchable by removing citizens’ ability to hold power to account.
If these proposed pieces of legislation enter the law book, the future for ordinary people looks bleak. It will be a future where those in power will be able to do as they like, without objection or scrutiny, a future where dissenting voices are stamped out, a future where the most vulnerable in society are silenced.
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