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Downgrading of Democracy: The Police, Crimes & Sentencing Bill

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Ziryan Aziz reports on how the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will shape our right to protest.


The House of Lords has now passed the government’s most controversial proposals in its policing bill, after a final 3rd reading.


The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been floating in and out of Parliament since March 2021, though it was struck down by the House of Lords in January 2022 after a debate on protesting rights.

In the vote held in late March 2022, Peers voted in favour of two alterations they had previously made: removing noise as a criterion for disbanding a protest, and proposing police powers to restrict one-person demonstrations.


The bill was in a procession of ‘ping-pong’, where it bounced back between the Commons and the Lords. MPs continued to reject the lord’s amendments, which target the bill’s more controversial policies, whilst Peers continue to accept their own altercations.


On the 26th April the bill finally passed through the Lords, and is now law.



What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?

The bill is a flagship piece of legislation that Home Secretary, Priti Patel, alongside other key government backers have pushed through Parliament.


It made headlines in November 2021, when the Home Secretary came under fire for adding an additional 18 pages of amendments to the final draft, after it had already passed through Parliament. The move was criticised as anti-democratic, both from within the opposition and public organisations who have expressed grievances with some of its contents.


Overall, the bill aims to overhaul the criminal justice system, with a raft of changes to how certain crimes are punished, introducing new laws and penalties, and strengthening the powers of the police force.


The bill has been praised for the introduction of new offences, such as making it illegal to film someone breastfeeding without consent, increased jail sentences for assault on emergency workers, and potential life sentences for child murderers. The bill will also address a lack of police powers with regard to monitoring suspected terrorists, and the ability of the police forces to share data with councils and other local bodies.


However, what’s caught the attention of former Prime Ministers, police chiefs, and civil liberty organisations, is specific changes to the right to protest in the UK, with the potential to impact British democracy and citizen rights.




Why is the Bill Controversial?


The controversy surrounding the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is centred on multiple core components. Some that have gained the most attention include:


  1. Police are to be given powers to prevent or disband any protest if it is considered “too noisy”, and/or a “public nuisance”. The responsibility of this decision is squarely on the shoulder of the police officers at the scene, who will need to provide their subjective judgement. Under previous UK legislation, police would need to prove that a protest may cause “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community” before putting any restrictions.

  2. The bill would have also introduced a number of new protests related offences, including a parole process for those encouraging others via social media to attend a protest deemed potentially “likely to result in serious disruption”.

  3. Police would no longer have a duty to inform protests if they are breaking a police-enforced condition on a protest, and “It will be possible for anyone to receive a criminal conviction for breaching a police condition placed on a protest despite having no knowledge of it,” according to the Friends of the Earth. Organisers of a protest, where police conditions have been breached can also serve time in prison.

  4. New rules would have seen protesters receiving jail sentences of up to 6 months and an unlimited fine for “locking on”. The protest method has been popularised recently by groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and Insulate Britain, whereby protestors chain or tie themselves to immovable objects. The protesting tactic has extensively been used in protest movements across the ages, famously by the Suffragettes.

  5. Police would be given the powers to stop and search any protester, without suspicion of having committed an offence. Under current UK law, a police officer can only stop and search an individual without suspicion using a Section 60, which is only authorised under certain conditions and restricted to a 24-hour time limit. The new powers imposed in the government’s bill could see anyone who resists a search with up to 51 weeks in jail.

  6. Police are to be given the power to stop and search a vehicle if they suspect they’re on their way to a protest, including if they are carrying protest materials (e.g., banners, placards.)

  7. The government will introduce changes to the Public Order Act 1994, giving police greater powers to remove and punish vehicles temporarily residing on private land. Whilst the move is welcomed by some, the law specifically focuses on the Gypsy, Traveller, and Roma community, and many within the community feel that this is a direct attack on their right to a nomadic lifestyle.


The Reaction


The reaction to the government’s new legislation has been mixed. From within the police force, the Police Federation of England and Wales has welcomed the bill, however this view is not universally shared.


Leaders from the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, a body that overlooks policing practice and policy, have openly criticised the bill as having gone “too far”, stating that “…When you make these laws, you can’t pick laws for the protests you like and don’t like.”


Michael Barton, the former chief constable of Durham, has warned that Britain is moving towards ‘Paramilitary Policing’. In an open letter to Priti Patel, senior police leaders, such as the former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Lord Paddick, and former Met superintendent, Leroy Logan, expressed their concerns that the new bill could undermine police trust, and “exacerbate” violence. Commenting on the new stop and search powers, they stated:


“As experts on police use of force, racial profiling, and stop and search, we believe that this Bill has dangerous implications for the fight against serious violence, an issue that demands police work in service to, not against, the communities facing its harms.”

Outside of policing, more than 700 legal scholars and 350 charities have called for the bill to be scrapped, including Sacha Deshmukh, the CEO of Amnesty International UK, who compared the government’s plans to those used in Russia, Hong Kong and Belarus.


Faith leaders have raised their concerns on what the bill will mean for those who will be subject to increased profiling. Both the Bishop of Manchester and Gloucester have spoken in the House of Lords on the bill’s proposed restrictions on travelling communities, and life sentences on young offenders.


Politicians such as former Prime Minister Theresa May has spoken up in defiance of the government plans, stating she would “urge the government to consider carefully the need to walk a fine line between being popular and populist.”

What Happens Next?


As the bill is now an act of parliament, it is officially law. It will be difficult to predict the extent upon which police will act on these new powers, and legal challenges to the government could be expected.


The British public will need to reach a consensus on what value the right to protest has in modern Britain. Much like the discourse around free-speech, this bill signifies a shift in the government consensus away from traditional British values, placing a greater emphasis on security.


In light of Matt Hancock breaking lock down rules in June 2021, the home secretary has already introduced a law which can dish out a 14 year jail sentence to journalists who handle leaked government materials. It seems the question of what happens next is very much an open one.

 

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