Politicians in the UK’s House of Commons are debating on Tuesday evening new legislation which could bring about significant changes to policing and criminal sentencing.
The most headline-grabbing elements of the plans under the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill are new powers that could be granted to the police to limit the scope of protests and direct action demonstrations.
MPs are scheduled to vote on the Bill at 7 p.m. on March 16.
Parts of the law have been specifically designed to restrict so-called “static protests” — meaning demonstrations that stay in one place — in response to the activities of Extinction Rebellion, a direct action group raising awareness of the climate crisis, that have previously blocked streets and bridges in London.
Home Secretary Priti Patel created the legislation in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that swept the UK last summer, and following the Extinction Rebellion protests that began in 2018. Patel has previously described Extinction Rebellion activists as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals”, and described the BLM protests held in the UK last summer as “dreadful” during a radio interview with LBC in February.
“There are other ways in which people can express their opinions, protesting in the way that people did last summer was not the right way at all,” she added about BLM.
The policing bill is a complex 307-page document with wide-ranging potential implications for protesting and beyond. Here are some important parts of the bill to be aware of, and how it relates to the issues that Global Citizen campaigns on.
1. Direct-action campaigning on the climate crisis
The proposed measures relate to all protests for all causes, but the Home Office has singled out non-violent direct-action campaigns, such as those carried out by Extinction Rebellion, in a lot of the reasoning given for changing the law.
Extinction Rebellion are an activist group with chapters across the UK and internationally. It takes non-violent direct action to raise awareness of the climate crisis. For example, by turning up at London Fashion Week covered in fake blood, in order to highlight the lives lost as a result of the fashion industry’s massive contribution to global emissions.
The group famously occupied Waterloo Bridge in central London for 10 days in April 2019, capturing the world’s attention. It was described as the biggest civil disobedience action seen in the capital for decades.
However, the high impact demonstrations have had their critics, including Cressida Dick, who leads London’s police force as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. “Ever since the first large-scale Extinction Rebellion protest in April  I have been talking publicly and with the government about the potential for [a] change to powers,” she said.
She has argued for, “legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests in general given that the act that we work to — the Public Order Act – is now very old, [dating to] 1986.”
The Home Office has said therefore that the bill is needed because public order laws are “no longer fit for managing the types of protests we experience today.” They argue that the planned measures “will balance the rights of protesters with the rights of others to go about their business unhindered.”
The Policing Bill also seeks to expand the “controlled area” around parliament where certain protest activities are prohibited, on the basis that the roads that vehicles use to get to parliament and government buildings must remain open. This could potentially impact protests that spillover from Parliament Square — a popular meeting point for demonstrations.
2. Protestors might face more fines
In addition to the new rules for protests mentioned above, there will also be harsher penalties. If this legislation goes ahead as originally written, not complying with the rules could mean fines up to £2,500.
It calls for abolishing the common law offence of public nuisance and replacing it with a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.”
The legislation also builds the potential for future legislation to further identify the seriousness of any given protest in the eyes of the Home Office.
The Home Secretary will have the power, through secondary legislation passed in future, to “define and give examples of ‘serious disruption to the life of the community’ and serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of procession/ assembly/ one-person protest’,” a summary of the bill on the House of Commons Library explains.
As the above suggests — the rules could apply even if it's just one person protesting.
“Taken to an extreme, let's say there's an individual holding a protest placard, while blasting out their views on a speaker. If they refuse to follow police directions over how they should conduct their protest, they could be fined up to £2,500,” the BBC explains.
The bill also includes harsher punishments for damaging statues or memorials — making defacing a memorial punishable up to 10 years in prison, up from three years. This proposal appears to have been included after BLM protesters toppled into the river a statue of Edward Colston, a notorious slave trader, in Bristol last June.
“The statue was estimated to have a value of £3,750. As it stands, the courts cannot impose a prison term of more than three months where the value of damage caused is under £5,000,” a report in the legal magazine, the Justice Gap, explains.
3. What campaigners and legal experts have said
Civil rights campaigners have criticised the various measures — arguing that it will make it difficult to stage protests which are usually noisy by nature, for example.
Emmanuelle Andrews, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, a human rights nonprofit, told the Guardian: “These plans are a staggering assault on our right to protest as well as an attack on other fundamental rights.”
“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,” Andrews added.
Alanna Byrne, a member of Extinction Rebellion, added: “Priti Patel can try and make the UK a protest-free zone but it’s clear that the government is not going to do the right thing without protesters holding them to account so we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”
A legal nonprofit, the Good Law Project, takes issue with the wording of the bill, arguing that it undermines rights to freedom of speech and assembly.
Regarding the noise limitations, the Good Law Project writes: “Bystanders may find a range of chants intimidating or feel unease at protests if they disagree with the cause. However, to clamp down on persons chanting when there is a chance that it ‘may’ cause these effects would amount to a severe restriction on the [European Convention on Human Rights] Article 10 on the rights of protestors.”
The #PoliceCrackdownBill targets what makes our protest rights meaningful and gives the police even more powers to shut protests down.— Liberty (@libertyhq) March 15, 2021
Breakdown of this dangerous Bill [THREAD]: pic.twitter.com/ghAMtN1DfQ
4. Gender-based violence
The proposal to increase the sentence for defacing a memorial to up to 10 years has drawn criticism from opposition politicians and campaigners amid a national debate about violence against women — because it potentially means defacing a memorial gets a harsher sentence than rape, the sentence for which starts at five years.
The Labour Party has said that the bill “does nothing to help women feel safer on the streets.”
At the moment, the bill does not include a huge amount on how gender-based violence crimes specifically are dealt with. However it does include new rules about sentencing concerning early release, and harsher sentencing for repeat offenders.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has argued that further protections are included. For example, he said the bill “goes much further in toughening sentences for rapists and would stop the early release of sexual and violent offenders,” in an interview with the BBC.
5. Marginalised communities
The bill would create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle,” while lowering the threshold around existing police powers to intervene in what is considered an “unauthorised encampment.”
This part of the bill relates to the UK’s Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, a small minority ethnic group who live a partly nomadic lifestyle. Human rights groups have taken offence at this section as even further marginalising those communities.
Lowering this threshold would allow the police to “remove unauthorised encampments, on (or partly on) high-ways” and prevent them from returning within 12 months, details on the proposals say.
The human rights group Liberty has released a statement saying: “If enacted, these proposals would expose already marginalised communities to profiling and disproportionate police powers through the expansion of stop and search, and Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities may face increased police enforcement through the criminalisation of trespass.”
The organisation Friends, Family, and Travellers, a charity representing the Traveller community have said in a statement the action against unauthorised camps “overlooks the issue of the lack of site provision.”
“There is an absence of places where Gypsies and Travellers are permitted to stop or reside,” they said.