Editor's note: This article was first published on March 16, when the Bill was introduced. On Jan. 25, it was updated following a vote that rejected some of the most controversial elements of the government's plans. But there are still many proposals in the Bill that campaigners highlight pose a threat to civil liberties. Since the Bill was introduced, campaigning organisations including Friends of the Earth, Liberty, SumOfUs, Global Justice Now, and Greenpeace have launched petitions calling on the government to protect the right to protest.
Some of the most controversial aspects of the UK's Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, were defeated in the House of Lords last week (Jan. 21) in a victory for campaigners who argued that the Bill threatened the right to protest peacefully.
Last Tuesday campaigners celebrated the news that the Lords had voted against government on some key elements of the plans. Some of those included last minute measures the government had tried to add after it had already been discussed in the House of Commons — and the Lords defeat now means that the government will not be able to add those parts back in.
One of the parts of the legislation that has consequently been scrapped for good is a measure that would have allowed police officers to search anyone at a protest without suspicion for items that they might use to lock themselves to something so they can’t be moved (a type of protest called “locking on”).
The climate NGO Greepeace described the Bill as “one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation tabled by the UK government since the Second World War" and said the wording of the stop and search part of the bill meant that "you could be holding a banner, placard, or even nothing at all and you could be stopped and searched."
However, other measures voted down by the Lords have the potential to be added back in later on. The Lords voted against giving the police new powers to stop protests in England and Wales if they are deemed to be too noisy and disruptive, for example, but the government has indicated they want to see that revisted.
Last week the justice secretary Dominic Raab told reporters that the government still wanted to give police the power to clamp down on noise levels at protests. When asked on Radio 4’s Today programme if the government would bring back the measures that had been voted against, Raab said: “We’ll look very carefully at all of that, but, yes, absolutely.”
The London-based human rights NGO Liberty has written a useful explainer on what the Lords votes means here. They write: "These are crucial victories, stripping the Bill of some of its worst excesses, and cause for celebration among anyone who values our freedom to protest. However, this is no time to rest on our laurels."
"Yesterday’s vote means some of the most dangerous and authoritarian parts of the #PolicingBill will never darken British democracy, but the campaign to stop it must go on." @marthaspurrier— Liberty (@libertyhq) January 18, 2022
What's gone for good and what's still at stake👇👇https://t.co/zT8sTdFiQ8
So while the Lords defeat has protected some protesting rights, nonprofits and civil liberties campaigners are still concerned about what will happen next.
After being first introduced back in March 2021, the bill has already taken some big twists and turns through parliament — a vote on it was initially delayed following persistent protests by feminist activists Sisters Uncut — but it did pass its third reading before going to the Lords last July.
One of the aims of the legilsation has been 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.
Human rights and civil liberties organisations were particularly concerned about this. Liberty has created a series of videos featuring campaigners for different causes — from those fighting for disability rights to a group running a domestic abuse shelter — who say they would not have achieved their aims without the ability to protest without strong limitations.
Home Secretary Priti Patel created the legislation in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests that swept the UK in June 2020, 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.
Several UK-based NGOs have petitions for the public to sign, calling on the government not to go ahead with the most restrictive parts of the bill, including placing noise limiations on protests. They include Friends of the Earth, Liberty, SumOfUs, Global Justice Now, and Greenpeace, and they are still collecting signatures for when the bill goes into its next phase.
SumOfUS, which is a global advocacy organisation that rallies digital activism to hold corporations to account, says the bill is an “assault on our rights to peaceful protest” that would make it too easy for corporations facing public criticism to call off protestors outside their premises for making too much noise.
But the policing bill is also not just about protests. It is a complex 307-page document with wide-ranging potential implications for policing and criminal sentencing. It also includes a controversial section that turns “trespassing” from a civil to criminal offence, which campaigners say will impact Gypsy and Traveller communities.
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.