One of the most fundamental human rights is the right to protest. Citizens need a legitimate route to voice dissent. This is the cornerstone of a stable democracy. When governments make protesting illegal it is a sign that something has gone drastically wrong.
Outlawing protest is the go to move of authoritarian governments seeking to escape accountability. But outlawing protest does not remove the cause that sparked it. Instead it suppresses it, ultimately conflating peaceful and violent opposition. Perversely, this has the effect of increasing the likelihood of violence which serves to further destabilise the country. This is met with more suppression creating a vicious circle that only ends when the proverbial pressure cooker builds to a violent crescendo.
By any measure, outlawing protest is a bad idea.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
In March 2021, Priti Patel introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This bill is over 300 pages long and covers a lot of different topics. Before I go any further, an important point is that this bill only applies to England & Wales. Criminal justice is a devolved matter, so Scotland and Northern Ireland remain unaffected.
The stated aim of the bill is to “overhaul” the justice system which in and of itself is not a bad thing. In practice, however, it does virtually nothing to improve the deep seated issues the justice system is currently facing. I will do a post on these at a later date, but if you haven’t already I’d highly recommend checking out the Secret Barrister’s Twitter feed.
The core thrust of the bill appears to be in response to various protest movements that have erupted over the last two years. Rather than seek to address the public’s concern, the government is looking to introduce powers to suppress them.
Does the bill actually make protesting illegal?
The bill does not put in place a blanket ban on protest. Rather, it gives the police an alarming range of powers to arrest and charge protestors.
At present the police can only impose a limited set of restrictions on a protest if they can demonstrate that it will cause serious disruption, public disorder or property damage. This bill removes this requirement. It also gives the police additional powers that they can impose on any protest, namely:
- Impose a start and finish time on any protest
- Set noise limits on protests
The bill also sets out the following points around when and how these powers can be used:
- These powers apply irrespective of the size of the demonstration, including individuals
- At present the police must prove that they have given a protestor a lawful order before they are deemed to have broken the law
- This bill enables arrest demonstrators who failed to follow restrictions that they “ought” to have known about
Whilst none of this makes protesting illegal in principle, in effect it enables the government to determine which protests are allowed. This type of power in the hands of a government that has defined itself by “culture wars” is deeply troubling.
What else does the bill cover?
This bill also covers other areas relating to sentencing. For the most part, this means increasing the sentencing powers available to the courts for a range of offences. Some of these are sensible, such as giving judges the ability to impose a whole life order on child killers. Others are clearly political, such as the ability to impose a 10 year sentence for destroying statues.
With the above said, the House of Lords has been very critical of the bill, challenging a lot of provisions. Other provisions have been dropped completely, such as a blanket provision that made it illegal to cause “serious disruption”. The Lords rejected this and the government cannot reintroduce the provision.
It’s unclear when the final wording will be agreed and it’s likely the bill will ping pong between the two houses. One thing is clear, handing this type of power to a man like Boris Johnson should worry everyone.