In short, the wording of the bill gives the police and the home secretary the ability to arbitrarily declare any form of protest, even a single person shouting, banned, at the risk of large fines or imprisonment. This is on the grounds of protests “may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession if it may cause such persons to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress.” This includes things like being loud, getting in the way, or well anything really as “unease, alarm, or distress” are vague terms designed to be hyper-flexible. This in effect makes it possible for the police or the home secretary to at their whim ban any protest at all, because a protest that does not make a sound, or get in the way isn’t really a protest at all; by their nature they have to be to some extent disruptive. Even silently sitting on your own holding a sign could be construed as impacting someone else nearby.
What makes this doubly troubling is that the current home secretary has repeatedly made it clear she is completely disgusted by the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion movements and finds them unacceptable. There is an obvious and immediate target for this bill, that can be used to completely silence any opposition to the government on issues or racism, environmentalism, or whatever else the government is unhappy to be challenged about. And this government really hates people daring to question them.
But it’s not only about this government, once its law any future government could similarly use to quash any dissent. It sets a very dangerous precedent and capability ripe for abuse.
Furthermore the bill includes the language that any protesters “ought” to be aware of any instruction by the police given to the protest at large, even if they are not directly instructed to do so. So if the police decided to end a protest, and gave instruction half a mile away to one end of a large protest, people at the other end are meant to telepathically be able to know they are meant to disperse. Even if you find it acceptable for police to have the power to randomly stop a protest they don’t like at their whim, it is plainly unjust that anyone assembled should face legal sanctions for an instruction they might not even be aware of.
If this bill were being proposed in China, Russia, or wherever else, people in this country would rightly decry it as disproportionate and anti-democrartic.
The currently Covid laws are a taste of what giving police these extreme powers allows. Public assembly is currently illegal. So all multi-person protests right now are illegal. Despite this the police have the option to choose to facilitate protests in order to maintain the peace. They can also choose to intervene if they feel there is a risk to public health. They have facilitated many protests over the last year, including Black Lives Matter, the vigils for Sarah Everard, anti-lockdown protests, and the current protests against this bill. They have also repeatedly made bad calls in respect to all of these movements, in many cases taking extreme and violent action that is self evidently not helping public health by crowding people into small spaces and coming into physical contact.
For instance, choosing violent forceful tactics and escalation in Bristol this weekend:
The police have their version of the Bristol protests. Locals tell a different story
ast Sunday, a peaceful demonstration in Bristol escalated sharply into clashes between protesters and riot police …
Any sensible person could make the distinction between the violent acts of a few people out to do no good and the good intentions of a mass protest gathering. The police very often fail to make this distinction, and as a result inflame protests to become violent even if they do not start out as such — If you were sat peacefully holding a sign amongst a group, and suddenly a wall of police marches into you (or rides horses into you), screaming at you, and beating you, might you not also react less than peacefully in response even if your intent was to be a perfectly peaceful protester? I’ve never been in that situation, but it’s not hard to see how basic self preservation might take over in that moment. A moment that is entirely avoidable.
The same can of course be said of the police; if someone starts throwing things at them. But it’s not an equal equation, The police are there to keep the peace, in normal times to facilitate protests, and to de-escalate violent situations. Very often though they treat it as if they are one army in a conflict of equals. They are not, they have a greater responsibility.
In summary: The bill has the ability to make any form of protest at all illegal at the drop of the hat. The decision on what is acceptable protest will be at the whim of the ranking police officer at the event, and/or the home secretary. The home secretary and the police have demonstrated repeatedly they are biased against certain protests which puts freedom of political and cultural thought and expression at great risk. The wording of the bill makes it allowable for individuals to be arrested and charged for failing to follow police instruction even if they have not actually been directly instructed. And the police have already shown over and again they are not capable of proportionately exercising the powers they already have; they do not need more extreme powers ripe for more extreme abuse.
Protests have an important role in democracy, they are sometimes the only voice for the people between elections. Past protests mean women are allowed to vote today (see Suffragettes). Past protests mean black people can work in any industry (see Bristol Bus Boycott). These things were resisted by those in power at the time. But a government not liking something is no reason for it to be silenced.
One of the other ways to continue to engage in democracy between elections is to write to your MP. I hope you can see how wrong this is, and that you should express as much to your MP.
For further reference, the BBC has a fairly decent explainer of the issues around protest in the bill:
What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and how will it change protests?
By Dominic Casciani Home and legal correspondent There have been violent clashes in Bristol, following protests against…
These are government explainer documents for a fairly digestible take on the bill (although written from the point of view of a government that wants to justify what they are explaining):
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: factsheets
We use some essential cookies to make this website work. We'd like to set additional cookies to understand how you use…
Or if you can endure very wordy and technocratic, here is the actual bill:
Further political thoughts from me:
We should indeed not edit history.
How we treat British history today is truly the “great lie, a distortion of our history”
I see two actual benefits of brexit, and both demonstrate why we should have stayed in the EU…
Thoughts on the false and limited feminist (tampon tax) and environmental (agricultural policy) credentials of the few…
Illustration by the author, from the People’s Vote March 2019: