New Police Bill amendments take dangerous assault on democracy further

 

Photo credit Tim Dennell

In an appalling and anti-democratic move, Priti Patel has added to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill an additional 18 pages of amendments after the Bill has gone through the House of Commons and after second reading in the House of Lords. This is a clear attempt to bypass Parliamentary scrutiny. The Bill as it stood was already a dangerous assault on the right to protest. The new amendments turn it into something which which you would expect to see in a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Further information below from Liberty's useful summary. Also see below 'What you can do'

A new offence of 'locking on'

The offence will be committed by people who:

  • attach themselves to another person, an object, or land
  • attach someone else to another person, an object, or land
  • attach an object to another object or to land... 
  • ... and doing so causes, or is capable of causing, "serious disruption" to two or more people or to an organisation in a public place AND they intend this consequence or are reckless about it. 

The punishment could be up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.

'Attach' is not defined, so it's unclear how ‘permanent’ the attachment has to be. Could linking arms count as attaching yourself to another person, for example? It looks set to criminalise a wide range of acts, like chaining wheelchairs to traffic lights as disabled rights activists did in 2012, or chaining yourself to a tree. And attaching an object to another object or land could could criminalise the use of some props at protests.

There is a defence of 'reasonable excuse'. It's completely unclear what would count as a 'reasonable excuse' and  the Home Secretary will be given the power to define (and re-define) what "serious disruption" means. 

A new offence of 'being equipped'

Being equipped for protest, that is. 

An offence is committed if a person has an object with them in a public place with the intention that it will be used "in the course of or in connection with" any person 'locking on'.

An item which is fine to carry anywhere else could suddenly be prohibited because you're near a protest. This offence could capture a lot of people - especially as the item doesn’t have to be related to the protest at all (the person just needs to intend for it to be used in a certain way), and it doesn't need to be used by the person carrying it, but by "any person". And what does "in the course of or in connection with" mean?

Prison sentences for obstructing the highway

The current punishment for a person who "without lawful authority or excuse, in any way wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway" is a fine. That's changing to  up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.:

Another new offence: 'obstruction of of major transport works'

A person commits an offence:

  • if they obstruct an undertaker (eg construction worker) taking any steps that are reasonably necessary for facilitating, or in connection with, the construction or maintenance of any major transport works, or...
  • if they interfere with, move, or remove any apparatus relating to the construction or maintenance of any major transport works and belonging to an undertaker.

Again, the punishment could be up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both. There is a defence of reasonable excuse, but again, what that means is anyone’s guess.

With a massive programme of road-building and many airports expanding in the face of the climate crisis, this is directly aimed at ending meaningful protest by campaigners. This potentially criminalises a lot of actions because the offence doesn't just cover obstructing the actual construction. It also covers obstructing *any steps in connection with* the construction or maintenance of any major transport works. It could even cover picketing. 

Expanded stop and search powers

Officers will now also be able to stop and search a person or vehicle if they reasonably suspect they’ll find an item intended for use in connection with:

  • wilful obstruction of the highway that’s capable of causing serious disruption to 2 or more people or an organisation... 
  • intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance
  • locking on
  • obstruction of major transport works 

The list of objects that could be "made, adapted, or intended for use in the course of or in connection with" the listed offences is potentially endless and could include placards, fliers and banners. The police can seize any prohibited item – and can therefore derail a protest before it even gets going.

A police officer of or above the rank of inspector can authorise police officers to stop and search a vehicle of person without suspicion in particular place for a specified period of time. And then seize any ‘prohibited’ items – which mentioned above could include placards, banners or anything used during a protest.

This is a huge expansion of stop and search powers which are already used disproportionately against people of colour. When the need for suspicion is removed, Black people are 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people.

Obstructing suspicion-less stop and search 

Merely obstructing a suspicion-less, protest-specific stop and search will be punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.

ASBO-type restrictions on protesters

Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs) can be imposed on people who have taken part in two or more protests in a five year period. It is not necessary for someone to be convicted of an offence. 

The court has to be satisfied the SDPO is necessary for either:

  • stopping them committing protest-related offences
  • stopping acts that could cause serious disruption
  • stopping them contributing to someone else committing an offence or causing serious disruption 

People given an SDPO will be subject to a set of conditions including:

  • not associating with certain people
  • not going to certain places
  • not carrying certain items
  • not using the internet in a certain way 

SDPOs last for between a week and 2 years, but there is no limit to the number of times an SDPO can be renewed by the court. Yet again, breaches will be punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.

SDPOs are effectively protest bans.

The legislation provides for someone to be prevented from attending future protests because they twice 'contributed to another person's protest-related activities that were likely to result in serious disruption' - despite not causing disruption themselves, and the activities only *likely* to cause serious disruption. And the meaning of 'serious disruption' completely open to be defined by the Home Secretary.

An unprecedented assault on the fundamental right to protest

Combined with the measures already in the Bill including:
  • allowing the Home Secretary to define 'serious disruption'
  • allowing protest to be restricted on the basis of noise which might cause 'serious unease';
  • removing all limits on the types of conditions that can be placed on public assemblies
  • increasing the maximum sentence for protest organisers who fail to comply with a condition to 51 weeks
  • allowing criminal prosecution for anyone who 'ought to have known' of conditions on a demonstration
  • criminalising protest camps and the Gypsy and Traveller community

...this Bill attempts to shut down protest in a democratic society. It would criminalise not just those who physically obstruct (or may possibly inconvenience) the business of corporations and the state to protest injustice, but also attempts to silence those who are involved in any way with protests, the community of support and solidarity to make our voices heard. It is very much what you would expect to see in a police state.

What you can do

Compared to when the Police Bill was being debated in the House of Commons, there is very little awareness of these new amendments and the additional threat they pose. So anything you can do to change this is good - raise it with any local campaigns and other interest groups, whether environmental or otherwise, write to your local paper, share on social media (for example this article by George Monbiot), and get ready to mobilise for and organise demonstrations.

It's great to have examples of when specific disruptive protests have made society better. There are some in these videos, including:

  • disabled people chaining themselves to traffic lights to protest assessors removing disability benefits from those who desperately needed them, leading to cases of suicide;
  • Gurkha veterans on hunger strike outside Downing Street this year to receive fair pensions, rather than a fraction of British Army veterans' pensions;
  • local campaigns to save a local library and domestic abuse provision.

There are many more, from the Suffragettes to campaigners who successfully fought Sheffield council's plan to fell 17,500 mostly healthy street trees.

Write to your MP, even if you have done so already. Say that you are concerned about the human rights implications of the Bill and the new amendments in particular. You can include a link to Liberty's briefing on the new amendments in an email or even or print out a copy if you are posting a letter, which may have more impact.

General points that you can make include 

  • the sweeping, vague and disproportionate nature of these new powers to restrict protest
  • that they will have a chilling effect, deterring people from taking part in any protest, particularly for marginalised communities and young Black people in particular
  • that even police officers do not support many of the measures in the Bill (see below for more detailed points on this) 
  • what the freedom to protest and have your voice heard means to you personally, and/or examples of protests which have made a difference

End the letter (if your MP is Conservative) As my MP, I would very much appreciate it if you would write to the Minister responsible for the Bill in the Lords (in this case Baroness Williams of Trafford) and ask that the government reconsider this Bill.

End the letter (if your MP is from any other party) As my MP, I would very much appreciate it if you would support members of the House of Lords in voting against Part 3 of this Bill, and please vote in support of any amendments the Lords make to the Bill.

Lack of support from police

The extracts below are from Liberty's briefing on the new amendments

When inteviewed by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS): “most interviewees [junior police officers] did not wish to criminalise protest actions through the creation of a specific offence concerning locking-on.”

Amongst the list of the police’s 19 potential proposals in the HMICFRS report, protest-specific stop and search powers was not one of them and there is no consensus that they are necessary or desirable, even amongst police. And when asked about their views on the Home Office’s proposal for a new stop and search power, one police officer stated that “a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state” to which HMICFRS went on to state that they “agree with this sentiment.

In HMIC’s 2021 report, a proposal to create protest banning orders, which would restrict individuals’ right to protest in similar ways as SDPOs, was roundly opposed by the police and HMICFRS and the Home Office.

HMICFRS and the Home Office said: “Such orders would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent. All things considered, legislation creating protest banning orders would be legally very problematic because, however many safeguards might be put in place, a banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest. It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk that an individual poses, and where a court would therefore accept that it was proportionate to impose a banning order”.

Some senior police officers said protest banning orders would “unnecessarily curtail people’s democratic right to protest”; that such orders would be “a massive civil liberty infringement”; and that “the proposal is a severe restriction on a person’s rights to protest and in reality, is unworkable”.

It has also been revealed that police do not agree with measures  to criminalise unauthorised Gypsy and Traveller encampments.

Briefing on anti-protest measures in the original Bill

When you think of people protesting for an important cause, having an impact, what do you picture? Whatever you thought of, it would probably fall foul of Priti Patel's Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which contains sweeping and arbitrary powers to restrict and criminalise protest on the basis of ‘noise’ or ‘annoyance’, including a maximum 10 year sentence. 

The threshold for prosecuting someone for breaching police conditions imposed on a protest is reduced in the Bill, so that the individual merely "ought to have known" about the conditions' existence, rather than knowingly breaching them, as is the case currently. This places the burden on protesters to find out about such conditions and on organisers to make them known. As a result, many will avoid attending or organising a protest for fear of arrest for breaching a condition that they were unaware of and receiving a criminal record - a chilling effect on protest.

As David Lammy stated in the House of Commons, "By giving the police the discretion to use these powers some of the time, it takes away our freedom all of the time."

The Bill would criminalise the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities, also restricting protest camps and deter access to the countryside. This bill would significantly restrict the kind of peaceful protest that was essential in communities resisting - and defeating - fracking.

The Bill was voted through by the House of Commons with MPs having been given just a week to consider it. 

MPs and peers warned the Police Bill poses a threat to human rights

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party committee made up of MPs and peers, set out in two reports how the Bill (in its original form) posed a threat to human rights. The first deals with restrictions on protest and the second on the criminalisation of the Gypsy and Traveller community. The reports are useful for making the case against the Bill to MPs and members of the House of Lords. While they recommend specific amendments against its worst aspects, we believe that the Bill should be scrapped altogether.

Key concerns they highlighted include:

Allowing protest to be restricted on the basis of noise

Making noise and being heard are fundamental to protest. They should only be limited in extreme circumstances, and the police already have many powers to deal with noise which is seriously harmful or oppressive. The description of noise which might cause 'serious unease' is vague and insufficient to justify infringement on the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Such terms do nothing in the Bill to protect against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, including racial discrimination. The new trigger for imposing conditions on processions and assemblies based on noiseshould be removed from the Bill.

One person protests

Remove the clause with the power to impose conditions on one-person protests

Limits on public assemblies

The Bill would remove all limits on the types of conditions that can be placed on public assemblies where necessary, to match the approach taken to processions. The committee considers this unjustifiable (although would accept limits on start and finish times).

Allowing the Secretary of State to define 'serious disruption'

If such a new definition is necessary it should be presented within or alongside the Bill for debate, not done later without scrutiny.

Allowing criminal prosecution for anyone who 'ought to have known' of conditions on a demonstration

This does more than close a loophole, it risks innocent participants being caught up in prosecution.

Increasing criminal penalties for breaching conditions on a protest

The Bill would increase the maximum sentence for protest organisers who fail to comply with a condition imposed by the police from 3 months to 51 weeks and the maximum fine for participants who fail to comply with conditions from £1,000 to £2,500. 

There is a real risk that more substantial penalties would have the effect of dissuading people from exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest, especially in combination with removing the requirement to have known about conditions imposed.

A new statutory public nuisance offence

The Bill introduces a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”. Offences are already available under existing laws to deal with public nuisance offences such as obstructing the highway. The current drafting risks the new statutory offence being broader than the common law offence it replaces. Moreover, the offence does not include references to the right to freedom of expression or freedom of assembly. The committee proposes the introduction of express statutory protection for the right to protest, setting out the obligation on public authorities to refrain from interfering unlawfully with the right but also the duty to facilitate protest.

Criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people who reside, or intend to reside, on an unauthorised encampment, even when they do not have anywhere else to go. 

The Government should not use criminal law to address what is essentially a planning issue. This violates the principle of no punishment without law, the right to private and family life and freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. A much more effective way of dealing with this issue would be a statutory duty on local authorities to provide adequate authorised encampments

Resources and campaign actions (from before the new amendments)

Campaign against Climate Change supports Netpol's Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights, which would bring UK policing of protest in line with international guidelines. A petition in support of the Charter and against the Police Bill has so far gathered over 200,000 signatures.

NEW: Briefing for members of the House of Lords

Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights

Posters (download to print A4/A3)  - We defend our right to protest climate destruction

Open letter to the Home Secretary - you can add your name here or sign up as an organisation/campaign group here.

Full Liberty briefing on the Bill

Briefing for MPs (Good Law Project)

Open meeting: Resist the Police Crime Bill video recording

Petition on the Parliament website

Report on the House of Commons debate 'Freedom dies in silence'

MPs and peers warn the Police Bill poses a threat to human rights

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, a cross-party committee made up of MPs and peers, have set out in two reports how the Bill poses a threat to human rights. The first deals with restrictions on protest and the second on the criminalisation of the Gypsy and Traveller community. The reports are useful for making the case against the Bill to MPs and members of the House of Lords. While they recommend specific amendments against its worst aspects, we believe that the Bill should be scrapped altogether.

Key concerns they highlight include:

Allowing protest to be restricted on the basis of noise

Making noise and being heard are fundamental to protest. They should only be limited in extreme circumstances, and the police already have many powers to deal with noise which is seriously harmful or oppressive. The description of noise which might cause 'serious unease' is vague and insufficient to justify infringement on the rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. Such terms do nothing in the Bill to protect against arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, including racial discrimination. The new trigger for imposing conditions on processions and assemblies based on noiseshould be removed from the Bill.

One person protests

Remove the clause with the power to impose conditions on one-person protests

Limits on public assemblies

The Bill would remove all limits on the types of conditions that can be placed on public assemblies where necessary, to match the approach taken to processions. The committee considers this unjustifiable (although would accept limits on start and finish times).

Allowing the Secretary of State to define 'serious disruption'

If such a new definition is necessary it should be presented within or alongside the Bill for debate, not done later without scrutiny.

Allowing criminal prosecution for anyone who 'ought to have known' of conditions on a demonstration

This does more than close a loophole, it risks innocent participants being caught up in prosecution.

Increasing criminal penalties for breaching conditions on a protest

The Bill would increase the maximum sentence for protest organisers who fail to comply with a condition imposed by the police from 3 months to 51 weeks and the maximum fine for participants who fail to comply with conditions from £1,000 to £2,500. 

There is a real risk that more substantial penalties would have the effect of dissuading people from exercising their right to engage in peaceful protest, especially in combination with removing the requirement to have known about conditions imposed.

A new statutory public nuisance offence

The Bill introduces a new statutory offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”. Offences are already available under existing laws to deal with public nuisance offences such as obstructing the highway. The current drafting risks the new statutory offence being broader than the common law offence it replaces. Moreover, the offence does not include references to the right to freedom of expression or freedom of assembly. The committee proposes the introduction of express statutory protection for the right to protest, setting out the obligation on public authorities to refrain from interfering unlawfully with the right but also the duty to facilitate protest.

Criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people who reside, or intend to reside, on an unauthorised encampment, even when they do not have anywhere else to go. 

The Government should not use criminal law to address what is essentially a planning issue. This violates the principle of no punishment without law, the right to private and family life and freedom from discrimination in the enjoyment of human rights. A much more effective way of dealing with this issue would be a statutory duty on local authorities to provide adequate authorised encampments

 
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