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The Police and Crime Bill has currently passed the second reading stage in Parliament, as of writing. This Bill has received widespread backlash as it empowers the police to control peaceful protests in the UK. Police already had the power to decide the routes of marches and can put restrictions on a protest if it is deemed to be too disruptive or threatens to become violent, but the new Bill greatly expands restrictive powers. The Police and Crime Bill will allow the police to decide the start and end time of protests, set noise limits and apply restrictions to protests of any size- even one person protests.
Under these new restrictions, the act of peaceful protest will be undermined. Protests are fundamentally noisy and disruptive, think of the suffragettes or the Stop the War Coalition against the Iraq War. There are several parts of the Bill that have come under scrutiny and it has been accused by members of all parties of being ill-thought out. Prior to the Police and Crime Bill protestors who were causing too much disruption would have to be asked to move on before they could be said to be breaking the law. Under the new Bill, there will be no need for warning, it says that protesters ought to know about the new restrictions.
Many of the high profile protests of recent years, such as the Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019, would not be allowed under the Bill which prohibits intentionally causing a public nuisance. Glueing yourself to a window wearing different animal masks as protestors did in Parliament to put pressure on MPs to take climate change seriously will no longer be allowed. Perhaps the most controversial change in the Bill concerns damaging memorials or statues, which will now be punishable with up to ten years in prison. The toppling of Edward Colston in Bristol in 2020 was a key part of the debate surrounding the killing of George Floyd and issues of systematic racism. Protests bring people together in an expression of dissatisfaction and allowing the police to have these powers is horrifying.
Many critics have expressed concern about the infringement of the human right to protest and free expression. While the Home Office repeatedly says it will respect human rights, but there is a track record of public protest being an incendiary issue. Public protest usually supports a cause in direct conflict with the actions of the government of the time. The government has been rightly accused of fanning social worries surrounding protests to win votes. While the Bill goes some way to protecting the nation’s statues, the Rights of Women group says it still fails to implement measures that would reduce violence against women and girls.
This Bill will have a huge impact on the publics ability to have its say on the government’s decisions in the periods between elections. Accountability is being reduced while societal divisions are being maximised. Public protest is one of the fundamental pillars of democracy and it has been undermined with minimal scrutiny and fuss. So many of the greatest leaps forward for equality and human rights have been achieved due to peaceful and sometimes disruptive protests. Will we look back at this moment and wish we had done more to stop it? How many will have been arrested for protesting important issues? How many will have been jailed in the name of defending statues?