New police bill “threatens right to protest”

police bill
Police arresting a demonstrator at an Extinction Rebellion protest in 2019. Source: Stefan Müller (via. Wikimedia Commons)
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday March 16. Only two days after the police arrested demonstrators at a vigil remembering Sarah Everard, who was allegedly killed by a police officer.

By Dewi Morris | Political Editor

307 pages long, the police bill will introduce many new laws. However, the section which has caused the greatest controversy outlines that a person has committed a criminal offence if they:

  • Cause “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience” to a person
  •  Or “disrupts the public or a member of the public”.

If a person is convicted, they can face imprisonment for up to 10 years. The new law will mean protests of one person or more which commit the offenses above could be stopped.

The bill has been called draconian by critics and is alleged to curb Human Rights which include the right to expression.

According to the Home Office the new bill will: “Strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.” 

However, Labour MP and Former Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbott warned that “powers in this bill could have been used against the suffragettes. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter might have upset people, but protests are supposed to.”

Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy described the bill as “poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest.”

Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts called the new bill an “aggressive crackdown on the right to protest”. She also called for greater justice powers to be devolved to the Welsh Government saying: “We could do so much better in Wales if we had proper control of our policing and criminal justice. We could deliver a more humane and more accountable justice system”.

Boris Johnson has defended the bill arguing that it is “sensible” and “takes new tough action against domestic violence.”

The bill also changes rules on how long serious criminals such as sexual offenders must stay behind bars before they can be conditionally released.

Another new law will give police officers greater power to stop and search people on the street. Liz Saville Roberts raised concerns saying: “We all know that the bill’s stop and search measures will disproportionately target Black people.”

Notably, the bill also specifies defacing monuments as damage to land or property which has led many to point out that defacing a statue could potentially lead to a longer prison sentence than for rape.

Sir Keir Starmer argued the new bill contains “next to nothing” on combatting violence against women despite having “lots of stuff on statues”. Amanda Milling, Co-Chair of the Conservative Party claimed the bill includes “many vital measures to protect women from violent criminals”. However, Labour’s Jess Phillips called her statement “disgusting and untrue”.

In June, it came to light that following Extinction Rebellion protests, Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police Chief, had written to Priti Patel urging that the protests presented a “much-needed opportunity” to give police further powers to shut down demonstrations.

On Monday 15 a protest was held at Parliament Square against the new bill.  A large crowd was also gathered outside Cardiff Bay Police Station, many holding placards reading “Kill the Bill” and “We will be heard”. On Wednesday 17, a protest took place outside Cardiff Central Police Station against the new bill and the alleged police brutality against Mohamud Hassan and Sarah Everard. 

The bill was voted for by 359 to 263 votes. Every Conservative MP (except for two who did not vote) voted for the bill. The Noes included each MP from every other party except for three Labour MPs, the DUP and Sinn Féin who also did not vote. Labour MPs were planning to abstain but the party changed its stance following police response to the vigil in remembrance of Sarah Everard last Saturday. 

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