The House of Commons are currently debating a new bill that would fundamentally change the powers of the police and the right to protest, with many critics suggesting that it may all but end the right to protest.
The bill was introduced to Parliament last week with little attention, but the police’s handling of the recent vigil for the late Sarah Everard has brought the bill into sharper focus.
Under the current law, the police have limited powers to prevent a protest and will have to show that it may result in “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”.
Typically, the police will negotiate with the protest holders in the days before an event to ensure that it can be carried out safely, although the recent coronavirus restrictions have effectively outlawed protests for the time being.
The new legislation, however, will give the police far greater powers to prevent protests, with the police able to set noise limits on a protest, as well as beginning and end times. One of the more controversial elements is also that a protest of one person can be caught within the legislation.
Although in theory the police will still negotiate prior to demonstrations being held, they will have additional power to prevent, curtail or limit the scope of protests, with many suggesting that this will contravene their human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998.
The government has suggested that the bill is necessary in order to protect the public;
“Protect the police and other emergency workers and enhance the wellbeing of police officers and staff”.
“Protect the public by giving the police the tools needed to tackle crime and disorder, and by addressing the root causes of serious violent crime using multi-agency approaches to prevention”.
“Uphold the right to peaceful protest while providing the police with the necessary powers to stop disruptive protests from disproportionately infringing on the rights and freedoms of others”.
The bill will also introduce criminal liability for omissions on the part of organisers, meaning that if they fail to do something, they could be liable; this goes against the general position in law where you cannot be liable for failing to take a particular action.
With the killing of Sarah Everard in recent days, the government suggested that the bill was an important measure to protect the safety of the public, however, critics have pointed out that the bill makes no mention of women, and instead introduced the possibility of 10-year sentences for defacing statues – an evident response to the Black Lives Matter protests that saw several statues, mostly those of former slave traders, defaced.
The vigil on Saturday descended into chaos following what was a peaceful vigil to pay respects to Sarah Everard. The original organisers, #ReclaimTheseStreets planned a quiet demonstration of solidarity, but despite winning approval in Court, were told that the leaders would face prosecution for organising the event under coronavirus legislation. Instead, the vigil was taken over by SistersUncut, who encouraged people to still attend a quiet vigil, after the police had prohibited it.
The scenes as darkness fell appeared to be the result of a heavy and unnecessary police presence forcibly removing women from the scene, with many highlighting that their actions put more people in danger by making social distancing more difficult, as well as being an inappropriately forceful reaction to a vigil in response to a woman being murdered.
Many fear that the new legislation will lead to more scenes like those on Saturday, that led many to call for the resignation of Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, with protests going ahead without negotiations with the police and a more aggressive response from the police force as a result.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said that his party would vote against the bill, with his Shadow Justice Secretary, David Lammy saying;
“[They are] poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest”.
The bill is still expected to pass, and some have praised other elements of the bill, with the government saying that other sections within the bill will toughen sentencing for serious violent and sexual offences and introduce new police bail rules for suspects under investigation. It will also place a legal duty on police and local authorities to come up with a joint action plan to tackle serious violence, including sexual violence.
It is also set to introduce tougher sentencing for a range of issues, with much of the criticism around the bill stemming from its size and varied aspects. The bill will also change sentencing rules around time served before eligibility for release (largely following a terror attack committed in 2019 by an individual released early from prison), potential life sentences for child murderers, a doubling of sentencing for low-level assaults against emergency service workers (up to two years), and community sentences for less serious crime so that offenders can focus on rehabilitation.
There are undoubtedly many positive and negative provisions for most people contained within the legislation, with perhaps the biggest criticism the fact that it is tying many positive and necessary changes to other pieces of more controversial law that could fundamentally change the right to protest in the United Kingdom.