Protesting the Policing & Justice bill at Parliament Square, London. Protesting the Policing & Justice bill at Parliament Square, London. Photo: Flickr - Steve Eason / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

The Tory bill expanding police powers which has just passed its second reading is an outrageous attack on the right to protest and must be resisted, argues Terina Hine

Four days ago almost no one had heard of the police bill. Today it has been brought into sharp focus by the despicable actions of the Metropolitan police themselves at Saturday evening’s vigil in memory of Sarah Everard.

If there was ever a time to police quietly it is at a vigil for a woman murdered, allegedly by a member of the very force doing the policing. It would also be a wise policy in the days before a draconian policing bill is being debated in parliament.

But then wisdom and the police have rarely gone hand in hand.

Last week the government’s plan was to sneak the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill quietly through the House of Commons. It was being ignored by most of the media and unopposed by the Labour Party. Unlike the environment bill, which has been left to collect dust for months, it was set for a speedy passage through the House – published only last Tuesday, its second reading was today. There had been almost no time to scrutinise the 300-page document.

But as they say, a week can be a surprisingly long time in politics. 

The government’s attempt, supported by the Metropolitan police, to ban Saturday’s vigil was rewarded with the contempt it deserved, and on Saturday evening hundreds, if not thousands, of women descended on the wide-open spaces of Clapham Common to peacefully show their respects. They were met with police violence.

The backlash against both the banning of the vigil and the heavy-handed police tactics has helped catapult the police bill into the headlines.

Sweeping and vague, the bill is, as its title suggests, wide-ranging. Hidden in the middle is a specific section dedicated to the policing of protests. If passed it would prevent protesters from making noise, and would disallow a protest if a single person suffers “serious annoyance”. It fails to define its terms – what exactly is serious annoyance? And, scarily leaves much of the decision making to the police, the very same police that handled Saturday’s vigil so badly.

Its aim is clear: to silence protesters

We know what Priti Patel thinks of protesters: Black Lives Matter, dreadful,” and Extinction Rebellion eco-crusaders turned criminals”. Now she intends to treat them as such. The penalty for causing “serious inconvenience” or “annoyance” could be a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

Since 1986 the Public Order Act has been used to police protest. But the new bill extends the arm of the law far beyond the 1986 Act. It seeks to restrict noise levels if anyone is disturbed – a serious impediment for any protest in Parliament Square where the very intention is to be heard by those sitting in the Commons.

The bill treats static protests the same as marches, requiring agreed start and finish times as well as a maximum noise limit. It also includes a single person protest, so there will be no more Steve Brays, the Remainer campaigner who stood outside parliament during the Brexit crisis or Brian Haws, the peace campaigner who spent 10 years camped in Parliament Square.

The bill also allows for more prosecutions. Currently, a protester must be aware of police injunctions to be subject to prosecution – no more will ignorance will be a defence. If in the chaos of a demonstration you fail to hear an announcement or read a police tweet, you could be liable for prosecution.

In keeping with the authoritarian nature of this government, the bill grants ministers the power to change and update the law without parliamentary approval. Under the guise of ‘serious disruption’ (no definition provided), a minister is permitted to alter the legislation through the use of statutory instruments. Whether a protest is deemed legal could be entirely in the hands of the home secretary.

Protest is indispensable to a healthy democracy – in essence, the bill could make any protest illegal. The only way to legally protest would be to do so in a way no one could see or hear you.

The bill covers other areas as well, including measures to criminalise the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities – the most overrepresented minority in the criminal justice system.

Given the government’s majority and the spineless nature of those Tories who claim to be so concerned about liberty and free speech, it is not surprising that the bill has now passed (359 to 263) in its second reading. But the opposition does not stop here. There is a committee stage and the possibility of a Human Rights challenge.

And as Lindsey German said in Parliament Square on Monday evening, “the only way you fight bans on protests is to keep protesting – and that’s what we’re going to do”.

Thanks to the voices of women and the defiance of Kill the Bill protesters, the bill has neither passed unnoticed nor unopposed. It is now up to all of us to ensure that it is does not go through unamended.

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