The Crime, Policing, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been widely criticised for its attack on travellers’ rights, protest rights and for the deepening the racism of the criminal justice system. Kat Hobbs sets out the problems with the Bill and proposes a solution to retain our rights to protest.
As expected, this week the government used its large majority in the Commons to reject the substantive House of Lords amendments to the Policing Bill on protests. Peers may try to have another go, but it seems likely the government isn’t interested in listening. A game of political ‘ping pong’ – where the Bill shuttles back and forth between the Commons and the Lords – is probable.
The government response to the Lords’ votes has been an indication of how it sees this Bill as an important element of the Conservatives’ desire to fight a culture war – one in which any protest involving civil disobedience or direct action (no matter how peaceful) is, in Priti Patel’s words, the work of “vandals and thugs” It therefore seems likely ministers will continue to fight tooth and nail to give senior police officers the sweeping anti-protest powers they have lobbied for.
What does the Policing Bill say about protests?
The Policing Bill itself is a clumsily built and draconian piece of legistlation – effectively four separate bills rolled into one mammoth piece of proposed new legislation. It is a deeply racist Bill, which seeks to toughen criminal sentences and worsen the harsh effects of the criminal justice system, which already disproportionately affects communities of colour, and mounts a further attack on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’ way of life by deepening the criminalisation of “unauthorised encampments” and toughening anti-trespass laws.
Part 3 of the Bill, which deals with ‘Public Order’, contains a wholesale attack on our right to protest. The government is aiming primarily at criminalising protests that adopt direct action and civil disobedience tactics (a.k.a. “effective protests”) and those noisily challenging state and corporate power.
This attack ranges from increasing the penalty for damaging statues (a nod to the Colston 4, the Black Lives Matter activists who toppled the statue of a slave trader in Bristol) to making it easier for police to impose conditions on demonstrations – and then to arrest you for breaking them. For a detailed run down of what’s proposed in the Bill, see Netpol’s explainer on the original contents of the Bill, and the proposals the House of Lords has already rejected. It remains to be seen whether the Lords will reject the government’s proposal to criminalise “noisy” and “seriously annoying” protests for a second time.
Netpol’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights
The vague new powers awarded to the police in the Bill give far too much discretion to officers, and threaten our rights. That’s why at Netpol we’ve been pushing for policing bodies to explain how they will protect our rights to freedom of assembly and expression.
In the absence of any clear guidance, we’ve developed our own – one based on existing human rights law. Netpol’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights sets out what people taking part in protests have the right to expect from the police. The Charter calls for:
- Proper protections – not more restrictions – for the right to protest. This includes an end to treating direct action and civil disobedience as an excuse to shut down protests completely.
- An end to routine surveillance of protesters. This includes strict limitations on the use of police video recording, use of facial recognition, and surveillance of social media sites used by campaigners.
- An end to the excessive use of force and the targeting of organisers for arrest, surveillance and punishment. Black-led protests in particular disproportionately face excessive and violent interventions by police.
- An end to targeting the most vulnerable. The police have a particular duty to protect the rights of young people, vulnerable and disabled people wishing to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly.
As the Bill gets closer to becoming an Act, it’s vital that we do more than just oppose it in Parliament. It’s resistance in our communities and on the streets that will protect our rights. As long as police maintain the pretence they act “with public consent” and claim to respect human rights, they’re vulnerable to our resistance – politically, legally and practically. We need to force senior officers to think twice about using the new powers they have lobbied so hard for.
Kat Hobbs is Communications Coordinator with Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol).
You can read the full Charter for Freedom and Assembly Rights and sign up to support the campaign at Netpol.org/Charter.
Image Credit: Netpol.