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The Police Bill: Why the Peace Pledge Union objects

The Police Bill is a threat to us all

The proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill - known as the Police Bill for short - applies militaristic practices of control and coercion to restrict the everyday exercise of peaceful protest and political activity in the UK. It is an example of everyday militarism.

The Police Bill will introduce severe restrictions on protest, of the sort that would not look out of place in Putin's Russia. The Peace Pledge Union is one of over 200 organisations who signed a letter criticising the bill shortly after it was published by UK ministers. The bill is a threat to the rights of every single person in the UK to engage with politics and society.

After it was passed by the House of Commons, it was debated in the House of Lords, who thankfully voted against many (but not all) of the worst parts of the bill in January 2022. However, the Commons voted at the end of February 2022 to reintroduce many of these measures. It remains to be seen if the Lords will continue to resist these.

Peaceful protest is a fundamental right, not a privilege granted to us by the rich and powerful. We have legal rights because our ancestors campaigned for them. Our rights to engage in nonviolent activism must be constantly exercised, and defended from those who want to protect the powerful from criticism.

Part of a trend: everyday militarism

The Police Bill is part of a trend. It is one of many militaristic policies announced by the UK government in recent months.

Boris Johnson has raised the cap on UK nuclear warheads by 44% and promised the biggest percentage increase in British military spending since the Korean War. Parliament has passed the Overseas Operations Bill, which puts military personnel on a different level to civilians before the law. The Spycops Bill recently passed by Parliament increases the power of the state to spy on peaceful campaigners.

In recent years, militarism has been seeping into more and more areas of life in the UK. At the Peace Pledge Union, we call this trend everyday militarism.

What's in the bill?

  • The bill will vastly increase the police's powers to close down protests – with very little reason. The reasons that the bill will allow police to give for stopping protests are subjective and vaguely worded.

  • Clauses 54 and 55 of the bill will allow the police to restrict or stop a protest if they believe that it may “result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity” or “have a significant or relevant impact on persons in the vicinity” such as by causing them “serious unease, alarm or distress”. Such vague justifications could be used, for example, to prevent people protesting against an arms fair on the grounds that the protest causes “alarm” to the arms dealers. (This legislation is not needed to prevent people from intimidating others, which is already covered by other laws).

  • Provisions in Clauses 54 and 55 will allow police to restrict protests on grounds of the noise generated. This could be used against almost any protest that is not a silent vigil. As the human rights organisation Liberty put it, “The noise protests generate may simply be a product of the number of people who assemble”. David Mead, a professor of law, says that this provision is an “existential threat to protest, so closely entangled are protests with noise”.

  • Clause 56 will make it a criminal offence for a peaceful protester to break conditions that police have imposed on a protest, even if the protester did not know that the conditions were in place, if a court decides that they “ought to have known”. This could effectively criminalise someone for not knowing something.

  • Clause 57 imposes new restrictions on protests near Parliament. The organisation Liberty suggests that these rules are so strict they would even criminalise homeless people who are sleeping rough not far from Parliament. Being able to protest in the place where laws are made is crucial in a free and democratic society.

  • Clause 58 will give the Home Secretary the power to restrict protests in other places comparable to the new restrictions on protests near Parliament, by designating them as “controlled areas”. The Peace Pledge Union fears that this power could be used to stop protests outside major events such as conferences, international summits, political meetings, arms fairs, royal events or almost any place in which protests are planned. This provision thus comes close to allowing the Home Secretary to ban protests at will.

  • Clause 59 creates a new offence of protesting in a way that causes “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity” or even risks causing these things. This is vague in the extreme. It has been suggested that it may be used against people peacefully hanging banners from bridges. As the Court of Appeal ruled in 2009, “Rights worth having are unruly things. Demonstrations and protests are liable to be a nuisance. They are likely to be inconvenient and tiresome, at least perceived as such by others who are out of sympathy with them.”

  • Clause 60 allows police to impose conditions on protests even when a protest involves one person only. This has never before been the case.

  • Clause 61 will turn trespass into a criminal matter rather than a civil one. This is likely to have serious negative consequences for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who maintain that the bill is strongly biased against them. It is also likely to be used to suppress and prevent protest camps, which currently are generally dealt with under civil law. Protest camps have been a major part of political activity in the UK for decades, particularly in the peace movement and most famously at Greenham Common. As Friends of the Earth point out, were it not for protest camps against fracking, the UK's shift away from fracking may not have occurred. Liberty suggest that this clause could be used to criminalise striking workers peacefully picketing outside their workplace. The Peace Pledge Union fears that it could also be used by police to arrest people demonstrating peacefully outside military bases or the offices of arms companies.

At the last minute, the UK government proposed new amendments to the bill, making it even more extreme. Thankfully, these were thrown out by the House of Lords. While the government and the Commons have voted to reintroduce the bill's original provisions (such as those above), it is unlikely that they will be able to do so for the last-minute elements. They give a sense of what ministers would like to do if they had the chance:

  • Vastly increasing maximum penalties for protest-related offences that are already illegal. The maximum penalty for obstructing the highway is currently a fine – the government's amendment to the Police Bill would increase that to 51 weeks in prison.
     
  • A  new, vaguely worded offence of “locking on” and “being equipped to lock on”. This refers to people linking themselves together during a protest, often used as a way of nonviolently blocking a road or entrance, for example to a nuclear base or an arms fair. People who do this are often arrested for another offence, such as aggravated trespass, which allows a defence of “reasonable excuse”. Lawyers at the organisation Liberty say that it is unclear if a "reasonable excuse" defence would be allowed under the new “locking on” law – which would carry a maximum penalty of 51 weeks in prison.
     
  • Another goverment amendment would extend police stop-and-search powers. They would be allowed to stop and search people in a designated area (likely to be an area connected with a protest) for up to 24 hours, without needing to show grounds for suspicion. The police would then be allowed to seize any objects “made, adapted, or intended for use in the course of or in connection with” the offences mentioned in the bill. The Peace Pledge Union is concerned that this could lead to otherwise lawful items such as banners and placards being confiscated by the police ahead of a peaceful demonstration.
     
  • One of the most worrying measures proposed in the government’s last-minute amendments to the bill was the creation of Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs). These would ban individuals from attending protests in response to a police application to a Magistrates’ Court. This would effectively ban people from expressing their views based on a suspicion that they might commit an offence. The organisation Liberty stated that, “The terms for imposing protest banning orders are so broad they can catch all protest activities.”

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