Does the New Crime Bill Stifle Our Right to Protest?

Written by Maddie Bridge-Davies

So-called ‘Kill the Bill’ protests have been sweeping the country in response to the government’s controversial new crime bill. Activists gathered in Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle and Dorset over the Easter bank holiday weekend, and more than 100 people were arrested at a protest in central London.

Photo by Kyle Bushnell via Unsplash

So what is the Bill seeking to achieve and how did it come about?

The wide-ranging Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 proposes to give police more powers in managing highly disruptive static protests. It will introduce a ‘statutory offence of public nuisance‘, and broaden the circumstances in which police can curtail the noise and duration of demonstrations. These conditions can even be applied to a one-person protest. They also prohibit non-violent protesters from blocking vehicular entrances to parliamentary buildings. The restrictions are similar to those imposed on marches and rallies.

Under the provisions of the Bill, the threshold of offence is extended to include a person who “knows or ought to have known” that they are breaching conditions of a protest, even if they have not received direct orders from an officer. The Bill clarifies to the police and potential offenders what conduct is forbidden.

The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service called on the government to modify existing outdated 35-year-old legislation – the Public Order Act 1986 ­– to enable police to regulate increasingly disruptive tactics used by some protesters. For example, in October 2019 when the actions of environmental campaigners blockaded key areas of London. In a wave of civil disobedience, Lambeth and Westminster bridges were blocked, commuter public transport networks were delayed and activists congregated outside government departments in Whitehall.

In recent years, some demonstrations have descended into violent confrontations and overstretched police resources. Between 31st May and 11th December 2020, 280 officers were assaulted at protests in London organised by far-right groups, Black Lives Matter and the anti-lockdown group Stand Up X. Over 100 arrests were made in London for violent disorder in June 2020 after right-wing activists clashed with police at an anti-racism protest. Smoke bombs and fireworks were launched, barriers were stormed and officers were pelted with missiles.

The Bill therefore seeks to capture conduct which endangers the life, health and property or comfort of the public. Anyone refusing to obey police directions could be fined up to £2,500. Vandalisation of monuments or statues is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Critics fear the provisions will curb citizens’ right to protest and undermine freedom of assembly and expression. The Bill outlines the offence as actions that “obstruct the [public] in the exercise of rights belonging to the public”. Given that the intention of certain protests is, by nature, to obstruct the public and civil order, activists could face criminal charges for exercising their democratic rights.

The proposal has drawn fierce criticism from BLM, Extinction Rebellion and civil liberty groups. In a joint public statement, the Bill was described as a “blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state”. Speaking at Parliament Square on 3rd April Labour MP Bell Riberio-Addy said the government want to “strip away our hard-fought, hard-won democratic rights“.

Photo by Loredana Sangiuliano via Shutterstock

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett argues it is unfair for police to make the distinction between peaceful and disorderly activities. Police must interpret vagaries which can only lead to inconsistency and diminished public trust. Conservative MPs Steve Baker and Dominic Grieve echoed this view and expressed concern for the level of discretion invested in the police to uphold the balance between the right to protest and limiting serious disruption.

Ministers have defended the proposed legislation, arguing that it is necessary to manage mass occupation of roads and bridges, such as Extinction Rebellion’s 2019 ‘April Uprising‘ in London which drained public funds and cost taxpayers £16 million.

MP for Stroud Siobhan Baillie justified the Bill on the grounds that the right to protest is not an unqualified right, it does not mean that “anybody can protest at the expense of all others”. It can also be argued that these measures will preserve the safety of other protesters from violent contingents and widespread disorder. From this angle, the Bill facilitates peaceful protest.

The ‘Kill the Bill’ protests in Bristol witnessed rising tension between police and demonstrators. Uniformed officers employed shield strikes, batons, pepper spray and dogs, horses and helicopters to disperse crowds. Whilst the vast majority of people protested peacefully and adhered to social distancing guidelines, instances of hostility towards police were reported at the protests in central London on 3rd April. Glass bottles and bricks were hurled at police, 10 officers were injured and one woman was arrested on suspicion of possessing a weapon. At a protest in Bristol, activists forced Avon and Somerset Police to briefly close part of the M32 motorway by sitting in the road.

Photo by Bradley Stearn via Shutterstock

The new crime bill seeks to address a recognisable issue. But can government legislation control a protest without encroaching on our civil liberties? A gathering of those who wish to be heard is an unpredictable event. Should police be able to enforce start and finish times? And by attempting to do so is the Government not exacerbating the problem?

Despite backlash, the Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons on 16th March by 359 votes to 263. Opposition parties, including Labour, Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Green Party voted against the bill. A date is yet to be confirmed for the next stage, where a Public Bill Committee will take evidence from experts and interest groups from outside Parliament and deliberate motions for change.

It is hoped that this review of the proposed legislation will clarify vague language and reflect on the concerns raised by opponents. The Bill was devised in consultation with Police Chiefs, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, but now it is time to include campaign organisations in the discussion.

Featured images courtesy of Unsplash and Shutterstock. No changes have been made to these images.

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