Today, Wednesday 8 December, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill will enter the Report Stage in the House of Lords. Behind this seemingly mundane fact lies a shocking truth — we are very close to the introduction of an effective ban on protest in the United Kingdom.
The PCSC Bill has other serious flaws, not least the expansion of stop and search powers and the effective outlawing of many Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people’s way of life. But it is the laws relating to protest that could have the most damaging and far-reaching effects.
The story so far
The bill’s provisions were already egregious when it was first introduced to the Commons in March — including allowing police to shut down any protest deemed to be causing ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’. The proposed new powers attracted significant media attention in the wake of brutal policing of a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard in March, forcing the Government to delay the legislation. But before long it was back in the Commons, prompting a wave of protests under the moniker ‘Kill the Bill’.
Since its passage to the Lords, the bill has become even more restrictive, with pages on pages of amendments quietly added in the last few weeks. Leading barrister and author Chris Daw QC says the bill is “completely contradictory to everything the liberty of the free citizen is about in Britain”, while Norwich South MP Clive Lewis warned, even before the latest changes to the legislation, that “democracy is being swept away, in a calculated programme to leave the public muted and powerless.”
The new amendments include:
- A new Serious Disruption Order, which can ban named individuals from protesting and impose significant limits on their freedom, even if they have not committed an offence. The Government has indicated that Serious Disruption Orders are intended ‘to tackle protesters who are determined to repeatedly cause disruption to the public’. While their press release focuses on ‘protesters determined to lock or glue themselves onto structures’, the bill is drafted in such a way that these could be handed to anyone attending, or indeed encouraging others to attend, a protest.
- Up to a 51-week prison sentence for locking onto, or holding onto ‘a person, to an object or to land’. The wording of the bill is so loose that protestors could conceivably be imprisoned for linking arms.
- Obstruction of a highway or of ‘major transport works’ is criminalised, again with a potential prison sentence of up to 51 weeks, seemingly taking direct aim at the tactics of groups such as Extinction Rebellion.
Campaigners fear that it may now be difficult to attend any protest without committing an offence.
Can it be stopped?
As Camilla Cavendish and David Hencke have pointed out, the manner in which these new amendments have been added conforms to an established pattern of bypassing Parliamentary scrutiny, a practice that a recent House of Lords report calls ‘Government by Diktat’.
However, the report stage of a bill allows members of the House of Lords time for detailed scrutiny of new amendments. Votes can also be taken on any of these amendments. If the Lords disagrees with any Commons amendments, or makes alternative proposals, then the bill can be sent back to the House of Commons. It can then go back and forth between the two houses until agreement is reached. It is therefore possible that the House of Lords could delay the passage of the bill.
Across the country, there is growing opposition to the Government’s draconian proposals. Protests are planned for London, Cambridge, Birmingham and other cities on Wednesday evening, while over 70,000 people have supported campaign group Liberty’s latest petition to stop the bill (a previous iteration received over 700,000 signatures).
Unrest in East Anglia
Recent months have seen growing unrest across East Anglia, with groups springing up across the region to campaign on a wide variety of issues. One impromptu grouping came together after their email addresses were accidentally shared with each other by South Norfolk MP Richard Bacon. Under the PCSC Bill’s proposals, these campaigners would all risk prison.
Now is perhaps a good time to recall the words of David Boyd, UN special rapporteur for human rights and the environment, in June: “There will have to be a backlash. If people see the UK government as increasingly repressive, at some point they will throw it out. These actions are counterproductive — we saw this in the US, where a terrible, repressive government has been replaced with an administration that in many ways is pro-human rights and pro-sustainability.”
Boris Johnson has repeatedly shown that he will bow to public pressure, but time is running out for people in the United Kingdom to protect their fundamental freedom to protest.