Where The ‘Anti-Protest Bill’ Stands Now
The government’s proposed legislation has suffered a series of defeats in the House of Lords, but what happens next?
In March 2021, Home Secretary Priti Patel ordered a bill that would, if successful, grant more powers to police. The response was swift, and escalated as the suggested Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill – known as the ‘Anti-Protest’ Bill – made its way to House of Lords. On Jan. 18, the bill was voted down by peers and is now set to return to the Commons for MPs.
Since the ‘Anti-Protest’ Bill was announced, many have been concerned that the new measures proposed in it could mean protests or similar public gatherings will become more difficult to organise and less safe to attend. So what is the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, why was it first proposed, and what could it mean for the future of protesting in the UK? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill?
The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, was introduced in the House of Commons on Mar. 9, 2021. It is a 307-page document, proposing a number of changes to the way crime and punishment works in the UK.
According to the government, the bill will help "to crack down on crime and build safer communities" by giving police “powers and tools they need to keep themselves and all of us safe” as well as introduce “tougher sentencing for the worst offenders” and “improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system.”
Some key provisions within the bill include doubling the maximum sentence for assault of an emergency worker and introducing life sentences for “killer drivers who wreak havoc on our roads.” Section four of the legislation also aims to revamp trespassing laws which could see Roma, Traveller, and Gyspy communities facing hefty fines up to £2,500 and a criminal record.
Dozens of amendments to the bill were rejected by the Commons on Jul. 5, 2021, as were dozens more by the House Of Lords on Jan. 18, 2022, following the 18 pages of amendments added to the bill by the government in November 2021. These included rejections to legislation that would allow police to stop and search people at protests “without suspicion”, as well as searching vehicles “if it was suspected an offence was planned”.
Peers also voted for new amendments to be added to the bill, such as scrapping the power to impose conditions at protests on noise grounds, protect Parliament Square as a place of protest, and to make misogyny a hate crime by giving courts the power to treat it as an “aggravating factor” in any crime, reports The Times.
According to the government’s “protest powers factsheet,” the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill “will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public.” Ministers also stress that they want to control demonstrations that cause “intimidation or harassment" or "serious unease, alarm or distress to bystanders" and includes Extinction Rebellion protests as an example.
The key provisions that are drawing the most attention are:
- The bill will widen the range of conditions that the police can impose on static protests to match conditions on marches. For example, they could impose start and finish times.
- The bill will allow senior officers to impose noise limits on protests, with the power to intervene when is the noise is deemed disruptive for the “activities of an organisation” or has a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity.”
- The bill gives the Home Secretary the power to create laws (without parliamentary approval) that define what “serious disruption” means. These laws can then be used by police to curtail protests.
- The bill will impose more restrictions on those wishing to protest near the House of Parliament, meaning large-scale gatherings in Parliament Square will likely be banned.
What Have Critics Said About The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill?
A number of MPs, faith communities, charities, and human rights organisations have raised concerns about the ‘anti-protest’ bill, with Labour's shadow Home Office minister Sarah Jones saying the bill "went too far", per BBC News.
Her comments followed the distressing events from the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common on Mar. 14, 2021, where videos showed women being dragged away, handcuffed, and forced to the ground. Even Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” by footage from the event.
Sisters Uncut (the direct action group that took over the organisation of the vigil after Reclaim These Streets had to cancel due to “lack of constructive engagement from the Metropolitan Police”) have made their opposition to the the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill clear via social media. “The police abuse the powers they already have, yet the government plans to give them even more powers in the #PoliceCrackdownBill. We must resist,” they tweeted on Mar. 14, 2021.
On Jun. 22, 2021, MPs and peers in Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published a report that warned parts of the bill could go against human rights. The chair Harriet Harman stated: “One of our most fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. To do that, we need to make ourselves heard. The government proposals to allow police to restrict ‘noisy’ protests are oppressive and wrong.”
What About Kill The Bill Demonstrations?
The move to resist the bill quickly sparked ‘Kill The Bill’ demonstrations across the country, including Bristol where hundreds gathered at Bristol’s College Green to demonstrate against proposed plans on Mar. 22, 2021. What began as a peaceful sit- in turned violent. Avon and Somerset police issued a statement condemning the events, confirming that 20 officers were injured during the incident – two seriously – and seven arrests had been made.
Kill The Bill demonstrations have been happening across the UK on a regular basis since March 2021, with the peak of the protests amassing thousands of people on the streets of London (and beyond), in one of the biggest civil movements in recent years. Organisations and campaign groups from across the political spectrum have united under a common cause to stand against a bill that would affect each and every person’s civil rights, and many rights of marginalised communities.
As the debate in the House of Lords came to a close on Jan. 17, 2022, drumming could be heard throughout the chamber, as yet another Kill The Bill demonstration was taking place just outside of Parliament - dubbed a “a Very Annoying protest” by organisers. As protestors heard the news of the significant defeats that the government has been dealt on this bill, there were loud cheers and chanting from the crowd as they celebrated their win.
Politicians including Diane Abbott and David Lammy have spoken out against the bill.
What Happens Next?
The Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill will now return to the House of Commons at a yet to be specified date to be debated and voted on again by MPs, with amendments. However, due to the government introducing a number of last minute amendments that MPs didn’t get a chance to vote on, those parts of the bill that were voted down in the House of Lords have been removed altogether.
Last minute amendments included: Criminalising protests that were deemed too noisy or disruptive, criminalising obstructing major transport works, and allowing police to stop and search people at protests without having to give a reason.
The House of Lords now have a final reading on Jan. 25 to suggest any further changes before the bill then makes its way back to the Commons. MPs will then vote on the amended bill and either pass the bill as it stands or introduce further amendments to then send the bill back to the House of Lords.
And campaigners won’t let up on the pressure being applied on the government, with Sisters Uncut sharing on Twitter on Jan. 18: “After the vigil *you* showed up to protest police violence & the policing bill was delayed *You* continued to show up & now key parts of the bill have been defeated in the Lords. You know whats next. You're gonna kill the whole damn bill by making it ungovernable #KilltheBill”
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