A new bill ordered by Home Secretary Priti Patel could see more power given to police at protests. But in light of incidents that took place at a vigil for Sarah Everard on March 14, many are concerned that the new measures proposed in the Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill could mean protests or similar public gatherings will become more difficult to organise and less safe for attendees. On March 22, a Kill the Bill protest in Bristol turned violent, leaving twenty officers injured – two seriously, per BBC News.
With the bill having passed its second reading (the first chance MPs get to vote on a proposed law) on March 16, let’s take a look what the Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill is, why it was first proposed, and what it could mean for the future protesting in the UK.
What Is The Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill?
The Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill, which was introduced in the Commons on March 9, is a 307-page document proposing a number of changes to the the way crime and punishment works in the UK.
According to the government, the bill will give 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.”
What Does The Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill Say About Protesting?
According to the government’s “protest powers factsheet,” the Police, Crime & Sentencing Bill “will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests causing serious disruption to the public.” It uses the 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 existing police powers to impose conditions on marches.
- The bill will broaden the range of circumstances in which police may conditions on a protest.
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.
Elsewhere, the Police, Crime & Sentencing 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 Bill?
A number of MPs, faith communities, charities, and human rights organisations have raised concerns about what they’ve described as the “anti-protest” bill, especially in light of what took place at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common last weekend.
On March 14, women came together to mourn and protest the death of Everard. The 33 year old went missing after being seen walking from Clapham to Brixton. A police officer has since been arrested and charged with Everard’s murder.
The police presence and actions at the Clapham Common vigil have been criticised and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he was “deeply concerned” by footage from the event. Videos showed women being dragged off the bandstand, handcuffed, and forced to the ground. for this reason, there are worries that more police powers will make protesting even more unsafe for protestors.
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 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 March 14.
The move to resist 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 March 22.
What began as a peaceful sit in turned violent, leaving police officers injured and vehicles torched. 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.
Home secretary Priti Patel also condemned the “unacceptable scenes in Bristol” as well as the “thuggery and disorder by a minority” stating via Twitter, “our police officers put themselves in harms way to protect us all.”
The Bristol mayor, Marvin Rees, criticised the violence as counter-productive, via The Guardian, stating that the “lawlessness on show” will be “used as evidence and promote the need for the bill”.
After condemning the violence, he said: “I recognise the frustrations with the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. I have major concerns about the bill myself, which is poorly thought-out and could impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to peaceful protest.”
Meanwhile, Labour Party leader Keir Starmer has told MPs to vote against the bill. According to the Guardian, Starmer said the bill contained “next to nothing” on combating gendered violence. Other politicians including Diane Abbott and David Lammy have spoken out against the bill also.
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