The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC, 2021) which was published on 9th March 2021, and had passed its second stage reading on 16th March 2021 (Green Court Chambers, 2021). Backlash UK have been following the progress of the Bill and the subsequent public response to the Bill’s proposals. The biggest concern of the proposals made in the almost 300-page bill are the changes to the rules around peaceful protest in the England and Wales.
News of the government’s plans to set restrictions on the ability of the British public to protest has resulted in nationwide demonstrations and gatherings to challenge this over the past month. Individuals and groups who have faced opposition when trying to peacefully protest have been working together to highlight the importance of peaceful protest and protect the freedom of expression and human rights of the demographics this bill targets, including ‘representatives of All Black lives, Global Majority, Extinction Rebellion, and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’ (The Guardian, 2021).
‘Kill the Bill’ protests have taken place in ‘Aberystwyth, Bath, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Brighton, Cambridge, Cardiff, Derby, Exeter, Folkestone, Kendal, Lancaster, Lincoln, Liverpool, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle, Northampton, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Plymouth and Portsmouth’ (The Guardian, 2021), as well as the widely reported demonstrations in both London and Bristol. Footage released across multiple news outlets show thousands of people from all walks of life coming together to oppose the proposed draconian restrictions to protesting set out by the Bill and to defend freedom of expression of all civilians in England and Wales as recently as Saturday 17th April 2021 (Sky News, 2021; BBC News, 2021).
The most notable of these were the Bristol ‘Kill the bill’ protest of 21st March 2021 and the London protest on 3rd April 2021. This demonstration in Bristol has been described as ‘a riot, with police vans set alight and injuries sustained by some police officers’ (The Telegraph, 2021). Avon and Somerset police retracted the statement about injured officers. This retraction comes after the police response was criticised for sending in ‘officers in riot gear and dogs’ to disperse the crowds and reopen the M32 motorway which had been closed due to sitting protestors (The Guardian, 2021). The London protest which took place on 3rd April 2021 resulted in altercations between Metropolitan Police Officers and the public. It is reported that 26 arrests were made on ‘suspicion of offences’, after police in riot gear had ‘trapped’ a large group of marchers, with several people saying the police had used pepper spray on them (The Guardian, 2021).
In some cases, worldwide, protesting has been the only way for the public to effectively express their hurt and campaign against a range of injustices, and be listened to. However, it has been noted that ‘the police have relied heavily on COVID-19 regulations to quash dissent over recent months’ (due to fear of spreading the virus at mass gatherings), even resulting in the organiser for a protest to increase the wage of nurses by 1% being ‘fined £10,000’ (Green Court Chambers, 2021). With COVID regulations easing and Lockdown conditions lifting in England and Wales, it seems that the PCSC Bill will conveniently step into the role that COVID-19 regulations have been holding to ensure that peaceful protests are shutdown or will be subject to government scrutiny before being allowed to go ahead.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) is another example of a catch-all bill presented by the Government, to fulfil their promise of cracking down on crime. As well as placing stricter restrictions on protesting and freedom of expression, the Bill includes aims to impose maximum sentences for low-level assaults against emergency service workers, hand down community sentences for less serious crime to address underlying problems in offenders’ lives and to monitor more closely offenders who have been released from prison (BBC News, 2021).
With regards to protests and demonstrations, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes to give police in England and Wales ‘more power to impose conditions on non-violent protests’ (BBC News, 2021). The conditions the police will be able to wield include the following (BBC News, 2021; Green Court Chambers, 2021; Home Office, 2021; The Telegraph, 2021):
- Demand notification of the protest in advance
- Seek the consent of the Home Secretary to prohibit a protest
- Altering or changing the routes of planned marches
- Imposition of both a start and finish time for a demonstration
- Set noise limits, as well as determine what constitutes ‘public nuisance’, ‘serious public disorder’, ‘serious annoyance’, ‘serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’
- Lower the threshold for legal tests required of the police to use existing powers relating to protests (E.g. it would allow officers to detain individuals for not complying with conditions they deem should have been obvious to the public)
- To replace the existing common law offence of public nuisance with a new statutory offence allowing for a maximum sentence of 10 years
- To extend stop, search and seizure powers at protests and demonstrations
Another facet of the bill which is particularly concerning is that the police will be able to apply these rules to a demonstration by just one person. An example of the regulations in action states that a lone protester could be ‘Fined up to £2,500’ for deviating from police direction on how to conduct their protest or refusing to move on when they have been requested to do so (BBC News, 2021).
The government have cited several reasons for the imposition of these regulations including allowing the police to take a more ‘proactive’ approach to ensure public safety, to prevent crime and in extreme cases ‘to stop people occupying public spaces, hanging off bridges, gluing themselves to windows, or employing other protest tactics to make themselves both seen and heard’ (BBC News, 2021). The Home Office factsheet on protest powers asserts that ‘some protesters use egregious noise not as a method of legitimately expressing themselves, but to antagonise and disrupt others from the enjoyment of their own liberties and rights’ (Home Office, 2021). Priti Patel had stated that the Bill would provide officers with ‘the tools, support and powers they need’ to tackle what she had deemed ‘hooliganism and thuggery’ of the protests which took place between 2019 and 2020 (Green Court Chambers, 2021). The Home office further describes protests taking place in the England and Wales as ‘highly disruptive and sometimes incredibly dangerous’ costing £37m in the year 2019-2020 (Home Office, 2021). Finally, the protest powers factsheet states that the regulations will ‘enable the police to direct an individual to cease, or not to start, obstructing the passage of a vehicle into or out of Parliament and make it an offence not to comply with such a direction’, citing the Joint Committee on Human Rights in their 2020 report on Democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association: Threats to MPs (Home Office, 2021).
However, since the response from the public, the government have updated their factsheet (16th April 2021) on the protest regulations set out in the bill, which states that ‘protests are in important part of our vibrant and tolerant democracy’ and that ‘a fair balance should be struck between individual rights and the general interests of the community’ (Home Office, 2021). The updates assert that the measures will not grant the police and local authorities the power to ban protests (without application to the Home Secretary under existing law), to impose conditions on reasonable amount of noise at protests (although it does not state what constitutes ‘unjustifiably noisy’), to ban demonstrations outside parliament (except when this poses a ‘security risk’ to MPs), and that the majority of freedom of expression through protest ‘will be unaffected by these changes’ (Home Office, 2021).
Additionally, the protest powers factsheet declares that ‘when using these, or existing public power orders, the police must act within the law and be able to demonstrate that their use of powers are necessary and proportionate’ and that they must act in accordance with articles 9 (freedom of thought), 10 (freedom of expression) and 11 (freedom of association) of the European Convention on Human Rights (Home Office, 2021). However, this is underlined with the statement that ‘public authorities may temporarily restrict these rights in extreme circumstances if they can show that their action is lawful, necessary and proportionate’ (Home Office, 2021).
These promises would be comforting and may quash our concerns if there was not evidence to the contrary. As we have seen increasingly over the past couple of months with both the ‘Kill the Bill’ demonstrations and the vigil for Sarah Everard, it seems that in most cases there was very little concern for the human rights of the people gathering for these causes, and that the police response was not proportionate to the perceived threat. Despite the very clear images reported on the news and seen with our own eyes at the protests, the report of the Inspection of the Metropolitan Police Service’s Policing of a Vigil Held in Commemoration of Sarah Everard ruled that the police response to the peaceful Vigil was proportionate. In a surprising statement the Home Office communicated that ‘the police do not strike the right balance on every occasion’ (Home Office, 2021).
The Home Secretary Priti Patel had expressed her contempt for the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests, and Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick appealed to the Home Office to extend police powers in the aftermath of the Extinction Rebellion protests (The Guardian, 2021). As well as this, the conservative government relies on their drive to show a zero-tolerance to crime and dissidence (the Telegraph, 2021). Therefore, commentators have stated that the this ‘step towards authoritarianism’ should not be a surprise (The Guardian, 2021). Through their curtailing of individual freedoms and protesting rights, the conservative government demonstrate their performative protection for the public, whist finding endless ways to persecute civil disobedience.
Protest is a fundamental, expressive and effective method for sharing knowledge, working towards securing rights and achieving positive change. Without protests and demonstrations many of the rights we take for granted in the UK would simply not exist. Protests have been the visual and communal manifestations of grassroots interventions for a range of movements including, but not limited to: the LGBTQIA+ community, The Suffragettes, all waves of feminism, the protection of women and girls, race equality, and environmental concern groups. The power of these protests and the movements they are associated with have been vital in uncovering the institutional and state sanctioned injustice which needs to be addressed in England and Wales. The broadening of police powers over protesting in England and Wales has been predicted to cause more protests and yet more needless criminalisation of the public for assembling to challenge injustice (The Guardian, 2021). The measures set out in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill (2021) will ensure that ‘marginalised and oppressed groups will remain at the sharp end of these increased police powers’ (Green Court Chambers, 2021). These groups include people of colour, sexual minorities, and particularly those who are not legally literate. It seems we can conclude that ‘the police and CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] will use whatever power they are given to prosecute activists’ (Green Court Chambers, 2021).
Backlash Statement on the PCSC (2021) Bill
Backlash UK would like to communicate that this is an issue which affects us all, and we must share knowledge and support each other in challenging systems of oppression in England and Wales. Protests and demonstrations have been an instrumental part of Backlash UK’s work and campaigning efforts. We are not in favour of the regulations for peaceful protests set out by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill (2021), as we believe that the measures that the Bill proposes constitute a dangerous infringement on personal freedoms and civil liberties. It is our belief that there is a need for consultation of the public, activists and freedom of expression organisations before this Bill progresses. Implementation of the Bill in its current state will create the conditions where it is not safe to protest without government approval, which undermines the nature of protest.
Our Kink Olympixxx Protest in 2016 could well have been banned had this legislation been in place at that time; and there is a concern that any future SM Pride style protest may attract complaints from some sections of society. This would allow the police to ban a peaceful march, vigil or demonstration using the proposed protest powers set out in this Bill.
The Police, Crime, sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) is currently at committee stage, meaning that the bill could still be subject to change based on evidence from interest groups and the general public. You can express your opinion regarding the Bill by contacting your local MP, signing petitions regarding the Bill and submitting information to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Public Bill Committee. #RightToProtest #KillTheBill #FreedomToProtest #PCSC2021
Change.Org (2021) Petition: ‘Stop police protest powers growing: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021’. Available at: https://www.change.org/p/home-office-stop-police-protest-powers-growing-police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021?recruiter=63713967&recruited_by_id=5166c450-e301-0130-18f4-00221964dac8-27826536-en-gb%3A6
Liberty Human Rights (2021) Petition: ‘Stop the Policing Bill’. Available at: https://action.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/page/78339/petition/1?locale=en-GB
UK Parliament (2021) ‘Input into legislation’. Available at: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/have-your-say-on-laws/input-into-legislation/
UK Parliament (2021) ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill [Public Bill Committee]’ Available at: https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/93/human-rights-joint-committee/news/152774/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill/
UK Government and Parliament – Petitions (2021) ‘Do not pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’. Available at: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/579242
UK Government and Parliament – Petitions (2021) ‘Remove single person protest clauses in Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’. Available at: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/578875
38 Degrees (2021) Petition: ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021’. Available at: https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021
BBC News (2021)  ‘Kill the Bill protests: Defend right to protest, Corbyn tells marchers’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56627642
BBC News (2021)  ‘What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and how will it change protests?’. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-56400751
Garden Court Chambers (2021) ‘Defend our Freedom to Protest – Why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is Dangerous’. Available at:https://www.gardencourtchambers.co.uk/news/defend-our-freedom-to-protest-why-the-police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-is-dangerous
Home Office (April 2021) ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021: protest powers factsheet’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021-factsheets/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021-protest-powers-factsheet
Sky News (2021) ‘‘Kill the Bill’ Protesters march in the Streets of London’. Available at: https://news.sky.com/video/kill-the-bill-protesters-march-in-the-streets-of-london-12278627
The Guardian (2021)  ‘‘Kill the Bill’ protestors rally across England and Wales’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/03/kill-the-bill-protesters-rally-across-england-and-wales-on-saturday
The Guardian (2021)  ‘What is the Police and Crime bill and why are people protesting against it?’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/audio/2021/apr/01/what-is-police-crime-bill-why-people-protesting-podcast
The Telegraph (2021) ‘The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill explained: how will it change protests?’. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/0/police-crime-sentencing-courts-what-bill-how-change-protests/