The UK government is attempting to justify flagship legislation that critics say would hand the police and ministers powers that could seriously curb the ability of citizens to protest, at a very difficult time.
Uncomfortably for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the legislation is being debated in Parliament this week, just days after officers from London’s Metropolitan Police physically restrained attendees at a peaceful demonstration mourning the death of a young woman, Sarah Everard. Disturbing images of police forcing women to the ground have led to public outrage. The man accused of killing Everard is a serving member of the same police force.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is several hundred pages long and covers an enormous range of issues that one might typically expect a government to address in multiple pieces of legislation. Tuesday will be the second day of its second reading in the House of Commons.
At the top of a fact sheet for the bill on the government’s website, Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is quoted as saying that ever since the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London, police forces have needed “change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests” that “are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly,” but “had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt.”
The bill proposes new conditions on “one-person protests,” which would enable police to end the demonstration of a single person if the “noise generated by the person carrying on the protest may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the protest.” This, in theory, could mean someone protesting outside the headquarters of a private company could be moved along if their protest disrupts the activity of that private company.
The bill also suggests, in somewhat vague language, that demonstrations and protests should not “intentionally” or “recklessly” cause “public nuisance.” That, the bill states, might include an act that “obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large.”
The ambiguity of the bill has sounded alarm bells for critics, ranging from human rights lawyers to lawmakers.
“The powers in this bill could have been used against the suffragettes. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter might have upset people, but protests are supposed to,” said Diane Abbott, a high-profile opposition member of parliament. “We would be living in a very different society if the suffragettes hadn’t been able to protest.”
Another controversial feature of the bill has been the focus on issues that could be considered part of the UK’s ongoing culture wars. In a section covering damage of land or property, it makes specific mention of “monuments” in a clear reference to a public spat over statues of colonialists being damaged during last summer’s BLM protests.
Steve Peers, professor of human rights law at the University of Essex, fears that handing police greater powers to cancel certain