The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is currently processing through parliament. It passed its second reading on the 16th March 2021. Although this Bill includes some useful proposals, it’s the legislation related to public protests which has caused huge controversy, particularly in the light of protests surrounding the awful and tragic murder of Sarah Everard.
The bill would give police the same power to deal with protests, that they already have to police marches. It will move the Common law offence of ‘public nuisance’ into Statute law, and will widen the definition of ‘public nuisance’ to ‘an offence if caused “intentionally or recklessly”, to include acts or omissions which cause someone to suffer “serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity” and would carry up to a 10 year prison sentence.
However, the very nature of a public protest is it will arguably cause ‘serious annoyance’ – the whole idea of a public protest is that it draws the public’s attention to a problem issue or policy with the hope of fixing it.
The Bill would also newly allow police to restrict or ban protests if the noise it makes has a ‘relevant impact’ on people in the area. Again, most protests are inherently noisy, the wording of the legislation could potentially give, now or in the future, Police and the Home Secretary, via new secondary legislation powers to ban any protest they simply don’t like.
The Bill also increases the maximum sentence for defacing memorials from 3 months to 10 years imprisonment. I’m sure no reasonable person thinks defacing memorials is a good thing, but it’s called vandalism, which already has its existing and proportionate sanctions in law available to the Courts. To increase the maximum penalty to 10 years is unfair and absurd; are we saying that defacing a statue is as bad as manslaughter now?
Peaceful protesting is a hard won right in our democracy, historically many people have struggled and sacrificed to gain these valuable rights. Constructive opposition in a democracy is a healthy process that helps stop bad things happening, and of course if bad things are stopped, that ultimately benefits us all, including the Conservatives.
The protest legislation parts of the bill seem to only help the Conservatives’ interests, i.e it can be used to shut down or minimise any protest they disagree with politically, or simply find annoying. But what about considering the best interests of all of us? Yes we need to protect business and private citizens from disruption caused by protests, but some minor noise and inconvenience caused by protests is unavoidable, and surely should be expected and tolerated by us as a society for the greater good.
The Labour Party has voted against this Bill at its second reading, Labour support several measures in the Bill, but they argue that the protest legislation “will impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest.” David Lammy, the Shadow Justice Secretary has said “the legislation was a mess which could lead to tougher penalties for damaging a statue than attacking a woman”. Keir Starmer has commented that “It says lots of things about statues and almost nothing about protecting women and girls, and particularly dealing with violence against women and girls.” Labour would like the government to drop the Bill and instead work on a cross party consensus to tackle violence against women.
Interestingly, even Conservative MP’s have objections to the Bill, former Prime Minister Theresa May said she feared the “potential unintended consequences of some of measures in the bill, which have been drawn quite widely”. Also, Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, urged Home Secretary Priti Patel to “make sure that the legislation that we’re about to pass protects that right of peaceful protest and only stops serious disruption”.
In the wrong hands, the protest sections of the Bill are loosely worded, and use words, that could be used to ban or vastly diminish the impact of any protest considered undesirable by current or future governments. Peaceful public protests are something that in the long run improve society for all of us, we should take any attempts to stop or limit them as a dangerous legislative attack on our valuable rights. The Bill has some good parts to it, but there is no shame in redrafting sections of it to take into consideration legitimate and important concerns.
This blog article is the personal view of a member of the Meon Valley Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and may not represent the official policy or views of the Labour Party.