Why you should be worried about the new Policing Bill

Even if protest isn’t your thing, you still benefit from other people’s right to do it. These new laws affect us all.

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It’s one of the most oppressive pieces of legislation tabled by a UK government since the second world war, but you may not have even heard about it. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently sitting in the House of Lords and which is to be voted on by MPs in January, represents a monumental attack on the right to assembly, freedom of expression and our democracy in general.

The government is trying to make out that the bill is all about preventing activists from blocking motorways, but it’s not. As it stands, these new laws give the government unprecedented sweeping powers to restrict everyone’s right to join together for what they believe. You’d expect to see the measures in a dictatorship, not a democracy. But how did we get here and what can we do to stop it?

The story so far

The bill was first brought to parliament back in March 2021 where it immediately sparked outrage from human rights groups, charities and NGOs (Non-governmental organisations). More power would be given to the police to shut down a protest if they decide it’s too disruptive or even just too “noisy”.

It was then thrust into the spotlight after the police’s handling of the Sarah Everard vigil – where people were arrested as they gathered to mourn the murder of the young women.

Because of protests led by grassroots groups like Sisters Uncut, the government was forced to delay the bill – (which in itself shows you the power of protest). Eventually though, when the media spotlight was elsewhere, the bill passed the first stage of scrutiny from MPs in early July 2021 and was moved to the House of Lords, where it’s currently being debated.

Then in November something very worrying happened. Usually when a bill goes to the Lords it gets watered down and the more controversial elements are removed. In the case of the Policing Bill, it’s actually gone from bad to worse.

The Home Office quietly added fresh amendments which effectively criminalise protest altogether. These amendments were made at the last minute away from parliamentary scrutiny. The government is trying to push this bill through before people can actually process its implications.

Three of the worst bits of the Bill

More stop and search

One aspect of the amendments is to increase police stop and search powers for protests. Stop and search is traditionally used for crimes such as theft and burglary and is applied if the police suspect you of carrying an item related to a crime. Under the new laws police will be entitled to stop you, with or without suspicion, if they believe you’re going to cause “serious disruption” through protest. So you could be holding a banner, placard or even nothing at all and you could be stopped and searched.

The powers would be so over-arching that if the police believed a protest was going to happen in a certain “area”, they could stop and search anybody passing through the vicinity. Anyone that resists stop and search could be sent to prison for up to 51 weeks – nearly a full year imprisonment!

Black and Brown people are six times more likely to get stopped and searched in comparison to white people. So the new powers would create more discrmination and could lead to even less diversity in the climate movement, and less diversity makes us weaker and less effective.

New crimes

Then there’s the creation of new crimes for “wilful obstruction of a highway” and “interfering with the operation of key infrastructure” including roads, airports and oil refineries. In short, the stuff that’s driving us towards climate breakdown and urgently needs to be “interfered with”.

“Locking on”, or intent to lock on is also to be made a crime. The language on this in the bill is so vague that it could be applied to people linking arms or even holding hands at a protest.

These are core techniques used to protest the world over and have been used throughout British history. The Suffragettes did it and helped win women the right to vote. More recently disabled activists saved lives from benefits cuts by chaining their wheelchairs to traffic lights.

‘Protest ASBOs’

Maybe the scariest addition to the bill is the creation of Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs). These are a kind of protest ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) which could block people from demonstrating and dictate where they can go and who they can see in their daily lives.

Worryingly, you could be given a SPDO without actually having done anything disruptive – only that you “might” have caused serious disruption. These laws don’t belong in a free and democratic society.

The right to protest is worth protecting

Even if you don’t take part in protests yourself, you still benefit from other people’s right to do it. When official channels for complaint fail (as they often do), protest allows ordinary people to push important issues up the agenda and confront injustice. Quite simply it’s the engine of social change that’s brought us many of the freedoms and protections we now take for granted.

You have a weekend because of people protesting. Public access to the countryside was won through people power. Women’s right to vote, the end of slavery, LGBTQ+ rights, civil rights, banning fracking in the UK… and I could go on, were all secured through protest.

To this day protest remains one of the most effective ways to create positive change. And in a decade where we need massive system change to save our planet and ourselves from full climate breakdown – it’s needed now more than ever.

These new laws will affect us all

The government is banking on you believing that this is only going to impact a small number of people blocking roads or motorways. What’s vital to understand is that the bill goes way beyond them. The government is using it as a smokescreen to clamp down on all forms of protest so they can be held less accountable by the public. Even if you don’t agree with blocking roads, this bill affects you and you should be extremely worried because it’s not an exaggeration to say that the UK is on its way to becoming a police state under these new laws.

Back in April 2021, football fans demonstrated against a proposed European Superleague and pressured the clubs involved to pull out. Had the Superleague gone ahead it would have had a devastating effect on league, non-league and grassroots football. Under the new laws those football fans could have been convicted of a crime and even faced time in prison.

No matter your political viewpoint, freedom of speech and expression is supposed to be a pillar of any free society. Without it our democracy is weaker and we lose our ability to confront power and injustice.

There’s still time to stop the bill

Although this bill can feel depressing, we have a small window of opportunity to make sure the worst parts of it don’t get passed into law.

On 17 January the Lords will vote on amendments to Part 3 of the bill (where all the bits about protest are) and after that it will return to the House of Commons where MPs will be able to edit it. Many MPs are not engaging enough with the bill so we need to ramp up the pressure and make as much noise as we can to get their attention. MPs care about issues that their constituents and voters are passionate about. So if enough of us tell them to scrap the worst parts of the bill, they’ll be forced to act.

We’re working with organisations like Liberty, Friends of the Earth, and others to show the government that they’ve got this badly wrong. So far collectively over 730,000 people have signed petitions calling on the government to scrap the bill. You can also add your name to ours below.

In January we’ll be ramping up the campaign to stop these freedom and democracy-killing laws from being passed. Please subscribe to our email list if you haven’t already and follow us on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and Facebook (if you’re that way inclined) so you can get involved when the time comes.

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