Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 has already been passed and has four main parts to it. It means that the police can charge static protests with more conditions, the same amount as processions now; there are more circumstances where the police can charge both types of protests with conditions; now public nuisance is a statutory offence; and finally, there are new stop, search and seizure powers. As will be seen, the new Protest Bill poisons our political systems.

In addition, the Home Office added legislation which forces all public assemblies essentially to be booked in with the police: organisers must inform the police with written notice before such assemblies. This echoes Barbara Castle’s ‘White Paper’, which was a complete disaster. Trade Unions did not comply, because legislation which demands ‘pre-registering’ a protest or strike diminishes the power of that protest or strike. Similarly, the new Bill gives police and Government ministers the power to ban or limit peaceful protests by virtue of their possibly being noisy or annoying, a motion which dilutes the efficacy of any protest.

It is clear that the new Bill will impact human liberty for the worse.

Democracy is and has always been a system where the people have had a method to decide legislation - direct democracy - or have selected governing officials to do this - representative democracy. This can be seen from the etymology of the word. It literally means ‘people rule’, from the Greek demokratia. In order for a system to truly call itself democracy, the people must have a way to impact said system. Protests and strikes have become one of the only ways for the people to actively control their own political system, since votes and referendums are directly controlled by the government.

The right to protest is a fundamental tenet of democracy and has been key to the securing of many rights. For example, women’s rights were effectively won over completely by protests. The Suffragettes were infamous for attention-grabbing action, and frequently broke the law to raise awareness. For example, in May 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst and her group marched to Buckingham Palace to see the king, where she was arrested. Four years later, women were granted the vote. More recently, the fracking industry, which threatened to industrialise the British countryside and would have caused earthquakes as seen by a 2.9 magnitude earthquake near the UK’s former fracking site was partly prevented through protest.

As it is clear that the Protest Bill will affect Britain for the worse, here is how it can be modified so that it can actually improve the country.

  1. The Punishment for Wilful Obstruction of the Highway should remain a fine.

Amendments to the Policing Bill changed the punishment from a fine to up to 51 weeks in prison and a fine. Nearly a year in prison is a massive deterrent to people taking to the streets to stand up to power, and will also put more pressure onto courts and prisons.

2. Removing the SDPOs.

Amendments also create new Serious Disruption Prevention Orders. These can be imposed on people who have taken part in two or more protests in a five-year period when they are convicted of a second protest-related offence . This can stop people from being in certain places, encouraging action online, talking with certain people; the list is endless. The punishment is up to a year in prison.

3. Specifying the premises of Locking On

The amendments to the bill create two new offences: ‘locking on’ and ‘being equipped to lock on’. The government here is criminalising disruptive attachment, whereby you attach yourself to others, the land or property, or attach objects to other objects.

The problem here is its deliberate obscurity. What does ‘locking on’ mean? Can you be thrown into prison for locking arms with fellow protestors? Would attaching your wheelchair to a traffic light, as disabled activists did in 2012, be criminalised?

The government can very easily criminalise a lot of action with this move. As long as the action affects any system or piece of property - including bike locks and zip ties - it is punishable.

In order to make this motion consistent with our democratic rights, we must make it more specific. It must be clear exactly what actions will be criminalised by this part of the Bill, preventing the government from taking the licence to criminalise anything remotely close to the act of ‘locking on’.

4. Criminalising the Obstruction of Major Transport effectively, not arbitrarily.

There is a new offence that can be committed if one in any way does anything that can interfere with any apparatus relating to a major transport. This can be throwing oneself onto a motorway or emptying a water bottle near a train track. Already, the deliberate vaguity is a problem, but more importantly, anyone who is accused of anything leading to the obstruction of major transport is susceptible to 51 weeks incarceration. It will also be the first protest-related offence triggered by the Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs).

Rather than people being deemed ‘innocent until proven guilty’, they are now deemed ‘guilty until proven innocent’.

5. Retaining the former Stop and Search guidelines

The former stop and search policies state that the police can stop and search anyone who they believe to possess weapons or ‘articles’, which can be used for burglary, theft, motor theft, fraud and criminal damage. The new Bill will change this now to include transport obstruction, locking on, and public nuisance.

So, if a police officer believes that you have, for example, a bike lock, they have a licence to search you. This is ridiculous, but it gets worse. Any police officer above the rank of inspector can stop and search anyone in an area where they think the above offences are about to take place. Therefore the police officer in question does not need any concrete reason for the stop and search. It will now be entirely conditional on whether they believe they are in a location where an offence could take place. In the long-term, this means that police officers have all the power to stop and search arbitrarily, and we know that such measures disproportionately affect minority communities. During 2019-2020, black people in particular were up to eight times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts.

Doing the aforementioned will significantly improve the Policing Bill, by making it satisfy the needs of democracy.

Hope for the Future

However, in recent news, the Colston 4 trial affirms that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Edward Colston was the shareholder and deputy governor of the Royal African Company. In Bristol, a statue was built of him, which displayed a person who had formed his empire on top of the enslavement of 84,000 men, women and children, and the deaths of 19,000 of them. 4 people were charged of toppling his statue and throwing it into the harbour, and even the supposedly impartial judges were unable to charge the 4 defendants; they were found not guilty. Jurors and politicians are both meant to serve the public, and so it is extremely important and pivotal that jurors can recognise the need for disruptive protest tactics in certain scenarios. Now it’s time politicians did too.