NEWS
15/03/2021 14:15 GMT | Updated 15/03/2021 14:47 GMT

What The Controversial New Policing Bill Means – And Why You Should Care

Covid rules mean police can violently shut down protests like they did on Saturday. Now those powers could become permanent.

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A bill will go before the Commons on Monday to overhaul the UK’s justice system and dramatically increase powers available to the police.

The legislation includes provisions to crack down on demonstrations if they are too noisy or cause “serious annoyance”, and seeks to toughen the punishment for people who damage statues.

Critics say it includes the “some of the most draconian crackdowns on the right of peaceful protest we’ve seen in our lifetime”.

But the authorities claim it is necessary to keep pace with how society has changed since previous legislation was written in 1986.

Here’s what it means – and why you should care.

What is it?

The measures are contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is due to receive its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday.

It includes plans to give police more powers to tackle non-violent protests that cause significant disruption to the public or to access to parliament.

The bill seeks to give police the power to impose the same conditions on static protests that it can already impose on marches, such as start and finish times and maximum noise levels.

Police will be able to use such powers “where noise causes a significant impact on those in the vicinity or serious disruption to the running of an organisation”.

And who gets to decide what counts as “significant impact” or “serious disruption”? That would be home secretary Priti Patel, who last month said Black Lives Matter protests were “dreadful” and has spoken of Extinction Rebellion as “criminals” who threaten the UK’s way of life.

How have the authorities tried to justify it?

The new bill was prompted in part by the Extinction Rebellion protests in 2019 which shut down Westminster by blockading roads and bridges. 

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has previously said the bill is “specifically to deal with protests where people are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly but, as in this instance, had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt and were prepared to use the methods we all know they did to do that”.

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Cressida Dick

Why is it controversial?

The policing of the vigil in memory of Sarah Everard on Saturday night has thrown a timely spotlight on how such events are managed by the authorities.

Officers from the Met Police were seen grabbing several women and leading them away in handcuffs during the event. The force arrested four people for public order and coronavirus regulation breaches.

Gracie Bradley, interim director of Liberty, said the police response demonised protestors – and warned the new bill would make restrictions on protest such as those used at the weekend permanent.

“The true architect of this disaster is the home secretary, who has relentlessly demonised protestors and refused to support a protest exemption to the lockdown rules,” she said.

“She has undermined a vital pillar of democracy in the process, and pitched police against the public by encouraging aggressive enforcement against those who take to the streets to dissent.

“Protest isn’t a gift from the state – it’s our fundamental right. Not content with all but banning protest during the pandemic, the. government is now using this public health crisis as cover to make emergency measures permanent. Its new policing bill is an all-out assault on our right to protest.

“It’s those of us who are most at risk of having our rights abused who will find we’re even less able to hold the powerful to account.”

Photo by Kristian Buus/In Pictures via Getty Images
Hundreds of people gathered at a peaceful vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common in South London

Even Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable, told Times Radio there was a “real danger” that rushed legislation could make the job of the police “more difficult”, adding: “People need to be really worried about this.”

He said: “If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.

“And bringing in legislation on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of – again, if we’ve learned one thing from the coronavirus legislation, [it] is that rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.

“This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain protests during the summer.”

Will MPs vote against it?

Labour will oppose the proposed laws, having performed a U-turn on its original plan to abstain on the bill.

It came amid widespread anger about the police handling of the weekend’s protest.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has now criticised the bill, saying it does not include anything “meaningful” on protecting women and girls.

“We have got a 300-page bill coming before parliament, with 176 clauses of 20 schedules,” he told reporters.

“It says lots of things about statues and almost nothing about protecting women and girls, and particularly dealing with violence against women and girls.

“This is a crime, police, sentencing and court bill – it should be the vehicle for addressing it. And there is nothing meaningful in it.”

The Labour leader said what was needed was more support for those subjected to domestic violence, abuse and sexual offending, adding the bill “doesn’t address the fact that sentencing for rape and stalking is too low”.

“This is a gaping hole in the legislation,” he said. “Government has got its priorities wrong – it should re-think.”

But the bill is likely to pass, at least this time (it goes through three readings before being passed into law – this is its second reading). The government has a majority of 80 and any Tory rebellion is expected to be small.

Conservative backbencher Steve Baker told the Telegraph: “I think you will see many Tories expressing some misgivings, especially about [the words] ‘serious annoyance’, but I don’t think you’ll see a mass rebellion.”