mySociety condemns the inclusion of new legislation against protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the second reading of which started on Monday and which continued to be debated and was then voted through last night.
Clauses 54 to 60, amending the Public Order Act 1986, were added at short notice to a wide-ranging Bill and threaten to expand police powers with loosely written clauses that will allow almost any act of assembly or protest to be seen as breaking the law.
The Bill now goes to the Committee stage stage for a clause by clause analysis which you’ll be able to follow on TheyWorkForYou. There is still time to send your comments to your MP before the proposals become law.
A vital right within a democracy
mySociety is a non-partisan organisation which gives people the tools they need to be active citizens. We strongly believe that in a thriving democracy, citizens must be able to hold their elected representatives to account. We recognise that public protest is a vital part of being an active citizen; a mechanism for making change and challenging those in power.
When a single voice isn’t enough, a message can be amplified by marching on the streets with banners and megaphones — an entitlement that is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, codified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and which we believe to be of huge importance to the way that democracy functions.
Protest doesn’t just block roads and display inconvenient dissent to governments. Protest is a means by which communities across the UK may discuss amongst themselves and come to agreement about what they believe in; what they will or will not stand for and the kind of country in which they want to live.
It brings issues to the public discourse far from the cities in which a march or assembly takes place, and can result in nuanced discussions, changed minds, and ultimately, alterations to law that reflect this new consensus.
Impact is the whole point
With vague wording that allows for police to clamp down on any assembly (or indeed lone protester) that “may” cause disruption, this addition to the Bill extends maximum sentencing for public nuisance to ten years; and deters citizens from one of the important means of displaying dissatisfaction — all points that were brought up during the debate but which were ultimately discounted in the final division.
Under this clause, a Senior Police Officer may “impose any conditions they consider necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”, reports the Good Law Project, also pointing out that “the very object of exercising the right to protest is to have impact.”
Indeed, we can look back at a long history of instances where protest has done just that, from the abrupt withdrawal of the Poll Tax to the gradual change in law over gay rights.
The Good Law Project is not alone in pointing out that the proposed amendments also give Home Secretaries (present and future) unrestricted powers to change the definition of ‘serious disruption’: they have a perhaps surprising ally in Theresa May:
“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”
This provision was conceived during the pandemic and presented as a temporary measure that would allow the government to ensure that people did not endanger others by breaking lockdown rules. As many have pointed out, such simultaneously nebulous and sinister adjustments to police powers should not be written into law lightly, in a hurry, and without intense scrutiny from civil society.
But it was added at short notice to the Bill along with other hurried restrictions and significant omissions which should be similarly subject to proper scrutiny.
What you can do
As this is the Second Reading, the Bill now undergoes its Committee and Reporting stages before being sent to the House of Lords. If the Lords want to propose amendments, it will return to the Commons for further debate. So there is still time to use our WriteToThem service to email your MP and tell them how important the right to protest is to you and to your community.
If you’d like to really make sure your experiences and insights count, this joint committee is currently accepting input from ‘interested groups and individuals’.
You can also add your name to the demand for a charter for Freedom of Assembly via this petition from Netpol.
Ironically, there will be real-world protests too — indeed, these began outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday night and there have been smaller demonstrations across the UK. If you are taking part, please do be careful out there.