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UK policing bill criticised for eroding the rights to protest

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has stated that the new UK policing bill breaches basic human rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. MPs have warned that enforcing the bill will increase the risks of peaceful demonstrators in England and Wales being criminalised.

The police, crime, sentencing and courts (PCSC) bill was introduced to grant the police force more power when it comes to dealing with protestors and will also enforce tougher sentencing for breaching the rules of protest. Should a protest disrupt “activities of an organisation” or have “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”, police officers will have the power to intervene. In addition, the police will be able to impose start and finish times for static protests as well as a maximum noise limit. Protesters could face fines of up to £ 2,500 and organizers could be imprisoned for up to 51 weeks for breaking conditions imposed on the protest. Furthermore, a new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” will carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years for acts such as putting a person “at risk of suffering” serious distress or annoyance. 

In their report, JCHR criticise the policing bill for eroding the rights to protest while also giving Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary, the powers to create laws, without parliamentary approval, to define what constitutes a “serious disruption”, which police can then rely on to impose conditions on protests. JCHR maintains that the bill is “unnecessary and disproportionate” since a noise-based restriction will limit even small peaceful protests. The maximum noise level is not defined and applies equally to one-person protests and protests being attended by hundreds. In the report they state:

“If there is a particular clarification of ‘serious disruption’ that the Home Office considers is currently needed… it should be made clear now so that it can be considered while the bill is being scrutinised. If no need for particular clarification has yet been identified, then we struggle to see how the powers contained in the PCSC bill can be considered necessary.”

Since its introduction, the bill has faced major opposition and sparked widespread protest. Demonstrations against the bill have been held across England and Wales, including weeks of protests in Bristol. On 21 March 2021, the “kill the bill protest”, involving up to 3,000 people in Bristol, escalated leading to clashes between protesters and the police. Police vehicles were burned and at least 20 officers were injured during the clash.

While ministers claim that existing public order legislation is no longer fit for managing modern protests, JCHR reiterated that there are already laws in place that target public nuisance offences; further stating that the new provisions are a response to previous major protests, aimed at “criminalising a vast number of peaceful protesters”. JCHR commented:

“current rhetoric focuses on the inconvenience sometimes caused by protest rather than its value to society.”

And it is clear that the Home Secretary sees no value in these protests. Priti Patel has openly criticised the 2018 mass protests by Extinction Rebellion, referring to protesters as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals”, as well as calling the recent Black Lives Matter protests “dreadful”.

The JCHR report concludes by denouncing the new restrictions and calls for the conditions placed on protests to be scrapped. Afterall, the intended effect of protest is to disrupt and to raise awareness therefore restricting protests based on an undefined noise limit is a clear violation of the freedoms of expression and assembly.

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