Before the end of 2021, it could be illegal to stage a noisy protest in the UK. If passed, the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will drastically limit the right to protest and has been heavily debated since the much-criticised police response to the London vigil for Sarah Everard in March. The new regulations are set to be introduced if they pass a final reading in Parliament in June.
Under the proposal, individuals could be jailed for up to 10 years for causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience”. Police could impose legally binding restrictions on rallies because the noise generated “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” or may “have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest”. Start and end times could be applied to protests, and the bill seeks to change the threshold for an offence so that it has been committed even when a person did not know they were breaking the law. Moreover, controls could be put in place on protests by a single person.
These regulations afford the police significantly more power and, when compared with police authority now, it represents a dramatic shift. Under current rules, if the police want to place restrictions on a protest they must be able to demonstrate that it may result in “serious public disorder, serious damage to property, or serious disruption to the life of the community”. The concept of “serious annoyance or inconvenience” is a significant departure from the accepted rules governing freedoms of assembly and protest. Article 11 of the Human Rights Act protects these freedoms and, by handing the police more power in this way, the government is arguably contradicting the act. Indeed, as was demonstrated at the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard, the police are not in the best position to wield such power.
But is handing the police and the state more control over our lives in this way simply another indication of our increased willingness to accept government authority? History has shown that when a government is given more jurisdiction, they are often reluctant to return it – the Second World War being one notable example. As part of the effort to tackle COVID-19, the Coronavirus Act allowed the government unprecedented levels of control. However, authoritarianism in the name of public health is still authoritarianism. Whether this act was necessary is a debate for the future inquiry into the government’s handling of the virus – the current debate should be focused on the fact that the UK is sleepwalking into a police state. The willingness of Conservative Party MPs to wave through such dangerous proposals is an indication of this decline, but the visceral public reaction gives a glimmer of hope.
The problem for those opposed to the suggested regulations is that this legislation is not just about protest. It is a long and detailed bill, covering sentences for sex offenders and people who assault emergency workers, as well as homicide reviews involving offensive weapons, and reforms to pre-charge bail. Naturally, one of the primary motives for combining these proposed changes is that it makes it harder for MPs to vote against the bill. By voting against the bill to uphold the right to protest, MPs are also voting against tougher sentences for paedophiles. Therefore, the correct response should be to lobby for the removal of the section of the bill pertaining to protests and to push for the rest of the bill to be passed without it.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a clear and significant danger to democracy in this country. If it passes its third reading in Parliament, a crucial human right will be under threat. But arguably even more frightening is the wider trend we are seeing in British politics of the handing over of power to the government, of which this bill is but a symptom. Over the last year, we have seen the state wielding unprecedented levels of control over our lives, for good or for ill. What matters now is that we do not allow authoritarianism to become the accepted form of government in this country.