Protest is central to democracy. From voting rights to employment and environmental protections it has been the key to political progress for over two centuries. Currently the police can only stop a protest if there is a threat of serious public disorder, serious damage to property or community life. This is set to change significantly. Provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill allow the police to stop protests on the basis of ‘public nuisance’ which is vague and open to interpretation. Time and noise limits can be imposed at the discretion of the police. The restrictions could even apply to a single individual who is seen by the police to be a public nuisance.
The Bill is a wide ranging piece of legislation which amounts to a significant overhaul to the criminal justice system. The government claims it will help support and protect the police in their work and allow more effective sentencing for serious violent crimes. As criminal justice is mostly devolved the provisions of the Bill will apply mainly to England and Wales only. The Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons in March then entered the Commons committee stage which ended on 24th June. The 3rd reading in the Commons is due to start on 5th July.
There have been widespread concerns about the threat to the right to protest within the Bill. Campaign groups, including climate action and anti-Brexit groups, and human rights organisations have expressed serious objections. Big demonstrations have taken place in Bristol and other cities in March and April and in London in May.
MPs and Lords have expressed serious concerns. In March the opposition spokesman on justice David Lammy described the Bill as a “mess” and said that “the government is trying to rush through Parliament poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest”. In April former Home Secretary David Blunkett (now in the Lords) said it would make Britain “more like Putin’s Russia” and would “leave a bad taste in the mouths of British people who value tolerance, democracy and open debate”. “By giving police forces sweeping discretion about how they deal with protesters, this law would drive a wedge between them and the public … Tolerating dissent and protest is a British value, and it’s central to our democracy”.
On 22nd June Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights said that the clauses which restrict the right of protest will breach human rights laws and should be scrapped. The chair of the committee, Harriet Harman, said: “One of our most fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. To do that, we need to make ourselves heard. The government proposals to allow police to restrict ‘noisy’ protests are oppressive and wrong”.
Many amendments to the Bill have been proposed including upholding the right to protest. We await to see what the government position will be, which amendments will put to MPs, and how they will vote. However, although the Bill has not been in the headlines in recent weeks, there are currently no substantial indications that the government will back down on the main provisions against the right to protest.
Update 7th July
The Bill passed its 3rd reading in the Commons on 5th July. Many amendments were proposed but without any rebellion from Conservative MPs all of them were defeated. The Bill will now go to the Lords where there is no time limit on scrutinising the legislation.