The government is currently trying to bypass basic parliamentary scrutiny by adding 18 pages of amendments to a bill that has already made its way through the House of Commons. The last-minute changes, tabled in the House of Lords by an unelected peer, will not be scrutinised line by line in the usual manner. Instead, they will be rushed through without proper debate.
Perhaps it is appropriate that this bill passes in such an egregious, anti-democratic way. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill has been described by various human rights groups as a serious threat to democracy. It was already stuffed full of legislation intended to criminalise protest and intimidate campaigners. It gave police the ability to shut down protests for causing “serious annoyance” or for being “too noisy”. It also threatened Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Now the bill is back in parliament – and it’s looking even worse.
The government is trying to add a whole suite of offences that, if passed, will criminalise protest even further. Under these new proposals, activists could be imprisoned for obstructing roads and blocking printing presses. They could be banned from using the internet to organise protests. The amendments also include a proposal to allow police officers to stop and search people without grounds for suspicion – and with anyone trying to obstruct such a search liable to receive up to 51 weeks in prison.
One of the most controversial proposals is the introduction of ‘serious disruption prevention orders’, which can be imposed with or without a conviction. These orders can be used on anyone who has been to two or more protests in the last five years. Whether you marched over racism, climate change or Brexit, everyone is at risk – providing, of course, that the protest you attended was “likely to cause serious disruption”, as all effective protests are. If you meet the criteria, the police will be able to prevent you from being with certain people, going to certain places, and carrying certain items. Want to tell your friends about a protest on Facebook? Forget it.
Under the new bill, the home secretary will advise the police on how and when to implement these orders. They will also be able to define what “serious disruption” means with regard to all of these offences, handing sweeping powers to the government of the day. The current home secretary Priti Patel has repeatedly tried to break international and domestic law, and is now introducing legislation to strip naturalised UK citizens of their citizenship. Should she really have the power to ban people from attending protests? Should anyone have such power?
Another proposal is to criminalise ‘locking on’, a tactic that has been used by peaceful protesters for centuries. This proposal will make it an offence to “attach” oneself to another person, an object, or to attach an object to another object during a protest. Does that make sense? It better do, because it will also carry a maximum sentence of 51 weeks in prison.
Home Office minister Baroness Williams of Trafford has said these measures are necessary in order to “protect the public from unacceptable levels of disruption”, pointing the finger at “reckless and selfish” activist groups like Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. Her boss, Priti Patel, has also described protesters who chain themselves to buildings, like the suffragettes did in the early twentieth century, as “selfish” and “criminal”.
The final amendment to the bill, rushed through at the very last moment, makes protesting outside train stations, airports or oil refineries an offence. The government came up with this idea last year, after climate activists blocked two printing presses owned by Rupert Murdoch – an act of peaceful protest described by Patel as an “attack on capitalism”. This new offence criminalises any protester that “interferes with the use or operation of any key national infrastructure”, and carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison. Tellingly, both printing presses and oil pipelines are now deemed to be “key national infrastructure”.
The government has, of course, tried to avoid scrutiny at every turn. The bill, which is over 300 pages long, was voted through the House of Commons just six days after publication. There has not been time to properly consider or scrutinise it. The wording is vague and ill-defined. Many of the offences effectively include all acts of protest.
There is a possibility, of course, that these amendments won’t pass through the House of Lords. Baroness Williams was previously forced to withdraw the amendments after outrage from her colleagues – but she has now tabled them again. Williams, notably, is hardly a great champion of democracy: she ran for election and was rejected by the electorate twice, before being given a life peerage by David Cameron in 2013.
When the bill was read in the House of Commons in the summer, the MP for Swansea West Geraint Davies described it as “an act of political treason”. He argued: “People in this country should not rest until it is overturned and our rights reinstated, so that democracy can live, breathe and thrive again”. The bill is now even worse – and he is still absolutely right.
Who cares about democracy, anyway? That’s the question we all need to ask ourselves. The government certainly doesn’t. The Labour party is hardly much better. If opposition is going to come from anywhere, it will come from the people. Now, the most realistic way to defeat this draconian piece of legislation is to make it unworkable. That means mass mobilisations, rolling demonstrations and direct action. The power of protest is going to have to defend the right to protest. And it’s going to take all of us.
Sam Knights is a writer, actor and climate activist.
On Wednesday 8 December at 5pm there will be a protest against the police bill outside the House of Lords. For more information, or to organise your own protest, click here.