Tory ministers are facing a furious backlash as they push through a crackdown on rights to protest in the UK.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill reaches MPs tonight amid an angry, live debate about free speech and police tactics.
The 176-clause Bill would make a mishmash of totally unrelated changes to UK law, from banning sex between sports coaches and 16-year-olds to imposing life sentences on some killer drivers.
But it’s 10 or so clauses about protests – which by coincidence, are being introduced less than 48 hours after police manhandled women at a vigil for Sarah Everard – that are in the spotlight.
Lawyers, policing figures and MPs have warned they could be a disproportionate strike at free speech that lasts long after Covid.
A joint statement by Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter today claimed: “This appears to be a blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state, where the voices of ordinary people, particularly those most marginalised and disadvantaged, are silenced by state-sanctioned penalties.”
So what is the new law all about, and why are there calls by some groups of ‘Kill the Bill’? Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
Home Secretary Priti Patel is introducing a 296-page Bill that will change several different things about the legal system.
Many of these are uncontroversial or things that MPs, including Labour, have been wanting for a long time.
For instance, the Bill will double the maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker to two years. It will also enshrine a Police Covenant in law to protect serving and retired officers and their families.
It will add religious figures and sports coaches to the “positions of responsibility”, like teachers for example, from which it’s illegal to have sex with 16- and 17-year-olds in their care.
And it will allow judges to hand out tougher sentences, including Whole Life Orders for premeditated murder of a child, or maximum sentences for 18 to 20-year-olds behind mass murder or terrorism.
It will end the automatic release halfway through sentence of serious violent and sexual offenders, and have new powers to halt the automatic early release of offenders who pose a danger to the public.
However, it’s the 10 or so clauses about protest (below) that are proving the most controversial.
The Bill receives its second reading in the Commons this week – that’s where MPs must vote for against the whole thing so far. If it passes (which it will), MPs then get to scrutinise the individual measures in committee stage.
What are the fears about protests?
The Bill contains a string of measures to toughen up the police response after Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matters protests were accused of disrupting public life.
They include making it illegal to inflict “serious annoyance” on a person without reasonable excuse, with up to 10 years’ jail in theory if judges choose. Measures also include imposing up to 10 years’ jail on people who vandalise statues – up from three years.
The Bill will also create new offences against obstructing the road or using a loudspeaker at the gates of Parliament.
Police and legal figures have warned this could pose a threat to democracy. Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable told Times Radio there was a “real danger” that rushed legislation could make the job of the police “more difficult”, adding: “People need to be really worried about this.”
He said: “If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.
“This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain protests during the summer.”
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, warned the Bill could “hugely expand” police powers to “allow them to stop protests which would cause ‘serious unease’ and create criminal penalties for people who cause ‘serious annoyance’.”
He added: “This would effectively put the current situation where Covid regulations have given police too much power over our free speech rights on a permanent footing.”
What are the most controversial parts of the Bill?
Police can impose more conditions on protests
Clause 55 will let police impose start and finish times and maximum noise levels on a wider range of protests in England and Wales.
Officers will be able to do this if they believe the noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” nearby.
The power is not limited in the law to noise levels or start times – a police officer can take “such conditions as appear necessary” to that officer “to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation.”
The Home Office argue this is simply widening powers that already exist for moving marches to cover static protests as well. But civil liberties groups say noise and disruption are a key part of making your voice heard.
It will be up to the Home Secretary – currently Priti Patel – to decide the definition of “serious disruption”.
‘Serious annoyance’ will carry up to 10 years’ jail
Clause 59 will axe the ‘common law’ definition of public nuisance and replace it with a clear set of words agreed by Parliament.
It will make it a crime to “intentionally or recklessly” cause public nuisance without a reasonable excuse.
Offenders will get up to a year’s jail from magistrates or 10 years from a crown court judge if found guilty, in the worst cases.
The government insists this is simply taking the current definition of public nuisance and putting it on a proper footing. “This will provide clarity to the police and potential offenders, giving clear notice of what conduct is forbidden,” the Home Office said.
But there is not a clear list of “reasonable excuses” – the government just say defendants will have to prove that excuse existed in court, on the balance of probabilities.
And two words in this clause have attracted a lot of interest.
Someone will fall foul of the law if they have caused a person “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity.” How will “serious annoyance” be interpreted by police?
Most loudhailers will be banned outside Parliament
Clause 57 will hugely expand the “controlled area” outside Parliament, where tents and unauthorised loudspeakers or megaphones are banned.
Currently the area only covers the garden and footpaths in the middle of Parliament Square, with other roads around it not under any special anti-protest law.
But the Bill will expand this controlled area to several roads around Parliament after a number of demos stopped traffic. These roads are Canon Row, Parliament Street, Derby Gate, Parliament Square and part of Victoria Embankment.
Those who disobey can be fined up to £5,000.
A similar move was recommended by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, which warned access to parliament must not be obstructed after a wave of threats against MPs.
However, opposition has united critics from Richard Tice, leader of Nigel Farage’s anti-lockdown Reform UK party, to Tom Brufatto, former lead organiser of the People’s Vote marches against Brexit.
In an open letter today they say: “As long as laws are made in Parliament, then British people must have a legal right to protest them in Parliament Square. Democracy is not an ‘inconvenience’. Public opposition and dissent are among the hard-won rights that make our democratic and like-minded groups.”
One-person protests face a crackdown
Clause 60 has already been dubbed the ‘Steve Bray’ law, after the man who spent years shouting ‘Stop Brexit!’ at Parliament.
It will give senior police the power to impose any conditions they see fit on a one-person protest to avoid “disruption or impact”.
This can only be done if they believe the noise that person is making “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the protest.”
But once again, Home Secretary Priti Patel will be able to define this “serious disruption”.
One-man-bands who knowingly refuse to comply with police orders can be fined up to £2,500. Someone who “incites” the one-person protest not to comply could be jailed for up to 51 weeks.
Ardent Remainer AC Grayling tweeted: “It’s a great honour to Steve Bray, and an unmistakable sign of the weakness, pettiness, illiberality and unintelligence of this Brexiter ‘government’, that it seeks to pass a Bill that singles him out.
“He has humiliated and stung them and they want to shut him up; he should be knighted.”
Defacing a statue will carry up to 10 years’ jail
Clause 46 will raise the maximum penalty for criminal damage to a memorial or statue from three months to 10 years.
Currently judges and magistrates have to base their sentence on the monetary value of the damage. In future they will be able to look at the “emotional and symbolic value” of the damaged statue too, said minister Kit Malthouse.
The Tories are doing this in a ‘culture war’ after statues including Winston Churchill’s were attacked or damaged with graffiti.
No10 insisted the focus would be on vile things like anti-Semitic graffiti or attacks on gravestones, war memorials, memorials to people who’ve been murdered.
But that’s not quite how it was trailed in right-wing newspapers. The issue has prompted anger from Labour, who say the move is a distraction and will in theory mean longer sentences for attacking statues than some attacks on women.
People in protest camps can be jailed for three months
Clause 60 will create a new offence of “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”.
This could affect protest camps like Extinction Rebellion, as the law will apply even if their “residing” is only temporary, and will apply equally to common land and private land.
Protesters can be ordered to leave by police if they are deemed to be causing “significant disruption”, or even if they haven’t caused disruption yet but it is deemed “likely” in future.
If they refuse, they can be fined up to £2,500 or jailed for up to three months.
Police will also be given more powers to remove unauthorised encampments on roads.
A petition signed by more than 130,000 people warned criminalising trespass would be “an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms”, adding: “For a thousand years, trespass has been a civil offence.”
Critics say the law threatens not only protests, but also wild camping, ramblers, new rights of way and Traveller communities.
What else is in the Bill?
The plans include new laws to reform sentencing, the courts and the management of offenders, as well as more powers and protections for the police, some of which will be UK-wide while others may only apply in England and Wales.
All these could in theory still be approved by MPs later, while removing the bits on protest, if the Bill passes second reading.
- Whole Life Orders for premeditated murder of a child
- Maximum sentence to 18 to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, like for acts of terrorism leading to mass loss of life.
- Powers to halt the automatic early release of offenders who pose a danger to the public
- Ending the automatic release halfway through a sentence of serious violent and sexual offenders.
- Life sentences for killer drivers.
- Expanding position of trust laws to make it illegal for sports coaches and religious leaders to engage in sexual activity with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.
- Officers could also be allowed to stop and search people more if plans for serious violence reduction orders go ahead.
- Legal duty on councils, police, criminal justice bodies, health and fire services to tackle serious violence and share intelligence.
- Deaf people could sit on juries for the first time.
What does it do for women who’ve suffered violence?
There are some limited clauses, such as ending early release for serious sexual offenders. But Labour have complained the Bill does not do enough to help women.
Shadow domestic violence minister Jess Phillips said: “The Bill is full of divisive nonsense like locking up those who damage statues for longer than those who attack women. Now is a moment to change the criminal justice system so it works for women, not to try and divide the country.”
Police minister Kit Malthouse insisted the government had taken steps to protect women.
He said: “The domestic abuse bill, which is an extensive bill that will significantly enhance our ability to confront domestic violence and abuse is just finishing its passage through the House and contains enormous provisions to help us with that fight.”
The Domestic Abuse Bill is currently in its report stage in the House of Lords – one of the later steps towards it becoming law.
But it has taken three years to get this far – having been delayed in coming to a vote by two successive General Elections.
What is Labour’s position?
Labour will vote against the entire Bill at second reading. If that succeeded (it won’t) it would kill off the entire Bill at the first hurdle.
Realistically, it’s likely Labour will then try to amend the most controversial bits of the Bill while supporting other bits of it.
The party says it supports several measures contained within the bill, including proposals on dangerous driving, increased sentences for terrorists and other dangerous offenders, a police covenant, reform to criminal records and closing the loophole to criminalise sexual abuse by people in positions of trust.
The Tories claimed Labour was “voting against tougher sentences for child murderers, sex offenders, killer drivers”. While Labour is voting against the Bill at its first hurdle, this characterisation is misleading to the point of being untrue.
Shadow Domestic Violence Minister Jess Phillips responded: “This is a disgusting and untrue statement. The Conservative Government’s Bill does absolutely nothing currently to increase sentences for rapists, stalkers, or those who batter, control and abuse women. It does nothing about street harassment and assaults.”