How the Policing Bill is threatening our rights and democracy

Friends of the Earth explains how the policing bill will impact our right to protest peacefully.
  Published:  15 Mar 2021    |      Last updated:  06 May 2022    |      7 minute read

After over a year in parliament and relentless campaigning from across civil society, the policing bill has reached the end of its journey and has now become the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. It’s not the outcome we fought for. The police will soon have unprecedented new powers to restrict protest, including the amount of noise we can make. Find out more about how the new Act will impact protest and what’s next.

This piece was originally written in March 2021 and addresses our concerns about Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Our right to protest and stand up for what we believe in is under threat. The government’s proposals are the sorts of laws you’d expect to see in a dictatorship, not a democracy.

Why the right to protest is so important

For decades, Friends of the Earth and its supporters have campaigned to improve the environment for people and the planet by taking to the streets in protest or assembling in parks and squares. Time and time again this has been an essential part of winning positive changes to make our lives healthier, cleaner and more sustainable. Without the right to protest, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve our biggest wins.

Protest was an essential part of the campaign against fracking. Numerous concerned communities protested outside council meetings, fossil fuel firms’ headquarters, drilling sites and on high streets. Those communities and activists were vindicated and there is now a moratorium on fracking. These peaceful protests were often noisy, and may have caused inconvenience and perhaps annoyance to some. But that is no reason to restrict them. Yet this Bill would criminalise many of these protests and silence the voices of communities opposing unwelcome and destructive developments in the future. Parliament has recognised that there is a climate emergency and yet we're falling far short of the action needed to address it. The future of the planet and humanity depends on peaceful protests like these.

Just recently, The United Nations COP26 summit showed us, more than ever before, the power of protest to hold world leaders to account. The policing bill includes a range of measures which would limit our ability to similarly hold leaders to account in the future.

How the right to protest is under threat

The government has tried to paint this Bill as protecting communities from protesters. In reality, it's about protecting the powerful from communities.

The Bill makes a number of changes to the Public Order Act 1986 to dramatically expand the conditions that can be placed by the police on "static assemblies" – demonstrations in other words. From currently just the place, duration and size, to any condition thought to be "necessary". These could include the protest being deemed too noisy, causing "serious disruption" to an organisation's activities or having a "relevant impact" on people in the vicinity. The Secretary of State would be given the power to change the definition of "serious disruption". 

This means police officers will be able to severely restrict a protest in anticipation that its noise might have an impact on the organisation or decision-makers it's directed at or on passersby, making it effectively pointless. Citizens will be quite literally silenced by these measures, forced to consider whether their protest will be too noisy to go ahead.

Our right to protest is worthless if organisers can't determine when and where it happens, and it can be stopped simply because it has impacts on those it's intended to reach.

The latest addition to the Bill includes the creation of the Serious Disruption Prevention Orders, which are individual protest banning orders imposed on a person including at the request of the police. These can be imposed both on people with previous protest convictions as well as those merely engaging in activities that result in, or were likely to result in “serious disruption” (a phrase the Home Secretary gets to define!)– so, criminalising people for engaging in protests in the past, present, or future, if disruption occurred or was just likely to. "Likely" being the key word – the disruption doesn’t even have to take place, it’s just the potential of it. This could directly impact on organisations like ours, where protest and activism are key components to what our network does. Once the order is imposed, it strips away your freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Who you associate with, where you go, what you do could all be limited and monitored. So, something as simple as meeting with your local activism group – socialising – could be seen as a breach, and you could face imprisonment. A person could be stripped of their basic civil rights for their previous protest activity, even where these weren’t illegal, or only became so because of the numerous new offences created by this bill.

Protestors face a greater risk of prosecution

The threshold for prosecuting someone for breaching police conditions imposed on a protest is reduced in the Bill, so that the individual merely "ought to have known" about the conditions' existence, rather than knowingly breaching them, as is the case currently.

This places the burden on protesters to find out about such conditions and on organisers to make them known. As a result, many will avoid attending or organising a protest for fear of arrest for breaching a condition that they were unaware of and receiving a criminal record. In particular, this creates further barriers for those from marginalised communities to have their voices heard. This applies particularly to people of colour, who already have disproportionately negative experiences of policing and the criminal justice system.

To make matters worse, the chilling effect on free speech will be exacerbated by provisions in the Bill to increase the penalty for breaches of police conditions to up to 11 months imprisonment for organisers – from 3 months currently – and an increased fine for individuals attending. One of the most bizarre proposals even makes it possible to place conditions on protests by a single individual (at least 2 people are required currently).

Recent additions to the Bill include new offenses of obstructing major transport works and interfering with national infrastructure. Roads, airports and oil infrastructure are specifically included. The terms of these new crimes could potentially cover almost any protest activity, for example making it an offence to do anything that intentionally “interferes with the use or operation of any key national infrastructure in England and Wales” no matter how minor the impact. The state seems to be arming itself with harsh new powers to punish those opposing the construction of new carbon intensive infrastructure that is driving us to catastrophe. If Boris Johnson ever carried out his promise to lie in front of the bulldozers to stop Heathrow expansion, he'd now face a one-year prison sentence under his own new laws.

Smaller, community organisations and local campaigns, of the sort that were so effective against fracking, without access to legal advice and dedicated staff are likely to be worst impacted by these changes.

Non-violent protest could attract lengthy prison sentences

The Bill also places an offence of intentionally causing a "public nuisance" in statute, with a maximum sentence of 10 years for actions which could include ones as minor as non-violently obstructing the public or causing serious annoyance or inconvenience. Vague terms are left open to interpretation by police.

What the government is posing as a response to Insulate Britain’s protest tactics creates a new crime of "locking on" – a non-violent protest tactic which has been used to make removing protesters harder or protect precious habitats in countless environmental protests for decades – will become a specific offence, despite various offences already existing which have been used against these sort of actions over the years, and face jail time. But the definition is so vague, that it covers attaching almost anything to anything else and holding hands or linking arms could put you at risk of prosecution. A new crime of “going equipped” to lock on is also created which could see people arrested for carrying household items such as bike locks, glue, tape, padlocks, rope. Combined with the new stop and search powers a frightening picture emerges.

Another measure creates an extended buffer zone around Parliament, where it will be harder to protest for fear of creating an obstruction to vehicles.

The most vulnerable are at risk

Part 4 of the Bill introduces new measures to create a new offence of trespass by “residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle”. This will criminalise the way of life of nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, already some of the most marginalised in the UK. It will even cover those who might be “intending” to reside, and gives police the power to confiscate a vehicle. For these communities, confiscating a vehicle means seizing their home and all their belongings within pushing families into homelessness. These communities have already been failed by central and local government, who have not done enough to ensure they have sufficient sites and stopping places. Even the National Police Chiefs Council has said “no new trespass offence is required.” It agrees that greater site provision is needed for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller encampments.

Additionally landowners wishing to make the countryside a hostile place for those seeking to enjoy it will gain a powerful new tool to deter wild campers, cyclists and others. It would send a signal that the countryside is not an open resource accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations, with criminal sanctions for breaching them. This is something that would especially deter those from communities with worse experiences of the criminal justice system.

Police stop and search powers were already being extended by other parts of the legislation. This will disproportionately affect people of colour, who are much more likely to face their use. New amendments now extend stop and search powers to protests. This means officers can search you if they suspect (and in some circumstances without any suspicion) you have items which could be used for protest offences.

However, the new legislation could see countless household items included in this category. These new powers could deter people from attending protests especially those from marginalised communities who already have disproportionate and negative experience of stop and search. Obstructing a police officer from conducting a protest related stop and search will also be an offence.

Just recently, on 9 December 2021, we saw the House of Commons pass the Nationality and Borders Bill – an act which criminalises asylum seekers and includes the power to strip UK residents of their citizenship. This of course serves as a powerful deterrent against protest, should the policing bill pass. The most vulnerable in our society are effectively having their voices silenced – they can’t protest or be vocal about their wellbeing or lives without threat of prosecution or at worst, removal of their citizenship and deportation. The government is in real danger of descending into a state of untouchability where the powerful cannot be held to account for their actions.

The Bill is an anti-democratic piece of legislation

The fact is that some protests are difficult, time consuming, or inconvenient to police and have impacts on those they're targeted at or the wider public. But that's not a reason for restricting them and criminalising those who organise and take part.

These measures make it easier for decision-makers and the powerful to avoid scrutiny, opposition and being held to account, while ordinary citizens face being silenced for speaking out on the issues that concern them. Protest is the lifeblood of democracy and our environment is better for it.

Opposition to the new laws now includes over 350 organisations, 600,000 members of the public, a number of senior former police officers, three UN Special Rapporteurs, and the Government's own human rights watchdog. International civil freedoms monitor Civicus has even placed the UK on its watchlist of countries which are seeing a rapid decline in civic freedoms – alongside Belarus, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

This is our final opportunity to defend against the government’s clampdown on peaceful protest and stop the worst parts of the Bill from becoming law.

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