Policing bill and protest: how the House of Lords helped protect our rights
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is currently making its way through parliament, undergoing the procedural stages that make it law.
The Bill contains a number of draconian measures to restrict protest and criminalise peaceful protestors, such as:
- Introducing new police powers to decide where, when and how people are allowed to protest.
- Making it easier for the police to prosecute peaceful protesters.
- Introducing harsh prison sentences for organisers of protests that breach police restrictions.
In March 2022, peers in the House of Lords took an historic stance by rejecting (for the third time) restrictions on noise protest and peaceful assemblies which had been voted for by MPs. It's rare for the House of Lords to push back a third time on amendments, and highlights just how seriously the issue is treated by Peers. We couldn't be more grateful for this intervention to protect our fundamental right to protest, but the fight's not over yet.
Policing bill timeline
March 2021: parliament held its first debate on the Bill. We had serious concerns about the impact this legislation would have on the rights of communities and citizens to make their voices heard using peaceful protest.
November 2021: things got significantly worse when the government tabled a raft of amendments to the Bill that would add even more measures to restrict and criminalise protests, including some that would look at home in a dictatorship.
January 2022: in a turn of events that left us all hopeful, the government was defeated 14 times in votes on amendments to the Bill, including almost all the anti-protest amendments tabled in November. Also, thanks to the Peers, some of the measures have been scrapped and are gone for good.
February 2022: MPs voted to reintroduce the police powers to restrict noisy protests, peaceful assemblies and one-person protests.
March 2022: Peers stood up for our rights again by insisting on 2 of their previous amendments: to remove noise-based protest restrictions, and to remove further restrictions on peaceful assemblies.
Late March 2022: The government voted against the House of Lords recommendations. Once again, Peers insisted on their amendments, voting for a third time to remove the noise trigger for restricting public processions and assemblies, and police powers to restrict one-person protests.
House of Lords vote against proposed anti-protest measures
The government’s proposals are oppressive. If they become law, the Bill will fundamentally damage our democracy.
Gone for good
Peers rejected proposals to make protest tactics like “locking on” and being equipped to lock on – a standard protest tactic used as far back as the Suffragettes, such as chaining yourself to a railing or even just linking arms – a criminal offence. Other measures to broaden police stop and search powers and to ban specific people from protesting have also been rejected by the Lords. A massive win as the proposals have been removed from the Bill completely and can’t be reversed by MPs.
Wins that MPs could still reverse
MPs will now, in a process called "ping-pong", confirm or reject the following changes made by the House of Lords:
- The removal of police powers to impose noise-based restrictions on protest.
- The removal of greater powers to restrict peaceful assemblies.
- The police will have greater powers to restrict one-person protests.
We've seen that the government has already tried to reverse as many of the defeats inflicted by peers as possible. This means we still have to press MPs hard to ensure the some of the worst aspects aren’t returned to the Bill.
What hasn't changed
Peers have stood up for our historic rights and freedoms, humiliating the government in the process. However, significant parts of the Bill have survived and there's no further opportunity to amend or remove them. These will make it easier to restrict and criminalise protests and introduce harsher sentences for peaceful actions. When the Bill is passed:
- It will be possible for anyone to receive a criminal conviction for breaching a police condition placed on a protest despite having no knowledge of it.
- Protest organisers – where police conditions are breached – can for the first time receive a prison sentence.
- Public nuisance, including for causing "serous annoyance or inconvenience", will be a statutory offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years.
It’s also important to note that measures to criminalise trespass tragically passed without amendment following a drawn vote late last year. This means these changes – which are a direct attack on the nomadic way of life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and give the police to seize their homes – remain, and will criminalise already marginalised and persecuted communities.
What can I do?
Opposition against the Bill is huge. Hundreds of thousands of you have demonstrated against the Bill, taking to the streets, signing petitions and contacting your MPs. These protests have helped quash measures attempting to restrict the right to protest. We’ve seen how powerful our voices are, and why the government is attempting to restrict our right to protest.
One of the most powerful things we can do now is to pressure our own MPs to protect the right to protest by supporting the Lords' latest changes to the Bill. We need one last push as MPs have a final chance to defend our historic right to be heard by those in power.
Parliament is now on recess until 19 April so the Bill won't bounce back to the House of Commons for a few weeks, where MPs will vote on the Lords’ amendments again. There's still time to contact your MP or tweet them and convince them that the anti-protest measures in the Bill are a direct threat on our rights.