Can we still protest?
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. Protest hasn't been banned. But the police can now restrict it to a degree and for reasons that wouldn't previously have been possible, and with new offences and harsher punishment that are designed to deter the public from exercising their rights and holding the powerful to account.
It’s not the outcome we fought for. Despite voting against police powers to restrict noisy protests, 1-person protests and public assemblies on 3 previous occasions, the House of Lords finally relented and voted to approve the Bill with these measures included. The police will soon have unprecedented new powers to restrict protest, including the amount of noise we can make.
How will the new police act impact our right to protest?
Quite simply, the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act contains a whole raft of measures that’ll criminalise or disproportionately punish some of the most common tactics of non-violent protest and direct action.
In addition to the significant public order powers they already possess, the police will be able to impose conditions on protests they deem too noisy, even if they’re non-violent. Protests, of course, are all about noise, so this measure essentially takes away our right to voice our concerns loudly and be heard by those in power. This doesn't mean all protests will have to be quiet, but some could be silenced by the imposition of police restrictions. These conditions could even apply if just a single person is protesting.
What’s worse, you or I could be prosecuted for breaching a police condition, which could include what time a protest starts or finishes, or the numbers allowed, even if we had no idea the conditions had been imposed. Previously, police needed to prove that protesters knew they had breached restrictions before penalising them.
The new law also includes the vague offence “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”, which could be interpreted in many ways but is intended to target non-violent direction action. And obstruction of the highway could now mean a prison sentence.
Since the very foundations of non-violent protest are being dismantled, the measures will either criminalise people for non-violent actions or scare them off from taking part in peaceful protests if it means running the risk of imprisonment or large fines. We are determined to stop that happening and will be looking at the guidance we provide to supporters and our local groups to ensure the Act has as little impact as possible.
What we achieved
Friends of the Earth worked as part of a coalition with individuals and organisations to campaign for the same goal: the removal of anti-protest measures in Part 3 of the police bill and the removal of the new offence of trespass in Part 4, which effectively criminalises the way of life of nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
A series of late government amendments that attempted to add extraordinary repressive measures, including individual protest banning orders and protest related stop and search, were almost entirely defeated by the House of Lords and stopped from becoming part of the law. This was down to the immense groundswell of pressure from the public and from the coalition.
However the Queen's Speech announced that the government will be bringing these frightening measures back to Parliament to try and get them passed again in a stand alone Public Order Bill.
Friends of the Earth, our network and supporters campaigned tirelessly to oppose Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill. Some of our highlights included:
- Instigating a massive public letter with 350 organisations opposing the Bill’s anti-protest measures and the new offence of trespass.
- Collaborating with organisations like Amnesty and Christian Aid to create a joint petition against the anti-protest measures and new trespass offence in the Bill which gained over 800,000 signatures.
- Taking to the streets in solidarity with nomadic communities, joining demonstrations and lobbying MPs.
- Coordinating a diverse campaigning coalition of over 100 organisations.
- Keeping the Bill in the public eye and applying pressure to parliamentarians through social media, podcasts, webinars and writing many briefings for MPs and Peers.
People who’ll be most impacted by the Act were at the heart of our campaign. As part of the coalition, we worked with allies including Liberty, the Quakers, Friends, Families and Travellers, the Muslim Council of Britain, and many organisations representing disproportionately impacted communities. On the final day of debate, we helped organise a coalition wide day of solidarity with the nomadic Gypsy and Traveller Communities who will be so horribly impacted by Part 4 of the Act, and published an article by Romany journalist Jake Bowers.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act is undoubtedly a truly awful piece of legislation, particularly impacting some the most marginalised and persecuted communities in society. It’s the biggest rollback of civil liberties in a generation.
In a chilling week for civil liberties and human rights, the policing bill finally passed in a week that also saw the Elections Bill take away the independence of the electoral commission and the Nationality and Borders Bill remove legal routes to seek asylum and facilitate “processing” in Rwanda.
While we’re disappointed with the result, our journey doesn’t stop here. The government seems determined to push even further with its authoritarian crack down against protest. Friends of the Earth will continue to oppose measures passed in the Police Act and now those proposed in the new Public Order Bill. And we'll continue to show solidarity with those who’ll bear the brunt of them. Whether that’s standing with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people against the criminalisation of trespass, or monitoring the police and their use of anti-protest powers.
We’ll also help our network of groups and supporters to organise and attend protests safely, and continue working with others from the coalition to oppose the government’s assault on our democracy.
Through our ongoing rights and justice campaigning, we'll continue to fight for the civic and political rights which’ll enable us to create a just and sustainable society.