Why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a harmful piece of legislation

Friends of the Earth details the impact the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will have on our right to protest peacefully.
  Published:  15 Mar 2021    |      5 minute read

On 15 March, parliament held its first debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Friends of the Earth has serious concerns about the impact this legislation will have on the rights of communities and citizens to make their voices heard through the use of peaceful protest. 

This Bill poses a serious threat to some of our most fundamental rights, like freedom of assembly – the right to gather, which allows us to peacefully protest – that are vital to any democratic society. The Bill attempts to seriously limit the right to peaceful protest, increase prison sentences and give police more powers to arrest people for peaceful activities. It also criminalises the lifestyle of nomadic, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and limits access to nature.

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.

In recent years, 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. 

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.

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).

Smaller, community organisations and local campaigns 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 law, 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.

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 isn’t merely an inconvenience, it means seizing their homes and all their belongings within. 

And the harm goes wider. 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.

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.

The severity of the implications of this legislation for some of the most fundamental rights of citizens is only made worse by the speed that government is seeking to drive it through Parliament. It's unacceptable that we have had less than 3 working days to understand its provisions and their implications.

We need parliamentarians of all parties to oppose this Bill and show they're committed to defending our freedom to make our voices heard on the most pressing issues of our time. And our right to gather peacefully together to call loudly for a better, more sustainable society. 

A new Bill threatens our right to protest peacefully and targets the nomadic life of some of the UK's most marginalised communities.

A new Bill threatens our right to protest peacefully and targets the nomadic life of some of the UK's most marginalised communities.