Holyrood faces backlash over creeping authoritarianism in coronavirus bill

Protestor being detained and carried away by police

A lot of attention in recent months has been put on the laws and bills going through Westminster which are attempting to reduce our democratic rights. This attention is deserved. We need to stop these bills. We need to take to the streets and protest bills such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (policing bill), the Nationality and Borders Bill, and the Health and Care Bill. What isn’t being discussed however is that similar attempts are being made in Holyrood by a government typically considered more democratic. If we are to remain vigilant of power grabs by Westminster we must do the same for Holyrood. Don’t let the lack of attention fool you. Holyrood have as much disregard for democracy as Westminster.

“The whole purpose of protest is to get noticed and to apply pressure”

It’s important to look at how the policing bill allows the state to further control debate in this country – allowing certain movements and silencing others. It expands upon protest bans/restrictions from laws such as the Public Order Act 1986. This bill increases the size of the area outside Westminster which can be placed under protest restrictions, while also making it an offence to obstruct vehicles there. Such powers would further stifle protest and mean that many protests would be practically state sanctioned. Yet showing discontent towards some form of authority is exactly the point of protest. As Nick Dearden from Global Justice Now said:

The whole purpose of protest is to get noticed and to apply pressure

This bill would make it harder to have our voices heard at the exact time they need to be.

The bill would force people convicted of terrorist offences to be placed under conditions that make it easier for the police to search their homes and give them the power to arrest people without a warrant. It’s important to note the police’s attitude on what constitutes terrorism is skewed with counter terrorism police previously labelling Extinction Rebellion an extremist organisation. These powers could be used against protestors when causing “serious damage to property” is defined as terrorism, and can occur during protests.

What you don’t know can hurt you

The subjective nature of the provisions in the bill threaten our right to protest. Various aspects of the bill relating to public nuisance, serious annoyance, and noise complaints are open to interpretation by the police. When I attended protests in the past, the police always had to notify the protestors when they were placing restrictions on the protest. This bill would change that. The bill means that if you didn’t hear the restriction being put in place you could still be found guilty for failing to comply with the restriction as you ought to know it was put in place.

The bill would also give the police power to shut down protests deemed to be too noisy. However, the Home Office has suggested part of the police’s way of determining this could be through inspecting whether buildings are double glazed or not. In doing so, they would determine the likelihood of a noise complaint. Using such a bizarre metric for deciding whether protests would be too noisy or not is just another example of the arbitrary nature of these provisions which would make it easier to stop protests.

Read on...

The “public nuisance” argument

Protestors have been prosecuted under vague public nuisance laws in the past. 146 charges of causing a public nuisance were brought against Insulate Britain protesters last year. The policing bill will only further this erosion of protest rights through its definitions of public nuisance which remain unspecified. The bill provides no definition of what constitutes serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience, or serious loss of amenity. It would practically allow the police to determine it by their own definition. This is deeply concerning when causing public nuisance could land you 10 years in prison. The police would be able to arrest people based on their own subjective opinion. The idea that someone could be given 10 years in prison under such vague measures should worry us all. We must take to the streets and protest this bill before we can’t take to the streets anymore.

The Policing bill is only one of many pieces of legislation that attempt to reduce our democratic rights. Bills such as the Elections Bill, the Health and Care Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill are just some of the legislation being considered as part of a concerted effort by the government to clamp down on our freedoms. But these are far from the only pieces of legislation affecting our rights. The Coronavirus Act passed in March 2020 ushered in restrictive and authoritarian laws.

“We’ve been conditioned to live under very strict conditions”

The government has used the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic as an excuse for greater and greater infringements of our rights. As Oliver Feeley-Sprague of Amnesty International told me:

We’ve been conditioned to live under very strict conditions… The coronavirus restrictions softened up the public to accept a level of state interference in their lives they wouldn’t normally accept.

Under the Health Protection Regulations the police could, for example, forcibly detain anyone including children and take a biological sample against their will under the pretence they may be infectious. Non-compliance with this could have also resulted in a criminal charge. Police wrongly brought 270 charges using the regulation up to March 2021. Just like with the police bill these arbitrary measures made it easier for the police to abuse their powers. With 292 cases also wrongly charged under the Coronavirus Act, it is obvious it was abused by the police.

While it is important to stop the spread of an infectious disease such as Covid-19, it is vital we don’t allow this to be done by wrongly criminalising individuals as this was clearly not successful in stopping the spread of Covid-19 nor used proportionately. 

Don’t you know there’s a pandemic?

Justifications of protecting public health have been used to shut down protest. Mark Johnson from Big Brother Watch told me:

The government has become increasingly anti-protest and this Bill will maintain powers to criminalise protesters if there is a risk of any type of ‘disease’, prolonging the pandemic powers that led to the criminalisation of BLM protests and the Clapham vigil [over the murder of Sarah Everard].

The Coronavirus Act is even more worrying given the fact it allowed the government to “revive” provisions when needed. It also gave them the ability to suspend elections for up to a year after the passing of the act, delaying democratic accountability in this country. Our ability to fight for our rights is becoming increasingly difficult with laws that can be easily abused by those in power. It’s clear the policing bill is not the only attempt to take away our collective rights. We must ensure our rights aren’t taken away under false pretences of protecting public health.

But Scotland wouldn’t clamp down on our freedoms, right?

For many people the Scottish government is far more progressive and compassionate than the Tories. Free university and a more welcoming attitude to refugees help promote this image of progressiveness. To believe this makes it more democratic however is to ignore its recent attempts to take away some of our fundamental rights. Holyrood was designated a protected site on 1 October which means individuals can now be prosecuted for being on the grounds of Holyrood without consent.

Just like Westminster, Holyrood seems determined to shut down freedom of speech and freedom of expression. Cross party group the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) now have the power to select what protests are allowed outside Holyrood – helping it control debate in this country. The Kill the Bill Scotland activist I spoke to said that the restrictions on protest at Holyrood and the police bill can be seen:

in totality as diminishing the government’s accountability. Defending the powerful from the working class.

If that isn’t enough to shatter your faith in the SNP, then maybe the Coronavirus Recovery and Reform Bill will.

Perpetual lockdown

The bill was recently introduced to Scottish parliament and would grant the Scottish government the ability to shut down schools and businesses, and force people into isolation without any parliamentary oversight. The SNP’s attempts to make school closures easier shows a complete disregard for schoolchildren. Schoolchildren’s educations have been greatly affected by lockdown measures and remote learning. Scotland’s schools now have a literacy attainment gap of 24.7% between the richest and poorest pupils, as opposed to only 20.7% pre-lockdown and 21.4% in their numeracy attainment gap, a near 5% increase compared to pre-lockdown numbers.

Lockdown measures have also had a devastating impact on businesses with 20,000 businesses closing in a year. Unsurprisingly, these business closures have had a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of many Scots, with 41% saying lockdown has negatively impacted their household finances. Another aspect of the bill which may affect people’s finances is the proposal to drop the debt threshold for bankruptcy from £10,000 during in the pandemic to £5,000. It would be reckless to drop the debt threshold for bankruptcy when as we have see many people are still struggling financially from the effects of lockdown.

Unchecked power at Holyrood

Not only would the public or other MSPs have no say in the introduction of these measures, but it would also allow the Scottish government the power to extend the act until 2025. If enacted, this bill would take away our ability to exercise power on important decisions. We would have no say on going back into lockdown; no say on our ability to move freely; no say on whether our businesses stay open. There’s some seriously worrying parallels between this bill and the Coronavirus Act. They both attempt to control the duration of these measures – ones which have already had a devastating economic and social impact on this country. Don’t be fooled by the SNP’s progressive rhetoric, they are trying to wrestle power away from the public.

The bill recently received massive backlash with 90% of the 4,000 organisations and individuals consulted on it opposing the bill. This is great news but we must keep the pressure on the Scottish government to ensure this legislation doesn’t pass.

The SNP shows its true colours

There are plenty of terrible laws that Westminster are proposing and passing. They must be protested and stopped at all costs. The Tories must be held to account for their actions. While it’s important we raise awareness of these issues, it’s vital we don’t also lose track of creeping authoritarianism in Scotland. The SNP has shown its true colours with their clampdown on protest and their desire to take even more agency away from the general public with the Coronavirus Recovery and Reform bill. We must raise awareness of this fact to avoid a descent into totalitarianism.

It is right that measures were put in place to try and stop the spread of coronavirus. People’s lives depended on it. But some measures were abused by police – and now in Scotland the SNP is taking things too far. We can’t allow the pandemic to be used by those in power to wrestle more control away from us, stoke fear, and then use that fear to divide us – leaving us powerless to affect change in our lives and in society. We can’t allow them to take away our rights to protest, to have our voices heard. So, we must stand up, be counted, and fight for our rights.

Featured image via John Campbell

We need your help to keep speaking the truth

Every story that you have come to us with; each injustice you have asked us to investigate; every campaign we have fought; each of your unheard voices we amplified; we do this for you. We are making a difference on your behalf.

Our fight is your fight. You’ve supported our collective struggle every time you gave us a like; and every time you shared our work across social media. Now we need you to support us with a monthly donation.

We have published nearly 2,000 articles and over 50 films in 2021. And we want to do this and more in 2022 but we don’t have enough money to go on at this pace. So, if you value our work and want us to continue then please join us and be part of The Canary family.

In return, you get:

* Advert free reading experience
* Quarterly group video call with the Editor-in-Chief
* Behind the scenes monthly e-newsletter
* 20% discount in our shop

Almost all of our spending goes to the people who make The Canary’s content. So your contribution directly supports our writers and enables us to continue to do what we do: speaking truth, powered by you. We have weathered many attempts to shut us down and silence our vital opposition to an increasingly fascist government and right-wing mainstream media.

With your help we can continue:

* Holding political and state power to account
* Advocating for the people the system marginalises
* Being a media outlet that upholds the highest standards
* Campaigning on the issues others won’t
* Putting your lives central to everything we do

We are a drop of truth in an ocean of deceit. But we can’t do this without your support. So please, can you help us continue the fight?

The Canary Support us