On 3 October, the government announced that it would make the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill even worse. In a blustering attempt to show that they control the people, Patel and Johnson have said that they will seek to introduce a six-month custodial sentence, unlimited fines – or both – for obstructing a public highway. The current maximum punishment is a £1,000 fine.
As more and more draconian laws are passed, and as more people are set to be imprisoned for dissent, it’s difficult to see how the government will uphold its façade to the rest of the world: that we are a country that values democracy.
The announced amendment to the bill has come off the back of Insulate Britain’s motorway protests, which have been going on for weeks and have caused gridlock on the M25. And on 4 October, activists blocked three major routes in London.
The government has already taken out an injunction on the activists, effectively making it an imprisonable offence to block the M25.
The audacity of Johnson
Johnson had the audacity to say that the right to protest is “sacrosanct”. He went on to say:
This government will always stand on the side of the law-abiding majority, and ensure the toughest penalties possible for criminals who deliberately bring major roads to a standstill.
Clearly, Johnson doesn’t grasp the point of protest. The whole reason we take to the streets (or motorways) is to try to bring about significant change. And yes, that will often mean that we’re not “law-abiding” when we’re protesting to change said-laws. It means that we might cause a “serious disruption“, something that the government is cracking down on in the new police bill. If we didn’t, what would be the point? But that’s exactly what Johnson and Patel want: a population too fearful to even sit in a road. To them, the extent of “sacrosanct” protest will be standing in a designated police pen, waving a pretty banner for a couple of hours, and then heading home.
Regimes deciding what is or isn’t “legitimate” protest is the kind of thing the Foreign Office has criticised when it involves repressive states the British government doesn’t like.
Netpol told The Canary that the latest proposals are a continuing “vendetta against protest”. It went on to say:
The poorly-conceived intention here is to make it easier for the police to hold detainees on remand until a trial, which they cannot do right now because blocking a road is not considered a serious enough offence.
Imagine being held in prison until your trial because you joined a street protest. This is what could happen if Patel and Johnson have their way.
Supreme Court ruling? Pah, we’ll just ignore it…
The government’s announcement also completely ignores a recent Supreme Court ruling, which gives a “clear and unequivocal vindication of the right to obstructive protest”. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that:
Intentional actions by protesters to disrupt, by way of obstructing others, enjoys the guarantees of Articles 10 and 11 [of the Human Rights Act], and restriction on those rights will not necessarily be justified, even in a case such as this, where a road is blocked for 90 minutes.
No wonder the government keeps threatening to strip us all of our pesky human rights
Abusing stop and search powers
The government has also promised to amend Section 60 powers to enable police to stop and search activists. Currently, Section 60 is only supposed to be an emergency measure for violent crime, and the police do not need ‘reasonable suspicion’ to search a person. In practice, however, the government abuses these powers – especially in Black communities.
Netpol said of Johnson’s announcement:
It will mean that anyone linked to a protest movement that has used civil disobedience tactics is liable to face targeting and harassment – for example, just for wearing a badge or carrying a protest banner that identifies them as a campaigner. This kind of criminalisation rarely succeeds but as these powers are used more often – and we suspect the police will embrace them eagerly – then it risks more people facing searches that have a chilling effect on their human rights.
Slipping into totalitarianism
The police bill, which is passing through the House of Lords, also strengthens the police’s ability to impose conditions on a protest, or arrest people if the noise from a protest causes people “serious unease“. According to Netpol, it also “introduces new offences for one person protests for breaching conditions based on noise and impact”. The bill will give the police far greater powers to look after corporate interests, effectively shutting down protest against companies and criminalising those who take part in a demonstration.
On top of this, the bill will create a new statutory offence of public nuisance. In other words, actions that cause “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”. According to Netpol:
Previously, charges for public nuisance during protests have been relatively rare. Anti-fracking campaigners jailed in 2018 for this offence were the first to face imprisonment since 1932. A new statutory offence would result in a maximum sentence if tried in a Magistrates Court of 12 months in prison and a fine (or both) and for more serious cases tried in a Crown Court, of up to 10 years in prison.
Any kind of dissent can be deemed a “serious annoyance”, so all protesters will, in future, risk being imprisoned.
The next sitting in the House of Lords for the Police Bill is on 20 October. The bill has seen massive protests all over the country so far. It’s important that we keep fighting it right through to the bitter end.
Featured image via screengrab
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