Priti Patel must be rubbing her hands with glee as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act finally comes into force
Police officers across England and Wales will be eager to flex even more macho muscle as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act finally comes into force on 28 June. The controversial act, which is commonly known as the Police Bill, received royal assent back in April, but police forces around the country couldn’t act upon it until now. The act is the biggest assault on our rights this generation has ever seen. In 2021, thousands of people took to the streets to try and fight the bill, leading to a massive crackdown by the state – it still continues to imprison a number of those who took action.
The PCSC Act is deliberately massive in content. There’s so much included in it that it’s difficult for the average person to grasp exactly what is now illegal, and what we can be arrested and imprisoned for.
Most famously, the act will affect our right to protest. But until we’re on the streets, we won’t know exactly what we’ll be arrested for. This is because the act is – in many sections – ambiguous, and will give police forces the freedom to interpret the law as they see fit. For example, the police will be able to impose conditions – such as when and where the protest can take place – if the noise of a protest will cause ‘serious disruption’. Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) stated:
Many of the new powers in the Act are poorly defined, with the Home Secretary having powers to regulate the meaning of “serious disruption”. In practice, the police themselves will often be able to decide when and how to impose conditions, opening the door for widespread abuse.
This means that protesters, especially if they are near a business or a public building, may find themselves facing threats of arrest in circumstances that they have not previously encountered.
Senior police officers will be able to impose conditions on a protest if they decide that “disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation” might take place. But, of course, the whole point of a protest is to disrupt. If our actions didn’t make an impact in some way, then we may as well have stayed at home.
Even more ludicrously, the police can impose conditions on a one-person protest. The act also states that you can be arrested if you ought to have known about these conditions – which will vary from protest to protest. This means that you could be convicted of breaching a condition even if you didn’t know it had been imposed.
On top of all this, the act creates a new statutory offence of public nuisance. This includes actions that cause “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience or serious loss of amenity”. However, just like with causing “serious disruption”, if we didn’t cause “serious annoyance” what would even be the point in protesting? If you’re convicted of this offence, you could face up to ten years in prison.
It should come as little surprise that the government has included “serious loss of amenity” in its list of imprisonable protest offences. After all, protecting business interests is something that the Tories do well.
Obstructing a highway, an offence that protesters are often arrested for, has now also become an imprisonable offence. If you’re arrested for it, you can spend up to six months in prison, just for sitting or standing in a road.
Trespass in a vehicle
Of course, it isn’t only protest that will be affected. The act makes it a criminal offence if you’re “residing on land without consent in or near a vehicle” and you are “likely to cause serious damage or serious disruption”, or if you’re likely to cause “significant distress” – yet another ambiguous piece of legislation that the police can use as they see fit. Under the act, a vehicle means any chassis “with or without wheels”, as well as caravans. This law effectively increases the criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who will now be even more at risk of their very homes being taken from them.
Worryingly, we don’t know how the police will enforce the PCSC Act on van-dwellers. We can only assume that each individual police force across England and Wales will behave slightly differently, depending on their tolerance of Traveller communities or of homeless people who live in their cars.
The act has given academies the right to apply to run secure schools. These are essentially prisons for young people aged between 12 and 18 years. The government describes these secure schools as a “planned new form of youth custody”. They can also be run by charities – and will see yet more money being funnelled into the private sector. This will, of course, affect the most marginalised families in our society: those who live in the most deprived areas, and who have been failed by the state.
Serious violence reduction orders
As if all this wasn’t enough, the government also managed to push through the implementation of serious violence reduction orders (SVROs). Liberty has described SVROs as:
a new civil order that can be given to an individual, including if they knew, or ought to have known, that someone else had a knife or would use a knife. The police will be given the power to stop and search people who have an SVRO without suspicion at any time in a public place.
Through SVROs, the police will gain even more power to harass someone, as they will no longer require the ‘reasonable grounds’ they previously needed to stop and search an individual. Instead, if a person has been issued with an SVRO, the police now have the power to search them at any time, whenever that person is in a public space. This will, of course, disproportionately affect the Black community, which is already 9.7 times more likely to get stopped and searched.
Although the act has now passed, we do have some powers to fight back. It’s important to remember that protest is still legal. Likewise, just because the PCSC Act is now law, this doesn’t make it enforceable, and there will be challenges to the legislation.
There are a number of things that you can do, such as monitoring the police in your area. You can set up a neighbourhood police monitoring group or a local Copwatch group.
You can also report police incidents surrounding the act to Netpol, who will be monitoring exactly how the police enforce their new powers. Netpol is also running a campaign to #DefendDissent to resist the new legislation.
It will be Black, brown and Traveller communities who bear the brunt of these new laws. Let’s look out for each other, stand together and resist this draconian act.
Featured image via Shoal Collective
- Attend Netpol’s free webinar, ‘How Will the PCSC Act Impact Our Right to Protest?’ on 30 June. Speakers include some of the most prominent protest lawyers in the UK.
- Know your rights: read Netpol’s summary of how protest is now affected here.
- This new act is open to legal challenge, especially around protest law. Netpol wants to know how the police have imposed conditions on a protest: at what point was the noise is deemed excessive? Who are the police officers targeting for arrest for noise they say causes disruption? Help Netpol to monitor the police by reporting all incidents to [email protected]
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