We all want to know we can stand up for what we believe in. But in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill the government is attacking the fundamental right to protest.
The bill, which was introduced in March and is now near the end of its journey through Parliament, already included powers to make protests illegal if they become too noisy or cause serious disruption. Not content with these already draconian powers, the government has recently added amendments to it.
New powers including “protest banning orders”, the offence of “locking on” and protest-specific stop and search are intended to stifle the right to protest for all of us.
These additions to the Policing Bill must be seen for what they are: a power grab.
“The Policing Bill was already a direct threat to some of the most marginalised communities.”
Asbo-style Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), or protest banning orders, will subject people to a set of conditions and restrictions, including not associating with certain people, going to certain places, carrying certain items or using the internet in a certain way. They can last for up to two years, but there is no limit to the number of times they can be renewed. Breaching a protest banning order is a criminal offence.
The terms for imposing protest banning orders are so broad they can catch all protest activities – you don’t even need to have been convicted of an offence. The government has proposed a vague and broad definition of “serious disruption”, and the Home Secretary will be able to move the goalposts at any time.
Protest banning orders effectively ban people from organising and making their voices heard, striking at the heart of what makes protest meaningful and effective: political community.
The amendments also expand stop and search, including suspicion-less stop and search. Police will be able to stop and search a person or vehicle for items intended for use in connection with the offences in the bill: obstructing the highway, public nuisance, locking on, obstructing major transport works and interfering with national infrastructure.
And the list of objects that could be “made, adapted, or intended for use in the course of or in connection with” the listed offences is potentially endless and could even include placards, flyers and banners. The police can seize any prohibited item and derail a protest before it even gets going.
Linked to this is another new offence of obstructing a suspicion-less protest-specific stop and search, which is punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison and/or a fine. This could affect legal observers’ ability to act as witnesses to police behaviour at police protests and to offer legal advice and support.
The government wants to make it illegal for a person to attach themselves, another person or an object to any other person or object or to the land, punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison and/or a fine. “Attach” is not defined, and locking on only needs to be “capable” of causing serious disruption to “two or more people”.
Being equipped to lock on is another new offence where a person has an object with them in a public place with the intention that it will be used “in the course of or in connection with” any person “locking on”.
The current punishment for someone who obstructs the highway is a fine. Amendments to the bill will change it to up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine or both.
Obstruction of major transport works is another new offence that a person commits if they in any way obstruct or interfere with “any apparatus” relating to the construction or maintenance of those works. Together with another new offence of interfering with national infrastructure, these vague measures threaten to criminalise protests at sites of power, often initiated by environmental protesters.
The Policing Bill was already a direct threat to some of the most marginalised communities in Britain. It created new suspicion-less stop and search powers, a Prevent-style duty for knife crime that social and youth work and health and social care professionals say would breach their professional duties of confidentiality, and provisions that would criminalise the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities.
These amendments further threaten all of us who have a cause we believe in, and will be most keenly felt by those already marginalised, whose need to stand up to power and protect their rights is most urgent.
Protest is a core pillar of any healthy democracy. These new powers are a threat to our rights, and an opportunistic move from a government determined to shut down dissent, stifle scrutiny and make itself untouchable.
Photo: Police surround a locked-on environmental protestor in London (Dave Rushen/Getty)