Following bills through Parliament can seem like a monotony at the best of times. Even avid politicos like myself can become lost in the political shenanigans of who is up or down in, rather than in the details of specific legislation.
However, it has become more important than ever to pay attention to laws passed by the government. While much of its domestic agenda has been delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, the extent of its legislative power has never been greater.
A public enquiry will examine the impacts of the pandemic responses, but we cannot let the government’s other legislation evade our attention. Specifically, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has just passed its second reading, must be called out for the dangerous threat to freedom that it is.
Pleasingly, the bill has attracted far greater scrutiny and opposition than other bills tend to generate. On 15th March, four people were arrested while peacefully protesting against the bill. Why were they protesting? If formalised it will have a drastic impact on the right to protest – it would grant huge powers to Home Secretaries and encroach upon the right to assembly.
The bill itself is 296 pages and covers a vast range of capabilities and social developments. The areas generating the most outrage relate to protesting. Since coronavirus regulations were introduced last March, the right to protest has been under serious question.
Typically, protests involve large congregations of people expressing unity on a particular issue. Those seen last year in support of Black Lives Matter after the horrific murder of George Floyd are a recent example.
Yet this bill would allow law enforcement to stop and cancel protests if they are deemed to cause/have the potential to cause “serious unease”.
This is both ridiculous and horrifying. The entire point of protests is for those who lack formal political power to express their voices informally. Naturally, those content with the status quo will feel a state of unease if the protest is challenging exist conventions.
Similarly, protests that create “serious annoyance” would also be prevented. The wording is imprecise, vague and subjective – so much so that it is difficult to find any meaning or reasoning behind it. Who would be annoyed? What is the required barrier of annoyance? This is both irrelevant and a complete anathema to the purpose of protests.
Throughout history – from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, Civil Rights campaigners to the Tolpuddle Martyrs – individuals oppressed by society have precisely aimed to stir up and create annoyance within the existing order. Both disruption and annoyance have been vital tools for those fighting for freedom and rights in the past and present.
I imagine all of us at some point have found a protest annoying. Teachers and lecturers going on strike, despite being for a good cause, can be irritating if exams are around the corner. Roads blocked by swells of people can be frustrating if you’re trying to get to work.
But the logistical and physical presence of protests is geared towards causing disruption. The prospect that this law would allow police to impose noise limits is laughable, given that protests by their very nature are designed to be loud and proud.
We’ve seen not only annoying, but frightening protests too. Far-Right demonstrations are fuelled by racism and often descend into thuggery. But there are already laws in place to deal with protests that get out of control or violent. The police already monitor protests – those planning a protest often have to inform the authorities of their intentions beforehand.
The question here is one of precedence.
Priti Patel’s new bill gives the police and Home Secretary huge sweeping powers over protests. If a protest can be stopped because it causes irritation and annoyance, what’s to stop a future, even more authoritarian government, from stopping protests that argue against their political objectives?
What’s to prevent a future government from curbing the right to protest altogether because of disruption caused to ‘ordinary, working people’?
That people have the tools of social media to voice their opinions is not enough. While we can all sign a petition or send a tweet, the physical presence of individuals around the country, taking to the streets to defend their rights, is a powerful expression of solidarity and an unwillingness to put up with existing norms.
Protests are supposed to spark a debate, bring change, enlighten discussion and celebrate the right for an individual to consciously hold a different opinion. That could soon be a thing of the past.
What can individuals do about this?
The bill passed its second reading by a majority of 96. Not a single Conservative MP voted against the bill. Though there has been criticism from the likes of Steve Baker, Graham Brady and even the former Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May, they would clearly prefer to support the bill now and review it at committee stage.
Despite the horror this bill could bring, the checks and balances it will face first are admirable. MPs will scrutinise the bill line by line in the committee stage before the report stage and a final third reading.
Similarly, peers in the House of Lords will also have the opportunity to express their opposition to various aspects of the bill. While I personally oppose the House of Lords, the added layer of legislative scrutiny is somewhat comforting.
The individual’s relationship with the state has been fundamentally altered over the last twelve months. Banned from leaving one’s home bar a few exceptions, many reluctantly accepted the rules as a means to keep the vulnerable safe from a deadly disease.
However, that reluctance was always on the basis these measures would be purely temporary. With this Policing Bill, the very opposite is true. Massive public resistance is necessary to ensure that this bill is amended, if not scrapped altogether. Citizens don’t cherish their freedoms when they have them – but we’ll certainly miss them when they’re gone.