The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill has come under scrutiny in the wake of the handling of the Sarah Everard vigils. What are the bill’s provisions and why is it generating so much controversy?
What is the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill?
The government says the bill, introduced in the Commons last Tuesday, will give the police powers to protect themselves and the public, introduce tougher sentencing and improve the efficiency of the court and tribunal system.
What does the bill say about protests?
The police will be able to impose conditions such as start and finish times on static protests, powers which officers already have in relation to marches. Additionally, senior officers will be able to impose maximum noise limits on protests, with powers to intervene when the noise is disrupting the “activities of an organisation” or has a “relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”.
The bill also has a specific section on one-person protests, which can also be subject to restrictions by police, based on the noise level, route, disruption etc. It gives the home secretary, Priti Patel, powers to create laws, without parliamentary approval, to define “serious disruption” to communities and organisations, which police can then rely on to impose conditions on protests.
If passed, the legislation will have the effect of curtailing protests near to parliament through provisions that state access for vehicles must not be obstructed.
Why is the government changing the law on protesting now?
Ministers say existing public order legislation was passed in 1986 and is no longer fit for managing modern protests, such as those by Extinction Rebellion (XR). Patel has been highly critical of XR and Black Lives Matter (BLM). She described XR as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and dubbed the BLM protests “dreadful”.
What are critics saying?
Organisations such as Liberty and the police monitoring group Netpol were quick to criticise the bill as a clampdown on the right to protest, handing too many discretionary powers to the home secretary and police.
Opposition has increased in the wake of widespread anger at the handling of the Sarah Everard vigils – both the attempts to prevent the events going ahead and the police response when they did.
Since then, Labour has said it will oppose the bill with shadow justice minister, David Lammy, saying it was “no time to be rushing through poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression”. More than 150 groups, including human rights charities, unions and faith communities warned it would have a hugely detrimental effect on civil liberties.
The government has been accused of taking advantage of conditions created by the pandemic, which necessitated temporary restrictions on demonstrations, to permanently erode the right of protest.
Critics have also pointed out that the 10-year maximum jail term introduced under the bill for people who criminally damage a statue is more than many men get for sexually assualting or raping a woman.
What does the government say?
It claims the measures in the bill do not undermine freedom of expression but “balance the rights of protesters with the rights of others to go about their business unhindered”. It points out that the Metropolitan police’s cost for policing XR’s 2019 “April Uprising” in London was over £16m.