By: Molly Cowell
Image via The Daily Mail
On the 9th of March 2021, the UK Conservative Government introduced a bill to The House of Commons (The primary legislative body) known as the Police, Crime and Sentencing and Courts Bill. It proposed major changes to the policing and criminal justice system in a variety of ways, perhaps most noticeably in regard to protest laws. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been ardent defenders of their new legislation but many members of both parliament and the general public have heavily opposed it. This controversy sparked national action over the course of the last few months, beginning in March 2021, which has seen violent clashes with police in several cities and a divided political landscape.
One of the primary areas of the Bill which has sparked anger amongst protestors is its move to limit the powers of the public to peacefully protest. The Bill states that all protests must match a set noise level and time length defined by the Police and Government prior to the event. Furthermore, it states that should police deem the protest to be a “nuisance”, they are allowed to force it to end. Many people supporting the Activists from “Kill the Bill” (the central group organising against the policies) are arguing that for a protest to be successful it must be disruptive on some level, in order to make an impact, and so it cannot be heavily limited by the state. Therefore, they believe the wording of the Bill poses major problems in terms of democratic participation. The right to protest and freedom of expression are contradicted by the Bill, despite being embedded in UK national values and law as part of the 1998 Human Rights Act (article 11), which makes up part of the Constitution. However, as the constitution remains unentrenched (it is illegal for a parliament to bind its successor) it has fewer safeguards, unlike in America, and so can be changed by a UK Government whenever they please. Furthermore, the Conservative party have hinted that they wish to repeal the Human Rights Act as they believe it is not the correct approach the UK should be taking towards defending the rights of the people. As such, the Supreme Court is largely powerless in preventing the bill from becoming law because this remains a legal grey area. So, the responsibility of opposing the government lies primarily with the minority parties in Parliament. However, the Conservative Party has the majority of seats so it is unlikely they will succeed.
Members of Parliament warned the Prime minister that his Bill would “Make a dictatorship blush” but the Bill still succeeded in passing its second reading by 359-263 votes and so is now entering a final review stage before it will be voted into law. The reason there is so much conservative support for the bill is perhaps because it has been a long-standing ambition of the party to be tough on law and order, and they believe it to be an adequate response to the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests, which occurred over the past year. Many police officers, including some in the London Metropolitan Police Force, were angered at being unable to do more to prevent disruptive protests and called for a policy change.
People are arguing that these increases in police powers are unjust and the punishments laid out in the Bill are too extreme. A primary example activists are giving is the clause which makes the maximum sentence for defacing a statue ten years in prison; in contrast it is just seven years imprisonment for rape. Not following restrictions that protestors “ought” to know about is now also a crime and those not following police orders may be fined £2,500.
The controversy over the Bill has seen major repercussions, with thousands of protestors marching in cities across the UK from Newcastle to Brighton. The most extreme of these are occurring in Bristol and increasingly becoming known as the “2021 Bristol Riots” which have seen violent clashes and burning police vans. Home Secretary Priti Patel maintains the Bill is necessary and that those responsible for the violent protest will be held accountable. It is interesting to note that so far, some cities have seen little or no violence, such as Sheffield in South Yorkshire, where the police presence appeared much lower than in Bristol and London. However, I observed one intervention a few weeks ago when someone seemingly opposed to the protest threw herself onto activists who were peacefully sat outside the town hall (but it is unclear why this was.)
Police relations were aggravated recently following the murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police Officer. Her remains were found after a search lasting several days, sparking questions about police violence and the psychological condition of many officers. This, along with anger at the Bill, has created widespread criticism of the UK’s approach to policing with protestors chanting “ACAB” on several of the demonstrations. Questions have been raised over the title of the campaign “Kill the Bill” and its relation to UK slang, Bill being an old term for police officer but activists state it is solely referring to the term meaning legislation.
The situation is tense and with the third reading of the Bill coming up, it is likely to increase. Saturday the 1st of May saw yet another National Day of Action against the Bill and it seems many protestors were not deterred by heavy police presences and numerous arrests. It is simply not possible to say what will happen over the next few weeks but one thing that is clear is that protests are showing no sign of stopping and organisations from across the political realm are beginning to come out in support of them. Will it be enough to stop the Bill becoming law? We can’t be sure.
Written by Molly Cowell