openDemocracyUK: Opinion

As a former officer, I'm horrified by England and Wales’s Police Bill

The bill could spell the end of policing by consent – and force police leaders to decide whether to use draconian powers on peaceful protesters

Richard Ecclestone
13 January 2022, 10.52am
Protesters gather in London to protest the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, 8 December 2021
SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

I have been on both sides of the protest fence. In the 1990s, I attended a series of anti-roads protests in Devon wearing a police uniform in my role as a police inspector. More recently, I have been taking part in Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London, Cornwall and Scotland wearing an XR badge and acting as police liaison for the movement.

As a result, I feel confident in saying that the impending Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill could spell the end of the already-battered belief of many people in England and Wales that those who police them are doing so with their consent.

And it will effectively throw police leaders into direct conflict with the government as they are forced to decide whether to use their draconian new powers upon peaceful protesters and Traveller communities.

The British policing model has been rooted in the concept of policing with the consent of the public since the establishment of the Metropolitan Police by Robert Peel in 1829. The second of ‘Peel’s Principles’ states: “To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.” This has been built upon in the current Code of Ethics, National Decision Model, and the oath that officers take on appointment.

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But I have become increasingly concerned over the past three years as I’ve witnessed first-hand what I believe to be serious overreach of these principles by some police forces as they manage peaceful protests.

Unnecessary, unreasonable and disproportionate tactics have been put into action, such as pre-emptive raids, seizure of vehicles and property, targeting and following of individual activists, the use of stop and search, the misuse of health protection regulations, and the use of police cordons to deny the public access to the protests.

This government is attempting to silence dissent by deterring citizens from taking to the street to protest

Following the October 2019 XR protests in London, where police decision-making was challenged by judicial review, the High Court ruled that the Metropolitan Police had acted unlawfully in their imposition of a blanket Section 14 (Public Order Act 1986) effectively making protest illegal across the whole of London.

These actions have reinforced existing distrust in the police among communities and groups with lived experience of being over-policed. Indeed, both the College of Policing and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services acknowledge the threat to the legitimacy of policing caused by the perception of the misuse of powers, and the targeting of particular groups, especially the use of stop and search.

The PCSC Bill, currently before the House of Lords, threatens to put a further nail in the coffin of public trust in the police. This government is attempting to silence dissent by deterring citizens from taking to the street to protest about concerns as their conscience dictates. The measures in the bill, if implemented, would enable police in England and Wales to effectively shut down any protest by imposing conditions “that appear necessary”. The bill also creates imprisonable offences designed to dissuade people from even turning out to protest.

By implementing these draconian measures, the police will be perceived by many to be the enforcement arm of a government that appears itself to have scant regard for the rule of law, the sanctity of the separation of powers, or the principles of public life.

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It now proposes new crimes that could criminalise almost any protester and give police alarmingly wide powers of stop and search

What’s more, the slew of recent acquittals of demonstrators in crown courts (The Shell Seven, The DLR Six, and the Colston Four), together with the Ziegler judgement in the Supreme Court, points to how the law and independent juries are perceiving the right to protest.

With these court outcomes in mind, coupled with a commitment to operational independence from politics and a right to use discretion in the application of legislation, police leaders could, and some say should, decide not to use their new PCSC powers, as to do so would be a disproportionate interference with the right to peacefully protest, and therefore unlawful under Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

There already exists a sufficiency of powers to ensure that an appropriate balance can be struck between the right to protest and the rights of others.

Prior to becoming a police officer, I was an army officer during the Cold War, based in what was then West Germany. It is particularly ironic that I now find myself trying to protect our freedom from an increasingly authoritarian domestic government.

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