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Policing bill: MPs have one last chance to protect the right to protest

Protesters are urging MPs to ‘use their privilege for power’ next week when the notorious bill returns to the Commons on Monday. Here’s what’s at stake

Anita Mureithi
25 February 2022, 3.13pm
“What side of history do you want to be on?” - Marvina Eseoghene Newton
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Guy Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

MPs are preparing to vote next week on some of the most controversial anti-protest measures left in the government’s notorious policing bill.

Amnesty UK has urged MPs to “follow the lead of their colleagues in the Lords in taking a stand against the power-grab” when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill returns to the Commons on Monday.

Last month, the House of Lords rejected a string of proposals that would have given police in England and Wales increased powers, including the power to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion”.

But there are a number of measures left in the bill that experts say would threaten the right to peaceful protest and leave over-policed communities fearing for their futures.

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MPs and peers have already backed a number of these, meaning they are unlikely to be removed from the new legislation. But the Commons still has a say on one key detail: whether protests can be shut down for being too noisy.

“The whole purpose of protest is to get noticed and to apply pressure,” said Nick Dearden, director of social justice organisation Global Justice Now.

“Obviously this is going to be noisy and disruptive – that’s often the point. If we live in a country that calls itself democratic, we have a right to use the power of protest to hold these extremely powerful players to some sort of account for their actions.”

Marvina Eseoghene Newton, founder of United for Black Lives and co-founder of BLM Leeds and the Kill the Bill campaign, has urged MPs to stand with the people who want to defend their right to protest.

“You are in a position of power,” she said. “You're in a position to turn your privilege into power… to be on the side of those who are marginalised, and disadvantaged. And you can do the right thing now.

“The only reason we’re on the streets is because we're trying to create an equitable society. And if we can’t get an equitable society by using our voice and influence, we are being silenced. And by [silencing us], you are oppressing the majority.

“So, what side of history do you want to be on?”

Clause 55 of the bill would allow police to shut down or restrict a protest if they believe the noise generated will “result in serious disruption” or “have a significant and relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”.

The legislation has been opposed by a nationwide ‘Kill the Bill’ movement, with protesters taking to the streets to stand against the bill’s ‘authoritarian’ and ‘draconian’ measures.

Coming together to chant, sing, and generally make noise is a fundamental feature of any healthy democracy

For civil justice groups and grassroots movements, the right to protest is fundamental. Speaking to openDemocracy, the South Asia Solidarity Group said: “The noise clause, and the PCSC bill when seen in a wider political context, is a clampdown on dissent against right-wing policies.

“This bill, alongside the Nationality and Borders Bill, demonstrates an escalation of an authoritarian state, which is keen to criminalise peaceful protest groups and ethnic minorities who continue to be heavily policed.”

Karla McLaren, Amnesty UK’s government and political relations manager, told openDemocracy: “The right to protest is a cherished part of the fabric of our society and it’s profoundly disturbing that the government is trying to gag people like this.

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Social justice organisations and grassroots campaigners say that the right to protest is at the heart of everything

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Andrea Domeniconi / Alamy Stock Photo

“Coming together to chant, sing, and generally make noise is a fundamental feature of any healthy democracy, and we should all be very worried about efforts to stifle that right in this deeply authoritarian policing bill.”

Home secretary Priti Patel has asked MPs to back her controversial measures, telling the Sunday Express that “in recent years we have seen a selfish minority using egregious noise, not as a method of legitimate expression, but to antagonise others from the enjoyment of their own liberties”.

But, for Dearden, “the reason the government is pursuing these measures is precisely because they know protest works, and they want to protect the powerful from the accountability which protest can bring.”

Speaking to openDemocracy, Jodie Beck, policy and campaigns officer at Liberty, said there were a number of other amendments that could potentially be added back into the bill. These will be debated in the Commons and MPs will have an opportunity to vote them down again.

If the Commons and the Lords cannot agree on the final wording of the bill, it could be sent back and forth between the houses. The proposals cannot become law until there is an agreement on the changes. “So it’s really important to mobilise MPs in the House of Commons to safeguard those wins from the Lords,” she said.

One amendment is about the distinctions between the powers police have for managing different kinds of public events. Currently, the extent of those powers depends on whether a protest moves (such as a march) or is static (such as a public assembly).

There’s a distinction, Beck said, “because it's a widely held view that, if a protest is static, it’s less disruptive. And so there's less need for police to have the power to impose conditions”. The government wants to end the distinction but the Lords voted to keep it.

Another amendment relates to the provisions for dealing with one-person protests, meaning that police won’t be given powers to impose start and finish times or set noise limits on demonstrations by one person – a win that Beck said MPs need to safeguard.

Next is the wilful obstruction of highways. Initially, the rule included a whole host of different roads and paths that people could be criminalised for blocking. Labour peers successfully pursued a compromise amendment, which would mean the offence applied only to motorways. But Liberty believes that “you shouldn’t be criminalised for blocking the motorway or any other kind of road”.

If this amendment to limit the scope of the offence doesn’t go through, the measure will go into the bill in its original form, giving the police “very broad sweeping power” to criminalise people who use these particular tactics to protest.

Farhana Yamin, climate lawyer and activist, told openDemocracy: “This bill effectively ends the right to protest as we know it because the police can end any protest any time due to noise, annoyance, and if it has only the slightest impact.

“What is the point of organising a protest that has no impact? Organisers are basically being told not to create any kind of pressure.”

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