openDemocracyUK: Explainer

Policing Bill and Elections Bill: What’s next in fight to save UK democracy?

Lords’ defeat of last-minute additions to England and Wales’s Policing Bill hailed as a victory by campaigners, but the fight is far from over

Martin Williams
18 January 2022, 1.03pm
‘Kill The Bill’ demonstrators gather outside the House of Lords in protest against the Policing Bill, 17 January 2021
Vuk Valcic / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government’s plans to curb democratic rights were dealt a blow last night as opposition peers voted against a series of last-minute additions to England and Wales’s Policing Bill.

Campaigners hailed the votes as a victory – but their battle is far from over.

Meanwhile, in the Commons, the controversial Elections Bill was voted through by MPs and will now pass to the House of Lords.

Here’s what will happen next to both bills.

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Policing Bill

What happened last night?

Usually, new laws must gain the approval of both Houses of Parliament before they become law. The government’s flagship Policing Bill had already travelled through the Commons once.

But ministers amended the bill after that, to include extra provisions for breaking up peaceful protests if they were judged too noisy or disruptive, as well as creating new offences for protesters who block roads and lock themselves to objects or to each other.

Normally MPs can reinstate parts of a bill that the Lords remove, leading to a back and forth between the houses until both chambers can agree.

But because MPs hadn’t had a chance to vote on those additional proposals, the Lords had more power than usual: voting them down removed them from the bill altogether, with the government now unable to reinstate them when the bill returns to the Commons for further scrutiny and votes.

The last-minute amendments included:

Related story

Polling stations
The government claims the Elections Bill is designed to protect our democracy. As a former Tory minister, I know this is nonsense

What happens next?

The Policing Bill’s third reading in the Lords – at which peers can suggest further changes – will take place on 25 January, before the bill passes back to the Commons.

MPs will then consider the Lords’ amendments and either vote to accept them and pass the bill as it now stands, or will make further changes and send the bill back to the Lords.

There is in theory no limit to the number of times this can happen. It is known as ‘ping pong’. In practice, if the two houses cannot agree, the government could either choose to kill the bill, or to pass it unilaterally at a later date using powers in the Parliament Acts that give the lower house ultimate authority.

As for the last-minute amendments voted down by the Lords, these cannot be reinstated, but there is nothing to stop the government from tabling a fresh bill that contains the same things. Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Tuesday, justice secretary Dominic Raab could not say whether ministers would opt to do this.

What have campaigners said?

Basically, that the fight isn’t over, particularly regarding the part of the bill that could effectively criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’ way of life by creating new offences. That section remains intact, after Labour whipped peers to abstain on it, and will return to the Commons. Nine Labour peers defied the whip.

Environmental campaign group Greenpeace had condemned the proposals, saying they “don’t belong in a free and democratic society”. Many of the additions to the bill appeared to target Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, the latter of which successfully blocked roads across the country last year in protest of the government’s lack of action on the climate emergency.

A spokesperson for the Police Bill Alliance, a collective of groups campaigning against the proposals, said today: “We are grateful to every peer who stayed late to push back against this draconian bill, which seeks to destroy the right to protest in the UK.

“With the bill set to return to the Commons, we now urge MPs to uphold the changes peers have made on ‘noise-based’ conditions on protests. 

“Unfortunately many of the measures criminalising protest remain in this bill, meaning you could get ten years in prison for causing ‘serious annoyance’. The bill also introduces oppressive new measures which criminalise the nomadic way of life for Gypsy and Traveller communities.”

Elections Bill

The government is also trying to change the UK’s election laws – a move that critics say will curb voters’ rights.

The Elections Bill has passed its third reading in the House of Commons, bringing the UK one step closer to introducing compulsory photo ID checks for voters.

The government claims the new rules would help eliminate voter fraud. But statistics show that there are very few instances of this taking place – and that introducing ID checks could prevent some people – particularly those with disabilities or from marginalised groups – from voting in elections.

The government risks undermining one of the most fundamental rights we have here in the UK

David Davis, Conservative MP

Writing for openDemocracy yesterday, Conservative MP David Davis said: “In proposing to introduce mandatory voter ID, the government risks undermining one of the most fundamental rights we have here in the UK – to vote freely without restriction. In short, voter ID is an illiberal policy in pursuit of a non-existent problem.”

The proposals have also been criticised for undermining the independence of the Electoral Commission, which regulates UK elections.

Last year, former electoral commissioner David Howarth accused the government of an “appalling” attack on the watchdog, saying that the changes “look like something straight out of Putin’s playbook”.

But with most Conservative MPs voting in favour of the measures, the Elections Bill will now head over to the House of Lords, where peers will get their say on it before it becomes law.

No date has been set for this yet, but it is likely to face significant opposition by peers, who will have three readings of the Bill. If they reject parts of it, the proposals could be thrown back to the Commons.

Opposition MPs have accused the government of rushing the bill through Parliament, as the time taken to debate amendments was cut to two hours and 20 minutes.

The third reading was also cut off early because of a 10pm deadline.

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