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Latest 12 May 2021

The return of the Policing Bill

The Government’s legislative agenda for the next year – set out in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech – contains a series of deeply troubling measures, from plans to introduce Voter ID to a piece of legislation to prevent ‘no platforming’ at universities. They masquerade as confected solutions to non-existent problems. But in fact, they are worse – they are transparent attempts to silence opposition.  

But these proposals, deeply concerning as they are, risk overshadowing the more immediate danger of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (the “PCSC Bill”) being pushed through without robust opposition. The Bill is set to return to the House of Commons in the next couple of weeks for what is known as the Committee Stage. 

We commissioned advice from Phillippa Kaufmann QC and Anita Davies at Matrix Chambers on the part of the Bill that deals with protest rights, and we promised we would publish that advice. It can now be accessed here.

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The advice confirms some of our deep worries about the protest provisions in the Bill, but also highlights that the defining battle will be around how the Home Secretary exercises her powers under the Bill to define certain key phrases such as ‘significant disruption’. The definitions of these key terms will effectively set the tone for how protests are policed from now on. 

Below are some of the key findings from the advice.

  • The police already have a wide range of powers to deal with protests.
  • The Bill marks a significant departure from the historic approach to the policing of protests under the Public Order Act 1986.
  • The advice shares our concern that the Secretary of State has the power to effectively prohibit entire classes or types of protestsand has the power to set a low bar for what constitutes ‘significant disruption’ to the community or organisation – although how that power will be exercised remains to be seen. This includes defining the phrase in ways that would cover a picket or trade union demonstrations (even though their very purpose may be to cause disruption in order to draw attention to concerns around working conditions).
  • The Bill broadens the circumstances in which police can impose restrictions on public processions and assemblies, including the introduction of a new noisecriterion. All of this is likely to have a chilling effect on protests.
  • Whether or not the legislation is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) may well depend on the restrictions imposed in specific circumstances, but the new provisions increase the possibility of protests being regulated in ways that could interfere with the rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR. 

And that’s just the protest provisions. There are, of course, other aspects of the Bill that should concern all of us – including the proposed criminalisation of trespass in a way that disproportionately impacts Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities, and the fact that the plans for policing and sentencing are likely to further entrench racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

We are continuing to speak to MPs on both sides of the aisle to highlight our concerns. But if the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, introduces regulations of the sort anticipated, Good Law Project will bring or support legal action, alongside other civil society watchdogs, to try to stem our alarming slide towards authoritarianism.

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