Yesterday, there were a series of defeats in the House of Lords over measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
While the bill is a huge piece of legislation, which includes measures approved by the House of Lords such as making misogyny a hate crime and removing the Vagrancy Act, the primary concerns of its opposers- including protesters at the Kill the Bill protest, were the measures that would affect protesting.
The bill proposed that fines and jail time could be given to protests and protesters that are ‘too noisy and disruptive’, criminalising the act of or intention to ‘lock’ (attaching one’s body to something- think protesters going old school and chaining themselves to trees or gluing themselves down), and allowing the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of the protest, even if they were not protesting.
It’s hard to overstate the impact this bill would have on the future of democracy in Britain. While we may have the right to vote for whoever we deem appropriate during elections, in a functioning democracy protest is an effective means to fight for freedoms and reject repressive measures. The protests held against this very bill would see individuals arrested, and possibly jailed.
If you’ve never been to a protest, it’s perhaps easy to dismiss the significance of the right to protest. Protests have been the catalysts for significant change throughout history: as the Labour peer, Lord Hain notes, these measures would have “throttled” protests by the suffragettes. By repressing our right to protest, our rights to reject the actions of a government are themselves diminished.
It’s not difficult to understand how these measures initially passed in the House of Commons. The media and political discourse in Britain has demonstrated a huge disdain for protestors who act in an annoying, noisy or disruptive manner. And, of course, if you’ve been affected by, say, a road block- it’s possible that you just want to see the irritating protestors moved so you can get on with your day. However, protesting, particularly in an annoying, noisy or disruptive manner- is one of the most powerful ways to send a message. After all, who’d heard of Insulate Britain before they were on the M25?
Those in favour of the bill have argued that the new measures would only be used when necessary. However, as we saw with the vigil for Sarah Everard (which wasn’t even a protest), the police can be heavy handed with enforcing these measures. When the law allows for protesters to be arrested for simply being too “noisy”, it’s clear to see how the law could be used to shut down any protest, quickly.
Additionally, the ability to stop and search anyone near the vicinity is deeply concerning. With Black people being 9x more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts, the expansion of these powers are likely to further perpetuate state harassment of Black people.
The bill highlights the shift the UK government has been making towards authoritarianism. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you’re on, the oppression of the rights of our neighbours across the water should be deeply concerning.
The bill will now bounce back between the House of Commons and House of Lords, until its final form is agreed.