Government bills represent a threat to our rights to protest and to hold the government to account
We are becoming accustomed to authoritarian regimes restricting the rights of their citizens by a variety of means. These include restrictions on the right of assembly, weakening judicial control and either ignoring or neutering human rights laws. The UK government has introduced three bills which seek to do similar things and this post is to highlight the dangers for everyone in the country.
Our human rights are our personal freedoms. You can’t see or touch them, but they should always have your back. Think of them as your invisible armour. If you don’t find yourself thinking about your rights much, that’s a good sign that they’re there for you and doing what they should be: making you feel safe, accepted and free to enjoy your life with dignity and without fear. But what if someone quietly took your armour away, bit by bit, and you didn’t realise until it was too late? How would you protect yourself?
That’s what’s happening right now, right under our noses – and the UK government doesn’t want you to know about it. As we speak, they are trying to introduce new laws and make changes to existing ones that will result in less freedom for ordinary people, more power for people in authority, and even greater inequality in our society. These changes will also make it harder for you to stand up for yourself if your human rights are being abused. And on top of that, in many cases it will be society’s most vulnerable people who are the worst hit by the changes. Our freedoms are under attack from all angles: this is a raid on our rights.
If you’re still not sure what all this means in practice, you’re not alone. That’s exactly what people in power want, as a lack of public understanding makes it easier for them to sneak through changes that will negatively affect people’s lives without them realising (until it’s too late). We’re here to shout about the changes and make sure as many people as possible are aware of them, as we need your help to fight them.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill
The right to protest is fundamental to a free and fair society. In its current form, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill for England and Wales, would be an enormous and unprecedented extension of policing powers which would put too much power in the hands of the state. It would give both police and Government ministers the powers to ban, limit or impose any condition on peaceful protests – on the grounds that they might be ‘noisy’ or cause ‘annoyance.’
The Bill not only targets the organisers of any protest, but also anyone who takes part in them on the basis that they “ought to have been aware” of any restrictions, conditions or prohibitions placed on any given event, risking criminalising large numbers of people for activities that otherwise would be perfectly lawful.
Our rights, enshrined in international and domestic law, can only be infringed in very limited circumstances considered to be both proportionate and necessary. Measures in this Bill are neither. Police already have wide ranging powers to manage public order and prevent public assemblies from causing serious harm. This Bill sets out to crackdown on explicitly nonviolent dissent.
This will likely disproportionately impact people who are in a minority and increase the racism and discrimination which is experienced by many. The thresholds in the Bill that will be applied to any policing action are vague, undefined and open to such wide ranging and discretionary interpretation that they will give rise to even more inconsistent approaches to how protests and demonstrations will be managed in future.
Communities who already face wide ranging racist and discriminatory over policing will likely be at even greater risk. Already, research by the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights shows that 85 % of Black people in the UK are not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the police.
This is worsened by other parts of the Bill, including greater police powers to enhance stop & search and to collect and share information, all of which are likely to entrench institutional racism within the criminal justice system. These structural inequalities need to be dismantled not re-built.
We are concerned by restrictions on the right to roam which would seriously affect Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who could see their entire way of life criminalised. These proposals risk further criminalising homelessness or protesters using nonviolent occupations, peace camps or sit-ins to challenge injustice.
This Bill covers a huge number of things, many of which have been heavily criticised by different sectors and requires a serious rethink. In many ways, it is so problematic that it would better be that it was dropped. Any welcome provisions in it could be delivered through different legislation. If the Bill proceeds, we are calling, alongside over 250 civil society organisations and 700 legal academics and counting, for the removal of Parts 3 and 4 of the Bill that relate to protest and the right to roam. We are similarly calling for the removal of measures relating to enhanced stop and search powers and data gathering and sharing requirements, which if enacted would likely increase structural racism and discrimination in the criminal justice system. At an absolute minimum, the relevant parts of the Bill (Part 2 Chapter 1, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 10 Chapter 1) must be substantially amended.
Disappointingly the Bill has passed through the Commons, but this is not the end. In autumn the Lords will now have the opportunity to amend the Bill, before it returns to the Commons.
This Bill affects England and Wales directly, but people from Scotland and Northern Ireland will travel to London to protest. As Amnesty activists we are concerned about restrictions to freedom of expression and rights to assembly wherever they happen in Bogota, Bangalore, Belfast or Bristol.
The Salisbury group will be writing to our MP, Mr John Glen, to express our concerns about this and other proposed pieces of legislation.