In March 2021, a collective outcry amongst environmentalists and human rights advocates echoed across the country after the UK government published its proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill. The bill gives police extraordinary powers to crack down on the freedom to protest, criminalises Gypsy and Traveller communities’ way of life and threatens foreign nationals’ residency status. Recently, home secretary Priti Patel added further authoritarian amendments at short notice, leaving little time for parliamentary scrutiny. The bill is currently with the House of Lords after passing through the Commons. Protest-related clauses are to be debated on 10th January.
The police crackdown bill, revisited
Although media attention has died off since the nationwide wave of Kill the Bill protests in spring 2021, the PCSC bill is still alive and kicking. It has widely been described as a draconian attempt to undermine democracy and freedom of speech in the UK. At over 300 pages, the bill is a massive piece of legislation and, one might think, deliberately opaque. As the bill was pushed through amongst the many uncertainties of Covid restrictions, many were under the impression that its sole purpose was to curb protest during the pandemic – but unfortunately, the bill is here to stay. But why are people worried about the bill?
- It gives the state more powers to stop protests: The PCSC bill will increase powers to control small and static protests (even one-person protests). Police will also be able to restrict protests in order to prevent “impact”, which is kept very vague. One of said impacts include being “too noisy”, or “causing disruption” – with the most concerning aspect being the home secretary’s powers to define disruption however she wants, and cancel any protest she doesn’t like. With Priti Patel expressing her dislike of Black Lives Matter and climate protests in the past, this does not bode well for people protesting some of the most pressing issues our society faces. Further, activists will be prosecuted for protesting illegally even if they broke the law unknowingly, if it is deemed that they “should” have been aware of the law.
- It makes public nuisance a statutory offence: Causing a public nuisance – such as noise or disruption – will result in a maximum prison sentence of up to 10 years, and expand the definition of public nuisance to include “annoyance”, a very subjectively defined term. Activists organising a protest which ends up being too “noisy” or “annoying” will also face up to ten years behind bars.
- It increases sentences for damaging statues and memorials: Where vandalising a statue would previously result in fines of up to 5,000 and a maximum sentence of 3 months, this will now be increased to 10 years.
- It gives the state more powers to prosecute gypsy and traveller communities: Previously the police could only crack down on these communities if they were found guilty of damaging lands. Under the bill, the police can remove them if they suspect they may “cause significant distress” in the future, and confiscate their vehicles and possessions. The UK has a long history of discriminating against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and this clause will further marginalise an already vulnerable group.
George Monbiot speaking on the implications of the draconian PCSC bill.
Last-minute amendments make the bill even more authoritarian
After the bill passed through the commons and the second reading in the House of Lords, Priti Patel added 18 extra pages to the bill shortly before it went back to the Lords, giving them very little time to work through proposed amendments and make necessary changes. The new amendments include:
- The criminalisation of “locking on” to another person, an object or land, which has been an important protest tactic dating back to the Suffragettes. The clause includes “being equipped for locking on” by carrying glue, locks or other equipment. Locking on is punishable by 51 weeks in prison, a fine, or both.
- Criminalisation of obstructing transport: This amendment is thought to be aimed at the recent Insulate Britain protests, and will make campaigns against airport expansions and new road-building projects difficult. Obstructing transport will be punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison, a fine, or both
- Giving the police more powers to stop and search: Under the bill, anyone in the vicinity of a protest can be stopped and searched – even if there is no suspicion that the person may be carrying lock-on equipment
- Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs): These are similar to Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and can be imposed if individuals are thought to cause disruption by protesting repeatedly. People under SDPOs can be prevented from being with certain people, carrying certain items, or using the internet to encourage protest. The orders can be imposed for up to 2 years – if broken, activists can be punished with 51 weeks in prison, a fine, or both. What’s particularly worrying is that these orders can stop people from engaging in actions which could lead to disruption – even if they do not have a history of protesting – which is thought to target online activism.
An accessible explainer video on the new PCSC bill amendments.
Minority groups will be disproportionately affected
Social justice groups have been ringing the alarm bell over the policing bill, as it is thought to disproportionately affect minority groups. Non-white people are already six times more likely to be stopped and searched by police, and there is no question that the recent amendments will worsen things even more. Together with the Nationality and Borders Bill, which gives the home office the right to strip naturalised UK citizens of their citizenship without warning, the UK is becoming an increasingly dangerous place for marginalised groups.
Protest has been a cornerstone of democracy for centuries, and an important tool to secure and protect human rights. The PCSC bill is a highly concerning step towards transforming the United Kingdom into an authoritarian state, one in which capitalism and the status quo are protected more than its citizens.
Thousands of people across the country took to the streets last year to protest the PCSC bill. Photo: Talia Woodin
What was the media reaction?
Shockingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the media has been very quiet on the PCSC bill lately. While some had covered the Kill the Bill protests – which saw tens of thousands on the streets across the UK and built a coalition of over 100 organisations – many media outlets deliberately ignored the protests, and barely mentioned the bill. Many reported stories on police being injured by protesters when riots broke out in Bristol, but those were subsequently found to be exaggerated. Some high-profile campaigners like George Monbiot and independent platforms such as Novara Media have been raising awareness of the bill, but the mainstream media did not follow. Seeing how fundamentally the bill will affect democracy in Britain, it remains questionable whether those media giants really serve the public.
Similarly, Conservative MPs who identify as “libertarians” and had previously vehemently opposed Covid-19 measures, suddenly fell silent in the face of this oppressive piece of legislation. In parliament, it was repeatedly stressed how the bill will benefit women and girls – while ignoring the fact that defacing the statue could, in some cases, carry a longer sentence than rape.
Although media attention has died down, the bill still poses a danger to UK citizens’ democratic rights. Photo: Talia Woodin
It’s not too late yet – here’s how to take action
While “Kill the Bill” may be out of reach now, the House of Lords still has the power to make significant amendments to the most problematic aspects of the bill. The protest clauses will be debated next week, on January 10 – it is now more than important that residents of the UK make their voices heard and demand an end to this attack on their freedom to protest.
- Write to cross-bench Lords, asking them to oppose Part 3 of the PCSC bill and oppose amendments 148-159, before 10th January. If you can, phone calls are especially helpful. There is also a global twitter storm happening. Follow this link for resources and instructions.
- Extinction Rebellion has set up an accessible digital action page targeting the House of Lords. Follow this link to take action.
- Join the National Outreach Day on January 8, and the National Day of Action on January 15. Email or message Kill the Bill for a free outreach pack, or to be put in touch with your local group.
Protest-related clauses of the bill will be debated in the House of Lords on 10th January. Photo: Talia Woodin
- Share this article to spread the word
- Follow Kill the Bill on Instagram and Twitter
- Spread awareness on the PCSC bill in your community, or join a local group
Cover image: “Kill the Bill” protesters marching in London last spring. Photo: Talia Woodin