The fundamental freedom to protest is under grave threat, Unite has warned, as new draconian legislation significantly expanding police powers over public demonstration is being rushed through Parliament this week.
MPs will be weighing up the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill today (March 15) with a vote due to be held the following day, on Tuesday (March 16).
The Bill has drawn increased criticism after scenes of police violence at a vigil on Saturday (March 13) held in memory of Sarah Everard who was murdered earlier this month. Her remains were found last week, and a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of her kidnap and murder.
Critics have highlighted that the legislation presented in the Bill would severely restrict the right to protest – the home secretary will have the power to define what constitutes a ‘serious disruption’ in regards to protests, allowing police to impose strict conditions on such demonstrations.
Protestors who “intentionally or recklessly cause a public nuisance”, by even simply causing “a serious annoyance” can be subject to jail sentences of up to 10 years.
The Bill will also effectively criminalise Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities through the criminalisation of trespass, granting powers to the police to seize vehicles and arrest people with jail sentences of up to three months or fines of up to £2500, or both. Currently, trespass is considered a civil offence.
More than 150 human rights and civil liberties groups, faith communities, unions and other campaigning organisations, including Unite, have signed a letter sent to home secretary Priti Patel and justice secretary Robert Buckland, raising “profound concern and alarm” over the Bill.
The signatories warned against the draconian new police powers in the Bill which will severely restrict the right to protest, increase penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests, and will make it much easier for protestors to be found in breach of such conditions.
They also warned that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is being rushed through Parliament “during a pandemic and before civil society and the public have been able to fully understand its profound implications”, with less than a week between publication of the Bill and its Second Reading.
Public should be ‘really wary’ of legislation
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the Labour party would be voting against the Bill, after previously saying it would abstain, following disturbing scenes of police violence at a vigil held for Sarah Everard on Saturday (March 13) in Clapham Common in London where she was last seen before she went missing.
Starmer was outspokenly critical of the Bill at the weekend, noting that while it has “lots of stuff on statues” – in reference to new offences being introduced in the Bill for damaging memorials – it has “next to nothing” on protect women and girls from violence.
Even Sir Peter Fahy, ex Greater Manchester police chief constable, was outspoken in his criticism of the Bill.
“If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy,” he told the Times Radio in an interview on Monday (March 15).
“And bringing in legislation on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of… Again, if we’ve learned one thing from the coronavirus legislation, [it] is that rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.”
He added that the public should be “really wary of legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain demonstrations in the summer”.
‘Appalling and aggressive approach to policing‘
Unite condemned the actions of the Metropolitan Police on Saturday (March 13) at the vigil.
“Women gathering in memory of a woman whose life was taken were doing so responsibly, in respectful memory. This grief should have been honoured, not violated,” Unite said in a statement.
“We offer our love and support to the family and loved ones of Sarah Everard and send our respects amid what is unimaginable loss and grief,” the statement continued.
“We call for those who gave the agreement for this appalling and aggressive approach to policing tonight’s event to consider their position because not only have they betrayed the hurt and fears of women, the events of tonight have wider ramifications; they could further destroy faith in the police service.
“There is also a very concerning move to limit freedom of protest that will be before parliament this week,” the statement went on to note. “We urge those alarmed by the scenes [at the vigil] to join with us and voices across civil society to speak as one in defence of our rights to peaceful protest, to support democracy and to keep the powers of the police in check.”
Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett highlighted the fact that while the government has set out a detailed roadmap out of lockdown, there has been no timeline for when protests can legally resume.
“This has sinister overtones,” he said. “There is an acceptance and understanding about restricting protests during the pandemic for legitimate public health reasons, but while there is a timetable for large sporting events to return, the silence about public protests is deafening.
“Recent NHS protests in Manchester have been policed in a manner that is dangerous for our liberties,” he added. “We have seen 40,000 prosecutions of individuals under the Coronavirus Act but despite over 100, 000 complaints to the HSE about working conditions during the pandemic we are yet to see a prosecution. These restrictions to public protest need to be seen in the context of worker rights generally. ”
Commenting on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, he said, “There appears to be a clear determination from the government in general and Priti Patel in particular to use the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to crackdown on the basic human right to protest. The idea that police need increased powers over peaceful protest should send a shudder through everyone.
“Unions are regularly involved in various protests both large and small,” Beckett noted. “By restricting these rights the government will be allowing employers, the rich and the powerful to act and behave in a manner which demands censure, but workers and the public will be denied the right to call-out those misdeeds by taking to the streets to protest.”
Beckett likewise condemned the way the Bill is being rushed through Parliament.
“This is a clearly highly opportunistic move by the government,” he said. “The problem is that people do not realise that civil liberties and their rights are under attack, until they realise they are not allowed to do something by which time it is too late.”
Stay tuned on UniteLive for more on this story later this week as MPs debate and vote on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on Monday (March 15) afternoon and Tuesday (March 16).
By Hajera Blagg