Bring the labour movement into Police Bill protests

Submitted by AWL on 20 April, 2021 - 4:26 Author: Martin Thomas and Sacha Ismail
Police Bill protest

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will deepen criminalisation and harassment of Gypsy and Traveller communities.

On the right to protest, the Bill builds on earlier restrictions. The movement against it should raise these earlier restrictions, as well as multiple anti-strike laws introduced between 1980 and 2016.

Clauses 54 and 55 of the Police Bill expand powers in the 1986 Public Order Act under which a senior officer may impose conditions on public processions and assemblies, bringing them into parity. Previously conditions could only be imposed on a) the place at which a static assembly could be held, b) its maximum duration or c) the maximum number of persons who constitute it.

The changes erode distinctions between static and moving protests, allowing a senior officer to impose conditions “as appear to him necessary”. Thus a static protest could be banned altogether.

Clauses 54-55 and 60 subsection 2 introduce “noise generated by persons taking part” as a reason to warrant conditions if it “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity”; and, for static assemblies, if that noise “may have a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity… and that impact is significant.”

The Bill establishes an offence of breaching a police-imposed condition if the person “ought to have known” it existed.

It increases the maximum sanctions for an organiser who strays from police-imposed conditions from three to eleven months imprisonment.

Clause 57 amends Part 3 of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to significantly expand the area around Parliament where particular activities are banned, and the list of activities.

Clause 59 restates the common law offence of public nuisance in statute. This includes “any conduct which endangers the life, health, property or comfort of a section of the public” or “that obstructs them in the exercise of rights belonging to the public.”

Clause 46 amends the 1980 Magistrates’ Courts Act so courts are no longer restricted to a sentence of three months’ imprisonment and/or a fine up to £2,500, based on the value of a “memorial” (e.g. statue) damaged. Instead, the limit is the 1971 Criminal Damage Act’s maximum of ten years in prison.

Part 4 introduces a criminal offence for trespass and powers to arrest offenders in situ and seize vehicles and other property immediately. This would affect protest camps.

There, it builds on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, where Part V covered collective trespass and nuisance on land; included sections against raves; and against disruptive trespass, squatters and unauthorised campers. It criminalised what were previously civil offences in many forms of protest, including hunt sabotage and anti-road protests.

There were big demonstrations, and left Labour MPs opposed that law vigorously.

Elsewhere, the new Police Bill builds on the Public Order Act 1986. Section 11 required at least six days’ written notice before most processions, including details of the intended time and route, and the name and address of a person organising it. It created offences if organisers do not give sufficient notice, or the procession diverges from the notified time or route.

Section 12 gave the power to impose conditions on processions “to prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community”.

Section 13 gave a chief police officer the power to ban processions up to three months by applying to a local authority, with subsequent confirmation from the Home Secretary.

The 1986 Act abolished common-law offences of riot, rout, unlawful assembly and affray, and offences under the 1661 Tumultuous Petitioning Act and the 1817 Seditious Meetings Act. But its restrictions on protests should be abolished.

The whole Parliamentary Labour Party voted against that 1986 law, including Tony Blair.

• More on the details of these laws here

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