OPINION: Policing Bill robs us of our rights - we must oppose it

The COP26 rally for climate justice for Norwich

The COP26 rally for climate justice for Norwich - Credit: Sarah Eglington

Livvy Hanks, a member of Green New Deal Norwich explains why the proposed bill is damaging

If you’ve heard anything about the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in the media (and there has been precious little), you may have assumed it applied to ‘other people’ - those people who break laws, disrupt society and make a general nuisance of themselves.

Perhaps you have never locked yourself to the gates of a fracking site, or joined noisy chants at a peaceful demonstration, or posted online encouraging people to attend a protest - all of which could get you sent to jail under the new laws.

But who are those ‘other people’ who spend their time doing these things? They are the people whose protests brought us voting rights, access to the countryside, weekends, equal marriage, laws against racial discrimination, and countless other freedoms we barely think about.

Your rights - including the right to protest - did not appear by magic, and they are not a gift bestowed by the state. They are hard-won, and we all have a duty to defend them.

I mentioned that if the Bill passes, you could end up in prison just for supporting a peaceful protest. It’s not a joke. The Bill gives the police wide-ranging powers to curb any protests that are deemed likely to cause “serious disruption” - with it falling to the home secretary to decide what “serious disruption” means. And if it doesn’t cause some disruption, it’s unlikely to be a very good protest.

New amendments introduced by the government at the last minute include the creation of ‘Serious Disruption Prevention Orders’. These can target anyone who has attended at least two protests in the last five years and place restrictions on their day-to-day life, such as their use of the internet and who they can spend time with. Breaching one of these orders could result in a 51-week prison sentence.

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Another of the amendments gives the police powers to stop and search people without suspicion if they are in an area where a protest is taking place. Anyone who resists this could be jailed.

People from marginalised groups are often more wary of attending protests as they are likely to be targeted by police, with black people nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.1 Introducing protest-specific stop and search powers will further harm the ability of people of colour to exercise their democratic rights.

Livvy Hanks of Green New Deal Norwich

Livvy Hanks of Green New Deal Norwich - Credit: Submitted

A group of former police chiefs has written to the home secretary asking her to reconsider measures in the Bill, saying: “As experts on police use of force, racial profiling, and stop and search, we believe that this Bill has dangerous implications for the fight against serious violence.”

The restrictions on protest are just one section of the Bill. Among many other things too numerous to list here, it also criminalises ‘residing’ on land without permission.

This provision targets Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who are already among the most marginalised people in the UK, and effectively criminalises their way of life. If they are stopped and deemed to have “intent to reside”, their vehicles could be seized, making them homeless.

We should all be deeply alarmed by this draconian bill - and it is only part of a wider picture. Alongside these sweeping police powers, Parliament is debating the Nationality and Borders Bill, which gives the secretary of state powers to strip people of their UK citizenship without telling them.

Through changes to judicial review, the government is seeking to make it harder for anyone to challenge its decisions through the courts.4 And it is introducing mandatory voter ID, which is likely to exclude around two million people - mostly the poorest people - from voting.

This government is trying to make itself untouchable in the courts, on the streets and at the ballot box. We must stand up for our rights before it is too late.

While this cluster of authoritarian bills is cause for serious alarm, we can take heart from the growing solidarity and activism we are seeing as different causes unite.

The coalition that came together to organise a huge rally in Norwich during COP26 is mobilising again this Saturday to stand up for our right to protest.

Everyone is welcome to join us outside City Hall at 1pm for a joyful celebration of protest and the many rights it has won us - rights we can never take for granted.

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