The landmark Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposed by the Home Office and Secretary of State hit headlines earlier this month. While it has primarily been discussed as a means of limiting British citizens’ rights to protest, it covers a range of other legislation as well. Here is everything you need to know about the bill and how to discuss it in essays, exams, interviews or just daily conversations.
The last few years have witnessed a dramatic rise in large-scale public protests ranging from the Extinction Rebellion protests in April 2019 and Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 and, more recently, protests against lockdown restrictions. The Coronavirus pandemic has heightened tensions surrounding these protests as such public scenes are seen to be flouting COVID-19 regulations such as the Coronavirus Act 2020 and ignoring measures such as social distancing, the wearing of masks and bans on mass gatherings.
It is against this backdrop that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been put forward to Parliament. It aims to “reform the justice system” of England and Wales with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick arguing that the current legislation surrounding police powers during protests – the Public Order Act 1986 – is outdated and “very old” and does not adequately address contemporary protests.
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The Bill aims to allow police officers to “take a more proactive approach in managing highly disruptive protests” which have a serious negative impact on the public. This will involve broadening the circumstances under which they can impose conditions on protests and expanding their powers such as maximum noise levels and start and finish times. Even protests involving a single protestor can be subject to these police restrictions.
Beyond the limitations it imposes on protests, the bill also strives to reduce crime and build “safer communities”. These measures include: making it illegal for sports coaches and religious leaders in “positions of trust” to have sexual relations with people under the age of 18; facilitating the stop and search of those suspected to be carrying knives; and life sentences for killer drivers.
Building on the Coronavirus Act, the new Bill will also maximise the use of audio and video technologies in criminal proceedings to prevent unnecessary travel to courts.
In light of the destruction of public monuments – such as the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol that was toppled and pushed into the Bristol Harbour in June 2020 – the maximum penalty for damage to a memorial has also been increased from 3 months to 10 years.
The majority of responses to this Bill have focused on the limitations imposed on protests, rather than the other measures outlined. It has been heavily criticised by human rights organisations and Labour politicians who argue that it contravenes freedom of expression – a right protected under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Ironically, it sparked further protests around the country with citizens arguing that it greatly threatened the cornerstone of British democracy.
The bill faced further backlash following police aggression during Sarah Everard’s vigil in March 2021 with the Labour Party expressing concerns over giving the police greater powers to break up such gatherings and curtailing people’s freedoms. Many politicians and citizens alike have argued that the bill has the potential to be exploited by police to limit any acts that they find annoying or inconvenient.
Having had its Second Reading in Parliament by a large majority, the bill has been delayed “until later in the year”, as confirmed by the Home Office. Although the Bill Committee was due to start this month, Labour MP and Victims and Youth Justice Shadow Minister, Peter Kyle, has cited protests against the bill as the cause of the delay. The Home Office has stated that the “size of the bill” means that MPs will be given more time to consider its implications before the committee can begin a “line-by-line scrutiny” of its contents to propose any amendments.
While plans are very much up in the air at the moment, it is worth keeping an eye out for future updates on how its progress.
Words: Siobhan Ali
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