The UK’s Bar Council, a body of barristers, warned the UK government on Tuesday that it risks “criminalising annoying speech” in the Policing Bill which is currently being pushed through Parliament. The Bar Council continued, saying that its proposals for “harassment in a public place” would make annoying speech a criminal offence.
The Bar Council has suggested the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would “allow the government to prevent protests it doesn’t agree with” and give the police “expansive powers of arrest” at demonstrations. It does, however, host laws that would bolster the response to assaults on emergency workers.
“We are not fundamentally opposed to the Bill,” the Bar Council said in a briefing to Members of Parliament (MPs) but “some proposals raise issues in relation to access to justice and the rule of law.
“In some cases, they also appear contrary to common sense.”
The Bill, proposed by home secretary Priti Patel, would hand officers greater powers to shut down demonstrations that would cause “serious annoyance”. This would include public assembly that was deemed ‘too noisy’ or a nuisance. Those convicted under the proposed legislation could face 10 years in prison. While many have viewed this Bill as a threat to the right to protest, the policies also target the UK’s travelling communities.
The laws within the Bill have sparked widespread protests across the country. One protest based in Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, gained major media traction after images of two police vans set alight circulated media platforms on 21 March.
The sit-down assembly began in Bristol’s city centre, but when police were deployed to break up the gathering, some protestors broke away from the main crowd. Protestors made their way towards the New Bridewell police station where riot police were deployed to guard the building.
What began as a peaceful protest against a new policing Bill led to 29 people being arrested and 20 police officers injured. Chief superintendent Will White initially said that one officer had “suffered a broken arm and another suffered broken ribs. Both have been taken to hospital.” However, the police later confirmed in a statement that upon assessment, “neither were found to have suffered confirmed broken bones.”
People and the police
“The police turned up in full riot gear equipped with shields, batons and pepper spray,” one Bristol protester called Joe, told Eat News, adding that some were mounted on horses and would try to use vans to push the crowds back.
“A strategic move by Patel to propose this bill during lockdown as it gives the police an excuse to shut down protests.
“The frustration with the government in regards to Covid was clearly present,” Joe added, as lockdown measures were used to justify dispersing the peaceful assembly.
“Protesting is a way of preserving balance and providing a moderating voice in the political system. Without protest, a democratically elected party could enforce a totalitarian or at least authoritarian style approach to leading the country which is undemocratic in nature. Protesting is also the voice of the people.”
The protest followed a turbulent couple of weeks for police, after a London Metropolitan police officer, Wayne Couzens, was arrested and charged with the murder and kidnap of Sarah Everard, who went missing after walking home from a friend’s house in the capital.
The Metropolitan police faced widespread criticism not only for the murder by a serving officer but for the way it handled Ms Everard’s vigil in Clapham Common, south London, near where she went missing. Officers handcuffed and forcefully removed several women who had gathered during lockdown in memory of Ms Everard and in protest of violence against women.
The murder amid lockdown created a powder keg of animosity towards the police and the government as a whole.
“One of the things that has to be understood, is the way in which Bristol occurred in the wake of Clapham. By that point, there was an emerging perception that the police had already interfered with the right of peaceful assembly and had done so using force that many people saw as illegitimate,” professor of social psychology and specialist in the psychology of crowds, Clifford Stott, told Eat News.
“That created a context that justified, in some people’s mind, the legitimacy of confronting the police. But I think that perception was amplified because the police in Bristol started to try to disperse an otherwise peaceful assembly and they did that using the Covid legislation.
“That then led to a group breaking away from that peaceful assembly and heading down towards the Bridewell police station. Groups within that breakaway element of the crowd began to attack a police vehicle. That then led to a police intervention with batons, which amplified the dynamics of confrontation and we see a cycle of escalation from that point onwards to some really quite serious disorder.”
Around 2,000 and 3,000 people gathered to protest the Bill in Bristol alone, which many claimed had authoritarian style policies. “There’s definitely strong evidence of it occurring on a global level,” Stott said of a potential rise of authoritarianism in the UK, citing the popularity and power of Donald Trump, Putin and policies emerging from China, where the controversial national security law similarly inhibits the right to peaceful assembly.
“The growth of populist and dictatorial governance at a global level is worrying,” Stott continued, as emergency Covid-19 legislation has sparked discussion over the government ability to curb the right to protest – a human right under the European Human Rights Act of 1998. “In the context of the next few decades, we have to ask some very serious questions about what we must do to retain democratic forms of governance because of the way in which emergency and crisis imposed by climate change is going to threaten that.”
“The extent to which we’ve seen [authoritarianism] in the UK is, of course, extremely limited. We still live in a democracy; we still importantly have the protection of the European Convention of Human Rights.
“Whatever government legalisation is being put forward in this particular Bill, the extent to which those police powers can subsequently actually be exercised is constrained by the Human Rights Act. In isolation, this piece of legislation, the Bill, doesn’t necessarily pose that direct a threat.
“However, if the government was then to scrap the Human Rights Act, which many argue it has already expressed a desire to do, then we would be very much taking a long step in the direction of enabling far more totalitarian forms of government to emerge.”