MPs have taken another step towards making it much harder for people to protest in Britain.
They voted in favour of the Tories’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The bill would give cops powers to block protests that cause “serious disruption” to an organisation or have a “relevant impact” on people nearby. These vague clauses give the cops a green light to stop any action that has an effect – and it’s clear who will be targeted.
Tory David Amess whined about “endless demonstrations” in Westminster that make it “very difficult to work”. And Met police commissioner Cressida Dick has said she has been pushing for more powers ever since Extinction Rebellion protests began.
But even Tories and top cops are opposing elements of the bill. This isn’t because they care about ordinary people, but because they care about preserving their system.
Former Greater Manchester Police chief constable Sir Peter Fahy said the bill could damage the cops. “The policing of protests has a huge impact on the longer term confidence in policing,” he said.
Martin Surl, Police and Crime Commissioner for Gloucestershire, said there needed to be protests “when people feel the pressure cooker is absolutely about to explode”.
Tory Sir Charles Walker also wanted to protect the right to protest because he sees it as a “safety valve”. He said MPs had “criminalised the freedom to protest collectively” by backing lockdown measures during the pandemic.
Public gatherings such as protests are currently banned in England under coronavirus rules. Some could be allowed from 29 March, if they follow certain procedures such as distancing.
“Let us get people back on the streets and allow them to get things off their chest again,” said Walker.
Tory Sir Graham Brady also complained about “swingeing powers to control protests for the period of the coronavirus restrictions”.
And Sir David Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands Police, said restrictions should be “quickly realigned with the freedoms expected on protests”.
Some right wingers also oppose the bill because they fear it could hit their protests too. Democratic Unionist Party MP Gavin Robinson complained that the legislation “would make a dictator blush”.
Labour eventually opposed the bill, after leader Keir Starmer initially called for MPs to abstain in the vote.
Hull Labour MP Diana Johnson said the bill “attacks on a permanent basis the fundamental human right of peaceful assembly”. Streatham MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy said it was “designed to infringe on our civil liberties”.
And Nottingham East Labour MP Nadia Whittome said it was “the biggest assault on our right and freedom to protest in recent history”.
Yet Labour also opposed the bill on the grounds that it isn’t harsh enough.
A Labour amendment, which lost, backed “the need for tougher sentences for serious crimes”. And it wanted the creation of new crimes, such as criminalising street harassment, saying this would protect women.
It’s a disgrace that harassment, abuse and violence against women are not taken seriously. But new laws won’t stop these things from happening.
Nearly 1,500 accusations of sexual misconduct were made against cops in England and Wales between 2012 and 2017. They include accusations of sexual harassment, child abuse and exploitation of crime victims.
Many more women will have suffered abuse at the hands of cops but not reported it, or had other complaints dismissed. Giving cops more powers will not help women.
The Tories hope to use anger at women’s oppression to justify strengthening an oppressive police force and attacking the right to protest. The scale of opposition, and divisions at the top, means they could be blocked.
But the key element of that opposition isn’t in parliament—it’s on the streets.