Policing bill: MPs prepare to vote on controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

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MPs are readying themselves to vote on the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in parliament today.

It will have implications on the right to protest, stop and search laws, memorials, and penalties for assaulting emergency staff.  

Part of its aim is to give police greater powers to manage ‘static protests’ such as sit ins. In doing so, police will be able to impose similar conditions on ‘static protests’ as they currently do with marches. This includes allowing the police to set start and finish times as well as ‘maximum noise levels’ on static protests. What this means in practice is entirely unclear. 

The government believes this will broaden the range of circumstances where police can impose conditions on a protest.

This includes single person protests where noise could affect those in the surrounding area. 

Secondary legislation will allow the Home Secretary to define what is deemed “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity of the procession/assembly/one-person protest”.

The threshold for breaching conditions of protest would also change. This will move from punishment for knowingly failing to comply with a condition that’s been imposed, to the lower threshold of “knows or ought to have known” that a condition has been imposed.

It also seeks to limit the protest which can occur around parliament by ensuring vehicle entrances around Parliament Estate remain unobstructed.

Damage to memorials will be punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment, while the maximum punishment for assault on emergency workers will double to 2 years. The police will also have powers to stop and search individuals previously convicted of carrying a knife or offensive weapon.

The government argues that the legislation is necessary. Home secretary Priti Patel has pointed to the rise in assaults on police and emergency workers as a contributing factor. This in addition to trying to slow the spread of the virus and stop more lives from being lost during this pandemic.

The latter has understandably formed a central part of the government's outlook over the last 12 months.

However, both opposition MPs and civil rights groups have been unanimous in their objection to key element of the new legislation.

Questions as to the impact the measures could have both now and beyond lockdown has seen an eruption of criticism ahead of today’s vote.

Vagueness in the wording of the bill is a clear point of frustration. What constitutes ‘serious disruption’ or how the measures on implementing 'maximum noise levels' will look like in practice leaves too much room for the potential abuse of powers.

The fact that this is left to the discernment of a Home Secretary whose track record when defending the rights of British citizens and black people, in particular, has been so substandard, is especially concerning.

Timing is also key

Beyond this, there is also the question of timing.

It occurs within a 12 month spell that has seen the government accused of indifference and even helping to fester several issues which have risen to the fore. There have been protests of an environmental nature and of course, the Black Lives Matter Protests last summer. The move to implement a punishment of up to 10 years for damage to memorials will inevitably be seen as a direct response to the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.

However, this was merely the symptom of a wider issue. Administering this level of punishment for damage to memorials, without having first acknowledged, nevermind addressed the grievances concerning policing, institutional racism, and the determinant factor race still plays in our society, will leave the government open to accusations that this is an act showcasing an unwillingness to engage and a readiness to dismiss.

The emphasis on timing is doubly important given the events of Sunday. The vigil in Clapham Common saw hundreds of women gather in memory of Sarah Everard and women who had been victims of violence. However, the night ended with the scenes of individuals being wrestled to the ground.

Former Prime minister Theresa May warned that the government needed to walk a fine line between ‘being popular and populist’. SNP minister Anne McLaughlin has questioned the government’s motivations behind the measures on memorials.

It is interesting, isn’t it, that the toppled statue that I believe prompted some of this legislation was toppled as part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration, when black people and their allies finally said, “Enough is enough”. As soon as they organise to have their voices heard, legislation pops up to silence them.

~ Anne McLaughlin, SNP Westminister spokesperson

Mayowa Ayodele

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