A fundamental concept underpinning the rule of law is state accountability to the law. The United Kingdom's Conservative Party and government have claimed they believe in and strive to uphold this doctrine. However, the prospective passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill 2021 (PCSC) categorically curtails the legal rights of individuals by granting the state and its forces the power to impose harsh sentences for those who protest the actions of the government. This is a step that attempts to restrict government accountability to the public and is only the most recent effort in the Conservative government's long line of attempts to usurp the rule of law.
Contents of the bill
The PCSC is a massive piece of legislation that includes major changes to crime and justice in England and Wales. However, one part of the bill has caused significant controversy and backlash — the section on police powers against protests. Under current laws, the police may only restrict public protests if they cause “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community". The PCSC grants police the powers to impose start and finish times, set noise limits, and stop protests, even if the protest is being carried out by only one person. Moreover, harsh new sentences are being imposed for those who do not follow this new law. Failure to obey police directions about a protest, for example, can land a GBP 2500 fine.
Context in which the bill emerged
These changes are a direct response to the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests of the past two years which were seen as embarrassing for the government. For instance, in direct response to 2020 BLM protests in Bristol, there is a potential 10-year prison sentence for damaging a “memorial”; in the government’s eyes, this includes statues glorifying slavers. These new sentences for daring to protest your government are outrageously disproportionate. In fact, 10 years for damaging a statue while protesting is double the starting sentence for rape convictions, and three years more than child sexual assault cases.
Criticisms of the bill
Opponents have criticised the bill for its vagueness, with protests only needing to cause “serious annoyance” in order to be deemed illegal. This allows the police and by extension, the state, to deem almost any protest illegal, shut it down, and punish any individual carrying out actions that the state deems wrong.
The new police powers, harsh sentences, and strict liability all place “draconian” restrictions on the fundamental right to protest as inscribed in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and enveloped into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA). This is on top of the criminalisation of protests due to COVID-19 restrictions as per the UK's Coronavirus Act 2020.
The PCSC also changes the level of liability for protesting and imposes the limit whereby people ought to know they are committing a crime, This is known as strict liability and means that to be found guilty of committing a crime requires no fault and no mens rea (the legal term for intention). If the police determine that someone is protesting illegally, the protestor can instantly face punishment with no leeway to determine if they intended to commit the crime. This strict liability is rare in the justice system in the UK and its use for protesting is not proportionate with the “crime” committed.
Risks posed by the bill
The use of sentences directed straight at the actions of BLM protesters shows petulance by the government. The Conservatives claim to be the “Law and Order Party'' but their response to XR and BLM protests is viewed as lackluster by their base. In response, the government is now attempting to make an example out of those who dare to defy them by imposing such strict sentences on protesters who disrupt the status quo life of those not affected by racism or sexism.
In the past two years, the UK has seen major protests over climate change with XR, racism with BLM, and violence towards women, with protests in response to the murder of Sarah Everard. With each of these large-scale protests, the state's response has become harsher, which will only continue as they give themselves more power. This is exemplified by the violent police response to the peaceful vigil to honor Sarah Everard, who was raped and murdered by a police officer who allegedly used his authority to get her into his car.
The bill is the state placing restrictions on protests instead of actually dealing with the underlying issues which are causing people to protest. Rather than addressing social issues of racism, sexism, and climate change, the government has labeled people speaking out as the problem to be tackled.
The reason that the state has not effectively dealt with the issues raised by their protesters and has instead villainised protesters is due to the Conservatives' desire to start a culture war. They care about white, male, middle-upper class voters. Therefore, the issues faced by people of color, women, and the working class are not of importance to them. Villainising these individuals and riling up their base only helps them maintain power.
The PCSC is, therefore, a means to an end for the Conservative government, passing sweeping justice reform to fulfill a manifesto promise, to crack down on protests by people who their government is not supporting, and to maintain the societal status quo which has kept them in power for 29 of the past 42 years. The PCSC is ultimately an attempt to use the justice system to undermine government accountability, usurp the rule of law, and inspire the base. This bill, therefore, does not serve the public interest, but only the interests of those in power. For this reason, we should Kill The Bill.