3 July 2021

Trade unions and the new policing bill

The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill is a huge proposed new law on crime and justice in England and Wales. 

One part of its wide-ranging elements proposes drastically curbing rights to demonstrate and handing vague powers to the police that are designed to “neuter protests”.

There have been several waves of ‘Kill the Bill’ demonstrations since March. Many social movements have united to campaign against it.

Unions say it would erode fundamental rights of protest including vital trade union activities that support working people.

An open letter coordinated by Liberty and Friends of the Earth was signed by more than 200 trade union leaders and humans rights defenders, including PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka and TUC leader Frances O’Grady.

The bill contains a plan for draconian new police powers to decide where, when and how citizens are allowed to protest. Police can currently put conditions on the place, duration and size of a protest – the new law would let them apply any conditions they consider necessary to prevent “disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”.

New trigger

One new trigger is that it could be deemed too noisy, causing "serious disruption" to an organisation's activities or having a "relevant impact" on people in the vicinity. The secretary of state would be given the power to change the definition of "serious disruption". 

The bill also plans to increase penalties for those breaching police conditions on protests and would make it easier for them by lowering the threshold for prosecution.

A proposed new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing a public nuisance" carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. This includes vague terms such as causing “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience” to others.

“The provisions threaten to neuter protests in ways that would render them ineffective” – The Good Law Project 

The TUC is concerned that police or employers may wrongly claim that the existing law on picketing had been changed by the new legislation. And if people broke the law as it stands on the conduct of picketing, the new laws could be used to prosecute them.

The law would not change picketing rules but the Good Law Project agrees it could have a knock-on impact on pickets and protests outside workplaces. Combined with the “serious disruption to the activities of organisations” provision, the powers could be used to clamp down on commonplace union activity.

The wide-ranging bill is not only about protests – human rights campaigners are also seriously concerned about other key measures, including: proposals to increase stop and search powers and a “prevent style” duty on knife crime, which they warn will increase profiling and discriminatory policing of people of colour; threatening the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities, and further entrenching existing inequalities, by criminalising trespass.

The government planned to fast-track this bill, but a huge backlash from civil society forced a delay.

On 5 July, MPs voted to pass the bill at its third reading, with a majority of 100. Dozens of amendments had been proposed in order to scrap the controversial curbs, but the Commons did not approve any of them. It will now go on to be scrutinised in the House of Lords. 

Ahead of the vote, Liberty and seven other major campaigns delivered a petition against the bill, signed by nearly 600,000 people. They have vowed to keep the pressure up. 

This article is taken from PCS People, issue 2, 2021. 

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