The UK government has announced changes to public order legislation that would give the police greater powers to restrict protests.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, published today, includes plans to “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament”.
In a statement, the Home Office said the new laws would enable police to “safely manage protests where they threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives”.
The bill gives a senior police officer powers to impose conditions on a public assembly to “prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”.
It also includes new laws on unauthorised encampments and damage to memorials.
The proposals have been criticised by the police monitoring group, Netpol. It said today:
“We are opposing planned changes to the law that threaten our right to protest and are calling on other organisations and individuals to join us.”
Netpol also called on the National Police Chiefs Council, the national organisation for chief constables, to adopt a new Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights (see more below).
Protest policing review
New legislation had been expected after the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, asked for a review a year ago of protest policing.
In September 2020, she described activists from the climate change group, Extinction Rebellion, as “so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals”. Her comments followed the blockades of newspaper printworks which disrupted distribution of some editions.
In a speech to the Police Superintendents’ Association, she criticised direct action protests by Extinction Rebellion:
“The very criminals who disrupt our free society must be stopped. And together we must all stand firm against the guerilla tactics of Extinction Rebellion.”
Assembly rights charter
The charter from Netpol, to be launched formally next week, calls on the police to accept “greater transparency and accountability” on the way they deal with protests.
Its 11 points include:
- “Proper protection”, rather than more restrictions on the right to protest
- An end of routine surveillance of protesters
- An end to excessive use of force and targeting of organisers for arrest, surveillance and punishment
- An end to targeting of the most vulnerable.
Netpol said there should be strict limits on the use of police video recording, facial recognition and surveillance of social media sites. The police have a particular duty to protect the rights of young people, vulnerable and disabled people who want to exercise their rights to freedom of assembly, Netpol said.