The protest tactic of locking on – used as far back as the Suffragettes – could become a criminal offence under new changes to the Policing Bill.
The proposal is one of several amendments inserted by the government as the already-controversial measure goes through the House of Lords.
The government proposes to make it a criminal offence for a person to attach themselves to another person, to an object or to land, if it causes, or may cause, serious disruption to two or more individuals or an organisation.
The bill now also includes a new offence of being equipped to lock on.
Another new offence of obstructing major transport works has been proposed.
The policing monitoring organisation, Netpol, said this would “specifically criminalise people who impede the construction and/or maintenance of major transport works, including any actions which interfere with machinery and work”.
These new crimes would have a penalty for anyone found guilty of a fine or up to 51 weeks in prison.
The revised bill also proposes increasing the existing penalties for obstructing the highway to bring them into line with the new offences. The current penalty is a fine of up to £1,000 but the new bill introduces a heavier maximum sentence of either a fine or 51 weeks in prison.
The 51-week sentences would be reduced to six months because provisions in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have not been brought into force.
Stop and search
The amendments also include an expansion of stop and search powers for police at protests.
This would give officers the power to search people if they believed they were planning to lock-on, carrying lock-on equipment or obstruct transport works.
New “suspicionless” stop and search powers have also been proposed to deal with protests. These would allow officers to conduct searches in allocated areas for up to 24 hours if they suspected anyone in the area was planning a ‘lock on’.
“Under the new powers, a senior officer at, for example, an oil or gas drilling site, could authorise police to search anyone in that locale for lock-on equipment, and allow them to seize any items they deem “prohibited objects” without needing to justify their actions.”
Serious Disruption Prevention Orders
There are also more details on Serious Disruption Prevent Orders, designed to stop people from committing further “protest-related offences”, breaching injunctions or helping others to do so.
Under the proposals, courts can apply an order if they reasonably believed that on two or more occasions in a five-year period a person carried out activities related to a protest that resulted, or were likely to result in, serious disruption to two or more individuals or an organisation.
Netpol described the orders as “alarmingly draconian”. It said people need not have been found guilty of any “protest related offence” to be placed under an order.
“The effect of these Orders, if introduced, could be to ban political organisers from attending, organising, or promoting protests seen as “disruptive to two or more individuals or to an organisation” for two years or more, even if they have never been convicted of a crime.”
The organisation said:
“Anyone who has organised with a direct action group or participated in a large-scale protest could be at risk.”
Netpol said Serious Disruption Prevention Orders could require people to report to police stations. They could also ban people from:
- attending protests
- going to particular places at particular times,
- associating with particular people
- having particular items, such as superglue or D-locks
- “using the internet to facilitate or encourage persons to commit protest-related offences”
Greenpeace said the changes could “effectively ban ordinary people from participating in peaceful protests and restrict their freedom of movement”:
“From women’s right to vote, to the end of Apartheid in South Africa – throughout history change has come from protest and people mobilising together for progress. Today is no different with the youth climate activists like Fridays For Future.”
More than 600,000 people have already signed a petition to scrap the entire Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The measure has reached its report stage in the House of Lords. Sittings are planned in December 2021 and January 2022.