Thousands protested across England and Wales today against the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will be voted on by the House of Lords on Monday.
The day of action against sections of the legislation on protest saw demonstrations in London, Manchester, Bristol, Cardiff, Sheffield, Newcastle, Coventry, Liverpool and Plymouth.
Opponents have argued that the bill threatens freedom of speech. People who take part in peaceful protest could face harsh penalties, they said.
The bill allows police to ban marches and demonstrations that cause “serious annoyance”.
The Labour peer, Shami Chakrabarti, told a rally in Parliament Square in London the anti-protest provisions “represent the greatest attack on peaceful dissent in living memory”.
She accused the government of hypocrisy, saying it “bangs on about free speech and whinges about cancel culture” while clamping down on rights in the UK.
“Free speech is a two-way street. And you know what? The ultimate cancel culture, it doesn’t come with a tweet – it comes with a police baton and a prison sentence for nonviolent dissent.”
In Edinburgh, Extinction Rebellion Scotland campaigners walked from Holyrood to the the UK government offices.
Justin Kenrick said:
“The Police Bill is an attempt to silence the cry of women against gender violence, the cry of Black Lives Matter against racialized violence, the cry of climate activists peacefully fighting for our future. It will criminalize protest and also be used against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities.”
Labour members of the House of Lords announced yesterday on Twitter they would oppose amendments made to the bill by the government before Christmas. Green, Liberal Democrat and some independent peers have already said they will vote against the measures.
The amendments seek to expand stop and search powers in the vicinity of demonstrations and give police the power to ban named individuals from protesting.
Added offences, which carry potential 51-week jail sentences, include the use of lock-on actions, a key tactic in anti-fossil fuel protests, and obstruction of major transport works.
Because the latest amendments were introduced in the Lords, they will fall if peers vote against them.
Last week, more than 350 clinical psychiatrists and psychologists signed a letter urging politicians to oppose the bill. They said it would have a “profound negative impact” on young people.
The letter said:
“Engaging in nonviolent protest is a democratic right that is part of such involvement, and restricting it in the manner envisaged in this bill will further erode young people’s trust in politicians, and their belief that their voices are heard, respected and matter.”
The Home Office has said it would always champion the right to protest peacefully and said the bill did not change that. A spokesperson said the bill was needed because of protests like those by Insulate Britain, when some campaigners glued themselves to motorways.
The spokesperson said:
“The measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will improve the police’s ability to manage such protests, enabling them to balance the rights of protesters against the rights of others to go about their daily business, and to dedicate their resources to keeping the public safe.”