A Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was voted through parliament in its second reading, by 359 votes to 263.
Amongst various proposals, particular attention has been drawn towards the controversial plans to increase police capacity to block protests. Since its drafting earlier this month, the bill has sparked heated debate within the commons and intense public resistance, ironically triggering further protests in recent weeks.
The fundamental objection is the implicit vote of confidence in the police to appropriately manage peaceful protests, where they have not demonstrated this ability. By extending police powers through this bill, public demonstrations will be required to obtain prior approval, accept imposed curfews and noise limits, and additionally abide by restrictions they ‘ought’ to have followed without explicit direction.
Failing to meet these limitations will also result in harsher penalties and fines.
In effect, it invites the possibility of considerable abuses against freedom of expression. Conservative MPs have derided any opponents for not caring about victims of crime.
The general reaction has been unfortunate, overshadowing the many positives the bill actually represents. There are advantages, not least tougher sentencing for serious crimes, and a move towards rehabilitation for lesser sentences.
This narrative has, however, been derailed by police forces continually demonstrating why more accountability, not unchecked power, is required.
My purpose is not to be deliberately alarmist, but this past year has encouraged a trend towards authoritarianism. Obviously, this is partly owing to necessity. The lockdowns imposed in many countries might represent totalitarianism, but are an accepted and critical feature in battling the pandemic.
It has to be acknowledged that they do present opportunities for leaders to convert their nation into dictatorships. It’s impossible to name all the examples, since 84 countries had declared a ‘State of Emergency’, a common gateway into autocracy, by late April 2020.
Defying my initial instincts, such a development has yet to be realised in the UK. As we’re set to tentatively reopen, however, warnings of a third wave of COVID do seem set to justify shutting people in their homes once again. Naturally, this would be associated with increased police powers to enforce the lockdown, which already includes harsh fines levied against rule-breakers.
Arguably, it’s fair to suggest police relations with the public have not been brilliant in this past year. It’s impossible to forget the protests against police in the US, transpiring after the murder of George Floyd. In the UK, PC Oliver Banfield, who despite pleading guilty to charges of assault against an Emma Homer last July, was only this week delivered a curfew sentence, not jail time. Having subsequently resigned since drunkenly beating a member of the public, he was not removed from his post.
Another police officer also abducted and murdered Sarah Everard. Police then refused to coordinate with organisers of a vigil on Clapham Common, choosing instead to clumsily and brutally clamp down on the largely-female crowd, producing lots of footage of their manhandling more peaceful gatherers.
Opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill also sparked waves of protests across the country. Apparently concerned for the safety of demonstrators, police have utilised COVID restrictions as their justification for attempting to break apart these peaceful protestors, resulting in violent clashes.
Most recent estimates spanning the Sunday and Tuesday night protests have recorded fourteen arrests, and twenty-one injuries to police officers, two severe. I found no ready information of injuries to protestors. It’s frustrating, since it just didn’t need to happen.
Tuesday night especially, protestors were staging an entirely peaceful sit-down demonstration. The police arrived in full riot gear, armed with clubs and tear gas, supported by dogs and horses. I’m not imagining the responsibility of maintaining order is easy. There simply has to be a better way of doing it than violently apprehending anyone ‘breaching COVID guidelines’ by exercising their right to express discontent against police handling of such issues.
As police report feeling “under siege” by these protests, it’s difficult not to sense a disconnect between their reports and reality.
Their justifications are also vital in analysing the violent response they have used, not just against the Bristol protests, but also the Sarah Everard vigil, even attended by the Duchess of Cambridge. Large crowds gathered following the Ranger’s victory in the Scottish Premier League. Footage demonstrates police were content to escort this tightly packed crowd without resorting to forcefully dispersing members involved.
It is immensely significant that such a large gathering was facilitated by the police.
It demonstrates blatant disregard for the precedent they have set. Given these recent events, and the mishandling by the police of their response to peaceful protests, it is not time to pressure through parliament a bill extending police powers.
“poorly thought-out measures to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest”David Lammy, Shadow Justice Secretary
Positives from the bill
In most regards, the new Police, Crime, Sentences and Courts Bill possesses positive ramifications. It is genuinely unfortunate that, without any amendment rectifying the most controversial elements, it might be irrevocably tarnished.
The opening line declares:
“The first duty of government is to protect its citizens and communities, keep them safe and to ensure that they can get on with their daily lives peacefully and without unnecessary interference.”
It’s a nice sentiment.
Theoretically, ramping up police powers is intended to prevent public disruption. Offering the ability to break up unauthorised encampments might be in response to the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protest, which brought much of London to standstill. Introducing a ten-year sentence for causing damage to public memorials in a direct response to the toppling of former enslaved-people-holder Edward Colton’s statue.
The bill also proposes “ending the automatic halfway release point for serious sexual and violent offenders”, making whole life sentences standard for premeditated child murders (murders of a child, not by).
That sentencing against serious violent and sexual offenders has been strengthened in several aspects in another positive.
The bill also wants to improve community sentences, to implement “a problem-solving court approach for certain community and suspended sentence orders and extending the use of Electronic monitoring”. I interpret this as reducing unnecessary prison sentences, whilst placing the onus on rehabilitation, which will also notably and positively impact child offenders.
Perhaps there are some missed opportunities, but the bill is otherwise a welcome reform to enhance the efficiency of ours courts system. The primary and disappointing issue is that it also attacks freedom of expression, and follows a trend of growing authoritarianism by increasing police powers.
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