If protest changed anything, they’d make it illegal…

Photo by Emma Chan

… and that’s exactly what Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill aims to do. Tom Scott explains why this is yet another assault on freedom and democracy and must be opposed.

In St Stephen’s Hall in the Houses of Parliament, a stained-glass window commemorates the women who fought for voting rights in the early 20th century. It was in this hall, on 27 April 1909, that five intrepid members of the Women’s Social and Political Union threw chains around the legs of the statues of parliamentary dignitaries that stand there and handcuffed themselves to these, while another campaigner printed a passage from the Bill of Rights on the wall of the hall, having smuggled in a small printing press for this purpose.

The chains were quickly cut with a pair of bolt cutters that had been purchased following an incident the previous year that had seen suffragettes chain themselves to a grille in the House of Commons Ladies’ Gallery. This grille prevented women even from obtaining a full view of the proceedings of the all-male parliamentarians, and is now exhibited in the Central Lobby of the House of Commons to remind MPs and visitors of women’s long years of exclusion from political rights.

Handcuffs feature in the stained-glass window by Shona McInnes in St Stephen’s Hall, along with many other reminders of the long, hard struggle for women’s suffrage.

The women who chained themselves to the statues that day in 1909 were not prosecuted, and there was no law at the time that specifically outlawed this form of protest (though suffragettes were viciously persecuted under other laws).

The government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill aims to ‘rectify’ this gap in the law. Among the amendments that have been quietly added to this already draconian piece of legislation, after it had been debated in the Commons and the House of Lords, is a clause that introduces an offence of “locking on”.

This makes it a criminal act to lock oneself to another person or to an object if this “causes, or is capable of causing, serious disruption to two or more individuals or an organisation.” It also criminalises the possession of objects, such as locks and chains, for the purpose of locking on.

Other amendments that have been slipped into the Bill, without proper scrutiny or debate, include measures to stop any protest that would obstruct highways or “major transport works” – which would include, for instance, new roads, airports and HS2. This is clearly aimed partly at XR (Extinction Rebellion) and Insulate Britain protesters, but given that almost any protest is liable to cause some obstruction to highways, its impact will be by no means limited to them.

The amendments also introduce powers for police officers to stop and search people “without suspicion” if they “reasonably believe” that these people may be intending to commit an “activity which causes or is capable of causing serious disruption to two or more individuals or to an organisation”, or that they may be carrying “prohibited objects” for use in connection with such disruption.

What is a “prohibited object”? That is left pretty much for the police to decide; the amendment says it could be anything “made or adapted for use in the course of or in connection with” such “disruptive” activity. So this might include anything from equipment for locking on, to placards, banners, loudhailers or any of the other objects commonly associated with protests and demonstrations.

As journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot has written:

“You need to understand what this means. It means criminalising all effective protests, or pickets, or any other kind of action, on roads, railways, ports, airports, oil refineries, printing presses and other such, unspecified ‘key infrastructure’. These are dictators’ powers. The scale of what we’re on the brink of losing is scarcely imaginable. Priti Patel proposes to remove freedoms we have taken for granted for generations. Freedoms that are the wellspring of democracy.”

And as the human rights organisation Liberty observes:

“Protest isn’t a gift from the state – it’s our fundamental right and, under human rights law, states have an obligation to facilitate protest, not suppress it. Yet this is exactly what the government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to achieve.

“Not content with all but banning protest during the pandemic, the Government is now using this public health crisis as cover to make emergency measures permanent. Its new policing Bill is an all-out assault on basic civil liberties.”

There is no doubt that the actions of the suffragettes commemorated in St Stephen’s Hall would have been in contravention of the Bill, offences under which will carry sentences of up to 51 weeks’ imprisonment.

It is a bitter irony that this dangerous and anti-democratic legislation is being introduced by a government that has itself shown complete contempt for the rule of law, both national and international. Its ministers have shamelessly flouted laws designed to guard against corruption in public office and to protect public health during the pandemic.

And Priti Patel, one of the Bill’s main promoters, would not now be an MP and a minister without the struggles of women who used exactly the methods of non-violent direct action she and her government are now trying to outlaw.

More than 70,000 people have now signed Liberty’s petition against the Policing Bill. If you would like to add your name to this, it’s here.