How does the Policing Bill criminalise "noisy" and "annoying" protests?
Written by Katie Scott
The ability to protest is an essential part of living in a free society. Many of the rights we enjoy today - from women’s right to vote, to the two-day weekend and even our right to ramble in the countryside - were won thanks to the hard work of past protestors.
But now our right to protest is under threat.
The Government’s proposed Policing Bill will give the police powers to crack down on peaceful protests. Demonstrators that are deemed to be “noisy” or causing “annoyance” could face a fine or up to 10 years in prison. This will make it much harder for people in the UK to express disagreement with laws and policies.
And it’s not just protests against the government that are under threat. People protesting the closure of a local hospital or the construction of a village bypass road would also be prevented from expressing their views.
What is The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
The so-called Policing Bill contains nearly 300 pages of draft legislation, with a range of proposed legal changes. Some of these, such as measures aimed at preventing child sex offences, are seen as an improvement by most people. Others, including the restrictions on protests, are more controversial.
What is the process for the Bill to pass?
The Bill passed its second reading in Parliament on 15 and 16 March 2021. There are several more stages for the Bill to pass through before it becomes law, which means that there is still an opportunity to make amendments to it.
What elements of the Bill is the "Noisy and Annoying" Campaign trying to change?
The Noisy and Annoying Campaign is focused on changing Clauses 54-60, Part 3: Public order. This is the part of the Bill which criminalises protests subjectively deemed "disruptive" or "noisy" - even if they’re peaceful and there’s only one complainant.
It would also make it an offence to “intentionally or recklessly caus[e] public nuisance.” People found guilty of this may be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
People who damage statues or memorials could also face sentences of up to 10 years - twice the length of the maximum sentence for committing assault causing actual bodily harm (ABH).
Additionally, Clauses 57 and 58 of the Bill reduce the area around Parliament where people can protest. This makes protests less visible to MPs, and therefore easier for MPs to ignore.
Why should we prevent the Bill’s restrictions on our right to protest?
Peaceful protests make a real difference. Whilst they may not change laws and policies overnight, they have historically influenced legislative change and shifted socio-political movements.
For starters, protests can enable those who feel marginalised or disenfranchised to voice their opinions. They also draw attention to issues that may otherwise be overlooked by those in power.
Through this widening of the debate, protests can work to change mass opinion, leading to changes in legislation. A central example is the work of anti-slavery abolitionist protestors, which was highly criticised by the general population at the time. Some might even have called it "disruptive" or "annoying". Yet, today, we know they were on the right side of history, and their speaking truth to power helped end one of the most vicious crimes against humanity.
Protests can and do cause lasting societal change.
Why should disruptive protests be allowed: for example, when stopping traffic?
Protests which don’t cause any kind of disruption are less likely to get noticed by media, government, and the masses. As a consequence, they don’t galvanise the attention required to push through meaningful changes.
A non-violent disruption to daily life - such as the stopping of traffic - can therefore be justifiable if it helps achieve long-term social impact on large communities of people.
When exactly is a protest “noisy and annoying”?
The new Bill doesn’t define the scope of “noisy” or “annoying” protests; this essential definition is left to the discretion of police judgement.
This lack of guidance leaves room for interpretation and human error, which could result in inconsistent enforcement across the country and to the disproportionate targeting of already over-policed communities.
It could also be a purposeful omission, aimed at demotivating members of the public from joining a protest so as not to risk criminalisation.
Some protests have been violent. Why shouldn’t the police have the legal power to stop such protests?
It is already a crime to commit violence as part of a protest, so the police have the power to stop violent gatherings and make arrests. The Policing Bill is not needed to stop violent protests, because this is already enforcible through existing legislation.
Even so, the government justifies the Bill's clauses by citing the violence committed by a small minority of attendees at the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. But stopping non-violent protestors from exercising their democratic right to freedom of speech will not automatically prevent violence. On the contrary, authorising the police to use force against peaceful citizens could easily disrupt public order.