On Saturday 6th May 2023 we saw for the first time how the police intend to use their new powers to suppress the right to protest. The Public Interest Law Centre are extremely concerned at the arrest of campaigners from the activist group Republic. Their crime? To organise a protest to show their opposition to the Coronation of an unelected head of state. Under the ‘crime’ of potentially causing a ‘public nuisance’ the campaigners had their placards confiscated and they were arrested.
Through a statement issued on the 8th May the Metropolitan Police are now dropping the charges. Nonetheless the threat of arbitrary arrest is now law, and we fear that the new legislation will be used increasingly to criminalise dissent.
A rise in protest.
The recent extension of police powers should concern everyone who cares about the right to protest and the very idea of democracy itself. In our view the reactionary legislative agenda from the Government is a response to the growth in protest in the UK. Increasingly working class people are opposing cuts in wages, jobs and services. Make no mistake, the powers used against the campaigners from ‘Republic’ today will be used with enthusiasm against trade unionists, socialists, environmentalists, anti-monarchy protesters and Palestine activists tomorrow.
The Public Order Act 2023 will see further restrictions to the right to protest by:
Setting a very low threshold to define disruptive protesting
Giving police significant new powers to prevent protests occurring outside of major transport networks, oil and gas and energy supplies. This offence will attract a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both.
Introducing a new offence of obstructing major transport works – this offence will attract a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.
Making ‘locking on’ or going equipped to ‘lock-on’ a new criminal offence.
Extending the use of stop and search powers – including suspicion-less stop and search – to protests.
Introducing of new protest banning orders – the Serious Disruptive Prevention Order – that would prevent individuals from attending protests at all.
Enabling the Secretary of State to bring civil proceedings in relation to protest activity where protest action is causing, or is likely to cause, serious disruption to key national infrastructure or access to essential goods or services in England and Wales.
Moving to an authoritarian state?
The latest set of laws come soon after, and on top of, the protest restrictions outlined in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. This Act granted broad and unclear powers to both law enforcement and the Government, allowing them to suppress protests, even those carried out by a single individual. One crucial and worrying phrase allows the right to arrest anyone who the police believe “Intentionally or recklessly [are] causes a public nuisance.” This phrase is used in both Acts and there is a fear it will be interpreted broadly by the police. Protest is by definition public, and can be a ‘nuisance’ for some –that is the nature of protest. Many organisations – specifically Netpol have warned of this.
This further extension of police and state powers are deeply authoritarian.
The impact on campaigners and marginalised groups.
It is not possible here to cover the full and expected impact of the Public Order Bill 2023 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. We at the Public Interest Law Centre are concerned that the legislation will impact all aspects of protest and campaigning.
For example, the new offence of “interfering with key national infrastructure” will potentially make unlawful the organising of a protest at sites of power, and acting to ‘obstruct’ transport works. It describes unlawful “…any behaviour.” Is this aimed at trade unionists and the right to strike? It cannot be ruled out.
The Public Order Act contains provisions that will widen the stop and search authority, which will inevitably lead to an increase in racial profiling. Currently, black people are subjected to stop and search tactics at a rate seven times higher than white people.
In the United Kingdom, peaceful protest has been a significant tool for expressing views and driving political and social transformation. The proposed Public Order Act 2023 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 target the very essence of protesting by aiming to criminalise individuals who engage in street demonstrations, or pickets and maybe even street stalls to support a cause they believe in. The Public Interest Law Centre is firmly against these severe measures that aim to suppress dissent and will seek to challenge them legally, and support initiatives to build a national campaign against them.
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