The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: a gateway to a police state or a 21st Century update for British policing?By Samantha Boyle
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is currently in its end game. The final consideration of amendments provided by the House of Lords is due to take place this month before the Bill receives Royal Assent shortly thereafter. The Bill has been feted by the Government as a way to maintain public order and reduce crime in the UK. However, its harshest critics take a far dimmer view arguing that it will fail to pass the Ronseal test by doing little to effectively tackle crime. So, who is right and what are the wider connotations for UK society?
The UK Government has made it clear that the proposed Bill has been drawn up in response to the high-profile protests in recent years, as well as an increase in certain crimes such as knife crime and sexual offences. The Bill proposes to ‘overhaul’ police, criminal justice, and sentencing legislation and encompasses disparate areas of existing law including knife crime, protests, crimes against children and sentencing limits. Yet, there have been mixed reactions to the Bill since it was first proposed nearly a year ago. Many critics have argued that it disproportionately targets direct action. The Bill would grant the police extra powers to control protests which, critic suggests, will have a chilling effect on peaceful protest. The UK has a long history of direct-action protests dating back to the suffragette movement in the early 1900s. More recently there have been direct-action campaigns in 2019 from Extinction Rebellion, in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter protests and then again in 2021 when significant protests were conducted by Insulate Britain. Though direct action has long been intertwined in British society, some new methods of direct action have been controversial.
To respond to these instances, the Bill seeks to give increased powers for police to impose restrictions on peaceful procession, assembly, and protest. These changes will expand the circumstances in which police can impose conditions on a range of activities including religious festivals, community gatherings and pride marches. The Bill removes the need to knowingly breach police-imposed conditions to commit an offence. The Government argue that these new powers are needed, as in recent years certain tactics used by some protesters have caused a disproportional impact on the hardworking majority seeking to go about their everyday lives.
Despite this, giving the police extra powers to determine what protests would require intervention and the level of intervention required would create a grey area for the police, the public and those scrutinising their actions. Indeed, the House of Lords felt a similar way. They agreed to remove police powers which would allow them to impose conditions on protests and public assemblies from the Bill. The House of Lords also rejected the Government’s proposal to criminalise obstructions of major transport works and interference with the operation of key national infrastructure; tactics which have recently been used by Insulate Britain to protest climate change. Coincidentally, Civicus, a global civil society alliance that works to strengthen civil society around the world, has placed the UK on its human rights watchlist over threats to peaceful assembly.
Such changes must also be assessed in the light of the present day. In recent times there have been several well-publicised examples of the police using heavy-handed tactics. Perhaps one of the most well-known was during the Sarah Everard vigil which led to the photo of Patsy Stevenson being handcuffed going viral. This context is important when considering another more controversial aspect of the Bill: the introduction of serious violence reduction orders. These orders would give the police the power to stop and search anybody without the need for reasonable grounds to suspect them of having committed a crime – powers that could very easily lead to an increase in the use of heavy-handed tactics.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in recent times. However, the introduction of the Bill could also signal a sign of things to come. We have already seen the size of the state grow exponentially as the country responds to the Covid-19 pandemic, with spending soaring through a series of heavily interventionist policies. Though many would argue the pandemic was a unique event requiring a unique response, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill suggests that the interventionist mindset isn’t confined to responding to public health emergencies. Though many will overlook this legislation, perhaps never expecting to come into conflict with the police and the courts, let alone sentencing, it could set a fundamental precedent for all UK policy from hereon. For that reason alone, the passing of the Bill later this month is reason to sit up and take note. For those more focused on the intersection of UK policing and protest, there are still a great many questions left unanswered.
Sam Boyle is an Account Executive at Atticus Communications.
Sam works extensively across AC’s government relations and corporate communications clients, putting her bilingual abilities to good use working in both English and Spanish.
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org