In the end, every member of the governing party in the House of Commons voted for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in its entirety.
Perhaps surprisingly, this included the Conservative MPs who sit on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which only a week before had been severely critical of the parts of the bill affecting the right to protest. It included the one Tory who had been part of an all-party inquiry on the Clapham Common vigil and Bristol protests, which had called for the scrapping of this section of the bill completely.
The proposed legislation still has a little way to go: the House of Lords is expected to make a number of amendments, although the government has the votes to overturn them if it wishes when the bill returns to the Commons later this year.
Unfortunately, because of a parliamentary convention that the Lords does not reject government election manifesto commitments, changes are unlikely to include the part of the bill to criminalise people living on roadside camps, which will have a devastating impact on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Faced with an 80 seat parliamentary majority, however, the reality is that lobbying MPs failed to shift a single member on the government benches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was an air of despondency when the bill passed by 365 to 265 votes on 5 July.
Scepticism about the benefits of tinkering with a proposed piece of legislation that offers such sweeping new powers to the police is the reason why many – including the Kill the Bill coalition that Netpol is part of – have adopted a position of opposing it on principle.
Without a wave of Kill The Bill demonstrations up and down the country and the disproportionate and violent police responses to a number of them, it seems unlikely we would have witnessed the heightened public awareness that future protests will face an even greater crackdown than now.
Equally, without this extra-parliamentary action, it seems unlikely the passage of this bill would have faced any greater resistance than last year’s equally alarming Covert Human Intelligence Sources Act, which protects undercover police officers and covert sources from prosecution for committing criminal offences. This was condemned at the time by human rights groups but Labour instructed its MPs not to vote against it.
It is worth remembering that right up until the vigil in March following the murder of Sarah Everard by a Metropolitan Police officer – and refusal of thousands of women to allow the police to shut the vigil down – Labour intended to abstain and offer no opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill too.
While actively defending human rights is all too often seen as a sign of political weakness, it was always likely that this latest draconian policing bill would eventually become law.
What matters at that point, later this year, is what happens next. Having lobbied hard for more stringent powers, attention will turn to how senior police chiefs intend to implement them.
As long as the government is seen as failing to act on issues such as the climate crisis, racial injustice or the economic and social implications of the coronavirus pandemic, ministers are deluded if they think protests will simply disappear when this bill is passed.
Meanwhile, it has been Netpol’s experience over the last decade that whenever the police are given new powers to limit or restrict freedom of assembly, they show an eagerness to to put them into practice. This enthusiasm for testing out new powers could, however, easily backfire.
…the more the police arrest and charge noisy protesters in ways that seem unjust and excessive, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the pretence that police commanders recognise and respect their legal duties to both protect and facilitate the right to protest.
As Ben Smoke of Huck has highlighted, previous unpopular new laws like the poll tax triggered “a sustained street movement and campaign of disobedience, making the law unenforceable”, whilst campaigners against homophobic Section 28 rules did not simply give up but instead fought a decade-long battle to overturn it.
“The passing of a bill is not defeat”, he argues, “it is merely the beginning of the fight”.
Any similar resistance today will require long-term structures and organisation – something the Kill the Bill coalition is beginning to devote more time and energy to plan for.
Furthermore, making the poll tax impossible to enforce, or Section 28 essential to resist, only gained support because the impact of a new law was not hypothetically unfair and unjust, but felt personally by an increasing number of people.
That’s why, if almost any campaign group making its voice heard noisily begins to find itself accused of causing “serious disruption”, by businesses with an incentive to put pressure on the police to shut down pickets or protests that affect their profits, the police may find themselves with a growing anti-crackdown movement to contend with.
Equally, the more the police arrest and charge noisy protesters in ways that seem unjust and excessive, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the pretence that police commanders recognise and respect their legal duties to both protect and facilitate the right to protest.
This will undoubtedly open up police forces to new legal challenges too.
Providing a benchmark
That is why Netpol’s Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights is such a useful tool both for existing campaigners and for any emerging protest rights movement.
In the absence of openness and transparency from senior officers themselves, it provides a benchmark to judge the police’s actions against the kind of international human rights standards that the government says it expects of other nations.
We have yet to receive a formal response to the Charter from the National Police Chiefs Council. Whatever tougher new powers they are eventually given by Parliament, our aim is to make sure the body that represents Britain’s senior officers are unable to run away from their human right obligations indefinitely.