We know the police misuse the protest powers they already have. How will senior police officers convince us they have a clear plan to avoid the abuse of these new ones?

Over a year after it was first introduced, and in spite of widespread opposition and public demonstrations against its draconian measures, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act has finally become law in England and Wales.

Some of the very worst anti-protest proposals that Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to add to the legislation, following a speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester in October 2021 denouncing “so-called eco-warriors, trampling over our way of life and draining police resources,” have thankfully been removed.

However, the substance of the new Act remains largely unchanged from March 2021. New powers to prevent “unauthorised encampments” will have a devastating impact on Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. The new Prevent-style ‘serious violence duty’ risks further criminalising communities that are already routinely racially profiled and over-policed, whilst centring police objectives (surveillance, enforcement and prosecutions) instead of community-led solutions to violence in society.

Protect our right to protest!

On rights to freedom of assembly, which Netpol has primarily focused on for the last year, the Act means new police powers in England and Wales to restrict noisy protests and other measures to contain and reduce the impact of demonstrations (see our short summary here). These powers are most likely to affect campaigning movements that adopt direct action and civil disobedience tactics.

However, the Act has been driven politically by the government’s desire to crack down on protests it wants to portray as attacking citizens trying to go about their daily lives.

This is why, with the police rarely sympathetic to protesters and invariably eager to start using any new powers, the Act represents a broader attack on the ability to exercise dissent and on the ability of ordinary people to exercise their human rights to freedom of assembly and association.

There is a genuine danger that any demonstration that involves some form of street action (and that police decide does not fit within their narrow definition of an “acceptable” static picket or march) is liable to have expanded powers used against it, with the aim of discouraging people from particular forms of action.

If this happens, it means sudden and unexpected arrests for protests that are simply loud and eye-catching, and a potential ‘chilling effect’ that discourages participation in a wider range of creative protests, even if protesters had no intention of breaking any law.

So what about the police’s duty to protect the right to protest?

We know from experience the police have regularly abused the powers they already had to disrupt protests. How, therefore, will the senior officers that make up the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) – the leadership of policing in Britain – show they have a clear plan to avoid the prospect of abuse of expanded powers in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act?

Having lobbied hard for many of the provisions in the Act, the NPCC is now required to demonstrate how new powers are enforceable legally without breaching human rights obligations.

The vagueness of the legislation and the risk that it becomes a weapon against any protest causing “inconvenience” makes this all the more important.

If senior officers cannot, or will not, explain how they intend to use the Act’s new powers, then we must expect the worst – more arrests, more surveillance and more criminalisation of social and political movements.

This makes Netpol’s call for clear police guidelines to protect the right to protest – and the template we have offered, the Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights – all the more urgent.

After years of witnessing the police relish the huge discretion they have to interfere with fundamental rights to protest, whilst ignoring calls for greater transparency and accountability, it became evident the only option was to offer solutions ourselves.

The Charter is based on international guidelines on the protection of the right to freedom of assembly, from monitoring bodies and experts, that the British government has already accepted and endorsed.

So far the NPCC has been reluctant to even talk about the Charter or to produce its own clear, unambiguous benchmarks for what a “human rights-based approach to policing of protests” might look like.

If senior officers cannot, or will not, explain how they intend to use the Act’s new powers, then we must expect the worst – more arrests, more surveillance and more criminalisation of social and political movements.

Now, more than ever, it is vital we build a coalition in support of defending dissent – and make sure we are ready to offer active support for campaigners facing the impact of new powers.

TAKE ACTION TODAY

You can find a range of resources and ideas to prepare for the impact of the new Act on our Defending Dissent page.