Hot on the heels of the April 2022 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, protests at nuclear weapons establishments and military sites could now be under threat by the proposed National Security Bill, due for a second reading in parliament on 6 June.
The National Security Bill aims to prevent “state threats” from hostile foreign entities including, according to Priti Patel, protecting the UK against acts such as the Salisbury poisonings by Russian agents, or the alleged targeting of MPs on behalf of the Chinese government.
Yet, sections 4-6 appear to target protest at military and nuclear sites, creating new offences, expanding police powers, and imposing significantly higher sentences for unauthorised entry.
More powers that threaten protest
Section 4 of the bill, “Entering etc a prohibited place for a purpose prejudicial to the UK”, mostly replaces Section 1 of the Official Secrets Acts, 1911. As in the past, it can be used to criminalise protestors who enter and inspect places. It can also be used against protesters taking action at – or protesting outside – or even “adjacent to” a military base, a nuclear establishment or any other designated site. This includes any person who accesses, enters, inspects, passes over or under, approaches or is in the vicinity of a prohibited place; and prohibits any photography or videos – including by drone.
These activities do not need to relate to national security. The relevant case law under s.1 OSA 1911, concerned a 1964 CND protest. It clarifies that the clause stating that an activity is ‘prejudicial to the safety and interests of the UK’, includes protesters who are considered to hinder defence activities in some way– irrespective of their actual intent. The maximum penalty for breaching S4 is 14 years imprisonment.
It is already a criminal offence to trespass on protected sites designated under, s.128 SOCPA 2005, but Section 5 appears to create a broader offence, criminalising any unauthorised entry, access or inspection, including the taking of photos, at a protected site. There is no requirement that these activities should be ‘prejudicial to the UK’, only that the person “knew or ought to have known” their action was unauthorised. Worryingly, it is not clear how courts will interpret “ought to have known”, also seen in the updates to sections 12 & 14 Public Order Act (1986), relating to conditions on processions and assemblies, in the new PCSC Act.
Section 6 additionally empowers police to “remove vehicles”, and provides police with powers to order a person on a prohibited site, or who has entered a place adjacent to a prohibited site, to leave the area immediately, “to protect the safety or interests of the UK”. This would give the police considerable powers against protests and protest camps like the anti-nuclear camp at Aldermaston, or at RAF/USAF Fairford.
The police don’t need more powers
The police do not need these extra powers. They already have more than sufficient powers to arrest, detain and prosecute people exercising their right to protest. As with earlier legislation imposed at military and nuclear bases, it will be abused by police to harass protestors and prevent lawful protest, not only through arrest, but through bail conditions restricting freedom of movement.
Charges against anti-war protestors arrested under the Official Secrets Act, for example at Fairford during the 1991 Gulf War, were dropped at the end of the war, as prosecution “was not in the public interest”. Between 21 February – 11 April 2003, during the war on Iraq, protestors were subjected to 995 random searches in the area around USAF Fairford under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. Similarly, since 2006, at least 50 anti-nuclear and other peaceful protestors were arrested for “domestic extremism” – often with punitive bail conditions – but rarely prosecuted – under s. 128, Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (SOCPA) after its provisions were extended to nuclear sites by s.12 of the Terrorism Act 2006.
These measures in this bill are designed to specifically prevent and suppress protest. They have no place in a bill whose stated intent is to address “state threats from foreign powers”, but are specifically designed to target protestors. This represents yet another attack on the right to protest.