Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights / Policing / Protest rights / Stop and search

Liberty’s view on the Policing Bill: striking at the heart of democracy

Posted on 17 Mar 2021

For more than 80 years, we’ve fought off many egregious attempts to curtail our rights and we won’t stop now.

Last night’s vote on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a dark stain on our democracy.

Our right to protest protects all of us. It enables any one of us – whatever our standing in society – to speak out, to freely express how we feel and to hold power to account.

It is not and should never be viewed as a gift from the State.

Governments and police have an obligation to facilitate protest not suppress it. Yet the Bill seeks to do exactly this.

It is an assault on basic civil liberties, and MPs should have rejected it outright.

We cannot allow these powers to pass and while yesterday’s vote is beyond disappointing, the Bill still has a long distance to travel until it’s passed into law.

Thousands of people contacted their MPs to raise concerns and we need people to continue to be vocal, not only about this Bill but in how this Government is now behaving.

The content of the Bill is only one troubling aspect of democracy in Britain today.

The speed at which this monster of a document (at more than 300 pages) was pushed to second reading was head-spinning.

The full detail of the Bill was only released last week and it was debated then voted upon less than a week later. Six days is not nearly enough time for parliamentarians or civil society to give a full, forensic analysis of this far-reaching legislation. The devil is always in the detail, and there was a lot of detail to wade through.

In our briefing to MPs we made clear that the first step was for this Bill to be paused to allow Parliament to fulfil its necessary constitutional duty to scrutinise and improve this legislation for the good of us all.

This is because elements tucked away inside this unwieldly draft legislation would dramatically reshape civil liberties in this country, dangerously tipping the balance of power in favour of the Government.

The Bill combines many of the more dangerous Government proposals that Liberty has fought against in recent years.

It creates new stop and search powers that could licence State harassment, and a “Prevent-style duty” to reducing knife crime, that would ramp up racial profiling.

It criminalises trespass, threatening the right to roam in a way that could criminalise the way of life of Gypsy and Traveller communities.

It dramatically restricts our right to protest, threatening our ability to stand up to power and defend our rights.

Not content with trying to all but ban protest during the pandemic, the Government has used this public health crisis as cover to make emergency measures permanent, handing police the choice on where, when and how people can protest.

The dangerous policing of the Sarah Everard vigil last weekend follows a growing crackdown on protest throughout this pandemic, including the issuing of exorbitant fines to protest organisers in the summer, the aggressive kettling of Black Lives Matter protesters during a pandemic and the suppression of a two-person protest about the appalling and inhumane conditions at Napier Barracks.

The prospect of giving police even more power to control and limit our right to protest is incredibly dangerous.

The dangers contained in this Bill cannot be seen in isolation.

Not only does it come at a time when responding to the pandemic has allowed the Government to gain enormous power to interfere in our lives, and repeatedly side-line Parliament to avoid scrutiny, it is part of a broader assault on democratic accountability.

The Government is relentlessly pushing ahead with plans to make it harder to take it to court through judicial review, and to amend the Human Rights Act, watering down legislation that protects all our rights, including protest.

While we are still in the grip of a pandemic that has changed all our lives, forced us to make sacrifices to protect one another, and handed enormous powers to the Government, it is shocking that this executive has chosen to launch such a broad assault on our rights.

Liberty was founded in protest. We were created to support the rights of hunger marchers in the 1930s, and have stood up for the right to protest, and the voices of the most marginalised, ever since.

For more than 80 years, we’ve fought off many egregious attempts to curtail our rights and we won’t stop now.

We believe it is your right to live your lives free from undue state interference and that your right to free expression is precious.

Now is the time for us to come together to stand up for these democratic values. Now is the time to stand up to power.

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