The UK government has introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would severely clamp down on peaceful protest and criminalise trespass. This campaign guide explains the implications of the Bill and shows how you can campaign against it to defend the right to non-violent protest, protect the way of life of nomadic Gypsy and Traveller communities and preserve access to the countryside.

27 Jan 2022

Summary

The UK government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (“policing bill”) poses a huge threat to the rights of communities and citizens to make their voices heard through the use of peaceful protest in England and Wales. It would give police more powers to arrest people for peaceful activities. Crucially, the policing bill would also criminalise trespass, which would threaten the lifestyle of nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and limit access to nature.

The government’s plans have faced massive and growing opposition from across society. More than 250 organisations and over 500,000 individuals have signed an open letter against the government’s proposals to criminalise peaceful protest and trespass.

You can campaign locally by spreading the word in your community about the dangers of the legislation, and by asking your MP to defend peaceful protest and protect access to the countryside.

What’s wrong with the policing bill?

Friends of the Earth is calling for Part 3 of the policing bill, which restricts the right to protest, and part 4 of the Bill, which criminalise trespass, to be completely scrapped. Below we explain the problems with these parts of the Bill.

Restricting the right to protest

Protest is the lifeblood of democracy. For centuries, people have campaigned against injustice by taking to the street or assembling in parks and squares. Time and time again, protest has been essential for improving people’s lives. Protest was vital for securing worker’s rights, as well as the rights of women, LGBT people, people of colour, disabled people and many other marginalised communities.

And protest has played a key role in improving the environment – from the mass trespasses of the early 20th century which started to secure access to open space right through to the defeat of fracking and to the Big Ask campaign, which led to the UK Climate Change Act, the world’s first  legally binding climate change mitigation target set by a country. And it has enabled so many young people to raise the alarm about the climate emergency recently.

The UK government has tried to paint the policing bill as protecting communities from protesters. In reality, it's about protecting the powerful from communities. The proposals would mean that ordinary citizens face being silenced for speaking out on vital issues. The future of the planet and humanity depends on peaceful protests.

It is important to note that the measures in the policing bill – as the UK government itself has admitted – are aimed at increasing police powers to restrict peaceful and non-violent protests.

The proposed restrictions on the right to protest in the policing bill are completely separate to the existing coronavirus regulations on protest. The powers to restrict protests in the policing bill are not aimed at containing COVID-19, and would last indefinitely.

Part 3 of the policing bill makes a series of changes that restrict the right to protest:

  • The policing bill dramatically expands the conditions that can be placed by the police on "static assemblies" (demonstrations). These could include the protest being deemed too noisy, causing "serious disruption" to an organisation's activities or having a "relevant impact" on people in the vicinity.
  • The policing bill reduces the threshold for prosecuting someone for breaching police conditions imposed on a protest, so that the individual merely "ought to have known" about the conditions' existence, rather than knowingly breaching them, as is the case currently. This places the burden on protesters to find out about such conditions and on organisers to make them known. As a result, many ordinary citizens could be deterred from attending or organising a protest for fear of arrest for breaching conditions they didn’t actually know about.
  • The policing bill increases the penalty for breaches of police conditions to up to 11 months imprisonment for organisers (from 3 months currently) and an increased fine for individuals attending.
  • The policing bill places an offence of intentionally causing a "public nuisance" in law, with a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment. A person could be convicted of this offence if their actions have caused someone serious annoyance or serious inconvenience, or the risk of this. These vague terms are left open to interpretation.

The right to peaceful protest for environmental and social justice is under threat in many parts of the world. More than 400 climate scientists signed an open letter  saying that peaceful environmental protesters are being silenced and criminalised in many countries, including the UK and the US.

Criminalising trespass

Part 4 of the Bill introduces measures to create a new offence of trespass by "residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle". This will criminalise the way of life of nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, who are already marginalised in the UK. It will even cover those who are found to be "intending" to reside, and gives police the power to confiscate a vehicle. For these communities, confiscating a vehicle isn’t merely an inconvenience, it means seizing their homes and all their belongings within.

And the harm goes wider. Landowners wishing to make the countryside a hostile place for those seeking to enjoy it will gain a powerful new tool to deter wild campers, cyclists and others. It would send a signal that the countryside is not an open resource accessible to all, but a place of complex rules and regulations, with criminal sanctions for breaching them. This is something that could especially deter those from communities with worse experiences of the criminal justice system, including people of colour.

Timeline of the policing bill

March 2021 

The UK government published the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on 9 March 2021. The bill was rushed through its first debate in parliament (called "second reading" in parliamentary jargon) on 15 and 16 March. Initially, the government planned to fast-track it through parliament, but the huge backlash from across civil society forced a delay. 

November 2021 

In November 2021, the government tabled a slew of amendments to the bill which would create even more draconian measures - new non-violent protest offences, longer sentences for existing protest offences, extensive police stop and search powers for protestors and individual protest banning orders. 

December 2021 

On 13 December 2021, peers debated part 4 of the bill which criminalises trespass and creates new police powers to confiscate the homes of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller families suspected of trespass. These measures tragically passed without amendment following a drawn vote. 

January 2022 

On 17 January 2022, peers voted on amendments to part 3 of the bill and rightly rejected almost all of the government’s November amendments. This was a welcome and remarkable outcome, although significant parts of the bill remain that will make it easier to clampdown on peaceful protest. The following measures have been scrapped and will not form part of the final legislation: 

  • The offences of locking on and being equipped to lock on 
  • The offence of obstructing major transport works 
  • The offence of interfering with key national infrastructure 
  • Police stop and search powers for items associated with protest offences – both with and without cause for suspicion 
  • Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (i.e. individual protest banning orders) 

Peers also passed new amendments to remove oppressive measures already in part 3 of the bill, specifically the powers to restrict peaceful assemblies, noisy protests and one-person protests. They also allowed for some protest on the streets around Parliament. 

In a process called Ping Pong, the bill now returns to the House of Commons where these amendments will be debated by MPs and could be reversed. The government has already made it clear that’s what they intend to do. So that's where we will now be focusing our efforts, so that MPs get the clear message that the amendments passed by the Lords reduce the damage the bill will do to our right to protest must not be reversed.

How to campaign with your MP

It's vital to get your MP to speak out against the criminalisation of peaceful protest and trespass.

Here are several key demands for your MP: 

  • Publicly oppose the clampdown of peaceful protest (in part 3 of the bill) and the criminalisation of trespass (in part 4 of the bill) 
  • Support the changes to part 3 of the bill made by the House of Lords including oppose any attempts from the government to: 
    • Reintroduce police powers to restrict protests based on noise 
    • Restore restrictions possible on peaceful assemblies and one-person protests 
    • Remove even the limited provisions for permission for protests in the streets around Parliament 

We recommend that you meet your MP, either as an individual or as part of a group, to raise your concerns about the policing bill. The meeting could be in person or online, depending on the coronavirus guidance at the time and the preferences of your group.

As part of the wide range of organisations concerned about the policing bill, some local Quakers and Amnesty UK groups are keen to link up with Friends of the Earth groups to lobby MPs. It would send a powerful message to MPs to join together.

For key messages to say to your MP, read the section above entitled "what’s wrong with the policing bill". You can also send your MP one of the resources below:

Friends of the Earth is developing a new briefing on the bill so check back here soon. To learn more about how to campaign effectively with your MP, check out Friends of the Earth’s guide to working with your elected representatives.

You can also take, and share, Friends of the Earth's online action to ask your MP to protect the right to noisy protest.

How to spread the word in your community

Can you raise awareness about the dangers of criminalising trespass and peaceful protest on social media? It’s vital to spread the word to as many people as possible about why we need to defend peaceful protest. You could talk about your own protest experiences, or highlight historical protests that have inspired you. You can use some of the following hashtags: #PolicingBill, #RightToProtest, #PoliceCrackdownBill, #WeProtest.

Once you’ve emailed your MP about the bill, why not follow up with a tweet reminding them to support the changes to part 3 made by the House of Lords? You can use Tweet your MP to quickly find your MP’s Twitter handle and send them our template tweet, although it’s always best to write in your own words. 

Building a broad movement against the Bill

There is a huge and growing coalition of groups that are campaigning against the policing bill, so this campaign is an opportunity to build relationships with groups from diverse communities that you might not have campaigned with in the past.

It's important to recognise that while this legislation will restrict the rights of every citizen, the clampdown on peaceful protest and the criminalisation of trespass in the policing bill would disproportionately impact some of the most marginalised communities in the country.

  • "I’m a Romany Gypsy – the government’s policing bill will criminalise my culture. Our way of life is hanging on by a thread… The police bill tells us where we can’t go, but no one is saying where we can go. We are being legislatively cleansed from Britain, and this Bill must be scrapped before it further eradicates our traditions and destroys our already marginalised communities". Lisa Smith, Chair of the Advisory Council for the Education of Romany  and Other Travellers
  • "Protesting while black is different, and no one really tells that story. Our right to protest comes with a lot of fear... The only way we can all be liberated is if we all liberate each other and be the best allies we can be to each other." Marvina Eseoghene Newton, the founder of United for Black Lives and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Leeds

More than 350 national organisations and 800,000+ people have signed an open letter against the government’s plans to criminalise peaceful protest and trespass.

Over 200 concerned business leaders signed a joint letter to Members of the House of Lords, calling on them to support amendments that remove or reduce the scope of anti-protest provisions in the bill. 

Write to a local paper

News coverage of the policing bill has been seriously lacking, but you can help change this. Writing to a local paper is a useful action you can take to raise awareness about the draconian provisions in parts 3 and 4. 

If your letter gets published, it could inspire others from your constituency to contact your MP about the bill. Who knows, maybe your MP will see your letter too. Their assistant probably keeps abreast of local news to monitor mentions and help them understand the issues that constituents care about. 

Here are some tips for your letter: 

  • Try to find a story in the newspaper to respond to and send your letter either the same day or the following day, making sure to clearly reference the article. 
  • Keep it brief and to the point – anything over 200 words is less likely to be printed. 
  • Try to bring a new angle or idea to the debate – you could make it relevant by highlighting an example of protest in your local area. 
  • Focus on the police powers to restrict protests based on noise levels, as this provision is difficult for government to defend. 
  • Always include your full name, address and phone number in your submission. These won’t be printed, but the newspaper may call to confirm a detail with you. 

We’ve written a template letter to help, but your letter will be more appealing to the editor if you write in your own words.

Additional resources

  • Friends, Families and Travellers created a briefing  in April 2021 about new police powers for encampments in part 4 of the policing bill.
  • Liberty and Big Brother Watch produced a joint briefing  for a parliamentary debate in April 2021 about the protest measures in part 3 of the policing bill.
  • Liberty created a separate briefing  for the Second Reading of the policing bill in March 2021.
  • Netpol  have monitored policing of protests for many years especially those by environmental and anti-racist movements.
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