04 Jan 2022
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 has forced a delay.
In November 2021, the government made a slew of amendments to the Bill which create additional hostile measures - new non-violent protest offences, longer sentences for existing offences, extensive police stop and search powers and individual protest banning orders (which could even be imposed without someone breaking the law). These amendments have received minimal time for parliamentary scrutiny and will afford the police even greater powers to clamp down on a vast range of peaceful and non-violent protests.
The Bill is currently in the House of Lords, which can make its own changes to the Bill. Any changes made in the House of Lords will either be accepted by the government or face a vote by MPs in the House of Commons.
It's vital to get your MP to speak out against the criminalisation of peaceful protest and trespass. Here are a couple of key demands for your MP:
- Publicly oppose the clampdown of peaceful protest (in part 3 of the policing bill) and the criminalisation of trespass (in part 4 of the policing bill).
- Write to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary, asking them to scrap part 3 and part 4 of the policing bill.
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.
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’s article outlining why the policing bill is a harmful piece of legislation.
- Liberty’s and Big Brother Watch’s joint briefing about the protest measures in part 3 of the policing bill.
- Friends, Families and Travellers’ briefing about the criminalisation of trespass in part 4 of the policing bill.
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.
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.
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
Over 250 national organisations and over 500,000 people have signed an open letter against the government’s plans to criminalise peaceful protest and trespass.
At least 99 organisations, groups and social movements signed a separate joint statement , calling on the government to scrap the Bill entirely.
- 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.