The policing bill: a threat to democracy?

 

The policing bill: a threat to democracy?

“I hope no one from the Government reads this column,” said Michael Deacon in The Daily Telegraph. “I’m worried it might annoy them.” And causing annoyance may soon be against the law. Last week, MPs voted in favour of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, which will seriously curtail the right to protest in England and Wales. Police will be given the power to break up non-violent demonstrations, if they are too noisy, or might cause “serious annoyance”. What exactly constitutes “serious annoyance” is unclear. “But it could, potentially, get you up to ten years in jail.” The bill is outrageous, said Ian Birrell in the I newspaper – a genuine threat to liberty and democracy in this country. It is “a populist stunt” to appease the Conservative party’s “hard-right, reflecting their loathing of Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion”.

The problem is that protest has changed, said Robert Poll in The Critic. The bill is a reaction to Extinction Rebellion, which brought London to a halt in the summer of 2019, and to last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. “The right to protest has to be balanced against the rights of others to live and work freely, without disruption” – and without their heritage being trashed. In October 2019, the police broke up a week-long Extinction Rebellion protest using the Public Order Act 1986. The High Court later ruled that was unlawful. The new law would fix that by updating their powers. And it clearly only targets “highly disruptive” demonstrations. The current “Kill the Bill” protests are a case in point, said Rakib Ehsan in The Spectator: just look at the rioting in Bristol this week. “Far-left disorder”, piggybacking on whatever cause is in the news, is a major problem. Britain can no longer “turn a blind eye” to it.

Of course the authorities should try to minimise the disruption, said The Economist. But “freedom of expression, including the freedom of assembly, is central to a liberal democracy, and decent societies have to put up with a few inconveniences to guarantee it”. The provisions restricting protest in the PCSC Bill “would sit comfortably in Russian or Chinese statute books”. They allow protests to be banned if they have an “impact” – which is the whole point of protests. They increase the maximum sentence for defacing a memorial from three months to ten years. The bill is now in the committee stage; it will be examined before coming back to the Commons. Unless Boris Johnson “bins this rotten bill”, he will do vastly more damage to the country than “any paint-spraying protester”.

Comments