You might have noticed a fair bit of unrest in recent times here in the UK. From Extinction rebellion to anti lockdown protests. Black Lives Matter protests and Anti – Vaxxers; and more recently those remembering the life of Sarah Everard. It’s needless to say that protesting is a fundamental pillar of democracy, and that everyone has a right to protest. However, it seems that the large amount of social turbulence brought on by these events has led the government to produced what is called the ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ (Or PCSC Bill for short). This might sound boring and inconsequential, but the bill has proved controversial, especially in how it attempts to shut down protests and protestors. With the Bill passing its second hearing on 16th March 2021 I want to outline the key areas that concern people the most.
This bill has been controversial for quite a few reasons. In particular, there are three main reasons why the bill is seen as a breach of our rights as democratically residing citizens. In order of apparent controversy these three aspects are:
- It gives the state more powers to stop protests;
- It makes being a “public nuisance” a statutory offence;
- It increases sentencing for damaging statutes and memorials.
I would like to look at each of these reasons and explain why they have upset people and explain the governments defence.
Shutting Down Protests
The PCSC Bill gives police wider powers to effect protests in four key areas. Firstly, the police previously only had special powers to intervene in what is considered major marches. But now all of those extended powers will extend to static protests and even single person protests. Secondly, the police can now restrict protest in order to minimise “Impact”. Previously the police could only do this to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, and intimidation. With the introduction of the PCSC Bill, this list will now include “impact”, which spikes controversy due to its vague implications. Thirdly you can now be prosecuted for protesting illegally. Previously you could only be prosecuted if you knew that you were protesting illegal and continued to do so. Now you can be prosecuted if the police deem that you ought to have known the legality of the protest you’ve joined. Fourthly, with the PCSC Bill, the police are now allowed to stop protests for becoming too noisy. The level of noise however isn’t defined objectively. Rather, it has been defined as “when noise may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organization. The bill also allows for the Home Secretary to quite literally define “serious disruption” however they want, via statutory instruments. Moreover, because these statutory instruments don’t require parliamentary approval, and the police can now shut down disruptive protests, the home secretary would therefore have the enormous power to cancel any protest the wish.
In actuality, being a public nuisance is already a crime but only in common law. This means there’s no explicit regulation about it and the sentencing issued depends on historical precedent. With the introduction of the PCSC Bill, it would make being a public nuisance a statutory offence with a maximum sentence of 10 years. However, this bill would also expand the definition of public nuisance to include “annoyance”, which means that you could go to jail for being publicly annoying unless you can provide a reasonable excuse. To be fair to the government here, the law commission did recommend making being a public nuisance a statutory offence in 2015 but the law commission didn’t say anything about annoyance or a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Previously if you damaged a statute or memorial, you could be charged with the damage up to £5000 as well as being handed down a jail sentence of a maximum 3 months. This bill increases the maximum to 10 years. This means that if you spray paint over Nelsons Column, go to jail for up to 10 years. Of course, this is the very maximum sentence, and most sentences will be less that that. With as large a step up in maximum custodial sentence, its easy to see why people see this punishment as disproportionate.
What do you think of this new Bill? Has the government gone too far? Or are you convinced by the changes? We would like to know your thoughts.
By Nick Williamson
SMQ Legal’s Police Station Coordinator