Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts: Power and Liberty in a Time of Unrest
Following a year of unprecedented Government intervention in the lives of private citizens due to the pandemic, the UK is now set to pass the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. This Bill seeks to considerably expand police powers, create new criminal offences and impose harsh penalties for non-compliance.
The Bill will amend the Public Order Act of 1986, allowing police to act with increased power against protests that cause "intimidation or harassment" or "serious unease, alarm or distress", even when the protest is only one person strong.
Protests are a vital element of liberal democracy as they allow citizens to voice their will when their elected officials are non-responsive. Consequently protests often cause "serious unease, alarm or distress" as they are symptomatic of a democratic system not working and the issues behind them are usually emotionally charged. As a result, to many the new law presents a serious threat to the populations ability to voice opposition to the Government.
With regards to Travellers, the Bill seeks to crackdown on what it calls "unauthorised encampments" (people residing on land without permission) by significantly increasing the penalties for these newly criminalised offences. Until now these have been civil law offences with penalties that reflect this. At the same time the Bill will increase police powers, making the disbandment of such camps considerably easier with use of force and seizure of property.
Of particular note is the creation of a new offence called "residing on land without consent in or with a vehicle". This is, intentionally or not, a discriminatory use of State power against one of the most marginalised groups in our society, Travellers. Outlawing a peoples' way of life can be seen as nothing less.
Furthermore, these changes seem to particularly target the tactics deployed by one of the Government's biggest opposition groups, Extinction Rebellion. The often visceral and provocative protests of Extinction Rebellion appear to be directly targeted by the new bill and the camp protests used by Extinction Rebellion are threatened by the new laws on "unauthorised encampments". The suppression of opposition voices paves the way for authoritarianism.
This bill provokes the distinct feeling of our elected officials ruling over us, rather than working for us; the idea of an elective dictatorship in this country should carry yet more weight as we move forward.
After two major legal defeats following the Brexit referendum, which saw the unilateral use of Government power reigned in by the courts, there seems to be a desire held by those in Government for their power to be increased and freed from restraint.
Despite their executive control and legislative majority, the Conservative party has thus far found the constitutional framework of the UK has at times prevented them from using their governing power in the manner they would like. In other words without limit from checks and balances.
It is therefore worrying that the Bill comes in conjunction with Government mandated reviews of the Human Rights Act 1998 (read more about the implications of this here) and our judicial review process (read more on this here).
These serve as checks and balances on the use of Government power and are fundamental to the protection of individual liberties. As a result, not only does this new Bill increase the power of the State but the Government has been working in the background to ensure these new powers can be deployed unchallenged by constitutional checks and balances. The result: a worrying threat to individual liberties and rights.
The International Dimension
While the Bill will only apply to the UK, this assertive increase of State power comes during a time when the role of the State has grown across the globe in response to, or guised by, (for example read here) the Covid-19 pandemic.
This Bill is symptomatic of the growing role of the State around the world. The pandemic may have required Government's to increase their power and scope in order to act decisively, however once gained, power is not so easily relinquished.
The Bill has been met with both harsh criticism and resistance. "Kill the Bill" protests in Bristol turned violent as protestors clashed with police and more protests under the same banner are expected across the country over the following weeks. At the time of writing the Bill has passed its second reading, meaning it is currently on the path to become law but has not yet.
Furthermore, and of immediate significance, the new Bill does little to address violence against women. As Sarah Everard's murder has highlighted, this is a constant and serious threat. It must be addressed as a priority. When the police are part of the problem that is male violence against women, increasing their power is clearly not going to address the problem.
Consequently, the Bill remains contentious for what it omits as well as what it contains. We can be sure this is not the last we will hear (or see) of it.