A film by Lachlan Macrae – guest post on Real Media

In September 2020, Priti Patel wrote to the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) asking how the Home Office could help police to prevent protests from impacting “the rights of others to go about their daily business”.

Her letter followed a series of Extinction Rebellion protests which brought parts of central London to a standstill, and Black Lives Matter protests which she’d described as “dreadful”. Some of these protests took place during a period when government coronavirus restrictions had imposed what amounted to a blanket ban on protest – see our Real Media special report.

As a result, in March 2021 the HMIFCRS published a report “Getting The Balance Right – an inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests” which recommended “a modest reset of the scales”.

Among the recommendations was a massive increase in surveillance and facial recognition technology. The year before, the national protest intelligence database was moved from Counter Terrorism Policing to a new Strategic Intelligence and Briefing team at the National Police Coordination Centre.

By June 2022 the National Police Chief’s Council is set to review that move and set up longer-term plans for “managing the risks presented by aggravated activists”. (Aggravated activism seeks to bring about social or political change through unlawful behaviour). There are plans for a new database outside of public scrutiny. Netpol have produced an excellent guide with Privacy International exposing the increasing police surveillance and giving some tips on how to avoid it.

The day before publication of the Inspectorate’s report, the government published the first draft of their Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, a long document containing many new laws, which can broadly be divided into four parts:

  • Protection of Police
  • Prevention, Investigation and Prosecution of Crime
  • Public Order
  • Unauthorised Encampments

Part One moves police forces ever further away from the traditional ‘policing by consent’ towards treating them more like the armed forces with new protections and powers. This is on top of their newly granted permission to commit criminal offences while engaged in intelligence operations – the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act which came into power in March 2021.

Part Two contains new legislation to tackle knife crime, including the introduction of Serious Violence Reduction Orders, which has been widely condemned by rights groups as likely to be misused and promoting racial profiling. Liberty describes it as “a highly oppressive tool, unlike anything currently on the statute book’, that would among other things ‘hand police an extraordinary power to stop and search a person at any time, in any place, completely free of suspicion”.

Part Three is where the new protest restrictions are outlined, giving police wider powers and creating new offences, restricting the manner, method, time, location and even noise levels of protests, with draconian penalties of up to ten years in prison for breaches.

The bill hands power to police to impose conditions on any and all protests to prevent ‘disruption’ (including noise), even introducing offences for one person protests.

It hands power to future Home Secretaries to make further regulations without consulting parliament to define ‘disruption’ in any given scenario.

The way the law is framed it could not only affect protests but also picket lines, and adding in a new offence of ‘public nuisance’ with more wide-ranging definitions will give the police multiple ways of shutting down legitimate and peaceful actions of all types, with serious consequences for people involved.

Part Four is aimed squarely at the Gypsy and Traveller communities, who already suffer lack of available land and poor health, and will be further marginalised and persecuted by harsh new criminal sanctions, as described in this briefing.

Campaigners responded with rallies and petitions throughout 2021 but the legislation progressed through parliament and its second reading (just two days after police broke up the Sarah Everard vigil) passed with a powerful majority in the Commons.

In October at the Conservative Party conference, Priti Patel announced plans for new laws turning Obstruction of the Highway into a serious criminal offence (partially in response to Insulate Britain’s climate campaign), giving police blanket Stop and Search powers over “protesters”,  and introducing new Criminal Disruption Prevention Orders to target protest organisers and criminalise their activities, preventing them from communicating or attending protests. These would be civil orders based on police intelligence, and ripe for misuse.

As the Bill progressed through the Lords, some of these plans emerged as amendments and revisions. We saw new offences of “locking on” and “impeding major transport works”, and widened “suspicionless” stop and search powers.

The Disruption Prevention Order legislation means that a court will be able to place someone under an order if they are reasonably suspected of carrying out twice within five years “activities related to a protest that were likely to result in serious disruption to two or more individuals, or to an organisation”.

The resulting order can ban them from using the internet for anything protest-related, make them report to police stations, ban them from associating with named individuals or groups, and ban them from attending protests, all with the threat of a 51-week prison sentence if you breach any part of the order, including failing to report change of address to the police or suchlike.

As the Bill nears its final reading in the House of Lords, many organisations and movements have come together and are calling for mass protests in cities round the UK on Saturday (15th Jan) – the London march will start at Lincoln’s Inn Fields at midday.

Netpol are campaigning for a Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights which has already attracted nearly a quarter of a million signatures.