Britain’s controversial new police and crime bill: What it is and why it matters

The UK government has been facing an increasing backlash after the introduction of their controversial new police and crime bill. The bill, which last week passed its second reading in parliament, has caused public outrage. On Sunday, tensions boiled over in a demonstration in Bristol, with police and protestors injured and police vehicles set alight. So what is the bill and why does it matter?

What is the police and crime bill?

The bill is a lengthy new piece of legislation, which focuses on policing and the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The section of the bill that is causing the most backlash is around the right to protest. The new law would introduce a number of extended powers for police officers including the right to impose a start and finish time on protests, the right to set a ‘maximum noise limit’, and the right to apply these rules to a demonstration by just one person rather than a group of people.

The bill will also make it easier to convict protestors for not following the rules, covering so-called “loopholes” that police have previously complained about. Now protesters will not need to be given a direct order from police to follow rules associated with demonstrations, as was the case in previous years. Instead, the protestors will now be expected to know about these rules and can be prosecuted or fined for not following them accordingly. 

The law also includes an offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance.” This law would mean no protest that occupied public space (including around parliament buildings) would be allowed to take place. It would also ban physical acts of protest that cause public inconvenience  such as protestors chaining themselves to buildings or gluing themselves to the ground, tactics often used  by groups such as extinction rebellion.

There is also a section on damage to public statues and memorials. The bill would give a maximum of ten years in prison for causing damage here. This move follows the deployment of police officers to guard a statue of Winston Churchill after protests erupted near it in London last week.

Why is it so controversial? 

Opposition to the bill has been growing over the past two weeks, particularly after the Sarah Everard case. After Everard was murdered and a Metropolitan police officer was charged, a vigil took place in London. The  police claimed the vigil was unlawful and used what was widely considered to be excessive force to stop it. Pictures emerged of officers pushing women, pinning them to the ground and handcuffing them. Many MPs and members of the public criticised the police’s handling of the incident. 

With this in mind, the new bill would allow the police to have even more powers when dealing with protests and vigils such as these. Many MPs and activists have argued that the right to protest is a human right and a vital part of democracy. They have also argued that this bill infringes on those rights and ultimately threatens democracy. Others have drawn attention to how the bill attacks all kinds of protests, even protests that do not threaten the current coronavirus rules. For example, the new bill allows the police to arrest, charge, and fine a single protestor rather than a group.

What happened in Bristol?

On Sunday night, around 3,000 protestors took to the streets of Bristol in a ‘kill the bill’ demonstration. The demonstration was a protest against the new legislation. It started peacefully, with social distancing rules in place and masks being worn. Protesters held signs that read “we can’t be silenced that easy” and “less power to the police all power to the people”. When the demonstration turned violent, a number of people were injured and police vehicles were heavily vandalised and burned.

‘Kill the bill’ protests were also held in other major cities over the weekend including Manchester and Liverpool. These demonstrations were peaceful and passed without incident.

Why it matters

The bill has not only faced criticism from the public but from leading MPs and academics. Last week over 70,000 leading legal scholars warned that the “draconian” bill amounted to “an alarming extension of state control over legal assembly.” 

The bill no doubt infringes upon the right to protest, which is vital for a functioning democracy. If Britain is allowed to infringe on the right of its citizens to protest, it loses legitimacy as a democratic country. 

The impact of this bill on international society could also be detrimental. If Britain is not held accountable, other countries could follow suit. The right to hold government to account is not only a right under democracy but a basic human right, without this many would be powerless. This bill is arguably a step towards dictatorship and could be extremely dangerous not only for the citizens of Britain, but for citizens of many different countries.

Aoife McDowell
Aoife McDowell

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