The Climate Column

The police bill is an unprecedented assault on our freedom – Priti Patel must be stopped

Punitive fines and life-destroying sentences will halt our right to organise and promote peaceful protests, writes Donnachadh McCarthy

Tuesday 14 December 2021 09:49 GMT
‘Priti Patel has inserted another 15 pages of repressive measures into the bill’
‘Priti Patel has inserted another 15 pages of repressive measures into the bill’ (Donnachadh McCarthy)

Poor Boris Johnson. He faces a potential fine and up to 10 years in jail if he fulfils the promise he made in 2016 to lie in front of the bulldozers, in order to stop the third runway at Heathrow. This is because of the authoritarian, protest-crushing proposals contained in the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which Priti Patel, our most right-wing home secretary in generations, is currently taking through parliament.

The bill was withdrawn after the huge public outcry over the heavy-handed policing of the vigil marking the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer. It was then generally agreed that the bill’s punitive suppression of protests had no place in a supposed liberal democracy. But once the outcry had passed, Patel quietly re-introduced the bill – and with the government’s huge majority it has been progressing through parliament.

Then last week, after most of the statutory scrutiny stages had been passed, Patel inserted another 15 pages of repressive measures, which would have criminalised and destroyed every legitimate mass protest movement over the last 70 years. Campaigning website Liberty has produced this excellent briefing note on its dire implications.

If Boris Johnson now cycles to make his protest in front of the bulldozers, he could be arrested even before he gets to Heathrow, simply for being in possession of a bicycle lock. Why? Because this could be used to lock himself to the bulldozer or even a fellow protestor, and it would be illegal to be even in possession of any object that enables the intent to carry out a lock-on. Patel is making lock-ons, a traditional peaceful disruptive protest tactic, a criminal offence.

And if Johnson has any black friends who want to join his protest, they will likely be searched, as Patel is abolishing the legal requirement for police to have any grounds for suspicion before they search people attending protests. Black people in the UK are seven times more likely to be stop and searched than white people.

Theresa May raises concerns about controversial new policing bill

If Johnson has been to a previous disruptive Heathrow protest, even if he were not arrested at it, he could be made subject to a new Orwellian “Serious Disruption Prevention Order,” which would make it a criminal offence for him to even attend the protest. And if he had been prosecuted at a previous Heathrow protest, he could also be subjected to such an order, which would make it a criminal offence even to meet others in his No Heathrow Runway group. He would be barred from using the internet to help organise upcoming protests or even to tell people about it upon pain of imprisonment.

If some Gypsies happened to support the Heathrow protest and created an unauthorised protest camp, as Greenham Common and Occupy movements did in the past, the police could now confiscate their caravan homes, as this is to be a new criminal offence. Johnson would also face an additional potential fine and further jail time if he carried out other protest actions, if Patel found them “seriously annoying”. This is because there is a provision in the bill that enables the home secretary to define what is criminally “seriously annoying” without recourse to parliament.

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And if Johnson is hoping Labour will actively protect him from these punitive punishments, he might be disappointed. This column reached out to both Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, and Ed Miliband, shadow climate secretary, to see if they condemned these amendments. But again, no reply. London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s spokesperson did tell this column, however, that he “is concerned that the provisions regarding protests may have unintended consequences for free speech, that he is sure the government does not want, and he urges the government to reconsider this legislation on sentencing”.

Johnson and Patel are unleashing an unprecedented assault on our freedom to stage disruptive peaceful protests, by imposing unlimited punitive fines, life-destroying sentences, and criminalising the right to organise and promote such protests.

Alok Sharma, on behalf of the UK government, remains president of the UN’s Cop26 climate crisis process until November 2022. With the UN stating that the future of human civilisation is hanging by a thread, the ecocidal message Sharma’s home secretary is giving around the world is that they should treat their climate protectors as a threat. Priti Patel must be stopped.

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