Blog: Why we must all resist this wicked Trojan Horse

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a pernicious attack on our democratic practices – and we should all be worried, writes general secretary Christina McAnea

This mammoth bill, currently being fast-tracked through committee stage in the House of Lords, is a populist, multifaceted attack on our rights. Committee stage, when done properly, is vital for basic civil liberties issues, as real bi-partisan debate can dent any overreaching clauses.

The bill has some parts that UNISON has campaigned for, like strengthening measures against harming front-line workers. But the government’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights agrees that it mainly consists of serious, basic threats to our civil liberties:

  • The scope of laws that already disproportionately impact Black and minority communities, such as Stop and Search and laws making life for Gypsy and Roma traveller communities almost impossible, are set to be broadened;
  • It introduces new duties on frontline workers (including youth workers) that will break down hard-won relationships of trust by forcing them to share private data, no matter what other legal assurances of confidentiality are given;
  • It places avoiding ‘causing serious unease’ (an undefined and unmeasurable concept) as more important than our historic right to peacefully protest.

These are knee-jerk reactions that attack our democratic right to protest (and the areas protests can take place), increase criminal penalties for people who fall foul of police-imposed conditions, and create altogether new offences and criminal penalties.

The sheer breadth of measures is staggering and seems deliberately designed to avoid proper scrutiny, as each measure against the elements of peaceful protest cumulatively amounts to an attack on a fundamental building block of our democracy.

Making ‘noise’ will be part of a new definition of nuisance, protests around Parliament will be restricted and if a passer-by claims a protest causes them ‘serious annoyance’, the police can impose restrictions.

But the whole purpose of a demonstration, since Wat Tyler led The Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, is to grab politicians’ attention. Amnesty has a list of 10 famous protests this bill would have threatened, including Pride and ending apartheid in South Africa.

Convention is for law makers to take a proportionate approach, but this bill will disproportionately change penalties attached to protests. A person liable for ‘nuisance’ could face up to 10 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

Peaceful protestors, who have caused inconvenience but no damage – or damage but no inconvenience – will, for the first time, be facing lengthy prison sentences.

To lower the threshold of criminal offending to such a low bar seriously erodes the rights of free protest under Articles 10 and 11 of the Convention on Human Rights.

But it’s clear the government doesn’t care about our rights.

The police haven’t asked for all this, it’s just an overblown response to Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement, with monuments celebrating colonialism mattering more than people. Even some senior Tories are feeling uneasy about the potential, and as yet unquantified scope of these measures.

The bill leaves the door wide open for the detail to be outlined entirely at the whim of current and future home secretaries, without scrutiny and parliamentary debate.

As the UK’s largest trade union, we must understand the furthest possible reaches of this legislation and how it will affect our activists.

We also cannot ignore how this bill might interact with new definitions and guidance on covert surveillance laws. The police are now tasked with targeting what they term ‘aggravated activists’ for intelligence gathering by means of covert surveillance.

Covert Human Intelligence Sourcing (CHIS) is rightly classed as an intrusive tactic. It is authorised mostly for national security issues and it is rare to be able to justify using CHIS for protests. But by significantly weakening the criminal definition of ‘nuisance’ and ‘disorder’, and by making ‘serious annoyance’ a new definition for disorder and a criminal offence, this could potentially enable the use of CHIS against protest organisers.

As this bill is aimed directly at legitimate democratic practices, it is clear this government is intent on attacking and suppressing fundamental democratic rights.