A landmark crime bill has recently passed its second vote in Parliament. The Police, crime, sentencing and courts bill was passed by 359 votes to 263 and covers a vast range of changes to the enforcement and sentencing of certain crimes in England and Wales.
While Labour MPs had been due to abstain on voting, they changed their stance after a highly publicised police intervention during the vigil for Sarah Everard highlighted concerns over police overreach during such demonstrations. Regardless, the bill looks set to continue its trajectory.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have largely and vehemently supported the bill’s proposals.
The bill is a colossal piece of legislation and covers a wide range of matters regarding policing and sentencing but the main elements of it that are garnering public attention and criticism are those relating to public protests and demonstrations.
Police chiefs will now be able to impose conditions on protests which relate to how they can be handled by authorities. For example, they will be able to unilaterally impose start and finish times, and noise limits. Should a protest not follow these conditions placed on them, they will be breaking the law and would face criminal charges and/or a fine. It will also become a crime to not follow restrictions that protestors “ought” to know about even if they did not receive a direct order from the police. Previously, it needed to be proven that protestors had been told to move on before it can be said that they have broken the law.
The bill has been called an “all-out assault” on the right to protest by civil liberties groups. The practical implications of the conditions now able to be imposed on protests mean that power now lies more in the hands of police or other law making authorities to decide how and when a protest can take place or be broken up. It gives the Home Office unilateral authority to define what counts as “serious disruption to the life of the community” and “serious disruption to activities of an organisation”.
Critics of the bill point to how the new powers given to the police and Home Office essentially give them the power to decide what constitutes a valid and legal demonstration or protest, a severe limitation to the right to protest.
The maximum sentence penalty in common law for public nuisance, which the new legislative power falls under, is ten years imprisonment; a further arguing point for opponents of the bill when compared to much more lenient sentences for seemingly more harmful crimes than protesting.
The bill also covers changes to sentences to increase jail time for more serious crimes, as well as increasing the maximum sentence for low level ones.