We knew this was coming. Priti Patel has been extremely clear about what she thinks of Black Lives Matter. “Those protests were dreadful,” she said last month. She’s also been clear about what she thinks of Extinction Rebellion. At a police conference last year she branded its activists “eco-crusaders turned criminals”. Now we see what she plans to do about it.
On Tuesday, the Home Office published the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill. It covers a wide range of areas, from sentencing to digital information. But it has a specific section on the policing of protests. And the function of this section is simple: It aims to silence them. It is cancel culture on a statutory footing, directed against the left.
This is not a metaphor. It is the literal and explicit function of the legislation.
The policing bill does this by amending an old piece of legislation called the Public Order Act 1986. This older Act gave police officers powers which they have used against protestors ever since. If they believe that a demonstration risked “serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community”, they could impose restrictions on it – for instance on where it went, whether it moved or how many people could be present.This week’s policing bill adds a further justification for the restrictions: noise. If the noise of the protest “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation” – for instance by distracting employees in a nearby office, then the police can impose restrictions. It goes without saying that this applies to almost any protest at all around parliament, the whole purpose of which is to get the attention of politicians. It can therefore cause “serious disruption” of an organisation.
It also applies to passers-by. If the noise of the protest could have “a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession”, the police can impose restrictions. The standard for this threshold is very low indeed: If the police believe that just one person nearby could be caused “serious unease, alarm or distress”, they can impose restrictions.
Wherever you look in the legislation, it works to lower the point at which the police can intervene. The old legislation, for instance, said they could do so to prevent “disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation”. That old formulation remains, but the Home Office has added a new criteria: “impact”.