The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading at Parliament on March 16 against a backdrop of outcry over police brutality.
The bill has been introduced as part of the government’s efforts to overhaul the justice system, cut offending and make streets safer.
The plans include new laws to reform sentencing, the courts and the management of offenders, as well as more powers and protections for the police, some of which will be UK-wide while others may only apply in England and Wales.
Critics of the proposed bill say that it will hand too much power to police forces and the home secretary.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has said the bill will “not impinge” on people’s right to protest.
What powers would the bill give the police?
Under current laws police are only able to place restrictions on protests if there is a threat of "serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community".
The introduction of the policing bill would see police chiefs allowed to set noise limits and impose a start and finish time. These rules would even be applicable to a protest of a single person.
Those who fail to act in accordance with police rules could be landed with a £2,500 fine. Police will be able to issue punishment those who “ought” to have known about restrictions rather than needing to prove protestors knew.
The new bill would introduce the crime of "intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance" with the intention of preventing protest tactics of occupying public spaces.
Following the summer Black Lives Matter protests which saw the toppling of slave owner Edward Colson, the maximum punishment for damage to memorials has been increased to a ten-year prison sentence.
Why are the measures being introduced?
The increased powers for police with regards to non-violent protests is in response to the inability to police the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests which brought much of London to a standstill.
Policing minister Kit Malthouse told Sky News on March 15 the Bill contains “huge protections for the public” and would put everyone “shoulder-to-shoulder on violence across the board”.
When asked about the plans to increase the maximum sentence for vandalising statues, he said criminal damage already carried a penalty of up to 10 years but was “limited” to shorter sentences for items with a value of less than £5,000.
He said this ignores the “emotional value or the symbolic value” of war memorials and other monuments so the Government was “just removing that anomaly”.
Discussing the right to protest, he said ministers were proposing “quite mild” changes to public order laws which have not been updated since the mid-1980s to remove “anomalies and loopholes” so conditions on marches and processions also apply to static protests.
He said this was “taking steps to protect the operation of our democracy” to stop those seeking to prevent others from attending court or voting in the House of Commons.
Protest and freedom of speech was “absolutely fundamental to our democracy” but has to be “balanced” against the rights of others and the operation of democracy, which is “even more vital”, he added.
What are critics saying?
Labour announced it will vote against the Government’s key crime legislation because it is a “mess” which could lead to harsher penalties for damaging a statue than attacking a woman.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy said the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill contains “poorly thought out” proposals which would impose disproportionate controls on the right to protest.
He instead urged ministers to drop the legislation, which will come before the Commons this week, and work cross-party to legislate to tackle violence against women.
There are fears that the bill is providing police with too much power.
Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, warned the Bill could “hugely expand” police powers to “allow them to stop protests which would cause ‘serious unease’ and create criminal penalties for people who cause ‘serious annoyance’.”
He added: “This would effectively put the current situation where Covid regulations have given police too much power over our free speech rights on a permanent footing.”
Some have argued that the bill could in fact make the police’s job even more difficult
Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable told Times Radio there was a “real danger” that rushed legislation could make the job of the police “more difficult”, adding: “People need to be really worried about this.”
He said: “If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.
“And bringing in legislation on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of…
“Again, if we’ve learned one thing from the coronavirus legislation, (it) is that rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.
“This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain protests during the summer.”
What else does the bill propose?
The bill also proposes the following:
- Whole Life Orders for premeditated murder of a child, allowing judges to also hand out the maximum sentence to 18 to 20-year-olds in exceptional cases, like for acts of terrorism leading to mass loss of life.
- Powers to halt the automatic early release of offenders who pose a danger to the public and ending the automatic release halfway through a sentence of serious violent and sexual offenders.
- Introducing life sentences for killer drivers.
- Expanding position of trust laws to make it illegal for sports coaches and religious leaders to engage in sexual activity with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.
- A legal duty could be placed on councils, police, criminal justice bodies, health and fire services to tackle serious violence and share intelligence and data.
- Homicide reviews could be carried out for deaths of adults involving offensive weapons to try and better understand and prevent violent crime.
- Profoundly deaf people could be allowed to sit on juries for the first time by allowing a British sign language interpreter into a jury deliberation room.