An attempted crackdown on protest in the UK has suffered a partial defeat in the House of Lords, writes Ros Taylor. But the government is still determined to make it more difficult for Britons to organise and take part in public protest, and hand substantial powers to the police – just as their authority has come under new scrutiny.
The demands that Insulate Britain campaigners are making are not, on the face of it, radical or unreasonable. British homes are the least energy-efficient in Europe, and the group wants the government to retrofit them all by 2030 – which means proper insulation and low-carbon heating. The project lacks the prestige of electric vehicles or a high-speed train line, but no one disputes that it would do more to address the UK’s carbon emissions than either of them. If the case weren’t persuasive enough, the average energy bill is expected to rise by half this spring.
Insulate Britain’s tactics, however, are unconventional. In recent months they have tried to block motorways and major junctions by forming roadblocks and sometimes even gluing themselves to the tarmac. Many motorists loathe them, and even the Green Party has suggested their tactics may not be particularly constructive. These tactics are not dissimilar to some of those used by Extinction Rebellion (although Insulate Britain is not formally part of XR). Together, they have provided a timely “justification” for the government’s crackdown on protest.
Last autumn, police took out an injunction in the High Court to prevent these protests. When this was ignored, several protesters were jailed, one of them for six months; however, they vowed to continue. It was this defiance that led to the home secretary’s decision to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill by introducing several new offences.
No other G7 country has cracked down on protest in this way
The drafters of the Bill had already sought to enact draconian new limits on protest, but the amendments are designed to add even more extreme powers. They would result in up to 51 weeks in jail for anyone who ‘locked on’ to someone else, an object or the ground, or tried to disrupt major transport works. Police would have the right to stop and search people around protests, even without grounds for suspicion. ‘Serious disruption prevention orders’ would enable them to pre-empt protests by banning named individuals from taking part in them or even organising them online. The campaigning group Liberty has warned that merely carrying an object that could be used to lock on, such as a bike lock, could be enough to incriminate someone.
In the Home Office’s telling, the Bill “gives police the power to proactively prevent […] chaos before it ensues, and focuses on a selfish minority of relentless reoffenders.
“We will always champion the right to protest peacefully,” it said.
The scope of the new legislation is unique and, to many, deeply alarming. No other G7 country has curbed the right to protest in this way. To get the law through the Commons, the UK government was able to exploit three things: a big majority in the Commons, a popular (though misguided) perception that the Prime Minister is an anti-authoritarian liberal and a press that has been preoccupied with COVID restrictions and, in some instances, does little but amplify the government line.
Popular impatience with the motorway disruption has encouraged a ‘whatever it takes’ attitude among legislators. The result is a Bill that will have a chilling effect on many public protests, not just those aimed at holding up traffic. Al-Jazeera compared the measures to the pre-emptive policing in the film the Minority Report.
The Lords fight back
Despite these measures, the policing bill had already been voted through by the Commons and was being debated in the Lords when the amendments were added. The home secretary, Priti Patel, took a calculated risk in introducing them at that late stage, because if the Lords voted them down, they could not be sent back to the Commons – at least, not as part of the existing Bill.
Her gamble failed. The Lords rejected the amendments, as well as other parts of the Bill that would have outlawed protests if the police said they would be too noisy and disruptive. Green Party peer Jenny Jones was a particularly determined opponent, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats also opposed the amendments, despite efforts by the Conservatives to claim that they were facilitating massive disruption to Britain’s road network.
Environmental groups have taken the lead in exposing the Bill’s ramifications, no doubt because it explicitly targets their tactics. The ‘Kill the Bill’ slogan has rallied opponents and led to small-scale protests around Britain, as well as playing a part in mobilising opposition in the Lords.
What now for the Bill?
In a process known as ‘ping pong’, the Bill will now bounce between the Commons and Lords as the government tries to force through as much of the content as possible. The government cannot reinsert the rejected amendments, but they could turn up in a new public order bill in the spring. The fact that Boris Johnson’s premiership is under pressure does not necessarily affect its chances of becoming law. Most of the MPs tipped to replace him are from the party’s right wing and have little sympathy for protestors, environmental or otherwise.
Nonetheless, campaigners expect any crackdown on protest to be vigorously tested on the ground and in the courts. The Bill, which hands unprecedented discretion to both the home secretary and the police, has been rejected at a time when police are under intense scrutiny for the way they have punished lockdown breaches – or, if they took place at Downing Street, turned a blind eye to them. Nor do the police themselves welcome all their new powers. The new provisions, a former Chief Constable warned last year, risked “huge confusion” for both the public and the police enforcing them. Policing by consent, a principle that has informed British policing for nearly 200 years, is about to face a significant challenge.