“Kill the bill!”
That has been the refrain echoing in streets across Britain in recent weeks as protesters demand a rethinking of a sweeping crime bill that would give the police more power to deal with nonviolent demonstrations.
In recent months, a series of issues have galvanized mass protests across Europe: Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities last summer, protests against security laws across France last fall, and anti-lockdown rallies seemingly everywhere.
How the police should handle these mass demonstrations has become a topic of heated debate, especially as officers have been accused in some cases of over-aggressive responses. Coronavirus restrictions have added another layer to questions about the right balance between the rule of law and protecting civil liberties.
In Britain, that discussion has zeroed in on the new police bill.
The proposed legislation has come under intense criticism in recent weeks in the wake of the killing of Sarah Everard, a young woman who was murdered in London after walking home from a friend’s house in the evening, and a subsequent vigil to honor her that was broken up by the police.
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill is an immense piece of proposed legislation that makes provisions for a broad range of issues in its nearly 300 pages. The bill would introduce harsher penalties for serious crimes, end a policy of early prison release for some offenders and prevent unauthorized encampments, among other sweeping measures.
It also gives broad authority to police forces across the country when it comes to handling protests — and that has proved to be a lightning rod.
Under current law, the police must first determine that a demonstration could result in serious public disorder, property damage or serious disruption to the life of the community before it can impose restrictions.
toppled in Bristol last year during a Black Lives Matter demonstration.
What are the pros and cons?
The government maintains that the bill provides for better policing and community protection. Priti Patel, the home secretary, said last week that there was “a balance to be struck between the rights of the protester and the rights of individuals to go about their daily lives.”
Opposition lawmakers and rights groups have denounced what they see as a move to give police overly broad, and potentially problematic, powers. Many say they need more time to work through the potential implications.
The Local Government Association, a cross-party organization, said that certain aspects of the bill, particularly those focused on public protests, “warrant further formal consultation.” The group expressed concerns that a rushed timetable to vote on the bill “left little time to scrutinize the bill in sufficient detail.”
The Good Law Project, a British governance watchdog, said in a briefing that the bill “represents a serious threat to the right to protest,” and called for the portions of the legislation that deal with protests to be dropped.