The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill that has sparked “kill the bill” demonstrations across the country is a “proportionate” response to recent protests such as those by Insulate Britain, the former justice secretary Robert Buckland has said.
Protesters took to the streets in cities across the UK at the weekend to rally against the police and crime bill, which is reaching its final stages in parliament and will be considered by the House of Lords on Monday.
Sections of the bill have been condemned by human rights activists as an attack on the right to protest, with campaigners arguing that, without changes, the right to peaceful protest could be curbed by legislation.
Defending the bill and its amendments, Buckland told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he believed some of the characterisation of the new powers was misplaced. “What I see from government is reference to proportionate use of power, and that word is vitally important here,” the Conservative MP said.
He added that “clearly the engagement of the rights of protesters with the rights of the rest of the public to go about their lawful business is a delicate balance to be struck”. In the light of some recent protests, such as those on the M25 by Insulate Britain protesters, he said: “I think this bill does strike the right balance.”
Buckland said it was better to have “delineated powers defined by parliament which allow the police to intervene with the power of arrest to create offences that can be dealt with in the magistrates court that specifically deal with things like gluing yourself to the road or locking yourself on to each other”.
But Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour peer and former director of Liberty, told the Today programme that calling the measures “proportionate” contradicted what Amnesty International and other rights groups had said.
“Let’s be clear. All of these measures are specifically directed at non-violent protest, making it a criminal offence to breach a condition, a police condition, on a protest whether you knew about it or not,” she said. “That can include shoppers and members of the public who weren’t even part of the protest.”
She said the government had, in effect, tabled the equivalent of a new additional bill and dropped it into the police bill, which was what the Lords was to debate on Monday. “That included new offences of attaching yourself, locking on, so vague it could criminalise people with bike locks or who link arms with each other in the street.
“Already, and for many years, the police have powers to intervene with obstruction of the highway. They have very broad public order power already, so says Amnesty and everybody else. But under the new measures they would be able to stop and search people without suspicion, not because they feared knife crime or terrorism, but because they fear noise and impact and disruption, which of course is inherent in any peaceful non-violent protest.”
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The new measures, she said, “give ever broader power to the home secretary and the police to shut down peaceful dissent, voices with which the government does not agree. It’s one law for those with whom the government agrees, and another for everybody else. And these conditions have been compared to Belarus and Russia by Amnesty International.”
The former chief constable of Manchester police Sir Peter Fahy said the bill would “further politicise” policing. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One, Fahy said: “It includes a lot of subjective terms [such as] inconvenience, noise [and] disruption; these are notoriously difficult to define. And if really the ill that the government is trying to deal with is just the level of disruption that some of the public are concerned about, just by putting in more laws and stronger sentences, that won’t actually deter it.”
Fahy said police would resist any slide towards a “police state”, feared by some critics of the bill, “because that’s not the British style of policing”.
“Police also know that, as we saw in the Sarah Everard vigil, even when they do act within the law and within their powers, if the public and public opinion, and indeed even the home secretary, don’t like it, they will criticise the police and say it’s too harsh,” he said.
“I think actually what you’ll find is the police will get more and more criticism but they are not going to use the level of force that they think is not going to be supported by the courts or by public opinion.”