Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 349, 18 March 2021

The UK: Restrictive Anti protest bill passes second reading in Westminster
Sourina Bej

In the news
On 16 March, the conservative government of the UK passed in its second parliamentary reading, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts bill. Also termed as the anti-protest bill, the proposed legislation aims to restrict groups to come together in large numbers and nosily protest in England and Wales. In the second reading, the first chance MPs get to vote on a proposed law; the bill was passed by 359 votes to 263. Since its introduction, the bill has come under heavy public criticism.
 
On 13 March, amid the criticisms against the bill, clashes between the police and the mourners at a vigil took place that led the British government to call for an investigation. The mourners assembled in a protest held in memory of Sarah Everard, a 33-year-old woman who went missing earlier this month and was allegedly murdered by a police officer of that same police force. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner said on 14 March, that she is "more determined" than ever to lead the organization, and is not considering resigning.
 
Issues at large
First, the rationale and fallouts of the bill. The bill gives police the power to impose severe restrictions on protests if they suspect that the protestors "may cause serious disruption to the activities of an organization" or could cause "serious unease, alarm or distress" to a passer-by. This would eventually mean that every protest outside Parliament or anywhere in the country could come under restrictions. The bill also gives the Home Secretary the power to change the legal meaning of the term "serious disruption" by a statutory instrument, effectively sidestepping the Parliament. In the future, if the Home Secretary or one of her successors decides that a protest was illegal, they could unilaterally change the law.
 
Second, protests as a norm and the State's restrictive pushback in controlling the street disorder. From climate protest such as the Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter (BLM) to anti-lockdown protests, the UK has experienced since 2020. While the protests have created space for assembly and expression, the BLM protest chose to attack systemic racism and shun white colonial history. Also, the protests during the COVID-19 pandemic saw street disorders and damage to colonial-era statues. Over the last year, the Conservative MPs have also spoken about this one-sided expression of civil liberties and free speech. Moreover, the decision to pass the anti-protest bill had finally begun. The MPs have recalled that the public order legislation of 1986 is no longer fit to manage today's protests like that of BLM and Extinction Rebellion. The new bill will restrict the protestors' voices and make defacing statues and monuments punishable by up to 10 years in jail. 
 
In perspective
The proposed bill comes amid the second wave of COVID-19 cases, and any violation of the lockdown norms has become a concern for the State. The past protests have violated the COVID-time restrictions, and less power to the police had made them ineffective to control any acts of violation. Thus, the bill, by premising itself on ensuring public safety, has sought to provide a positive. Unilateral power to any security force, without a check mechanism, could often rob the expressive public space within a liberal democracy. One must be wary of how delicate the boundaries are in civil society and state relations.
 

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