Protests, Marches, and the PCSC Bill

SODEM opposite Downing Street on 23 June 2021

Before the arrival of the pandemic last year, and before the UK actually left the EU, I used to attend some kind of Pro-EU event or protests, marches or flash mobs on at least two days a week.

Since the 2016 Referendum, I marched three times in London, twice in Brighton, once in Birmingham, Manchester and Canterbury. I was often accompanied by my two dogs, including at a demo by dog owners called Wooferendum. I regularly stood outside Downing Street or Parliament with the groups No10Vigil and SODEM, shouting anti Brexit slogans and singing protest songs. 

As a member of Sevenoaks, Swanley, Tonbridge Together in Europe (SSTIE), I took part in so-called Brexitometers, measuring people’s attitudes to Brexit and the current government’s performance. Like SSTIE, Bromley for Europe also held street stalls, handing out leaflets and discussing our views with passers-by.

A group worth mentioning, called EU Flag Mafia, made the headlines by handing out EU flags to people attending the Proms. Protesting for Europe and against Brexit had become a way of life for me.

Flashmob outside Albert Hall at Proms 2019

Protests and marches criminalised

All of my above activities could now make me a criminal facing up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Parliament’s House of Commons voted on a bill which robs us of our democratic right to protest peacefully. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill (PCSC) has passed its third reading in the House of Commons without amendments proposed by opposition parties and several back bench MPs. 

The new PCSC Bill clause 4 amends Part 2 of the Public Order Act 1986, which provided various powers to manage processions and assemblies. The Bill broadens out the range of circumstances in which conditions can be imposed on public assembly including noise generated by persons taking part.

If that noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried out in the vicinity” and would have a relevant impact on the persons in the vicinity, they can be banned and participants even arrested.

This allows for protests to be curtailed for a number of reasons, even though the freedom and the right to protest are a fundamental aspect of our democracy. The Bill could also affect the work of trade unions when picketing which could be deemed as protest. If assessed by a Senior Police Officer, under these proposed changes it could result in possible prevention of Trade Union work.

If any protest is considered ‘annoying’, the police have extended powers to arrest any individual making noise which offends somebody. 

The Bill proposes for protests and marches:

  • to include noise as a reason for curtailing protests or taking action against protesters
  • to include the very vague criterion of “impact” as a reason for curtailing protests or taking action against protesters
  • to increase the number of protesters who can be prosecuted for failing to abide by police restrictions
  • to allow protesters to be prosecuted with the assumption that they ought to know the restrictions 
  • to extend the powers of police to treat single, lone protesters with the same restrictions as for a mass demonstration
  • to increase the maximum penalty for criminal damage to a memorial from three months to 10 years 
  • and perhaps, most frighteningly, to propose that Home Secretary Priti Patel herself be legally vested with the power to fundamentally change the criteria of the law at any given time without any real Parliamentary scrutiny.

PCSC Bill and SODEM protest

It also creates an offence for obstructing vehicle access to Parliament. This clause seems to target the protest group SODEM and its figurehead Steve Bray. Their shouts of “Stop Brexit” became famous and were even picked up by some news programmes reporting at Parliament. Since Brexit happened, the group now calls out the government for harmful policies and for lying to the public. 

The peaceful protests are noisy and can be heard in Parliament. Lately, however, protestors are already kept away from the Parliament building and are herded to the opposite side of the road. It is the same at Downing Street. The protest on 23 June to remember the 5th anniversary of the Referendum was kept on an island opposite No 10, and surrounded by police. The Met knows this group well and it has never before found it necessary to herd it anywhere.

Is this already a sign of changes to come? Is the whole objective of protests and marches not to draw attention to themselves and the offending issue protested about? This new Bill wants to silence peaceful protest especially around Parliament, No10 and public buildings where the decisions are made. Are these steps another tool to stop opposition voices from being heard and ban an alternative tool to hold the government to account?

The actions taken by the Metropolitan Police on Saturday 13th March against mourners, who had gathered peacefully to remember Sarah Everard and other women like her, was condemned by a Parliamentary committee.  

Was that indicative of the impact that this bill would have on our right to assemble? It is particularly concerning that the powers in this bill would inevitably be used disproportionately against black people, and other minority and marginalised groups. Young people protesting about climate change with Extinction Rebellion would also be at risk of arrest without having caused any damage to property for just being there.

Now the House of Lords

Under the catchy but unfortunately easy to misinterpret #KillTheBill hashtag, several campaign groups are coming together to fight for the right to protest. The resistance to this part of the Bill is joined by several opposition MPs, think tanks and human rights organisations.

Now it is up to the House of Lords, where it is having its second reading, before going through the Committee and Report stages. Finally it will have the third reading and go back to the House of Commons. 

Let’s hope Parliament can agree to some amendments which will not impede our right to express our disagreements with government policies in peaceful protests. 

J. F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

[Remarks on the first anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, 13 March 1962.]