Policing Bill: why we're standing up for the right to protest

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Credit: Bob Bob. Police 'kettle' or 'contain' protesters on Westminster Bridge.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill poses a dangerous threat to all of our rights. War on Want is joining our partners and allies to stand up for our fundamental right to protest, here in the UK and around the world.

What is the Policing Bill?

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – sometimes called the PCSC Bill or the Policing Bill for short – was introduced in March 2021. At the time of writing, the Bill has been debated at second reading and is at committee stage, where amendments will be proposed and voted on.

At 307 pages, the Bill is extremely long and has a very broad scope. It seeks to put significant limitations on protests and gatherings, introduces increased police powers across a range of areas, and brings in tougher sentencing for certain offences.  

Since it was announced, the Bill has come under fire from a broad range of campaigners, activists, and parliamentarians across party lines, primarily in reaction to the profoundly regressive approach it takes to public protest. The Bill also threatens Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities who say the Bill is a direct attack on their way of life; and ushers in new stop and search powers that would disproportionately impact groups that already experience heavy-handed and racialised policing.  

Our right to protest is under threat

The right to assemble, which allows us to peacefully protest, is vital to any democratic society, and has been central to social change and progress throughout history. Protest rights are enshrined in law through Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and enacted through the UK’s own Human Rights Act. But the new Bill poses a serious threat to these fundamental rights.

It’s no coincidence that the Bill has been introduced after a wave of widespread public protests against racism, and the deepening climate catastrophe. Following mass civil disobedience around climate injustice in 2019, and the upsurge of action under the banner of Black Lives Matter in summer 2020, a relevant Minister said that the new powers were needed as the protests had caused “huge inconvenience”. In other words, those supporting the Bill are portraying protests about the issues most pressing in peoples’ lives as a nuisance, ignoring that protest is a core part of vibrant civil society, and a catalyst for urgently needed social change.

Rishi Sunak & Keir Starmer aren't protecting the right to protest graphic

Defend the right to protest

Demand all UK political parties protect our basic human rights.

Act now!

Challenging human rights abusing companies with boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS)

Public protest plays a significant role in international solidarity efforts, and campaigns against companies involved in human rights abuses, or destruction of our planet.

War on Want’s Justice for Palestine boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaigns are a case in point, having included public protests at Annual General Meetings or company headquarters of offending companies.

The UK government has already tried to limit these campaigns using legislation. In 2019, we warned that the government’s stated intention to go further to limit BDS was an early warning sign on threats to broader protest rights. Combined with the already existing crackdowns on BDS, we’re concerned that new and widely defined police powers will create a massive chilling effect, and would lead to even more arrests at protests that are deemed as ‘disruptive’ to businesses.

The real problem is human rights abusing businesses, but the target of repression would be those protesting.

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Taking action for workers’ rights

When it comes to workers’ rights, the right to protest is as important as the right to join a union. The power that workers have built through collective action has won a fairer economy and many of the rights currently enjoyed in the UK. However, the rights of workers to organise, strike, and picket their place of work are already heavily curtailed in the UK, and we’re concerned that the new Policing Bill will further restrict workers’ ability to organise.

For many workers, especially those from marginalised communities or those in precarious and exploitative working conditions, community support for their protests has been key to winning their rights. War on Want has long supported workers protesting for their rights, from the Grunwick strikers to fast food, and other low paid workers that we support today in their fight for living wages, guaranteed hours, and a union.

Securitisation and the shrinking space for protest

The Policing Bill comes together with many other threats to UK civil society, including to the Human Rights Act, threats to Judicial Review, and the Spy-Cops Bill – which gives impunity to extremely intrusive surveillance and police violence. It also comes in the context of increased securitisation, a term describing how states use a combination of legislation, policy, and political narrative to frame social issues as ‘security problems’. We see securitisation in action when protests over inequality or climate emergency are presented as a public nuisance or security threat; when students are treated as terrorism suspects because they are Muslim and outspoken on human rights issues; and as government resources flow to increased surveillance of communities organising for justice and accountability.  

Securitisation is not new: for millions around the world it epitomised British colonial rule. Policies to maintain control and suppress dissent were tried and tested by British forces in every corner of the Empire. These policies have subsequently been deployed internally by successive British governments, and can be seen in the crackdowns on trade union organising, international solidarity, and public protest, and public order policing targeted at Black and Irish communities. And the repressive and sweeping counter-terror legislation introduced in the era of Britain’s brutal and illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The global context: defending protest rights around the world

The vibrant protest movements facing repression here in the UK are a part of a larger set of global protest movements pushing against injustice and inequality; sadly, the repression of UK protests is also a global trend.

War on Want’s partners around the world depend on their right to protest to push for the implementation of their rights, and for transformative social change. Just in the past few years, we’ve spoken up in support of:

These inspiring movements are facing increasing repression and criminalisation. All over the world, the list of threatened, killed or imprisoned social movements’ leaders is growing, as far-right regimes are using the frame of law and order, counter-terrorism, and xenophobia as part of a new wave of repression.

War on Want’s work, and the work of our UK and global partners, is to create a more just society and an end to poverty and human rights abuse, through building the collective power of grassroots movements and active solidarity between citizens, to realise our universal rights. This work is profoundly threatened by the Policing Bill.

We’re proud to continue our work alongside partners, pushing for our values that have guided us for decades; and at this moment in our history, that means standing up for the fundamental right to protest.

Rishi Sunak & Keir Starmer aren't protecting the right to protest graphic

Defend the right to protest

Demand all UK political parties protect our basic human rights.

Act now!