Public order bill: The British government wants to give the police unprecedented powers to deal with protesters. Human rights activists say it is an affront to democracy


The British government wants to hand over new powers to the police that would allow officers to take stronger action against people involved in peaceful political protests.

Human rights campaigners have accused the government of trying to suppress free speech, while opposition politicians claim that Downing Street is simply trying to distract from the myriad of bad things in the UK right now.

The government issued a statement on Sunday evening, saying it would bring forward amendments to legislation already passing through Parliament, called the Public Order Bill. This was already highly controversial due to the extent to which the protest was curbed.

Specifically, the bill nakedly targets groups like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and Just Stop Oil, all of which have used disruptive tactics in their protests against the government.

The bill would criminalize long-running protest tactics such as lockdowns (in which protesters physically attach themselves to things like buildings) and tunneling (literally digging tunnels), and could force people who protest regularly to wear electronic cards. The new amendment also gives the police the power to stop protests before any disturbance occurs.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “You cannot have protests by a small minority disturbing the lives of the common people. This is unacceptable and we will end it.”

The head of London’s Metropolitan Police Service, Mark Rowley, also issued a statement making it clear that the police had not asked the government for more powers to curb the protests.

Adam Wagner, a prominent human rights lawyer, believes this may be due to the fact that there is not much to be gained in all this for the police.

“The police really have to decide which protests to participate in and which ones to leave on their own. Whatever they do, they’re going to get criticized, and it’s best that they’d probably prefer to have less to do with policing the protests and the bad publicity that comes with it.”

Critics of the government’s move point out that officers already have the power to deal with protests that spiral out of control and lead to unrest.

“The police have been very clear that they have the authority to deal appropriately with protests and manage protests when they cause unwarranted disorder, and that has been the case for decades,” said Yasmine Ahmed, UK director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). he told CNN.

“Our right to protest is key, especially at a time when we are facing a cost-of-living crisis, a climate crisis, and our public health services on its knees. Instead of helping people below the poverty line — people who work, including nurses — the government is You waste time crushing the opposition,” Ahmed added.

Wagner believes the bill could lead to the government being taken to court over allegations of violations of human rights law.

Just Stop Oil activists sticking their hands to John Constable's tire

“(In) peaceful protest dispersal, you get access to the core of human rights law. Direct action groups like Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion aren’t much different from what we saw in the civil rights movement or from the Suffragettes. To get some issues on the national agenda, You should be annoying and people who do this should be tolerated because they are protected by law.

Conservative MPs generally support the government, but some concede privately that introducing amendments to make the bill stronger could have something to do with the fact that the Tories are trailing in the polls.

This claim has been made to the government over a number of policies, such as its controversial plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, its efforts to make it difficult for unions to declare strike action and a law protecting national statues and monuments.

“It’s politically convenient to put the opposition alongside all these other issues and remind the public that Labor (the official opposition) is funded by the unions,” a senior Conservative told CNN.

While such issues can be contentious, simply being prepared to fight the argument is something that could help the Conservative Party as it tries to rebuild its base ahead of the next general election.

Multiple polls suggest that the public in general opposes disruptive protest and that the Conservative Party has become very good over the past few years at weaponizing wedge issues, such as Euroscepticism, immigration and protecting statues of Winston Churchill.

A deformed statue of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is seen in Parliament Square, central London, after a demonstration in June 2020 to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is no doubt that these issues put Labor in a difficult position. On the one hand, to have a broad appeal, they need to support the police and not appear to be siding with the disruptive protesters. On the other hand, they still have to oppose the government.

Sarah Jones, Labour’s shadow police minister, said in a statement that the police “have powers to deal with dangerous and disruptive protests and Labor supports them to use those powers…but the prime minister has spent more time talking about protest than he has on the epidemic of violence against women and girls.” Or his government’s shameful record of prosecuting criminals.”

This may be a fair criticism of the government and the prime minister, but it’s a less clear and clean message than simply saying “The protests are bad and we’re going to stop them.”

It’s not clear whether the government will receive a major boost from aggressively cracking down on protesters, especially if the new legislation leads to plenty of chaotic scenes in which peaceful protesters are removed by an increasingly unpopular police force.

But politics aside, the Public Order Bill has left Ahmed, of Human Rights Watch, wondering what kind of country Britain really wants to be in 2023.

“When people argue that the government has the right to stop protests, that’s what China says, that’s what Russia says, that’s what Myanmar says,” she said. “We wouldn’t be living in the democracy we have today if people didn’t have the right to protest and disrupt things.”

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