Last chance to stop the Police State Bill

Zack Polanski, Caroline Lucas and Jenny Jones. Photo by Miles Thorpe

The Labour Party has finally said that it will oppose some of the extremely dangerous amendments to Priti Patel’s Policing Bill in the House of Lords. But others look set to be waved through by the official opposition, unless it shifts its stance before the key votes on Monday. Tom Scott explains.

The first protest I ever went on was in 1978, when the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism organised a march through London as a show of solidarity with people targeted by the racist thugs of the National Front and other far-right groups. It made a lot of noise and blocked quite a few roads on its way from Hyde Park to Brockwell Park in Brixton, where it ended with a concert by musicians including Elvis Costello.

In doing so, it met at least two conditions for a protest to be declared illegal under Priti Patel’s Police Bill, which reaches a key stage in the House of Lords on Monday: disrupting transport infrastructure and causing “serious annoyance” to two or more people or to any organisation. If the Bill passes into law, anyone taking part in or organising such a protest will risk prosecution and a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks.

The Green Party peers Baroness Jenny Jones and Baroness Natalie Bennett have been leading resistance to the Bill in the Lords, and over the past ten days I’ve been campaigning to support them and raise awareness of why it is such a threat to civil liberties.

Our main aim with the ‘Protest Is Not A Crime’ campaign has been to put pressure on Labour and independent peers to vote down the 18 pages of draconian amendments that have been added to the Bill since its last appearance in the Lords, and that have turned an already terrible piece of legislation into a licence for this or any future government to create a police state.

On Wednesday we mounted a protest at the statue of the Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst next to the Houses of Parliament, at which Jenny and Natalie were joined by Caroline Lucas and Zack Polanski,  the Green Party’s speaker on Democracy and Citizenship.

One campaigner, Laura Baldwin, dressed as a Suffragette and chained herself to nearby railings to honour the long struggle for women’s voting rights, in which protest and civil disobedience played such a crucial part. The Bill makes such “locking on” a crime, and under the Police Bill Laura could face a lengthy jail sentence for this action alone.

Laura Baldwin. Photo by Miles Thorpe

Speaking to the assembled protesters, Natalie Bennett stressed that campaigning and protest are essential not just for democracy and human rights, but also to fix broken government policies:

“Jenny has set out how we have a real opportunity in the House of Lords. It’s all down to the Labour peers, that they stand up against the government, stand up for the [protest] rights that so many Labour people used for over a century and that have been essential to get rights for working people. We have a message for Labour: you can stop these dreadful amendments now. You’ve got to do it.”

Caroline Lucas said:

“Priti Patel has taken it upon herself to decide when a protest is necessary, when it is too noisy, when it causing an obstruction. Well, we are here to say we are going on to go on being noisy and causing obstruction. We are here to say that the people who are criminals are not people peacefully protesting about the climate crisis, but people in Downing Street and the Home Office who are trying to prevent that from happening right now.

“This Bill will entrench the racism that already affects our criminal justice system. It expands the powers of ‘stop and search’, and we know  those powers are disproportionately used against the black community. It will also expand the trespass laws, which will criminalise the way of life of the Gypsy and Traveller and Roma communities.”

Zack Polanski stressed that the power to stop and search people even without any suspicion that they might be intending to commit a ‘crime’ is particularly troubling:

“This is ‘suspicionless’ stop and search. This is stop and search if you’re ‘guilty’ of wanting to protest. That means anyone here today with a placard or a banner could be arrested in the future. This is disgusting and needs to be challenged.”

Zack had some words of hope, however, noting that the Bill was a sign that the government is running scared of the strength of opposition that its policies have created:

“These are not the act of a government that think they’re in charge. This is an act of a government that is cornered by the power of the people. And they know we have the ethical and moral responsibility and duty on our side, and that we are challenging them… We need to keep this up, Labour needs to join us. Keep the call up, hear it loud, hear it clear. Because we’re here and we’re not going away.”

On Friday there were signs that some in Labour were indeed hearing the call, when a number of Labour MPs including Clive Lewis put out videos that strongly condemned the Police Bill.

Shortly after this, the Labour Lords – who have been receiving large volumes of mail about the Bill from members of the public, as have Labour MPs – broke their long silence, tweeting to say that they would be “opposing protest clauses added late on & narrowing scope of highways clause to ‘strategic roads network’”.

Although this was welcome, it was not clear if this referred to all the protest-related clauses in the Bill. And sources within the House of Lords suggest that this is far from being the case. Among the draconian amendments that it seems Labour will not oppose on Monday are:

  • Amendments 152 and 153, which criminalise “interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure”. This could be used to prosecute protesters who obstruct roads, airports, power stations, HS2, or indeed bulldozers razing the natural environment to create such “key infrastructure”. Roads that would fall within the scope of these amendments include A roads and B roads, as well as motorways.
  • Amendment 154, which gives police the power to stop and search on suspicion – in other words, if a police officer has “reasonable suspicion that they will find an article made, adapted or intended for use in the course of, or in commission of, the following offences:  wilful obstruction of highway, intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance, locking on , obstruction of major transport works, or interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure”. The incredibly vague wording would allow possession of a placard or loudhailer to give police grounds to arrest anyone heading to such an “obstructive” protest.

In towns and cities across England today, people rallied in their thousands to express their horror at the threat to our civil liberties posed by the Police Bill. Many were no doubt fearful of the uses to which this legislation may be put by a government that has demonstrated so clearly its complete contempt for ethical standards.

Green Party protesters will be in Westminster again on Monday to remind members of the House of Lords that they have a responsibility to defend our right to protest. The voting is likely to stretch late into the night, and there is concern that some Lords may not have the stamina (or the conviction) to remain in the House for some of the key votes.

It is perhaps ironic that a body consisting of unelected peers now represents a key defence against this corrupt government’s assault on our rights and freedoms. But I for one am grateful that there are at least some peers who understand how vital it is that they should not flinch from this duty.