Priti Patel and this government: creating a hostile environment for democracy

Meme by the author

No matter how you voted on Brexit, or which party you vote for, or if you trust the police, or what you think of migrants, or whether or not certain protests annoy you, what Priti Patel is up to should scare the pants off you.

Last week we received notice from conscientious members of the House of Lords that the government in general, and Priti Patel in particular, were up to no good. After having passed through all stages in the House of Commons, Priti Patel quietly tabled even more repressive measures into the already draconian and democracy-destroying Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, for its third reading in the House of Lords.

For those not familiar with the law-making process in our country, once a bill reaches its third reading in the Lords, if it is passed, it is sent to the Queen for Royal Assent (a given) and becomes law. To spell it out still further, should the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill pass its third reading in the Lords, it would become law without a raft of new amendments receiving any scrutiny whatsoever from our elected MPs. It makes a mockery of our democracy. This is ‘Rule by Diktat’. It is straight out of Belarussian president Lukashenko’s playbook. Our government should be ashamed.

Fortunately for us, despite our House of Lords being unelected, there are some hard-working peers who are diligent in the protection of our constitution, and courageous in holding our unaccountable and scrutiny-averse government’s feet to the fire. The Lords have the right to debate new amendments tabled by the government, propose amendments of their own, and initiate a form of ping-pong, sending the Bill back to the Commons. Of course, MPs only get to debate the Lords’ proposals and not to give the new amendments the detailed scrutiny they would have had in committee (second reading) and report stage (third reading) in the Commons. But it is better than nothing, and means we still have a chance to block this authoritarian atrocity.

The debate on Patel’s stealth amendments took place on Wednesday 24 November. It is a date that will be seared into many of our memories as the day that 27 people lost their lives five miles into British waters and then washed up on French shores. Understandably, given that tragedy, people may not have been paying attention to what the government was up to in the Lords. As if surreptitiously tabling amendments were not enough, the government also undermined our democracy by allowing only one day of debate, and timing the discussion of the contentious amendments for the wee small hours of the morning, after keeping the peers in the chamber for hours without a meal break.

Next comes the process of proposing Lords’ amendments. That is expected to last into January, which is an iota of good news, as it gives us time to mobilise. (Note that writing that sentence alone could land me a jail sentence under Priti Patel’s proposed new régime …) The government needs to see protests in every town in the country, similar to those which arose when Boris Johnson illegally prorogued parliament for five weeks.

Why? Let’s take a look at some of the measures now in the amended bill:

  • “Locking on” and “being equipped for locking on” to become criminal offences. This could be interpreted to include linking arms or holding hands. So much for the Suffragettes.
  • “Obstruction of major transport works” to become a crime. If Boris Johnson were ever to renew his pledge to lie down in front of a bulldozer to prevent the construction of another runway at Heathrow, he would presumably fall foul of this new law.
  • A new power for police to stop and search protesters if they ‘suspect’ they are going to commit a public nuisance, and various other wide offences – presumably to look for flyers, banners and placards. (All other stop-and-search powers that currently exist relate to serious crime.)
  • Introduction of a new stop and search power without suspicion, similar to those available under s.60 of the Justice and Public Order Act 1984, ie, treating protest like it’s a violent crime. Anyone resisting can be jailed for up to 51 weeks.
  • Another new power to issue “serious disruption prevention orders”, ie, to impose court orders to restrict the activities of individuals – previously used for only in the context of serious crime. It is worryingly broad in scope. A person can be banned if they have attended or “contributed to” a protest that was “likely to result in serious disruption”. “Contributed to” could be something relatively tame, such as ‘associating’ with a particular person, or posting something about a protest on social media.

In short, Boris Johnson’s government is criminalising protest and Priti Patel is settling scores with protests she doesn’t like: Steve Bray and SODEM, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, Insulate Britain, and any protest by women highlighting violence against women. This is a bad way to make law and a chronic abuse of power, using it to persecute those against whom a senior minister harbours a personal prejudice.

It applies to all protests, not just the big ones that get press coverage. If you’ve never been on a protest and are not that fussed, please join in with efforts to get this bill overturned anyway. You never know when you might want to avail yourself of this right that British people have given their lives for over the years. A protest meeting to save your local NHS A&E that spills out of the hall, a march to encourage your local council to do something about a dangerous section of road, a demonstration to preserve a beloved local landmark, a vigil for a shocking murder, a manifestation of disgust at the official visit of a murderous dictator – all will come under the purview of this new law. The acid test is to imagine a politician you dislike or fear trying to sneak these powers through. How would you feel?

Given that this Bill creates a raft of new crimes that carry jail time, and are so vague it will be relatively easy for otherwise law-abiding citizens to fall foul of them and be imprisoned, it is essential that our MPs debate them fully. Where are the Conservative backbench champions of liberty and personal freedom when you need them?

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, surprised everyone with his milk protest, but even though he chaired the committee stage of the bill, during which MPs go through it line by line, we haven’t heard a peep out of him. Son of St Austell, Steve Baker, recently described being asked to wear a mask in public spaces and other (relatively) limited covid restrictions as a “fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell”. You’d think he’d have something to say about stripping away another massive chunk of hard-won rights from each and every one of us. But no. Radio silence from him. Similarly, from Central Devon MP Mel Stride, who recently complained that government was undermining democratic scrutiny by not allowing enough time for debate and not providing adequate information beforehand; but he always obeys the whip anyway, so government has no incentive to improve.

Boris Johnson and his bully of a home secretary are trying to change Great Britain into Little Belarus. We must rise up and stop this before we are too oppressed to do so. At the very least write to your MP, to Lords, to ministers, to select committee chairs and their members and to relevant All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). Make sure their postbags are full to bursting, otherwise they’ll think you don’t care and will wave these scandalous changes to the law through without a whimper.