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THE Tories’ new anti-protest law is a “blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state,” social-justice campaigners warned today, as hundreds rallied outside Parliament to demand ministers “Kill the Bill.”
Extinction Rebellion UK and local Black Lives Matter groups — both major targets of the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill — were among 100 grassroots organisations to sign a joint statement today demanding ministers drop the proposed legislation.
The Bill, which was debated in the Commons this afternoon, would give police new powers to “tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament.”
The social justice groups said they are “extremely troubled and disturbed” by the Bill, claiming its deliberately vague language would allow cops to “act unilaterally with near unlimited discretion.
“This appears to be a blatant attempt to create an authoritarian police state where the voices of ordinary people, particularly those most marginalised and disadvantaged, are silenced by state-sanctioned penalties,” the open letter states.
It came after a coalition of 150 groups, including Unite the union, Liberty and End Violence Against Women, raised “profound concern and alarm” over the draconian new powers in a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Justice Secretary Robert Buckland on Sunday.
The rights groups warn that the proposals, which include measures to prevent protest outside Parliament and increase penalties for breaches of conditions on demonstrations, would amount to “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens.” Concerns have also been raised about the creation of criminal penalties for protesters who cause “serious annoyance” and the expansion of powers to shut down demonstrations if they cause “serious unease.”
As such, the government must “fundamentally rethink its approach,” the groups said.
Concerns over the Bill have intensified in recent days following an outcry over the policing of a vigil for Sarah Everard in south London on Saturday. Male police officers were filmed manhandling women as they shut down the peaceful event, which the force said breached Covid-19 regulations.
In the wake of the shocking scenes, Labour switched its position on the policing Bill, ordering MPs to oppose the legislation instead of abstaining.
During the first day of the Bill’s second reading in the Commons today shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds accused the government of “failing to address violence against women and girls,” adding ministers now “even want to curtail their right to protest about it.”
Mr Thomas-Symonds said: “The 296-page Bill we will consider later today contains the word ‘memorial’ eight times and fails to include the word ‘women’ once.
“The government’s message is: they want to lock up people who damage the statues of slave traders for 10 years when rape sentences start at half that.”
Labour MP Dawn Butler said Parliament should be careful about restricting the rights of people to express their views. “Saturday showed us the mess of not allowing people to organise properly and what happens when the police are confused about their powers,” she told the Commons. “The general public did not vote to have their democracy removed and their voices silenced.”
Home Secretary Priti Patel told the Commons today that the scenes on Clapham Common were “upsetting” but reiterated that the government “backs our police.”
Ms Patel urged people not to attend protests while Covid-19 restrictions remain in place. “The right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy, but the government’s duty remains to prevent more lives being lost to the pandemic,” she said.
However, protesting rights charity the Article 11 Trust said the backlash following the weekend vigil should be a clear signal that ministers need to take steps to protect those exercising their right to protest.
Ms Patel has ordered an independent investigation into the policing of Saturday’s vigil, but Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has resisted calls to resign.
On Sunday, PM Boris Johnson said he was “deeply concerned” by the scenes of women being detained. Responding to the PM’s comments today, feminist group Sisters Uncut said: “As the actions of police at peaceful vigils this weekend show, police abuse the powers that they already have — and yet the government plans to give them more powers in the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill.”
The group said that if Mr Johnson was serious about ending violence against women, he would drop the Bill.
Thousands of people headed to Parliament Square this afternoon for a second day to attend a vigil against male violence and to pay tribute to Ms Everard, whose body was found last week after she went missing while walking home from Clapham to Brixton earlier this month.
Protesters also demanded ministers drop the government’s new policing Bill.
On Friday a Metropolitan police officer was charged with her murder. He is due to appear again at the Old Bailey on Tuesday.
MPs will vote on the second reading of the Bill on Tuesday. The legislation is expected to pass despite Labour ordering MPs to oppose it.
The Home Office claims the new measures to curtail protest are needed to counter “highly disruptive tactics used by some protesters” that “cause a disproportionate impact on the surrounding communities,” citing Extinction Rebellion actions last year.
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