Right to protest under threat
Marc Bloomfield
Description: London protest (Pexels_Lina Kivaka)
The right to protest is under threat from the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, which received its formal first reading on 9 March 2021.
Introducing the bill, the justice secretary, Robert Buckland QC MP, said it would help meet the government’s manifesto commitment ‘to make our country safer’ (Hansard HC Written Statement HCWS836, vol 690, 9 March 2021). He explained that the PCSC Bill will do this by ‘introducing tougher sentencing for the worst offenders and ending automatic halfway release from prison for serious crimes; creating robust and effective community sentences; enabling the trialling of secure schools; increasing the use of technology in courts; and improving employment opportunities for ex-offenders’.
As the bill is being introduced jointly with the Home Office, the home secretary, Priti Patel MP, moved its second reading in the Commons on 15 March 2021. Among the measures highlighted in her speech was the proposal to double the maximum sentence for assaults on emergency workers from one to two years. She argued: ‘Having spent much time with those on the frontline and seen the impact and the sheer volume of these incidents, I think it is right that we have that provision in this bill’ (Hansard HC Debates vol 691 col 61).
Earlier in the sitting, Patel had made a statement on the murder of Sarah Everard in which she said she wanted to ‘acknowledge why Sarah’s death has upset so many. My heartache and that of others can be summed up in just five words, “She was just walking home”’ (Hansard HC Debates vol 691 col 25).
In the debate on the second reading of the bill, shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds MP suggested that the government had not prioritised addressing violence against women and girls in what he called an ‘extraordinarily loosely drafted’ bill (Hansard HC Debates vol 691 col 76). He argued that the government should ‘drop the elements of the bill that suggest that attacking a statue could be a worse crime than rape, drop the elements of the bill on protests, and revisit the elements that drive up disproportionality and the controls on encampments, which are discriminatory and unworkable’.
The actions of the Metropolitan Police in breaking up the peaceful vigil to mark the death of Sarah Everard were thought to be likely to impact on the clauses of the bill that seek to curtail the right to protest. Responding to the home secretary’s statement on Everard, the Conservative MP Sir Charles Walker, who opposed the COVID-19 lockdown measures, said: ‘This House criminalised the freedom of protest’ (Hansard HC Debates vol 691 col 40). He asked the home secretary if she would agree to ‘decriminalise freedom of protest’ and ‘[l]et us get people back on the streets and allow them to get things off their chest again’.
The bill ultimately passed the second reading by 359 votes to 263.

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