So the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is making its way inexorably through Parliament. It’s a major piece of legislation, covering everything from sex offenders to sign language interpreters.
But there is one section that should cause concern to everyone who believes that the UK is a free country – and wants it to stay that way.
One of the absolute, essential tenets of any definition of a free country is freedom of speech. And that includes freedom to demonstrate if that’s what it’s going to take to get your point across.
Part Three of the Bill – Public Order – is the bit that’s causing concern. You can read the whole Bill here. Part Three starts on page 45.
Currently, police have the power to intervene if they believe that a demonstration risks ‘serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community’. That might not necessarily mean breaking up the demonstration – it could mean restricting where it goes, or the numbers taking part.
The new Bill adds a single word to that list – it adds noise. If the noise of a demonstration ‘may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation’ or have ‘a relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the procession’, then the police can intervene. And the bar is set very very low – only one (1!!) person needs to be caused ‘serious unease, alarm or distress’ before police can step in.
Now, call me old-fashioned, but that’s pretty much what a demonstration is intended to do – to make a noise to draw attention to the issue. To be heard. And not everyone agrees with every protest, so finding one person who says they’ve suffered serious unease, alarm or distress won’t be difficult.
You cannot have free speech if that speech cannot be heard.
But it gets worse.
Police at the moment can intervene to prevent ‘disorder, damage, disruption or intimidation’. I think most of us would agree that that’s reasonable. The new bill includes all of these, but adds another single word. Impact.
Impact? The police can intervene if they have reason to believe that a demonstration will have an impact. That could be an impact on people passing by, or people working in nearby buildings, or MPs going in and out of the Palace of Westminster. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, that’s why people demonstrate isn’t it? To have an impact, to change something?
And still it gets worse.
Until now, an ‘assembly’ or ‘procession’ by definition involved more than one person. In the Bill, all of this will apply to single-person protests as well.
Does it matter?
If you want to be able to say that you live in a free country, then yes, it matters.
As S J Tallantyre said, when she was writing about Voltaire – ‘I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
Scroll all the way down to Follow, Share, Like or Comment on this. And check out my ‘Sixty and Me’ badge.
I always reply to Comments from nice people.