The ‘Kill the Bill’ protest in Bristol on 21 March – the first of many similar rallies across the country – began peacefully enough, with people exercising their democratic right to make their views known. By the end of the night, however, there was a rapid deterioration, with windows smashed, fireworks thrown, police vehicles set alight and a number of officers injured. Home Secretary Priti Patel was quick to condemn what she called ‘thuggery and disorder by a minority’. She made no reference to the issue that was at the heart of the protest, the Bill that the protesters wanted to kill: her own department’s plans to expand significantly the powers of the police to crack down on protests. 

The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone. Government efforts to ensure tightly controlled demonstrations had themselves been the spark for an uncontrolled confrontation. On the other side, as a local Labour MP Darren Jones said: ‘You don’t campaign for the right to peaceful protest by setting police vans on fire.’

Keeping order at public demonstrations is one of the responsibilities of the police force. We have seen the results of their efforts to do so over the course of the Black Lives Matter movement, Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, and again in chaotic scenes at a vigil in south London in response to the murder of Sarah Everard. It is against this backdrop that ministers are piloting the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill through the Commons. The government used its comfortable majority to see it safely through its Second Reading and into its Committee Stage.

The Bill proposes sweeping changes to crime and justice across England and Wales in a number of areas. It increases sentences for child murderers, for assaults on emergency service staff and for dangerous driving. It ends the automatic release of violent or sexual offenders who have served only half their time. Some of these changes are long-awaited and have been generally welcomed. But recent events have put the proposals around policing public protest under the spotlight – and many do not like what they see.

At present, the police can place restrictions on protests where it can be shown that they may result in ‘serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community'. These restrictions might include changing the proposed route of a march. They are often discussed with the organisers well in advance to avoid confrontation on the day. Protesters are said to have broken the law if they know they have been told about the constraints but fail to comply with them.

The new Bill lowers the bar considerably and allows police to place restrictions on protests if they can demonstrate they ‘may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation’It will be for the Home Secretary to pass delegated legislation on what constitutes ‘serious disruption’, a term some fear may attract a highly subjective definition. There is no limit to restrictions as long as they are deemed ‘necessary’. They could include imposing start and finish times, and limits on noise levels and could be applied to a protest involving a single individual. They would mean you can break the law if you defy restrictions that you should have known about, even if no-one told you directly. Damage a memorial – such as the statue of a 17th century slave trader – and you could be looking at ten years in prison.

The measures are designed to put a stop to direct political action such as occupying public spaces and blocking roads and bridges. They reflect the frustrations of the police, with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick prominent among them, in countering the tactics of non-violent demonstrations.

Most contentious is the introduction of criminal penalties for protesters who cause ‘serious annoyance’. It will be for the police to interpret this airily vague concept. But if they consider you seriously annoying, again you could be jailed for ten years. That is at least double the maximum sentence for offences of violent disorder, possessing or threatening a person with a knife and assault occasioning actual bodily harm. 

The scope for discretion for both ministers and police is enormous, dangerously so. So is the potential for argument about what is and is not disruption and annoyance, and whether or not either is serious.

The Sarah Everard vigil offered a glimpse into this chaotic future. The police were not acting with their new powers of course, but on others that are equally imprecise and vague: the coronavirus restrictions, and what to do with those who break them. Over the last 12 months, whether dealing with small groups or full-scale demonstrations, the police have had to come to judgements on COVID-19 regulation breaches and make the sort of calls that would be commonplace if the new Bill became law. Even their most ardent supporters would not suggest that their recent record is one of unqualified success. Events on Clapham Common represented a new low. Events in Bristol suggest a strong groundswell of opinion against the Bill.

Opponents point to another case study, in the shape of the protests in Hong Kong. The Chinese government has been increasingly ruthless and violent in suppressing the former colony's courageous pro-democracy demonstrators. The Chinese say they are simply enforcing the rule of law. Their actions have been roundly condemned by the British government – the same government that is potentially setting off down a similar path with its proposed legislation. It is in danger of characterising legitimate dissent as criminal and treating protest as a matter of law and order rather than one of conscience and basic rights.

This is what most worries those objecting to the changes. They are less troubled by imprecision and grey areas, and much more about the fundamental principles they regard as being under threat: freedom of expression and human rights. Dissent and protest are a healthy safety-valve for every democracy. The more a government clamps down on legitimate protest, the weaker a democracy becomes. The right to protest is an integral, though not absolute, feature of the Human Rights Act. Ministers say that the Bill respects human rights and permits legitimate protest. But whenever the police exercise their new powers, there are bound to be arguments – and legal challenges – around whether they have done so properly, whether they made the right calls and whether they have used their powers of discretion responsibly.

The exercise of that discretion will be no easy feat. The challenges are great, the police are under constant scrutiny, passions run high, delicate balances have to be struck, and big decisions have to be made swiftly and under extreme pressure. Supporters of the police say they cannot win, whatever they do: they will always be criticised for going in too hard or not going in hard enough. But giving them new and sweeping powers will not resolve any of those dilemmas, make policing easier or make them any the less vulnerable to brickbats from all sides. More likely, they will make matters much worse.

Parliament will debate the petition against the new Bill on 26 April 2021.

Pictured above: The fifth 'Kill the Bill' protest in Bristol (4 April 2021) against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (c) Shutterstock. Rallies are being held throughout the country, including London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Weymouth and Bournemouth.