In spite of huge protest from civil society, a vibrant movement on the streets, and opposition from all political parties except the Conservatives, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its Third Reading in the House of Commons last night.
In the end, it wasn’t even close – 365 MPs voted in favour, versus 265 against. The Government had previously sounded a tactical retreat in late March over the progress of the Bill, after the outraged public response to the policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common. Although thousands turned out on May Day to protest the Bill, including CND, the Government placed it back on the legislative calendar in mid-May and restricted time for debate.
The result was that the 300 page Bill was passed after less than a day of debate in the Commons, with hundreds of amendments from opposition parties not being voted on. Even some Tory MPs are unhappy with the way it was handled.
The contents of the Bill are a disaster for fundamental democratic liberties. The Bill will introduce sentences of up to ten years in prison for ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’ as part of protests. Similar sentences would apply to protesters damaging statues. The Bill gives the police a host of new powers to put conditions on protests to control ‘the noise generated by persons taking part’. This even applies to protest of a single person.
The Bill fits in with the wider trend that has become clear in recent months of authoritarian policy making. Prior to this Bill, last autumn’s ‘Spy Cops’ legislation extended protection for police officers who commit crimes whilst infiltrating protest movements. Historic examples of these crimes include impregnating female activists under fake identities and planting evidence on activists. The Overseas Operations Bill, currently working its way through the House of Lords, will also extend protection to British soldiers who commit war crimes while on service abroad.
CND members and supporters across the country have actively participated in the movement to Kill the Bill. Ever since the first Aldermaston marches and the Committee of 100’s sit-down protests, the British anti-nuclear movement has always seen peaceful protest and non-violent direct action as key to how we build support to abolish nuclear weapons. This Bill is partly a response to Extinction Rebellion’s creative protest tactics, which have caused disruption while drawing public attention to climate change. They must be supported for their vital work, not restricted.
It is vital we continue the movement to Kill the Bill. Nothing less than our freedom to protest depends upon it – as well as the rights of other communities. If the Bill comes into law, our ability to oppose the UK’s nuclear weapons will be seriously impaired.