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New challenges to protest in the UK 

New public order legislation gives unprecedented new powers to the police, courts and government to restrict the right to protest.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022

In 2022, new public order legislation was enacted, as part of a huge piece of legislation called the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, which covers many aspects of the criminal justice system. The new legislation gives unprecedented new powers to the police, courts and government to restrict the right to protest in England and Wales.

Policing is a devolved issue in Scotland and Northern Ireland, so these new protest policing powers do not apply there.

Amnesty joined hundreds of civil society organisations and legal academics, cross-party Parliamentarians, former Chief Constables, United Nations officials and the Council of Europe to express serious concern that these measures represented a serious threat to the rights to peaceful protest.

New powers

The police and government can impose restrictions (including a ban) on marches and demonstrations on the basis that they might cause ‘excessive’ noise, annoyance or unease to other people.

The law substantially increases fines and prison sentences applied to people who break the rules, and makes it easier to prosecute anyone who attends a restricted protest, on the basis that they ought to have known that restrictions were imposed.

It leaves it up to police officers to define what level of disruption can trigger these new powers, and to determine what restrictions they might impose to deal with it.

And more…

In May 2022, the government introduced further public order legislation for England and Wales, based on amendments it failed to get inserted in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. This includes new powers to:

  • ban individuals from participating in a protest, use electronic tagging to monitor their movements, and curb their access to the Internet;
  • make the tactic of ‘locking on’ (to another person or object) a criminal offence; this includes having items a police officer considers will assist with locking on activity;
  • expand stop and search powers, including suspicion-less stop and search, where the police do not need to have ‘reasonable grounds’;
  • increase sentencing and fines for campaigning on public roads, and at public construction works and infrastructure sites.

Stop and search has already been proven to increase racism and discrimination within policing: in 2021, according to official UK Government statistics, black people were 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

These new powers go against relevant human rights law, which acknowledges that protest is likely to be highly disruptive (including noisy) and requires that the government and police tolerate a considerable degree of non-violent disruption. The authorities must avoid overly broad restrictive measures (including laws and policing tactics) that deny people their fundamental rights to express and associate freely, which includes the right to peaceful protest.

Discussion

Amnesty International considers these new powers vague and highly subjective. What do you think?

Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Protect the Protest: Using Our Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Expression

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