There was an unusual celebration in the air this morning when Londoners could indeed make a successful commute to work. Monday marked the fourth time this week that the notorious Insulate Britain protestors – an offshoot group from Extinction Rebellion – have caused chaos on the M25.
For a group claiming to want to “insulate”, they’ve undeniably exposed the public to a plethora of dangers and difficulties – including, tragically, leaving a woman paralysed down her left side while her urgent trip to the hospital was delayed six hours in traffic.
The timing could not be more illustrative for those in parliament pushing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill forward. Brandishing his new legislation, the Prime Minister presented his solution to the M25 chaos:
“We are taking powers to be able to move protestors when they are threatening critical national infrastructure when they are threatening to do serious economic damage. I think that is absolutely right.”
Boris is right – to an extent. Clearly there is overstep on the side of the protesters when mothers are kept from hospitals and innocent parties, such as small business owners, are left to pick up the heavy economic tab for a city left in a week of chaos.
But while Boris seeks to insulate Britain from – well – Insulate Britain, he’s gone several steps too far. The proposed legislation doesn’t only “move” protesters when they are “threatening critical national infrastructure” or risking “serious economic damage”. The bill redefines a protest from consisting of “two or more people” to now being only one person. Thanks to vague and ambiguous wording, the legislation could be used to arrest, detain and even potentially imprison innocent Bettys and Bills, making use of their free speech by holding placards to save the whales in the town square, or reading verses from the Bible on a stepladder, should they be deemed to be causing a serious annoyance to somebody in the vicinity.
The penalty for causing such an annoyance can be up to ten years. That’s the same penalty as is given for some sexual abuse charges. And as it stands, there is very little clarity in the law as to why Betty’s sentence should carry less than those who pose a genuine violent threat to the public.
The bill can be used to condemn those who are too noisy, too inconvenient, those who cause “serious unease” to another member of the public (whatever that means). But the problem with a democracy is that we all have a right to be seriously annoying. Just ask your mother-in-law, some would cry. Being free to disagree, and disagree loudly, is part of our institutional British fabric. It allows us to challenge ideas and to evolve as a society. It allows our voice to be heard directly by the parliamentarians who represent us. It shapes our future. Without the right to free speech and to protest, 50 per cent of our nation wouldn’t have the vote today.
Indeed, protest takes such an important role in our bill of human rights that the Supreme Court ruled in June that protesters do have a “lawful excuse” to block roads and break laws, to a certain extent. The Court made clear that a rigorous proportionality assessment is required to fairly judge each case on its own merits. No two protests are the same. Each must be judged individually as to whether the means too greatly impinge upon the rights and freedoms of the public, or whether the inconvenience caused is justifiable in the name of exercising the right to free expression and assembly.
Clearly, some protesters go too far into the realm of law-breaking and should be arrested. But, critically, the police already have powers to move or arrest protesters who are conducting violent or extremely disruptive activity, like smashing shop windows. While the intention behind the bill is to increase these powers even further, the response of the legislation is too broad and disproportionate. The bill does not – as it stands – contain adequate, nuanced protections for those peacefully and lawfully voicing their opinions. Under the new legislation, police officers would be forced to assess for themselves as to whether or not someone is adequately annoying enough to be causing a genuine public disruption.
The illicit slip from policing the method to policing the message could be all too easy. The increasing clamp-down on free speech is already becoming noticeable in the UK. Grandfathers who have publicly voiced Biblical views on marriage have spent a night in cells. Jokesters on Twitter who “like” limericks about gender have been recorded as having committed “non-crime hate incidents”. At a time where the police internationally are becoming increasingly politicised and criticised, it’s not a good moment to put the pressure on the shoulders of each Bobby on the beat, requiring them to assess whether someone’s free speech, even if it is disagreeable to some, is offensive or even annoying enough to warrant arrest.
Ironically, the anti-protest legislation is generating more protest to a proposed bill than we’ve seen in a while. Activists both on the left and the right have united in the face of a power that will limit their ability to speak out. This current government made a manifesto commitment to not only protect free speech, but to champion it. Free speech advocates hold their breath to see whether that talk was cheap, or whether the bill can be amended with the valuable protections that we need in order to speak out in the public square with confidence.