Policy, Policy, campaigns & research, Government and the Voluntary Sector

The legislative battle is joined on policing and civil liberties

After recent protests in support of racial justice and the climate emergency, civil society organisations from across the spectrum now find themselves at loggerheads with the Government over provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which has been through the House of Commons and is now set to be examined by the Lords.

It’s a massively complex Bill with over 300 pages and 169 clauses, covering a range of quite technical legal topics. The clauses amend many different Acts, and there’s a lot of specialist jargon, so it’s quite difficult to get a sense of the general drift let alone where big problems might remain hidden – including for many charity beneficiaries or even charities themselves.

I’m not an expert on these issues but I have looked at some of the most contentious sections of the Bill and read some briefings from others. Principally, I’ve been in the loop with discussions amongst members of the Civil Society Voice Group, which is convened by the Quakers – originally set up several years ago to address the problems in the Lobbying Act (which DSC did campaign on substantially for several years).

The Government is clearly making the case that this Bill is delivering on various of its Election Manifesto commitments. The explanatory notes to the Bill say that it will ‘make the country safer by empowering the police and courts to take more effective action against crime and lead a fair justice system’ and will ‘protect the public by giving the police the tools needed to tackle crime and disorder, and by addressing the root causes of serious violent crime’.

It’s incredibly complicated and wide-ranging, but to sum up I’d say the gist of the Bill seems to be about:

  • Enhancing measures to support the police – for example increasing sentences for violence against police; making it easier for them to access data that may be evidence (i.e., access to material on people’s phones); creating or bolstering duties amongst other agencies to cooperate with police investigations.
  • Giving the police more powers to deal with protestors and ‘assembly’ – boosting the rules and penalties which regulate protest marches and aligning them with events where people are gathered together (‘assembly’) – often in an inconvenient place for politicians – like Parliament Square! (there are whole sections just regulating the area around Parliament). This seems overtly aimed at the likes of Extinction Rebellion and similar groups which may use non-violent tactics which still may cause substantial disruption – including many causes that will be unpopular with newspapers of a certain persuasion. Also, the kinds of protests that we saw last year that centred on statues which are symbolic of racism and colonialism – including defacing them or pulling them down – there is a whole section on increasing penalties for those kinds of offences. There are also sections that explicitly target traveller communities.
  • Increasing sentences and penalties for certain types of crimes – for example sex offenders and certain types of young offenders, or people engaged in ‘violent’ protest (as defined by the police), and making conditions for parole harder in certain cases.

Many of the clauses seem to strengthen the powers of relevant Ministers (currently Home Secretary Priti Patel MP and Justice Minister Robert Buckland MP) to intervene in what would normally be matters decided by local police forces and the courts. The government’s line in response to criticism so far seems to be that ‘there’s nothing to see here’, that the reforms are compatible with human rights law, and they would use any extra powers judiciously.

On the other hand, opponents of the Bill such as Liberty, characterise the changes as a major threat to our freedoms or at best a slippery slope to an erosion of fundamental civil liberties. On balance – and again I’m not an expert – I would say the reforms are trying to further centralise control in an already quite centralised system, giving Ministers and police forces more power, tipping the scales in their favour and away from the court system and the legal defences we all enjoy.

It’s worth remembering we’ve had similar arguments made about charity law and the Charity Commission before – the regulator wanting extra powers ‘just in case’ or ‘only for limited circumstances’, with the proportionate application of such powers in the future taken on trust. Yet over time, there’s always the risk that such powers become used less and less proportionately, or not as intended, especially when nobody is paying close attention over the long term. Even if we trust the Home Office Minister now (definitely not a given!), do we trust future holders of that position? Even if one happens to like the current Government’s approach, what about the approach of governments in 10, 15 or 30 years’ time and their exercise of these powers?

Having said all that, I think the risks to charities from this Bill will be more indirect than overt. In general, it reads as a clamping down on civic freedoms and the rights of individuals, in the spirit of being tough on crime for the supposed benefit of wider society. There will be types of charities or charitable beneficiaries who are negatively impacted, for example those working with young offenders, the courts, or other aspects of the criminal justice system. Also, if passed as drafted, some charities could face difficult ethical dilemmas in the future: for example, deciding whether to comply with or resist requests by police to provide information about beneficiaries who may be criminal suspects or targets of police investigations.

So far, there has been widespread opposition to big parts of the Bill, but rather less scrutiny or Parliamentary debating time for such a complex piece of legislation – hence the next stage in the Lords could prove to be the last chance to build some pressure on the Government to rethink at least some aspects.

In advance of the autumn legislative season, we’re signing this open letter to the Government asking them to reconsider some of the sections of the Bill – you can too by following this link and adding your name – but don’t delay – signatures need to be provided by Tuesday, 31 August.