The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill fits the script of recent years: attack human rights, concentrate power in the hands of the government, and further limit government accountability to the public. In doing all these things, what’s being called the ‘Police Crackdown Bill’ makes significant headway in a political direction which has defined the Johnson administration so far.
The Attack on Human Rights
The bill makes a multi-pronged attack on rights. In the first instance, it contains sweeping powers to interfere with the rights of Traveller communities, as is set out in clear terms here.
Second, the bill introduces a number of new grounds on which the police may intervene against and shut down a protest. These include that the noise levels of a protest ‘may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the procession’.
Crucially, these grounds are exceptionally broad, and could cover all activities generally associated with protest. For example, there is no reason why the limitation on noise levels would not cover noises from a chant, to blowing a whistle, to using a megaphone – all staple activities of protest.
These powers are also not accompanied by any safeguards. In essence, the bill provides the government with powers to stop protests going ahead for reasons which may have nothing to do with the public interest. It is not clear how any meaningful right to protest can exist in such a context.
In dismantling our human rights, the PCSC Bill continues a trend. The Prime Minister, whose voting record has generally been opposed to human rights, continues to voice attacks on human rights lawyers alongside the Home Secretary; provisions to protect workers’ rights after Brexit were swiftly removed from the latest Brexit legislation before it became law; the government is currently seeking powers for the armed services to be free from obligations to protect human rights when acting in armed conflict overseas.
Moreover, the government is engaged in two reviews of the current human rights framework, in the form of the Independent Human Rights Act Review and the Independent Review of Administrative Law. The terms of reference of each review are clearly framed to explore means by which to reduce the power of judges to enforce rights protections.
Beyond the question of human rights abuses, the bill hands more power over to the government in two key ways.
While allowing the government to intervene in and shut down protests, and to criminalise protestors and GRT people, it also gives the government almost unlimited discretion to decide how that power is exercised: there is no procedure in place for any other body to be involved in deciding how these powers should be used or how protestors should be treated.
This piece of legislation also allows for the government to draft further regulations to govern protests. As with the other measures in the bill, these are couched in broad, general language, which leaves the door open for the government to further dictate what should happen in protests.
This, too, is a variation on a theme. The most dramatic recent transfers of power have taken place around Brexit and the pandemic. As the Institute for Government has highlighted, this government has been given ‘extraordinarily broad powers’ to make legislation in a manner which evades the usual parliamentary scrutiny.
This is despite ample time having passed by which to include parliament in creating the bulk of legislation applicable to the pandemic – as with Brexit, the government has grasped decision-making power for itself.
This includes seeking to allow state agents to act beyond the law set by Parliament: under the Covert Human Intelligence Sources Bill, the security services effectively have the power to break criminal law; under the Overseas Operations Bill, the same goes for armed services when acting in armed conflict overseas.
Limiting Democratic Accountability
Both the substance of the powers given to the government by the PCSC Bill and the manner in which the government is seeking these powers undermine democratic accountability.
The right to protest is one of the key means by which political opposition to the government is expressed in this country, and the powers provided by the Police Bill will enable the government to shut down protests against unpopular legislation even when the protests are entirely peaceful. In this way, the bill provides powers which can cut off the most basic and fundamental form of political expression which exists in any functioning democracy.
The manner in which these powers are also being sought also limits democratic accountability in itself. The bill is over 300 pages long, and was only published last week – yet parliament is expected to vote on it this week. No meaningful scrutiny can be carried out in such a short time. The rushing through in this way of such expansive powers serves the same goal that the powers themselves do: to minimise political dissent.
The degradation of democratic accountability associated with the bill is typical of this government. When political dissent has previously been inconvenient, the government unlawfully shut down parliament. When a parliamentary committee has produced a report that the government did not want to engage with, such as the Russia report, the government sought to delay its publication.
Equally, when a public broadcaster produced news reports that the government did not like, the government threatened its existence. When teachers discussed political topics the government would rather they did not, the government sought to ban them from the classrooms. Likewise, when people go out onto the streets to express opposition to the government, the government will evidently do what it can to stop them.
What Will Parliament Do?
The pattern the PCSC Bill follows is all too clear: dismantle human rights, concentrate power, limit democratic accountability. But that doesn’t mean that this is more of the same.
The powers introduced by the bill represent a significant step away from democracy, likely to have irreversible consequences for the possibility of political opposition in this country – and without political opposition, Parliament as an institution has very little power.
Hopefully protecting human rights and democracy is a good enough reason for Parliament to vote against this Bill. If it is not, Parliament should vote against it to preserve itself.