The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is several hundred pages long and covers an enormous range of issues that one might typically expect a government to address in multiple pieces of legislation. Tuesday will be the second day of its second reading in the House of Commons.
The bill proposes new conditions on “one-person protests,” which would enable police to end the demonstration of a single person if the “noise generated by the person carrying on the protest may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the protest.” This, in theory, could mean someone protesting outside the headquarters of a private company could be moved along if their protest disrupts the activity of that private company.
The bill also suggests, in somewhat vague language, that demonstrations and protests should not “intentionally” or “recklessly” cause “public nuisance.” That, the bill states, might include an act that “obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large.”
The ambiguity of the bill has sounded alarm bells for critics, ranging from human rights lawyers to lawmakers.
The specific inclusion of monuments has caused many to point out a notable exclusion from this enormous piece of legislation that touches so many areas of law. At no point in the bill do the words “women” or “woman” appear.
This is particularly unfortunate, given much of the UK has been grieving the disappearance and death of a woman in London. Everard, 33, went missing on March 3 after leaving a friend’s house in the early evening. Her remains were found nearly two weeks later. Everard’s death has prompted a wider public conversation about the violence, harassment and intimidation that women face, including at the hands of police.
On Saturday, thousands of people gathered near where she’d gone missing, both to grieve and highlight the treatment of women. As the peaceful demonstration extended into the evening, arguments broke out with police, who were demanding that attendees disperse due to coronavirus restrictions. Things then turned very ugly, as officers were filmed and photographed physically dragging people away and into police vans.
The timing, therefore, of a wide-ranging bill that makes greater criminals of those who deface statues of slave owners but makes no mention of gender-based violence could hardly be worse.
“The priorities of this bill are entirely wrong — suggesting bigger punishment for damaging a memorial than rape,” Sarah Jones, the opposition Labour party’s shadow police minister, told CNN. “There’s no concerted action to tackle violence against women and girls, at a time when rape convictions are at an all-time low, and the bill does nothing to tackle street harassment.”
Downing Street referred CNN’s list of questions about the bill to the Home Office, which declined to respond.
Of course, the government didn’t know that events would collide in such a way. However, legitimate questions can be asked as to why such a comprehensive bill failed to mention such prevalent issues.
“The government clearly thought it was playing clever politics by making the bill so huge it could include their culture war points about statues but also stuff about getting tougher on child abusers. They thought it would make it impossible for us to oppose,” says Jess Phillips, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. “Instead, they’ve written a bill that tells women more about how they may not protest violence against women than how we are protected from that violence.”
On Monday evening, the government seemed to acknowledge that it had a problem when it announced new measures to keep women safe that would involve more CCTV surveillance and undercover police in bars and nights clubs. The announcement, however, seemed somewhat tone deaf, given the current levels of anger at the police and a recent scandal in which undercover officers abused their positions to such an extent they had long-term sexual relationships with women under false identities.
The bill, the scenes from the weekend and the issues that the UK is dealing with are extremely unedifying for the country. On one hand, the bill suggests that the government and police are responding to criticism with a power grab.
“The tabling of the bill does seem to support the idea that people in authority are struggling to proportionately react to protests that directly challenge their image as protectors of society. Both Black Lives Matter and the demonstration at the weekend directly condemn the police. We know from a range of academic research that people respond violently when their self-image is threatened and they seek to regain control,” said Francis Dodsworth, senior lecturer in criminology at Kingston University.
On the other, the government claims it is merely trying to update laws in order to allow modern demonstrations to take place safely. They point to the fact that a separate piece of legislation specifically looking at violence against women and girls is being worked on.
Regardless of intentions, the reality is that the UK government is currently placing before parliament a piece of major legislation that says more about a criminal who defaces a statue than assaults a woman. Which, given the very raw emotions and divisions in the country at the moment, will raise very important questions if amendments are overturned and Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues, with little good reason, to press for these laws to be passed sooner rather than later.
As Philips put it: “There is absolutely no need to rush this through now. And doing so sends a clear message: statues of dead men matter more in Britain than living women.”