Legislation vastly expanding the UK government’s powers to suppress peaceful protests for the sake of public order, promoted by Home Secretary Priti Patel, has been backed by the House of Commons after heated debate.
Lawmakers voted 359 to 263 to pass the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on its second reading on Tuesday. After clearing the Commons, it’s set for consideration in the House of Lords.
Spanning nearly 300 pages, the legislation proposes a wide range of stiff measures, including harsher punishments for serious offences and granting judges the power to slap those convicted of child murder with life in prison, among other things.
Perhaps most controversial is the bill’s section on “public order,” which calls for a new nuisance law that would threaten up to 10 years behind bars for anyone causing “serious annoyance or inconvenience” in public, making it a criminal offence.
Exactly what constitutes “serious disruption to the life of the community” or “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation,” as stated in the bill, will be left to the Home Office to define.
The government insisted that the new law is necessary because the current statutes don’t allow law enforcement to confront a “recent change in tactics” by street demonstrators, such as eco-activist group Extinction Rebellion, whose members have glued themselves to pavement outside official buildings, including Parliament, in order to bar entry.
During debate over the law on Monday, Home Secretary Patel, a vocal supporter of the bill, argued that the legislation currently in place to deal with protests, passed more than 30 years ago, is obsolete. She said activists had exploited “gaps in the law,” resulting in “disproportionate amounts of disruption.”
At the same reading earlier this week, former Prime Minister Theresa May countered that “protests have to be under the rule of law, but the law has to be proportionate,” voicing concerns that the bill was “drawn quite widely” and could have “potential unintended consequences.”
Democratic Unionist Party MP Gavin Robinson echoed those fears more forcefully, saying the policing bill includes “overreaching, sweeping and draconian provisions on protest” that would “make a dictator blush.”
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