There have been increasing concerns over the Tory’s erosion of Human Rights and democracy ever since the 2019 prorogation of Parliament and proposed ‘update’ to the Human Rights Act. Now their contempt for protestors and disregard for women’s safety is in black and white for all to see
Activist lawyers. Eco-warriors turned criminals. Loony left-wing wheezes. We are now so used to such derisory rhetoric from senior Tory figures like Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg against those standing up for justice and the rule of law that it no longer shocks us. Rhetoric alone is not a danger to Human Rights. But this week rhetoric turned into action with the introduction to Parliament of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. Initially disguised as necessary to toughen child abuse laws, the Bill has rightly been condemned by 150 social justice organizations for containing a raft of provisions designed to curtail the right to protest.
The ill-judged timing of the introduction to Parliament of the Bill this week was particularly shameful, as London was shaken by the murder of Sarah Everard and disproportionate police presence and handling of protestors at Sunday’s vigil. At a time when the institutional failings of the police in this country are under the spotlight, Labour rightly switched its position from abstain to whip MPs to vote against the Bill.
Of particular concern is the sweeping new powers given to police to curtail protests based on their noise, location and perceived nuisance caused to the public. Under Clause 54 and Clause 55, the police are given powers to issue conditions on protests based on their assessment of noise levels and the impact this will have on people in the vicinity. This could effectively allow them to set start and end times for protests and disband them if noise levels are deemed too high. Clause 57 and 58 extends the ‘controlled area’ where protests are banned around Whitehall and Parliament Square. And Clause 59 creates a new statutory offence on ‘public nuisance’ with potential sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for damage to property – which rightly caused an outcry when many perpetrators of rape serve only five years.
Priti Patel’s derision for Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter Protestors over the last two years has culminated in what could be the most sweeping expansion of police powers and assault on Human Rights in a generation. Labour must focus its response on three fundamental pillars.
Firstly, Labour must be the party of Human Rights and Rule of Law, reaffirming the UK’s commitment under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act to protect Freedom of assembly and association. When the Foreign Secretary says ‘Democracy is in retreat’ he isn’t wrong – it is in retreat in this country with Rule of Law and Human Rights thrown out with it. Increasingly polarising rhetoric against protestors and lawyers has followed action such as the illegal prorogation of Parliament, planned ‘update’ of the Human Rights Act and Judicial Review and moves to deport Jamaican nationals, including children, even in the wake of the Windrush scandal. The Police Bill provides yet another attack on Human Rights which Labour must resist.
Secondly, Labour must be the party championing the power of protest for achieving social change. Labour must use this moment to be an educating force and highlight the role of protest in the fight for economic, racial and environmental justice past and present. In 2019 following Extinction Rebellion’s shutdown of Central London, the UK Government became the first in the world to declare a Climate Emergency and legislate for net-zero emissions – with 230 local authorities following suit and public support for global climate leadership at 60%. The Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a national conversation on white privilege, decolonisation of institutions and led Sadiq Khan to launch a Commission on reviewing diversity of London’s public landmarks.
And finally, Labour must be the party that centres women’s rights in policy making and commits to reforming institutions perpetuating violence. Labour’s policy responses in some areas are welcome, but Lammy’s call for increased sentences for rapists and initial calls for more policing are ill-informed. Research from UN Women UK highlights that 45% of women do not report rapes to authorities as they do not think it will help. It is clear a rethink in our approach to male and police violence, and the racism and sexism pervading our institutions, is needed and we must go beyond tougher sentencing and more police. Labour must show it is listening to those with lived experience and offer practical, bold policy responses on legal aid budgets, sexual consent education, responsible male allyship, police recruitment and training and support for women’s refuge centres, community groups and mental health services.