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UK bill would give police too much power to curb protests, critics warn

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 15 March 2021 17:43 GMT

Police detain Patsy Stevenson as people gather at a memorial site in Clapham Common Bandstand, following the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard, in London, Britain March 13, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, police would be able to set noise limits and start and end times on demonstrations

By Laurie Goering

LONDON, March 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As British police face criticism over clashes with mourners at a weekend vigil for murdered Londoner Sarah Everard, lawmakers started debating a bill on Monday that opponents said would give police too much power to restrict peaceful protests.

Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, police forces would be able to impose a start and end time for demonstrations, set a noise limit and shut down protests that have a "relevant impact on persons in the vicinity".

While the government said police needed more clout to manage "highly disruptive protests", those opposed to the draft law said its "deliberately vague language" could be used to shut down almost any protest - posing a threat to democratic rights.

"(The current bill) would enable the police to act unilaterally with near-unlimited discretion," organisations linked to environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion and anti-racism movement Black Lives Matters said in a statement on Monday.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said the proposed legislation concerned protests that aim "to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt", a government website quoted the London police chief as saying.

Opposition Labour Party leaders have pledged to vote against the bill.

Prior to the pandemic, large-scale streets protests by Extinction Rebellion shut down parts of the capital and other cities in an effort to draw attention to climate change risks and demand government action.

In October 2019, London police banned further Extinction Rebellion protests during the month - a move that was later overruled by the High Court.

Jules Carey, a partner specialising in police law and protest at Bindmans, a London-based law firm, said police already had "wide-ranging" powers to limit protests.

"The question for many of us looking on is: Are these changes necessary? Are they lawful? And are they the sort of changes that are consistent with living in a democratic society? And the answer is no," he said.

Clare Farrell, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, said history had shown vaguely worded laws could be used "in very inappropriate ways".

As climate change brings greater risks, and as women protest to protect their safety and rights, protecting free speech and the right to take to the streets is crucial, Farrell told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It's unacceptable to let these civil liberties slide," she said, as Extinction Rebellion protesters gathered in Parliament Square to protest the bill.

London police faced criticism and calls for investigations after officers clashed with crowds at a memorial on Saturday for Everard, whose killing has sparked widespread anger and concern about women's safety.

Police told organisers of events to honour Everard, planned in London and around the country, that public gatherings would be in breach of COVID-19 restrictions and could lead to fines up to 10,000 pounds ($14,000).

But hundreds of people - including Kate, Duchess of Cambridge - gathered during the day to leave flowers and drawings at a memorial.

Related stories:

Judges overrule London police ban on Extinction Rebellion climate protests 

Under police gaze, climate protesters return to Britain's streets

Direct action on climate change 

(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; Editing by Helen Popper: (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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