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Editorial: We must defeat this shockingly authoritarian Policing Bill

UNIONS, campaign groups and charities are sounding the alarm over the shockingly authoritarian new policing Bill.

Even senior police officers are speaking out over the dangerous implications of legislation that grants sweeping powers to the police to “act unilaterally with near unlimited discretion,” as a statement issued by scores of local Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other grassroots campaign organisations puts it.

The government makes no bones about the fact that this legislation is designed to criminalise particular forms of public protest, particularly the mass actions mounted by XR in 2018-19.

Labour’s Diane Abbott points out that not only do the police have extensive powers to close down protests already but they are clearly abusing these — as we saw in the violent attack on women holding a peaceful vigil for murder victim Sarah Everard in Clapham at the weekend.

The arrogance and brutality of the Metropolitan Police has brought far greater numbers out in public protests since, with Parliament Square heaving on Sunday and today. It has also prompted Labour to do the right thing and announce it will vote against the Bill, dropping a previous position of abstention.

In reminding the opposition what its job is, the courageous women who went to Clapham Common on Saturday demonstrate the importance of public protest.

The Home Office denies that our right to such protest is at risk: “The majority of protests ... will be unaffected by these changes.”

But the very vagueness of the legislation makes that impossible to guarantee. Its provisions on “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance” allow huge leeway to police officers and the Crown Prosecution Service in deciding what constitutes “serious harm” to “the public or a section of the public.” 

Such harm can consist of causing “serious annoyance [or] serious inconvenience,” and can land you in prison for up to 10 years. Sections dealing with “one-person protests” leave it to the discretion of a senior police officer whether the noise you are making risks causing “serious unease” in those who hear it. If so, it’s illegal.

Shadow justice secretary David Lammy says the Bill is “poorly thought out.” But this suggests Labour’s front bench has either yet to wake up to what the government is up to, or — more worryingly — has no fundamental objection to it.

The policing Bill is not some aberration. It has in common with last year’s spycops Bill — one Labour also had trouble opposing — the goal of facilitating the arbitrary exercise of power by state agents.

Under this legislation protesters can be arrested and charged on grounds so vague that they are almost impossible to refute.

Because of the spycops Bill a wide range of government bodies, including police forces but extending to the Department of Health, the Gambling Commission and others, can pre-authorise crimes — any kind of crime, there are no exceptions, even for murder. 

The only criterion they have to meet is whether, in their own judgement, the crime is necessary to deliver outcomes that are again defined in the loosest possible terms, including “to prevent disorder” or to maintain “economic wellbeing.”

There is a clear direction of travel here: the British state is rapidly acquiring huge powers over citizens, and security agencies are being empowered to act as they please.

If the Bill cannot be defeated in Parliament — and the Tories’ large majority makes this unlikely — its repeal must become the cause of a new wave of mass campaigning.

We have seen far too much abuse by state agents already, from undercover cops deceiving women into sexual relationships to police collusion in the illegal blacklisting of trade unionists.

Our rights are under attack, but the left’s response has been piecemeal, criticising some authoritarian laws while endorsing others, failing to orient ourselves consistently as a democratic movement opposed to concentrating power in the hands of the capitalist state. That needs to change.


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