On 16 March 2021, the government voted on seminal and highly controversial criminal justice legislation in the form of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. The Bill includes major government proposals on crime and justice in England and Wales.
The Bill strengthens police powers to deal with public order and to “tackle” non-violent protests which have “a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament” – whatever that means. The new increased powers in the face of such vaguely-worded “annoying and disruptive” protests include the imposition of noise limits, setting starting and finishing times, and increased sentences and fines for breaching conditions imposed on assemblies and processions by the police. Clearly, such enhanced powers have significant implications on the right to protest, an aspect of the rights to free speech and free assembly which are guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and protected under UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998.
Another issue which draws any reader of the Bill’s immediate attention is the government’s strange obsession with memorials and statues. Amongst a long list of crimes for which sentencing will get tougher if the Bill makes it into law, the legislation proposes a maximum penalty for criminal damage of a memorial of 10 (ten!) years instead of 3 months as the law currently stands.
The Bill also contains a new offence targeted at persons residing on land without permission, coupled with powers to seize property. This criminalisation of trespass has implications for the right to respect for the home and the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions, of both the landowner and the resident, and may have a disproportionate impact on particular vulnerable (migrant) groups such as Gypsy and Travellers. Although the majority of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK live in permanent housing, a significant proportion live nomadically in accordance with their culture and traditional way of life. As it stands today, one in four caravans have no legal place to park or stay as there is a shortage of legal caravan sites across the UK.
Under the proposed legislation, many in the Traveller community face harsh police actions such as fines of up to £2500, imprisonment and family separation. Amongst the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, many are non-British nationals who are at heightened risk of exclusion by the current immigration system. Compounded with this criminalisation of trespass, the Traveller communities may face unprecedented infringements on their rights to private life and to the prohibition of discrimination under Art.8 and Art. 14 of the ECHR respectively.
There are some welcome developments – for example, profoundly deaf people will be able to sit on juries for the first time as a British Sign Language Interpreter will be allowed into the jury deliberation room - but they are only tiny bright spots in a bill that mostly broadens police powers with very little checks against it, threatening to interfere with a number of human rights which the Human Rights Act protects. Examples of rights potentially infringed include the right to liberty (Art. 5 ECHR), the right to freedom of expression (Art. 10 ECHR), the right to freedom of assembly (Art. 11 ECHR) and the prohibition of discrimination (Art.14 ECHR).
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in its current form puts communities that are widely recognised as being amongst the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups at further risk and compound existing inequalities in British society. The proposed measures have been found by the government itself to disproportionately affect Black, Asian and minority ethnic people, including many migrants. This potential for abuse and discrimination is considered by the government to be “a proportionate means of achieving the legitimate aim of protecting the public.”
In other words, the ends justify the means. Yet, in a separate paper, the government states that there is “limited evidence that the combined set of measures will deter offenders long-term or reduce overall crime, begging the question of how much public protection the Bill will actually ever ensure. It seems, from the government’s own analysis, that rather than public protection being the one and only noble aim of the legislation, a mix of ulterior motives heavily influenced the proposals. To name a few, the government seems determined to save costs on things like appeal and review procedures, to cut down on administration, and to ensure that the daily activities of government are disturbed as little as possible by what is going in amongst the civilians they are meant to protect.