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UK “Erosion of Civil Liberties” as Proposed Bill Attacks Right to Protest

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Viral Shah explores the ‘culture of censorship’ that has been created in British public life, most recently with the proposed Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, representing an attack on the right to assemble and the right to protest.

The UK, perceived as a bastion of democracy, has seen a massive erosion of civil liberties and free speech under the coalition government. From the proposed royal charter to regulate the press industry, Prime Minister David Cameron’s utterly misguided attempts to filter the internet to stop pornography, and revelations of mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and British equivalent GCHQ, a culture of censorship has been created in British public life.

Possibly the most troubling issue yet is the proposed Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. The Bill passed through the House of Commons, and is currently at the Committee stage in the House of Lords, the final stage where amendments can be proposed.

The extraordinarily wide-ranging and vague phrasing of the bill represents an attack on the right to assembly and the right to protest – akin to the incarceration of Michael Chessum the President of the University of London Student’s union. There are two especially problematic aspects of the bill – IPNAs and PSPOs.

IPNAs (Injunctions to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance) will replace ASBOs (Anti-social Behaviour Order) and can be handed to anyone over the age of 10, if the “respondent has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person (anti-social behaviour)”. Anything could constitute ‘annoyance’ or ‘nuisance’ – as some have pointed out, it could even theoretically include “People who stare at me on the Tube or fart in the local sandwich shop”.

PSPOs (Public Spaces Protection Orders) are of strong interest to student protest movements, which is why it is surprising that prior to this proposed bill becoming law, there hasn’t been more coverage on it. The description of PSPOs is also poorly-phrased, as highlighted by Clause 32, which describes dispersal powers given to the police.

This means the police can remove you from an unspecified ‘locality’ for up to 48 hours, as long as the police officer present feels that members of the public in the ‘locality’ are being harassed, alarmed or distressed, or  that crime or disorder is occurring in the ‘locality’. Again, this implies that the police could ban protesters pre-emptively from assembling, encroaching on their right to protest.

The excessive powers used by UK police in the past few years were recently explored in a radio show by Novara Media, a media collective consisting of a number of further education students. In a discussion of the failure of the 2010 student movement against the marketisation of higher education and rise in tuition fees,Aaron Bastani, a Phd candidate at Royal Holloway, noted the effect of police brutality on protest movements.

Citing the cases of Alfie Meadows and Jody McIntyre, and the psychological effects of being charged with violent disorder if one complains against police actions, Bastani argues that this stopped a lot of people from continuing on with their protest movements. He notes that 15 of the 16 people charged with violent disorder were let off with no charge.

Elsewhere, the recent story, broken by the Guardian, of police trying to infiltrate student movements in Cambridge points to a wider and dangerous trend of censorship and an erosion of civil liberties, not just in student movements but all protest actions.

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