Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right, and critical to ensuring healthy and vibrant democracies. Protest plays an essential role in giving voice to people and issues, and holding institutions to account for their actions.
We are deeply concerned by provisions within The Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that threaten to significantly weaken and limit the right to protest. The bill imposes conditions on the amount of noise generated by a protest and would make an offense any actions that cause, or even risk causing, among other things, a “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”, with a maximum sentence of ten years for those found guilty.
Protest by its nature is often a cause of annoyance and inconvenience. It is this disruption to the passage of normal life that calls attention to issues and stimulates our public debate. Many of the rights and freedoms we take for granted today have been secured through actions that no doubt will have caused significant annoyance and inconvenience to many at the time.
In defining what constitutes a “serious annoyance” or “serious inconvenience”, this bill would hand the police significant power to decide when, how and where protests can take place. But even more insidiously, faced with the prospect of a possible 10 year sentence, it will create a chilling effect for many protestors who fear falling foul of the law.
For all of us, there will be protests that we support and others that cause us annoyance and inconvenience. For the sake of a healthy and vibrant democracy, we must uphold the right to protest for everyone, setting a high bar for acts of protest to be deemed “illegal”.
Introducing this restriction on the right to protest is not compatible with the UK’s international commitments to promoting democracy and open societies, including as a member of the Open Government Partnership.
This bill comes in the context of civic space being increasingly eroded around the world. This was true before Covid, but many authoritarian leaders have used the pandemic as a pretext to weaken democratic rights and institutions further and faster than before.
The UK has an important role to play in turning back the tide of authoritarianism around the world. But to do so, it must start at home by strengthening our own democratic rights and institutions. This means encouraging engagement, dissent and accountability – not restricting it.