Senior leaders in the SoR, including CEO Richard Evans, have signed the Friends of the Earth petition against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently passing through Parliament. Almost 85,000 have so far signed the petition and the SoR is urging members to help the FoE reach their 100,000 target.
The proposed Bill includes some remarkable proposals more commonplace in dictatorships than democracies. Unions are especially concerned by draconian restrictions on the right to protest, contained in Section 3 of the Bill. These include new laws that would allow a maximum sentence of up to 10 years for participating in disruptive, noisy or targeted protests that cause ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’.
There are also specific proposals to exclude demonstrations from anywhere near Parliament – so that MPs can literally cannot hear the protests of their electorate.
Other areas in the Bill that worry the SoR include measures that clearly target already discriminated groups, amplifying existing prejudice. For example, extensions to trespass laws would particularly impact upon travellers when most Councils accept they already have extensive powers to address any legitimate concerns quickly. Given recent publicity around the Metropolitan Police, wide extension to ‘stop and search’ powers and a new duty to prevent knife crime will inevitably fuel rising mistrust and seen as targeting communities that already suffer discrimination.
SoR CEO Richard Evans said: ‘Our Equality Network, Equalise, first raised these concerns and without our Annual Delegate Conference there was no urgent process in place for this to be formally adopted as SoR policy. However, the concerns around the Bill are grave. They effect all of us in some way, whilst clearly including targeted measures that would impact those communities who are already discriminated against at a time when it is critical we come together. This Bill is divisive and itself carries dangers.’
SoR Director of Industrial Strategy & Member Relations, Dean Rogers added: ‘Democracy is premised on the understanding people disagree. The right to protest and challenge should be as sacred a national symbol as any statue or flag. We know not to trust Governments with rules like this around the world and our Parliament isn’t in Tiannamen Square or the Kremlin. Brexit showed our communities are more divided than at any time in living memory and if there was any duty on Government it should be to seek to unite not fuel these divides.’
SoR Equalities Officer Peter Higgs said: 'Over the years the right to protest has been fundamental for minorities from all backgrounds to seek change, to seek to rebalance the inequalities that continue to exist in society. Of course, we do not condone violence and intimidation but the wide-ranging powers in this Bill pose real dangers to those who have legitimate reason to protest in the face of injustice.'