New Law Gives Police Powers To Treat Protests Like 'Terrorism' – Shami Chakrabarti

Shami Chakrabarti [R] and a climate protest in London [L].
Shami Chakrabarti [R] and a climate protest in London [L].

Shami Chakrabarti [R] and a climate protest in London [L].

Shami Chakrabarti today warned that a bill designed to crack down on eco-protesters means all peaceful dissent could be treated as “effectively terrorism”.

The Labour peer said the “draconian” Public Order Bill essentially gives the police a “blank cheque” in how they deal with protesters.

Under the new bill, police could be allowed to intervene before protests become highly disruptive, the government has confirmed.

An amendment to the bill, due to be introduced on Monday, will aim to give police greater clarity about when they can intervene to stop demonstrators blocking roads or slow marching.

Police guard activists sitting with their hands glued to the road and holding Insulate Britain banners in Parliament Square.
Police guard activists sitting with their hands glued to the road and holding Insulate Britain banners in Parliament Square.

Police guard activists sitting with their hands glued to the road and holding Insulate Britain banners in Parliament Square.

Baroness Chakrabarti, a former shadow attorney general and ex-director of civil rights group Liberty, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This is a very draconian bill, it is a blank cheque of police powers at a time when there are considerable concerns about public trust in the police.

“The police already have adequate powers to arrest people and move them on when they are obstructing the highway.

“This, I fear, is treating all peaceful dissent as effectively terrorism and this bill looks very similar to anti-terror legislation we’ve seen in the past.

“This degree of pre-emption will basically shut down what isn’t even causing disruption at all because their definition will set such a low bar.”

The bill is aimed at curbing the guerrilla tactics used by groups like Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion.

The proposals, backed by Rishi Sunak, come after police chiefs claimed there is uncertainty over what can be currently classed as “serious disruption” under existing law.

Police officers attempt to stop an activist as they put up a banner reading
Police officers attempt to stop an activist as they put up a banner reading

Police officers attempt to stop an activist as they put up a banner reading "Just Stop Oil" atop an electronic traffic sign along M25.

According to Downing Street, under the proposed changes, police would not need to wait for disruption to take place and could shut demonstrations down before they escalate.

Human rights group Liberty said the plan amounted to an attack on the right to protest.

Director Martha Spurrier said: “These new proposals should be seen for what they are: a desperate attempt to shut down any route for ordinary people to make their voices heard.

“Allowing the police to shut down protests before any disruption has taken place simply on the off-chance that it might sets a dangerous precedent, not to mention making the job of officers policing protests much more complex.”

No.10 said police would not need to treat a series of protests by the same group as standalone incidents, but would be able to consider their total impact.

Officers would also be able to take into consideration long-running campaigns designed to cause repeat disruption over a period of days or weeks.

Sunak said: “The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, but this is not absolute.

Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion drop a huge banner reading 'April 21st Unite To Survive' from Westminster Bridge on 11 January 2023.
Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion drop a huge banner reading 'April 21st Unite To Survive' from Westminster Bridge on 11 January 2023.

Climate activists from Extinction Rebellion drop a huge banner reading 'April 21st Unite To Survive' from Westminster Bridge on 11 January 2023.

“A balance must be struck between the rights of individuals and the rights of the hard-working majority to go about their day-to-day business.”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley also backed the proposals, adding: “The lack of clarity in the legislation and the increasing complexity of the case law is making this more difficult and more contested.”

The Public Order Bill is considered a successor to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act passed last year, which was criticised for introducing curbs on the right to protest.

The Bill is currently undergoing line-by-line scrutiny in the House of Lords, which will be tasked with debating the amendment.

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