Power of protest: The policing bill has been delayed

Power of protest: The policing bill has been delayed

Sisters united — Thanks to Sisters Uncut’s tireless campaigning, an authoritarian bill that intends to crack down on protesting and increase police powers has been delayed until at least the summer, reports Politics Editor Ben Smoke.

After horrific scenes of police brutality at the vigil for Sarah Everard, a controversial bill has this week seen its passage through parliament delayed following what one Labour MP described to Huck as “unexpected backlash”. 

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which, among other things, would see police powers in terms of shutting down protest vastly extended has this week been delayed because of sustained protest and backlash following the Metropolitan Police’s violent shut down of a vigil for Sarah Everard in Clapham Common last Saturday. 

The Bill, which also includes provisions that would target the Gypsy, Romani and Traveller communities, as well as introducing 10 year prison sentences for those who bring down statues, passed its second reading in Parliament on Tuesday night. The vote came as thousands congregated in Parliament Square. As protestors chanted “Kill the Bill”, it passed with 359 votes to 263 against. A Labour front bench amendment to stop the bill fell earlier in the night with 225 votes for and 359 against. 

Bruno Min, legal director of criminal justice organisation Fair Trials said of the bill: “The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is one of the most dangerous pieces of criminal justice legislation in years. It contains a raft of measures that would perpetuate discrimination in our criminal justice system and undermine fundamental human rights in the UK”. Activist group Sisters Uncut, who had organised four days of action in the run up to the vote, pledged to “fight in our thousands at every stage” adding, “We’re just getting started. Join us. We will not be silenced.”

On Wednesday, Labour MP for Hove and Portslade Peter Kyle released a blog, stating that the Bill had been delayed. In the blog, he recounted how he “fought to be appointed” to the Bill’s committee before stating that “we were told over the weekend that committee would start next week, which is very fast”. He went on to say, “What happened today [Wednesday]? [The Government] pulled the bill committee! When they saw the revulsion from vast swathes of the country at this unfit bill, suddenly we got a message saying the bill committee won’t start until later this year.”

The blog went unreported until on Thursday evening a member of the Labour front bench confirmed to Huck that the bill was being delayed. They told us that “the plan [from the Government] had originally been to get it rushed through, hence why it was published and had second reading within days. But I think they weren’t expecting the scale of the backlash”. 

A separate Labour source confirmed the delay, passing on internal Labour Whatsapps which stated “The Govt have chickened out. The Bill committee, instead of starting next week, won’t start until May now. It won’t come out of committee before June 24 so report stage and third reading will likely be in July.” 

The front bench source told Huck the hope from the Labour benches was that the bill would be “heavily amended” stating that “the longer it takes in amendment/committee stage/the lords, the more likely that is to happen”. The Government is thought to have wanted to push the bill through the committee stage quickly in order to avoid the chance for MPs to make huge amendments to it.

On Thursday night, activist group Sisters Uncut released a statement claiming “victory”. In it, they stated, “This is the power of protest, and this is just the beginning. We are ready to fight the police powers bill at every stage of parliament.

The row over the bill erupted in the wake of the killing of Sarah Everard, a young woman who was allegedly abducted and killed on her way home at the beginning of March. A serving Metropolitan police officer has been charged with her kidnap and murder and is due to stand trial in the autumn. Following a fraught few days, a vigil organised in Everard’s memory was banned by the Met Police on the basis of being ‘unlawful’ under Covid-19 regulations despite a court ruling which stated that protest could be lawful under the regulations, and it was at their discretion to decide upon it.

Commissioner Cressida Dick released a statement on the vigil, saying: “If it was lawful I would be in attendance”. Despite the ban, thousands of people turned out on Clapham Common to remember Sarah. The vigil, which was entirely peaceful, was forcefully broken up by the Metropolitan Police. 

The policing prompted demonstrations which rapidly refocused on the Bill. News that a serving Police officer, charged with guarding Sarah Everard’s body had sent graphic, misogynistic messages about her death only galvanised the demonstrators. 

The actions of the police saw widespread condemnation, including from leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer who stated: “Women came together to mourn Sarah Everard – they should have been able to do so peacefully. I share their anger and upset at how this has been handled. This was not the way to police this protest.” Despite his uncharacteristically strong words, Starmer soon reverted back to type by stating he did not believe Commissioner Dick should resign. 

As the row continued, Starmer reversed his position on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, confirming that he would be whipping the opposition to vote against it. Reports stated that he had previously intended to abstain on the bill. A Labour source told Huck that despite sustained protestations within the Parliamentary Labour Party, it was only the actions of the police on Clapham Common that had convinced him to change his position.

Though the delay to the bill is good news, and its slowed passage through Parliament will give opportunity for greater fight back against the bill, we must not be complacent. Politicians on both sides of the house were only spurred into action by events outside of it. Were it not for the policing of the vigil which was pressed ahead with by radical activists, there would have been no opposition to the bill. Were it not for those same radical activists pushing forward with demonstrations, there would be no delay.

Over the last few days activists from Sisters Uncut have consistently pushed the message that ‘this is a movement, not a moment’. The delay represents a moment of victory for that movement who have pledged to fight on until the bill is killed. 

The Home Office was contacted for a quote but had not provided one at the time of publication. 

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Politics Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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