Article written for the Civic Space Watch by Alexia Ozeel, ECF.
For the past several months, the UK government and Metropolitan police have received international attention following the development of strict legislation and “draconian” measures used to restrict the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression.
A recent report on CIVICUS, a global monitoring platform for civic space, downgraded the UK from a ‘narrow’ freedom rating to ‘obstructed’ as the government implemented restrictions on protests following worker’s strikes, “Kill the Bill” demonstrations, and climate protests.
The passing of the Public Order Bill into law raises serious concerns about the regression of human rights and democracy in the UK and how this may lead to an unprecedented era of conflict and mistrust between the people, the government, and the police.
The passing of the Public Order Act
On April 26th, the Public Order Bill passed the final stages of the House of Lords and became the Public Order Act (POA).
This legislation has introduced measures which will give the police more power to restrict people’s rights of expression and peaceful assembly.
In summary, the provisions in the POA:
- Increase police powers to stop and search protesters, including without suspicion.
- Criminalise locking on, meaning attaching yourself to an object, building, or person.
- Prevent demonstrations outside or near ‘key national infrastructure’, meaning that protesting at major transport, oil, gas, and energy networks will be criminalised.
- Introduce ‘protest banning orders’ which includes prohibiting people from attending protests, meeting certain people, electronic tagging, and using the internet.
One problematic aspect of the POA is that the language in the Act is vague and broad, which sets a low threshold to define key terms such as disruptive protesting and locking on. This gives the police more power and flexibility to interpret or choose what actions fit into these terms.
Moreover, the law has further implications on the treatment of migrants and Black people in the UK. Data from Amnesty International UK states that stop and search powers are largely counterproductive and are widely misused against Black people, who are six to seven times more likely to be stopped than white people.
Amnesty International UK has declared that the UK’s government’s new laws which restrict people’s freedom of expression and assembly do not respect existing international human right standards. These new measures will discourage people from exercising their rights of expression and protest out of fear, and those who do participate risk being arrested.
The United Nations Human Rights Chief, Volker Türk, has also expressed his concern for the “deeply troubling legislation that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations regarding people’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association” and “weakens human rights obligations”. Volker Türk has additionally demanded that the UK government reverse the implementation of the Public Order Act.
The timing of this Act is another worrying issue. Over the years, the Metropolitan police has faced several serious scandals related to racism and sexual assault in its institution on top of using their power to arrest and detain journalists and protesters from different social movements. Presently, this is a greater concern for protesters who have been engaged in popular anti-monarchy demonstrations leading up the King Charles lll coronation and environmental groups who have a history of using civil disobedience methods, such as Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion.
In the weeks leading up to protests against coronation official warning letters were sent by the Home Office to Republic, the leading group campaigning for Britain to become a republic, informing them about new criminal offences that will be rushed into law to prevent disruption during the coronation.
These warning letters have been described as an intimidation strategy by the Home Office’s Police Powers Unit to discourage and stop the planned demonstrations.
The Public Order Act was given royal assent by Charles on May 2nd, just days before the coronation and planned demonstrations.
The worrying consequences of engaging in civil disobedience acts can lead to a criminal record and jail time, with protesters blocking roads, airports, and railways facing 12 months in jail and protesters locking on to objects or buildings can face 6 months of prison and an unlimited fine.
How has the Act already impacted protests and civic rights?
On May 3rd, protesters and activists participating in a pro-Palestine protest against an Israeli weapons manufacturer and “the unreasonable and severe restrictions on protests and demonstrations” of the laws from the new Public Order Act accused the police of using “excessive and violent force to suppress them”.
During the protest on April 30 in Leicester, the police imposed several restrictive conditions on the protest, including: reducing the size of the assembly area, restricting the area where camps or structures can be built, and confiscating some of the protesters’ equipment and personal belongings.
The Network for Police Monitoring (NETPOL) and the rights groups Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) have condemned the police’s excessive action as “outrageous” and warned that any protest or “minor inconvenience” can be interpreted by the police as a serious disruption.
On May 6, the day of King Charles lll coronation, the new restrictive laws from the POA were used heavily by the police which infringed on the freedom of expression and assembly of several organisations.
52 protesters were arrested, as part of the policing operation codenamed Golden Orb, which included people from the Republic, Just Stop Oil environmental movement, Animal Rising, independent anti-monarchists, and women’s safety campaigners.
Sources have confirmed that one of the tactics used by the police for this operation has been live facial recognition. This has received scrutiny by many protesters and organisations who state that it is a violation of human rights and data protection laws.
Additionally, the police used new powers to arrest six Republic members, among those Graham Smith, the Chief Executive of the movement. They were detained and searched by the police, without being given a reason. Afterward, the police seized hundreds of their placards reading “Not My King” and arrested them. Graham Smith was in police custody for 16 hours before being released, whilst other protesters from Republic were still held.
Scotland Yard has responded to the public outrage over the arrest of 52 activists denying that they were “heavy handed” with the protesters and claiming that the arrests were “necessary” to prevent “public order offences, breach of the peace and conspiracy to cause a public nuisance around the coronation”.
However, these arrests were made after the Metropolitan Police confirmed weeks before the coronation that they would allow and facilitate anti-monarchy demonstrations unless they violated existing laws or new provisions established in the Public Order Act, referring to causing serious disruption or locking on.
Out of the 52 arrested, 32 from Republic, Animal Rising, and Just Stop Oil were arrested on “suspicion of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance” despite proof from members that they were demonstrating peacefully. Just Stop Oil, who has a history of using disruptive methods, said that they had “no glue, paint or any plans to disrupt the coronation”.
Since the coronation arrests, the Metropolitan police announced that no charges will be brought against them and has expressed in a statement that it regrets arresting protesters from Republic as police investigations into the personal items seized from protesters “has been unable to prove intent to use them to lock on and disrupt the event”.
Graham Smith has reacted to this, saying that it would still consider legal action and demand an inquiry into the conduct of officers as he believes that the arrests made during the coronation were a premeditated attempt to break up the planned protests.