Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Briefing

This briefing comes from a broad coalition of civil society organisations, including faith groups, democracy and human rights campaigners, and environmental activists.  

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would significantly limit the right to protest, which is an essential part of democracy. It would criminalise the lifestyle of Gypsy and Traveller communities and have unintended consequences for homeless people and those wishing to enjoy access to the countryside. 

Former and current Police Chiefs have strongly criticised this Bill. Earlier this summer a group of former officers, including a former chief constable and a chief superintendent, wrote to the Home Secretary. Their letter highlighted how the Bill could lead to the policing being “instrumentalised for political purposes”. 

On Part 3 of the Bill, former Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary Mike Barton told the Independent in March: “Fortunately, in the UK we are not a paramilitary-style police force. But these powers dangerously edge in that direction. Police chiefs will be seen as the arbiters of what is and is not allowed when it comes to protest.” On Part 4, Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt, Chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, told the Bill Committee in May that “the fundamental problem is insufficient provision of sites for Gypsy Travellers to occupy” and that existing legislation is sufficient.

Key points

Part 3 of this Bill is an existential threat to a core purpose of protest, silencing ordinary people who already feel unheard by decision-makers. It creates confusion and makes protest difficult to organise and difficult to police. It gives police officers responsibility for implementing laws which contradict and suppress freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It is a serious threat to our democratic rights as citizens.

Part 4 introduces a new criminal offence of trespass, with powers to imprison, fine and seize the vehicles/homes and possessions of individuals who have the intent to reside on land without authorisation. This is a disproportionate and potentially unlawful interference with the rights of Gypsy and Traveller communities, as well as capturing those who are homeless or wild camping. 

While this briefing focuses on Parts 3 and 4, it must be noted that other parts of the Bill are also extremely problematic. Concerns about Parts 2 and 10 can be found in briefings from the Criminal Justice Alliance, Amnesty International UK, Liberty, and others.

Part 3

Part 3 undermines democracy by severely limiting freedom of speech. 

Clauses 55, 56, and 57 provide the police with the powers to restrict protest to the point of suppression. While police officers can currently place conditions on the size, place and duration, this legislation expands these to include the protest:

  • being deemed too noisy
  • causing “serious disruption” to another organisation’s activities 
  • having a “relevant impact” on people in the vicinity including “serious unease”

The responsibility for implementing these confusing and unclear conditions will lie with police officers – meaning that police officers will need to make snap decisions on the right to free assembly and freedom of expression. To add to the vagueness, the Secretary of State will be given the power to change the definition of “serious disruption” in Secondary Legislation.

The result is that police officers will be able to severely restrict a protest in anticipation that its noise might have an impact on the organisation or decision-makers it’s directed at, or on passers-by, thus making the protest effectively pointless.

The Bill will also lower the threshold for prosecution to what the individual “ought to have known”, rather than knowingly breaching conditions imposed on the protest. As additional conditions can be imposed by police officers, this presents individuals attending a protest with the task of second guessing what police officers might decide at any given moment. The punishments for breaching these police conditions will be disproportionate: increased 

  fines for individuals attending a protest, and jail time for organisers increased from three months to eleven months.

Clauses 58 and 59 create an extended buffer zone around Parliament, while clause 61 makes it possible to place conditions on protests by a single individual based on noise.

Clause 60 places an offence of intentionally causing a “public nuisance” in law, where non-violently causing serious annoyance or inconvenience will carry a maximum sentence of 10 years. Such a wide ranging and catch-all offence is left open to interpretation, confusing both for those wishing to peacefully protest and those seeking to implement the new law. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has called for Articles 10 and 11 to be specifically included as a defence in these cases.

Part 4

Part 4 attacks the way of life for many Gypsy and Traveller communities, as well as potentially criminalising homelessness and those using the countryside (such as ramblers or cyclists or people who are wild camping). The Bill creates new criminal offences and extends existing eviction powers in the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994 (CJPOA). 

Clauses 62-64 create a new offence of residing or intending to reside on land with a vehicle without the consent of the occupier of the land where a person caused or is likely to cause “significant disruption, damage, or distress”. This includes the power to seize someone’s home/vehicle, a fine of up to £2500 and/or a custodial sentence of up to three months, and an increase in the period in which trespassers directed away from the land must not return to it, from three to twelve months.

The Bill does not define behaviour which causes or is likely to cause “significant disruption, damage or distress”. Distress can arise from stereotypes and prejudices, meaning that the mere existence of Gypsy and Traveller communities or of other homeless people could potentially be enough to trigger this legislation. As Shelter have pointed out, under this legislation a homeless person could potentially be criminalised for sleeping in their car on a public road on the grounds that it is causing distress to nearby residents.  The Bill also gives new powers to the private individual: under the new offence, a person can be criminalised for disobeying the instruction of a private citizen whose interest could be underpinned by prejudice or a misguided understanding of the legislation.

Part 4 seeks to enact the manifesto commitment to strengthen powers against encampments. However, this Bill misdiagnoses the root problem, as encampments are often the direct result of insufficient site provision and stopping places. Trapping people in a cycle of eviction and criminalisation will not create more places to camp. Allowing police to impound vehicles which are family homes will lead to serious hardship for entire families, including children. Evidence is clear that Gypsies and Travellers who have nowhere to lawfully stop face particularly high problems in terms of low life expectancy, high maternal mortality rates and low educational attainment. The Joint Committee on Human Rights outlined how the measures in Part 4 “gives rise to several human rights concerns”. 

These powers are neither necessary nor desired, as indicated both by police evidence to the Bill Committee in the House of Commons and research from Friends, Families and Travellers.

Criminalising trespass will also have an impact on those seeking to enjoy the countryside. The terms ‘vehicle’, ‘reside’ and ‘intent to reside’ are defined so broadly that the legislation could be used to criminalise cyclists who are wild camping or people who have driven to access green space. As Cycling UK have noted, a vehicle does not have to be suitable for use on the road and/or even have wheels. It is an extreme and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms to access and enjoy the countryside.

Manifesto commitments

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto contained commitments to make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and to strengthen powers against Gypsy and Traveller camps. It also made a commitment to increasing prison places and to reforming prison sentences. The manifesto mentioned empowering the police, and referred to extremism in relation to terrorism.

The comments made by current and serving senior police officers clearly demonstrate that this legislation will not address the underlying causes of encampments, indicating that this is not a viable legislative route. Part 4 of the Bill also has an impact beyond the manifesto proposals. 

No suggestions on protest or the right to free speech were made in the manifesto.  The Home Secretary has repeatedly said that the legislation is not intended to threaten or curtail protest. However, the current draft of the legislation purposefully uses vague terms (some of which can be later defined by the Secretary of State) and creates protest conditions which could change in a very short space of time. This neatly deters organisers and suppresses both large and small protests. 

Opposition to the Bill

Civil society organisations representing many different groups across the UK have spoken out against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. When the Bill was first announced a coalition of 250 organisations joined forces to condemn the Bill – a coalition which is now 350 groups and continues to grow. Some of the signatories represent outdoor sport and countryside groups concerned about the trespass powers in Part 4, while others are democracy campaigners opposed to the weakening of our ability to protest. They are joined by campaigners on human rights, environmental activists, and faith-led organisations. 

The response from the wider public has demonstrated that this concern is not limited to organisations: more than 600,000 people signed a petition opposing the Bill and 700 legal academics urged the government to rethink the Bill. 

The Joint Committee on Human Rights said in June that the Bill would increase restrictions “on non-violent protest in a way that we believe is inconsistent with our rights”, and specifically called the introduction of a trigger of serious disruption “unacceptable”, calling for the Bill to be amended. 

Further information

Christian Aid: It Is Better To Protest Than Accept Injustice

European Center for Not-for-Profit Law: Briefing April 2021

Liberty: Briefing July 2021

Friends, Families, and Travellers: Links to research, Briefing August 2021

Friends of the Earth: What’s wrong with the Policing Bill? (podcast) 

Shelter: Letter on criminalisation of people for being homeless

Quakers in Britain: Now is the Time to Act, Why Protest Shouldn’t be Prevented

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