Whilst the most visible targets of the repressive Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently wending its way through Halitosis Hall are Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists, the bill has as its longer-term goal the extension of (already generous) police powers in readiness for the social convulsions that must surely result from the deepening capitalist crisis.
Picking on soft targets like the XR and BLM muddleheads, disconnected as they are from the mass of workers, is seen as a good way for the state’s repressive apparatus to limber up for the more serious class-struggle battles looming ahead post-Covid.
The bill is a real dog’s dinner, deliberately mixing up all sorts of issues the better to smuggle in some really nasty clauses. One moment the bill is talking about the prevention and prosecution of child sexual offences, the next it is on about curbing dangerous driving and the next it is creating powers to check up on terrorists when released from prison.
Meanwhile, around the back a removal van is ready to cart off article 11 of the European convention on human rights: the right to freedom of assembly and association.
A report issued by the Institute of Employment Rights on 19 March gives some useful detail on how civil liberties will suffer death by a thousand cuts. It notes that clauses 54-60 in part 3 of the bill “effectively criminalise protests that cause disruption – defined in broad and vague terms – even in the case of one-person protests”.
These clauses “allow police to place conditions on protests as a response to ‘the noise generated by persons taking part’ as well as to impose penalties on those breaching such conditions if they ‘ought to have known’ they were in place. As shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds told Parliament: ‘That would have the effect of criminalising people who unwittingly breach conditions’.”
The report notes that “existing laws already place conditions on protests when they cause danger – for example, if an ambulance is not able to pass. The new provisions tighten police control much further.”
The bill “also introduces a new statutory offence of ‘intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance’. People found guilty of this new offence, which includes causing ‘serious annoyance’ or ‘serious inconvenience’ – or even just causing the risk that said annoyance and inconvenience will take place – are liable to be imprisoned for up to ten years if convicted on indictment or 12 months if convicted summarily.
“Elsewhere in the bill, similarly high sentences are imposed on those causing damage to statues and memorials, presumably as a response to the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue by Black Lives Matter protestors in Bristol.
“Under the proposed law, said protestors could be looking at ten years in prison. This – as many opposition MPs pointed out during the debate – is a longer sentence than that given for violent crimes against living people. Indeed, it is twice the length of the maximum sentence for assault causing actual bodily harm (five years).” (What’s wrong with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill)
Other clauses in the bill would extend the exclusion zone around Parliament so that MPs will not have to listen to their constituents protesting outside.
The government is in a tearing hurry to get this done, anxious not to lose the opportunity of the pandemic to push through these new police powers, in a race against time. When the true scale of the underlying economic crisis finally dawns, however, it will take more than laws passed in Westminster to curb the resistance of the working class.