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Police at a protest rally in London

Why the Police Bill matters to the international development sector

13 September 2021
Author: Rosemary Forest

350 organisations put their name on an open letter published on Sunday, outlining urgent concerns with the police, crimes, sentencing and courts bill (PCSCB).

This includes the right to protest, the impact it will have on Gypsy and Traveller communities and the risk that if passed it will further entrench racial disparity in the criminal justice system, through expansive policing and sentencing powers. Among the signatories is a large number of international development organisations, such as Save the Children UK, Oxfam GB, and ADD International – so why does the bill matter to the sector?  

The bill limits what campaigners can do 

It is vital that UK NGOs have space to operate and campaign freely. If our members cannot campaign, then we as a sector and as organisations cannot deliver our wider development goals. 

Whether big or small – protest is a critical component of any democracy and a core element of campaigning. While protest may not be a tactic NGOs regularly deploy, we only need to think of Make Poverty History, or more recent protests to end vaccine inequality during the recent G7 Health Ministers meeting, to see the relevancy of protest rights for our organisations and supporters.  Christian Aid published a blog last month, outlining how “it is better to protest, than accept injustice”. 

Yet, the PCSCB introduces a range of measures that undermine the right to protest.  

It provides greater powers to restrict protests based on highly subjective conditions, which would be left to the discretion of police and home secretary to interpret. Under the bill protests could be restricted based on their noisiness, and police would be able to impose any conditions that are “necessary” to prevent among other things “disruption or impact”. Noise, disruption, and impact are all crucial elements of protests.  

Standing in solidarity 

This bill is part of a wider hostility towards campaigning in the UK, such as reporting charities who speak out about racism and white privilege to the Charity Commission, to restrictions on advocacy in grant contracts.  

International development organisations’ missions often centre around a core belief that social and economic injustice drives global poverty and inequality, so it is important we stand in solidarity with communities and campaigners that will be most impacted by the bill.  

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities will be particularly hard hit. The bill criminalises roadside camps and permits the seizure of vehicles. This could render families homeless and essentially criminalises the communities’ way of life. The Joint Committee on Human Rights found that the proposal raise several human rights concerns.

The bill sets a bad precedent internationally 

From speaking out on the right to protest in Colombia, to statements on the sentencing of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong, and on the detention of peaceful protesters in Russia, the UK government has prioritised promoting open societies globally.

Yet at a time when the right to protest is under attack around the world, the UK should be setting a positive example, rather than making it harder for people to protest. The PCSCB is also incompatible with international law and sets a bad precedent internationally. Three UN special rapporteurs have warned the bill threatens our rights.

What happens next and how you can get involved 

The bill moves into its second reading stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday 14 September. While groups are still calling for the bill to be scrapped or parts to be removed, a coalition of civil society organisations, including Bond, are also working to mitigate the worst excesses of the bill through proposing amendments. 

What you can do:

Circulate the new parliamentary briefing drafted by civil society partners to potential Conservative rebels and peers who are former judges,  lawyers and campaigners, to help us build a strong network of allies. 

  • Share the open letter on social media and help us get #PolicingBill trending on twitter. 
  • Write a blog for your supporters and help build awareness of the bill and why organisations across the sector are taking a stand. 

If you’d like to get more involved, please contact Rosemary Forest

About the author

Rosemary Forest
Bond

Rosemary is a policy and advocacy adviser at Bond