What is in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?

Peers reject ‘draconian’ government amendments to mammoth piece of crime and justice legislation

A woman is arrested during the vigil for Sarah Everard
A woman is arrested during London vigil for Sarah Everard
(Image credit: Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

The government has suffered a series of defeats in the House of Lords over its controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Peers voted against a number of government proposals designed to “clamp down on disruptive and noisy protesters” in the wake of action taken by protest group Insulate Britain, reported the BBC. But Labour described some of the measures as “outrageous”, while a Green peer branded them as “draconian” and are “a wider assault on our democracy”.

The government lost in 14 divisions, as the second chamber pushed back on some of the more controversial plans over changes to protest. It rejected government proposals, by 261 votes to 166, to give police new powers to stop protests in England and Wales if they are deemed to be too noisy and disruptive.

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Peers also rejected plans to punish protesters who “lock on” to objects with a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks, and well as rejecting suspicion-less stop and search and the introduction of “serious disruption prevention orders”. They also rejected plans to make it an offence for a person to disrupt the operation of key national infrastructure, including airports and newspaper printers.

In a separate defeat, the Lords said tougher sentences for blocking a highway should apply only to major routes and motorways rather than, as the government proposed, all roads.

The Lords also voted to make misogyny a hate crime, an idea which was rejected by Boris Johnson in October. He said at the time: “If you simply widen the scope of what you ask the police to do, you’ll just increase the problem.”

As the BBC reports, the proposal was added to the bill “against the government's wishes” by Conservative peer Baroness Newlove, a former victims’ commissioner. If allowed to stand, the proposal would enable judges to impose stronger penalties if prejudice against women is proved to be the motivation.

Labour peer Lord Hain called the bill “the biggest threat to the right to dissent and the right to protest in my lifetime”.

He added that it would have “throttled" the suffragettes fight for votes for women and prevented other major protests such as anti-fascist demonstrators at the Battle of Cable Street, and “thwarted” the anti-apartheid protests of the late 1960s and 70s.

The government's Home Office minister in the Lords, Baroness Williams, defended the plans, telling peers that the police would only use the powers where they were “necessary” and “appropriate”.

Ping pong

The defeats handed down to the government from the lords now “sets the stage for a tussle” between the two chambers, as the upper and lower house seek to hash out a final version of the bill, writes the i news site.

It will go back to the Commons for MPs to have their say, with the government “likely to continue fighting for its proposals”, said the BBC. The two Houses will have to reach an agreement on the bill before it can become law.

Why is it seen as controversial?

In November, home secretary Priti Patel was accused of attempting to “bypass parliamentary scrutiny” in a series of last-minute amendments to the government’s controversial policing bill.

Members of the House of Lords “voiced anger” over 11th hour additions to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, criticising the home secretary for introducing “controversial” new measures after the bill had already passed through the House of Commons, reported The Independent

The new proposals included tougher sentences for blocking motorways, an expansion of police stop and search powers, and making “locking on” – a practice used by Insulate Britain but also, historically, other significant protest groups – an offence that could carry a jail sentence of up to 51 weeks.

The proposals were branded “outrageous” by Liberal Democrat peer Lord Paddick, a former deputy assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan Police.

They could have “serious consequences in terms of police powers, infringement of civil liberties and the creation of new offences”, he said, adding that they had been “introduced in a wholly unacceptable way at the last minute” leaving MPs little time, if any, to properly consider them.

Human rights group Liberty called the amendments a “power grab” by the government, and the bill an “attack on the rights of everyone who has a cause they believe in”.

“Protest is a core pillar of any healthy democracy. These new powers are a threat to our rights, and an opportunistic move from a government determined to shut down dissent, stifle democratic scrutiny and make itself untouchable,” said Liberty policy officer Emmanuelle Andrews.

The bill, which the government says “would make significant changes across the criminal justice system”, has sparked mass protests across the UK since it was first debated in March this year. The draft legislation was brought to parliament after Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests “were accused of disrupting public life”, says the Daily Record.

At the time, Labour vowed to vote down the legislation and a subsequent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said that proposed restrictions on peaceful protests in particular are believed to be “inconsistent” with existing human rights laws, Sky News reports.

What is in the bill?

The government amendments to the bill include giving police expanded stop and search powers in order to avoid “serious disruption” or a “public nuisance”. Under the government proposals, police officers will be able to search members of the public “whether or not the constable has any grounds for suspecting that the person… is carrying a prohibited object”. Those who attempt to block or obstruct a stop and search could also face jail time of up to 51 weeks or a fine.

The “wilful obstruction of a highway” and the obstruction of “major transport works” has also been criminalised in what could be seen as a response to the disruption caused by Insulate Britain protesters to UK motorways this year.

“Locking on” – described in the amendment as “the attachment of an individual to another individual, to an object or to land, or an object to another object or to land” – would be criminalised, as well as carrying equipment intended to facilitate the proposed offence. Both carry possible sentences of up to 51 weeks.

Amendments were also made to serious disruption prevention orders (SDPOs), which currently can be imposed on anyone convicted of a “protest related offence” – an extremely broad category. Under the proposals, the order could now be imposed on anyone whose activities “were likely to result in serious disruption”, whether or not they had been convicted of a crime.

Even before the latest proposed amendments, critics of the legislation were particularly concerned about how the bill could change the public’s right to protest.

The bill focuses specifically on the noise generated by activists. If it is deemed loud enough to cause “intimidation or harassment” or cause “serious unease, alarm or distress” to people not taking part in the protest, police would have new powers to clamp down on the demonstration. JCHR chair Harriet Harman has said the proposal is “oppressive and wrong”, while The Times reports that former senior police officers have written to the Home Office to say the plans could have “dangerous and harmful implications”.

Further amendments propose strengthening sentencing for those who allow or cause the death of a child or vulnerable adult to life imprisonment, rather than the current 14-year maximum sentence.

An assault on protest?

“Insulate Britain protestors supergluing themselves to a road are the clear target” of new amendments that criminalise “locking on”, said Ian Dunt on the i news site, but “the powers go far beyond them”.

To make “locking on” a crime is an “assault on the core techniques of British protest throughout history: chaining yourself to public property and blocking roads”, he added. “It’s what the Suffragettes did. It’s what anti-war demonstrators do.” And now “all these tactics will be illegal”.

Of the new amendments, perhaps the most “outrageous” are the new powers to ban people with serious disruption prevention orders from protesting, said George Monbiot in The Guardian. “The grounds are extraordinary, in a nation that claims to be democratic,” he writes. Previous measures covered by the bill and the proposed new amendments could make it “difficult to attend a protest without committing an offence”, he writes. “These are dictators’ powers. The country should be in uproar over them, but we hear barely a squeak.”

Patel defended the amendments, saying: “We have seen some of the most self-defeating and dangerous protests ever seen in recent years with people gluing themselves to roads and locking themselves to vehicles and buildings, causing serious disruption to the law-abiding majority across the country.

“These are selfish actions which drain the police of resources.”

The Met’s deputy commissioner, Sir Steve House, supported the proposals, describing the “increased use of lock-ons by certain protest groups” as adding to the “challenging nature of public order policing” and described the technique as contributing to “significant disruption to the public over recent years”.

“Removing these lock-ons safely requires specialist policing teams to be deployed to what can be high risk environments, taking time and significant resources. This is time that our officers are taken away from policing their local communities and local policing priorities,” he said.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.