New UK laws could make many forms of protest restricted - and give police new powers

Friday, 12th March 2021, 4:01 pm
Updated Friday, 12th March 2021, 4:01 pm
Civil liberties groups have expressed alarm over the government's plans (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Civil liberties groups have expressed alarm over the government's plans (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

New legislation to "safely manage protests" may see police handed more powers to restrict peaceful demonstrations on UK streets.

As part of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government has said it wishes to "prevent serious disruption caused by protests" in the wake of recent Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protests. One of the measures includes a new legal definition of "serious disruption", which police can then use to restrict protests.

Police will also be allowed to impose conditions like start and finish times and maximum noise levels on marches and protests.

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'Aggravated activism'

Two days after the publication of the new proposed legislation, the HM Inspectorate of Constabulary, Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) published a review on “how effectively the police deal with protests” which outlines a "need to develop" intelligence gathering methods in relation to protests.

The report says the Government wishes to “improve arrangements relating to the identification and targeting of the most prominent aggravated activists", with a new tiered definition of "aggravated activists".

Low-level "aggravated activism" is defined as "activism which involves unlawful behaviour or criminality. This criminality is local or cross regional and potentially impacts on local community tensions".

High-level "aggravated activism", meanwhile, is defined as "activity using tactics to bring about social or political change involving criminality that has a significant impact on UK communities, or where the ideology driving the activity would result in harm to a significant proportion of the population."

'Alarming and illiberal'

While the Government has insisted that new legislation will not infringe on the rights of UK citizens to assemble peacefully, a number of civil liberties groups have expressed alarm at the proposals.

The Network for Police Monitoring (Netpol) said the plans "provide a green light for a renewed expansion of surveillance on political and social movements", saying the introduction of the term "aggravated activist" instead of "domestic terrorist" is particularly concerning.

Kevin Blowe, campaigns coordinator of the police monitoring group Netpol, told the Guardian the report was "alarming and illiberal", amounting to “essentially a series of recommendations on how you can massively expand surveillance on protest movements at a time when the government has decided that it’s going to crack down on those protests”.