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Yes, curb the XR terrorists – but don’t kill our right to protest

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I LOVE a good protest. The anti-lockdown marches I began attending in late 2020, which morphed into vax passport demonstrations, are likely to only grow and swell.   

Ever greater numbers of citizens alarmed and angry about this government’s increasingly totalitarian tendency will fall back on this one fundamental right – the right of protest. 

That’s what makes the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which went for its report stage in the House of Lords on December 8, so disturbing. It is a further encroachment on the civil liberties of the British people. 

The Home Office issued a policy paper outlining the Bill on July 7 this year, citing as one of its main justifications an overly lenient approach by police to protests.

Violence at Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests, where the police made a number of arrests, appears to be the key reason – or excuse – for why these new powers are needed

 

Leniency certainly has appeared to be the prevailing police mood at XR’s annual sequence of week-long environment protests in Central London, with their campouts and traffic disruptions.

In October 2019, they closed down the area around Trafalgar Square for two weeks before the police finally got their act together and moved in to clear them. 

However, this reluctance by the Met’s finest appeared to be a matter of choice – a total absence of determination to do anything about it all. Not an absence of powers, rather an absence of will and a woke endorsement of the event.  

Yet no such timidity (or approval) was apparent, from my own observations, when it came to the treatment by authorities of certain individuals charged for organising the systematically peaceful anti-lockdown protests.  

Louise Creffield, of Save our Rights UK for one has appeared to me to be constantly hounded by the police, such that she cannot even attend a protest without being followed around by a group of officers (as I witnessed more than once). 

Meanwhile, Piers Corbyn, who has never been violent, is reported to be facing at least ten criminal charges for organising protests in breach of coronavirus regulations as of March 2021. These were for demonstrations that only lasted a matter of hours – not weeks. 

The truth is that enforcement activities against protesters are largely determined on the basis of the Met leaders’ political beliefs. You can count on zero fingers the number of BLM protest activists or Antifa organisers who face anything like the charges brought against those responsible for the anti-lockdown movement.

Such selective policing falls under the supervision of the controversial Met commissioner Cressida Dick, who makes the Keystone Cops. look competent.  

Whilst her officers turned a blind eye to BLM protests in the summer of 2020 (at the height of Covid restrictions on gatherings), they used force to break up peaceful anti-lockdown protests in 2021, as reported by the Guardian. 

Imagine how, with new legislative authority to quell protests, Cressida and her chums (including those in City Hall) will be able to use it against anyone opposing mandatory vaccine passports, future lockdowns or compulsory vaccination – all of which are already being mooted in some quarters.  

Citizens standing up for their human rights will face criminal prosecution, fines and penalties such as prison sentences for exercising their right to protest.  

The Bill imposes a 51-week jail term for certain activities including ‘locking on’ (attaching yourself to an object, land or another person), obstructing transport works or resisting a search that has been requested without reasonable suspicion, but merely if the police think a protest is likely to occur in the area you find yourself in.  

Officers are to be given new powers to stop and search if they believe you might be carrying something to use in a protest (such as a poster). As noted in this Guardian piece (on the side of right for once): ‘These are dictators’ powers’.  

Citing such provisions, the paper describes it as ‘proper police state stuff’. The sort of thing that would make dictators rub their hands together with glee. 

Even the Left-leaning Financial Times has come out against the Bill.  It criticises it for treating protesters ‘like criminals’; for last-minute amendments that will ‘erode freedoms that are a mark of a healthy democracy’ and for criminalising protesters who cause inconvenience, even without causing damage.

One provision of the Bill, dubbed ‘Harper’s Law’ – which introduces a mandatory life sentence for the killing of an emergency worker – has faced a barrage of criticism.  

It is the result of a campaign by PC Andrew Harper’s widow Lissie for tougher sentencing after her husband was killed in 2019 when he was dragged behind a car driven by three thieves he was trying to arrest. They were cleared of murder and convicted of manslaughter. 

Viscount Hailsham, the former Tory minister Douglas Hogg, said in the Lords: ‘All of us will have the greatest sympathy for PC Harper’s wife and his family. However, we should be very cautious about legislating as a consequence of a single case, or even of a number of cases, however distressing they may be.’  

Baroness Fox drew attention to another weakness in the Bill: ‘The fact that 16 and 17 year-olds have been included means that very young people could now have mandatory life sentences for manslaughter, with no discretion, and no discretion encouraged. It is so wrong and brought in for all the wrong reasons.’ 

The worry is that not only is the Bill unnecessary – the police already have adequate powers to stop disruption to critical activities and violence if it erupts – it is also a political measure filtered through the justice system with potentially dangerous and unintended consequences that will further assimilate power into the hands of the Home Secretary.  

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill comes alongside the newly-proposed ‘interpretation Bill’, which would enable MPs to routinely overturn major court decisions. 

It is part of a programme to ‘rebalance the relationship between the Government, parliament and the courts’ (according to the 2019 Tory manifesto). But it faces being done in such a way as to enfeeble the judiciary’s capacity to protect individual rights against State encroachment.

The legislative process is already failing us as a society, as Sally Beck recently observed. Ignoring evidence has been a pattern in all Covid legal challenges, such as when families attempted to have Covid vaccination for under-18s suspended, and when they tried to stop mandatory vaccination for care workers.  

This, according to lawyer Stephen Jackson, who brought both those High Court cases, is because government advisers ‘trump’ any other advisers, however well qualified.  

The new Bill is yet another step towards State control of the legislative process. On the excuse of draconian measures needed to cope with XR’s violent disruption, the fundamental right of all citizens to demonstrate peacefully against the Government is now threatened.  

It is not necessary and it is not honest.  The politicisation and the will of the police is the problem, not their lack of powers, which in certain situations they have been all too ready to use. Organisations such as XR, BLM and Antifa are like cancers in our society, and should be dealt with in a targeted manner by the mechanisms already in place under the criminal justice system. 

The cure that heals the sick must not be the poison to destroy life for everyone else. As C S Lewis said in The Great Divorce: ‘Every disease that submits to a cure shall be cured: But we will not call blue yellow to please those who insist on still having jaundice, nor make a midden of the world’s garden for the sake of some who cannot abide the smell of roses.’ 

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Bridget Jones 2022
Bridget Jones 2021 is a commercial lawyer with a keen interest in defending civil liberties.

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