11 March 2021
At the beginning of this week, the highly-controversial Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act became law. Now, the government has proposed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which contains new powers to clamp down on the right to protest, as well as an array of other dangerous measures. Campaign groups are preparing to oppose the Bill.
Covert human intelligence sources
The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act sets out new rules "for, and in connection with, the authorisation of criminal conduct in the course of, or otherwise in connection with, the conduct of covert human intelligence sources," or CHIS.
CHIS could be undercover police officers, intelligence agents, informers, or other state agents - and there are a wide variety of state bodies able to authorise the running of CHIS, ranging from police forces and intelligence agencies to the Department of Health and Social Care, the Environment Agency and the Gambling Commission. Children may also be deployed.
One of the most controversial aspects of the legislation is the fact that it contains no human rights safeguards of its own, and instead refers to the Human Rights Act 1988.
In the final debate before the bill became law, the Solicitor General confirmed "that an authorisation of conduct that would breach the Human Rights Act would always be unlawful."
However, the government has launched a "review" of the Human Rights Act, and there is no shortage of MPs on the Conservative (government) benches in parliament who would like to scrap the Human Rights Act - and the UK's membership of the European Convention on Human Rights - altogether.
Any changes to or watering-down of the Human Rights Act would also have an effect on the safeguards that apply to covert human intelligence sources - and given the lack of concern for human rights shown in the deployment of CHIS such as the 'spycops', there is legitimate concern that the new powers are ripe for abuse.
Further threats to civil liberties
With the CHIS Act on the books, the government has now published the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
This contains a whole host of measures, some of which may have positive effects, such as further laws on child abuse. However, it also plans stricter sentencing rules, new stop and search powers, and provisions that would criminalise trespass (currently a civil offence), which appears to be primarily targeted at gypsy and traveller groups but could also have serious negative effects for protesters, ramblers, wild swimmers and many others.
The campaign group Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) notes that:
"Whilst the majority of over 26,000 responses to the Government’s consultation did not support the proposals, the Government announced that it planned to still go ahead with plans to strengthen police powers against roadside camps.
Under the Government’s plans, a new criminal offence will be introduced for people living on roadside camps which could result in people being imprisoned, fined or having their home removed from them."
Existing powers will also be extended - despite even the police stating that they don't need new powers to deal with unauthorised encampments, FFT underscores.
New powers against protests
The Bill also contains specific measures to crack down on protest. The government says these new powers will keep people safe and "ensure that they can get on with their daily lives peacefully and without unnecessary interference."
The "interference" with which the government is concerned is largely protest. Amongst other things, the Bill would give police new powers to impose conditions on static protests in a wider range of situations than at present, and the Home Secretary will be granted the power to define what counts as "serious disruption", permitting police action against demonstrations.
The Network for Police Monitoring note that:
"...the government wants to challenge the perceived legitimacy of certain protest tactics by groups like Extinction Rebellion, as well as to give the police the power to more widely interpret whether protests like Black Lives Matter constitute “significant disruption” and are therefore likely to justify arrests."
Netpol will be opposing the bill and are calling on groups and individuals to support them - but they also argue that:
"...unless we advocate for positive demands, the government will simply keep chipping away at our rights.
This is why we are also launching a new “Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights”, which calls on the government and the police to accept greater transparency and accountability for the way protests are policed. We are demanding police respect existing international human rights standards – or explain why they refuse to do so."
The Charter can be signed here.
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