Jo Maugham QC: This dangerous new Conservative bill threatens the right to protest

This week the government announced its intention to legislate the right to protest out of meaningful existence.

Jolyon Maugham is Director of Good Law Project.

Other than at a General Election – an event occurring at five-yearly intervals that hands unconstrained power to a Party that wins a majority – a citizen has but one way of registering dissent at what is done in their name: the right to protest.

Yesterday the government announced its intention to legislate that right out of meaningful existence.

The legislative proposal comes in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. It grapples with everything from road traffic offences to confected culture war issues like the protection of war memorials. But it also contains provisions that should concern each and every one of us. 

Silencing dissent

High-profile protests around Brexit, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the climate crisis have been thorns in the government’s side over the last couple of years. By and large, these protests have been peaceful and have acted as effective ways for people to express their dissatisfaction with the government. 

However, the Home Secretary, in particular, doesn’t seem to like dissenting voices – nor does she want to engage with the root causes of these protests, preferring instead to brand protesters so-called eco-crusaders turned criminals” and to accuse them of hooliganism and thuggery”. 

The government’s proposed solution? To clamp down hard on the right to protest. The Bill as it stands would give sweeping new powers to the police to restrict peaceful protests – including by giving them the powers to set conditions on the duration of protests, set maximum noise levels, and put restrictions on where protests can take place. As it seems to us, the very purpose of the right to protest is to enable people to register their profound unhappiness or strength of feeling in a way which compels the State to respond. To legislate so that right cannot have any impact is to legislate it out of meaningful existence. 

The disproportionate measures proposed in the Bill also risk undermining the freedom of assembly and association protected under the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act.  

“The last ‘respectable’ form of racism”

But these aren’t our only concerns with the Bill. It also appears to attack the way of life of some of the most marginalised groups in our country – the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities – by criminalising trespass (which is ordinarily a civil issue). Sir Trevor Phillips called racism against the GRT communities the “last ‘respectable’ form of racism” when he was chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality back in 2004.

But as the shocking example of Pontins recently showed us, not a lot has changed since. The government’s decision to villainise these communities by giving the police greater powers of enforcement is only likely to exacerbate the widening inequality experienced by them. 

It should worry us all that the government has chosen to attack our rights and those of marginalised communities. We want to fully understand the human rights implications of this Bill, and have instructed an experienced QC and junior barrister from Matrix Chambers to provide us with written advice on this.

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