Last year, I rode my bike down to Parliament Square from Newington Green (proud home of dissenters) to join the throng of those protesting the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill during its reading in the House of Lords. I locked my bike and WhatsApped my wife to suggest she come down to join me.
Under the proposed new bill, that one vignette would land me in prison, with a fine – three times over. My obviously innocent demeanour would not have done me any good.
Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights currently protects us from unfair arrest by presuming innocence until proven guilty. However, the Public Order Bill (now before Parliament) proposes powers that will allow a police officer to conduct a stop and search without the need for reasonable suspicion if they even believe a protest-related offence might take place.
Although protest-specific suspicion-less stop and search protocols have for the moment, been voted down by the House of Lords, this decision could still be reversed by MPs. If this power isn’t removed from the bill entirely, then we are in danger of entering a dark age of assumption of guilty until proven innocent.
Under the provisions of the bill, my possession of a bike lock could be known as “going equipped to lock-on.” To commit an offence, a person would merely be required to have “the intention that [the object] may be used in the course of or in connection with the commission by any person of an offence”. Although the assumption of intention is an inexact science – to say the least – the penalty for this offence could be an unlimited fine.
Likewise, using WhatsApp to contact my wife to ask her to attend a protest and perhaps handing out some leaflets might also see me given (and then banged up for breaching) a Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPO); a proposed preventative court order “prohibiting an individual from being in a particular place, being with particular people, having particular articles in their possession, and using the internet to facilitate or encourage persons to commit a protest-related offence.”
This could literally ban people from protesting. Again, if this proposal survives the House of Lords initial rejection, a breach of the order could carry a 51-week prison term.
And if she had joined me, we might well have committed a further offence as the proposed legislation would require only two people to threaten the stability of the country by stepping into Parliament Square holding hands – in other words, ‘locking on’. At least my wife and I would have had a choice; disabled people with a carer or assistant nearby to help, might easily be mistaken for a seditious cabal.
Even with innocent intent, the Public Order Bill could subject a person who has “contributed to […] activities related to a protest […] likely to result in serious disruption” to the full weight of state surveillance and restrictions on their liberty unless these staggering measures are removed from the bill for good.
The Director of Liberty and human rights activist Baroness Chakrabarti, summed up the outrage during the House of Lords debate: “It does not make sense to include attaching yourself “to another person” or to property, linking arms with your chum, attaching your bicycle to railings, et cetera. These are all examples of conduct which can be potentially impugned by this criminal offence, and for which one could go to prison for nearly a year. This is totally outrageous and unacceptable.”
As retrospective legislation, the proposed Act would, in effect, become an act of vengeance. In my case as a Canadian born British citizen, to add insult to injury, Clause 9 of the Nationality and Borders Bill introduces a power to deprive persons of their citizenship and to summarily return them to their country of birth.
It is not as though turning over a new leaf from this day forth would have redeemed me. Having within the past five years “carried out activities related to a protest in retrospective breach of an SDPO”, I may yet still find myself deprived of citizenship at the unfettered behest of a rabidly authoritarian Home Secretary.
A joint briefing for peers headed by Reprieve warned: “Retrospective legislation is dangerous […] It is deeply concerning for Government to ask Parliament to retrospectively validate and deny minimal safeguards to cases in which it unlawfully failed to comply with the limits on its powers in the past.”
Currently, under section 40(5) of the British Nationality Act 1981, a person who is to be deprived of citizenship must be given written notice of the reasons for the order and notification of the right of appeal.
Thought crime or Minority Report?
How we enjoyed the sci-fi dystopia portrayed in the Tom Cruise film, Minority Report In “a society where every individual is monitored 24/7, [and] police officers called ‘Pre-Cogs’, predict the future and punish those responsible before the crime is committed.”
The reality, not so much.
In Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, ‘thought crime’ is an even more serious offence than committing an actual crime: it’s the act of thinking about committing a crime.
When “going equipped to lock-on” is described as merely “capable of causing serious disruption”; when the “intention” to commit an offence is merely suspected; when activities related to a protest are only “likely to result in serious disruption”, the vagueness opens the door to this Orwellian nightmare.
With no sense of irony, in her speech to the 77th session of the UN General Assembly in New York Liz Truss proclaimed: “The story of 2022 could have been that of an authoritarian state rolling its tanks over the border of a peaceful neighbour and subjugating its people. Instead, it is the story of freedom fighting back.”
Nice of you to join us, Liz!
The right to protest is one of the essential foundations of a democratic society and protected under Article 10 (Freedom of Expression) and 11 (Freedom of Assembly) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Be on your guard. Be fearful. These guaranteed freedoms will be torn up should the Public Order Bill currently being debated in the UK Parliament, be ratified.
In this grave new world, Tom Cruise will not be there to save you.