Following the news that MPs have voted through the Government’s new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a constitutional law expert at Edge Hill explains what the legislation will mean for UK policing.
The mammoth 300-page document contains major proposals on crime and justice in England and Wales, including dozens of new measures to protect police officers and tougher penalties for those who attack emergency workers.
Dr Simon Hale Ross, a Senior Lecturer in Law at Edge Hill, said: “This vote was a significant step forward for the Conservatives, as much of their manifesto was based on introducing tougher sanctions on crime and justice legislation.
“While the Bill faced some opposition from both sides in the Commons, their rationale behind this legislation is that they were voted into power based on their promise to bring in tougher sentencing, cut crime and protect our police.”
The legislation includes tougher measures to protect children from abusive adults in positions of trust, longer sentences for child killers, those convicted of sexual offences and other violent criminals, as well as increasing the sentences for those convicted of causing death by careless driving.
However, the most controversial part of the Bill is its proposal to reform the rules on political protests.
If the legislation passes through both Houses, the state and police will be handed new powers to control the length of protests, impose maximum noise levels and prosecute activists for causing serious annoyance, a concept that Dr Hale Ross argues has not been clearly defined.
“One of the issues with the Bill is that it doesn’t define the words that are used, which is a problem in law. It states that if protests are too noisy, the police can stop them. But what does too noisy mean? There’s no definition and that’s one of the biggest problems when we are talking about a crime which could carry a 10-year maximum sentence,” said Dr Hale Ross.
He added: “Throughout the 20th century we have seen protests bring about radical change for the better, such as the Suffragette movement.
“The challenge in recent years has been incidents where movements such as Extinction Rebellion, who use pop-up tactics that somewhat verge away from normal protests, bringing cities to a halt, causing blockages and meaning that emergency services aren’t able to access people who need their help.”
Critics of the Bill argue that the proposed changes to protests infringe on human rights. However, Dr Hale Ross explains that while the freedom of assembly and expression are enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, these rights are not absolute.
“The UK does not have a single codified constitutional document that clearly sets outs powers, rights and liberties for UK citizens. Because of that, we rely on legislation, case law and convention to assert our constitutional rights.
“Protests can be limited by police if they believe they have a good reason to impose restrictions on an event to ensure public safety, or to prevent a crime. The law can interfere with your freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, which is qualified by the law.”
As well as the proposed crackdown on non-violent protests, the Bill also contains a section on “unauthorised encampments”, making it a criminal offence to reside in a vehicle on land without permission.
According to Dr Hale-Ross, this proposal will be a direct threat to the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in England and Wales. He said: “It would effectively change their whole way of life. As an underrepresented group already, this element of the Bill is going to make it extremely difficult for these communities and their livelihoods.”
All of Edge Hill’s Law courses are qualifying law degrees, meaning students will be ready to enter legal practice as soon as they graduate.