Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), Bond, National Council of Voluntary organisations (NCVO), and Small Charities Coalition (SCC) (PCSCB18)

Submission to Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill Committee

About us

1. This is a joint submission by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), Bond, National Council of Voluntary organisations (NCVO), and Small Charities Coalition (SCC):

b.   ACEVO is a network of over 1,500 civil society chief executives and senior leaders. Together with our network we inspire and support civil society leaders by providing connections, advocacy and skills. Our members include the leaders of small, community based groups, ambitious medium-sized organisations, and well known, well-loved national and international not-for-profits.  

c.    Bond is the UK network for organisations working in international development. With over 400 members, we work to strengthen civil society and create an enabling environment, both in the UK and overseas, which enables us to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. 

d.     NCVO represents and supports voluntary organisations and volunteering in England. NCVO has over 16,000 members ranging from large ‘household name’ charities to small community organisations. 

e.   SCC supports small organisations with a social purpose to change lives, improve communities and broaden people's opportunities. It currently has a membership of 16,000 small charities, and provides practical support and campaigns to give small organisations a say in the matters that affect them. 

2. We are members of the Civil Society Voice (CSV) network, an informal network of organisations that works to protect and promote the right to campaign in the UK. CSV acts as a space for sharing information and coordinating collective action on restrictions on the right to campaign. 

3. For the purpose of our submission, we are focusing on the right to protest and the restriction of this under Part 3 on Public Order and call for its removal. We stand in solidarity with overly policed communities, including people of colour and the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who will be disproportionately affected by Part 2, Part 4 and Part 10 of the Bill. We support the analysis and recommendations laid out by Amnesty International on Part 2 Chapter 1 and Part 10 Chapter 1; and Liberty and Friends, Families and Travellers' call for the removal of Part 4 of the Bill and as such we do not include additional information on those parts of the Bill here.

The importance of protest

4. The right to protest is integral to a healthy democracy and open societies. Through peaceful protests, civil society ensures collective experiences and the views of ordinary people are heard, enables people to participate in efforts to bring about social change, and supports them to hold those in power accountable. Many of our current rights such as the right to vote, were achieved in part due to protests. There are numerous examples of local and national protests that have raised awareness and brought about positive change in the UK. From Make Poverty History, the Gurkha Justice Campaign, and protests in favour of and against Brexit, protests can promote collective agency, a sense of civic pride and offer an important means to be heard.  

5. The UK has repeatedly stated its commitment to protecting civic space and open societies internationally. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) identified open societies as a priority in the new strategic framework for overseas development assistance, with a focus on democratic institutions, human rights, free media and effective governance.  Crucially, the Integrated Review states that the UK’s "efforts to reverse this decline in global freedoms must start at home, with open societies working together ". [1] The UK’s domestic actions must back up its international commitment to promote and protect open societies and human rights.  However, the CIVICUS Monitor, which tracks restrictions on civil society globally, rates the UK’s civic space as "narrowed", meaning the government does not fully enable and protect all people’s participation in civic space. [2]

 

Right to protest under International and Domestic Law

6. The right to freedom of assembly and association protects the right to protest and to hold demonstrations and meetings with other people. These are fundamental human rights enshrined in both international, regional and domestic law.  They are protected under Article 21 and 22 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights ,  Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights , and Article 11 the Human Rights Act 1998 .

7. The Council of Europe (Venice Commission) notes that: "Freedom of peaceful assembly is recognized as a fundamental right in a democratic society and should be enjoyed, as far as possible, without regulation." [3] General Comment 37 agreed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2020 makes it clear that governments have both positive and negative duties when it comes to protecting the right to assembly. It requires states to be tolerant of disruption and take steps to facilitate protests. [4]  

 

Unnecessary powers introduce subjective decision making

8. We are particularly concerned about the clauses that introduce powers based on highly subjective terms, which would be left to the discretion of police and Home Secretary to interpret. Clause 54 and 55 of the Bill would allow police to impose conditions on processions and static protests which may generate noise or cause disturbance and the Home Secretary to decide what constitutes a serious disturbance. However, protests by their very nature may be noisy and disruptive and international law clearly states that: "Peaceful assemblies can in some cases be inherently or deliberately disruptive and require a significant degree of toleration." [5]  

9. While we recognise that the right of peaceful assembly can legitimately be subject to proportionate restrictions in certain circumstances, the justification and criteria that the government has provided in the Bill are not sufficient to fulfil its obligations under international human rights law. [6] In our view, Part 3 of this Bill represents a significant lowering of thresholds applied to public order situations with the introduction of new highly subjective terms such as noise, unease and annoyance. We share concerns of Liberty and Big Brother Watch that this confers vague and broad powers that may be interpreted with discretion upon the police and Home Secretary. [7]

10.   We support Liberty’s position that there are ample provisions in existing law to prevent protests from harming people and property. Under Public Order Act (POA)1986 for example police are already empowered to impose conditions and prohibit protests. Liberty notes that during the judicial review of the ban on Extinction Rebellion protests "the Commissioner of the Met Police conceded she was satisfied that there were sufficient powers in the POA to allow them to legally deal with protests that, even in design, were attempting to stretch policing to the limits". [8]

  Conclusion

10. In conclusion, we join with over 250 civil society organisations and 700 legal academics in expressing our alarm at the scope and scale of this Bill. [9] We support the European Centre for Not-for-profit Law (ENCL) analysis showing that the Bill strikes at the essence of the right to peaceful assembly by introducing vague concepts subject to the discretion of the Home Secretary and police, increasing  police powers  and disproportionately increasing penalties. [10]

11. By restricting protest and the right to freedom of assembly and association, we are concerned that the Bill will have a negative impact on civil society in the UK and the ability of citizens and people living in the UK to campaign for social change.   As such, our four organisations call on the Committee to remove Part 3.

May 2021


[1] Cabinet Office. (March 2021). Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy Page 47, Emphasis their own.

[2] CIVICUS. ( n.d ) Civicus Monitor

[3] OSCE/ODIHR – Venice Commission. (2020). Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (3rd edition), para 21.

[4] UN Human Rights Commission. (2020). General Comment No. 37.

[5] Ibid. para 44

[6] ECNL (April 2021). The United Kingdom’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Analysis of compliance with international human rights standards

[7] Liberty and Big Brother Watch. (April 2021). Joint briefing on the protest measures in the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill for the "Do not restrict our rights to peaceful protest" petition debate.

[8] Liberty (May 2021). Response to independent adviser on political violence and disruption’s call for evidence.

[9] See (15 March 2021). Open Letter to Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice

[10] ECNL. op. cit. p8

 

Prepared 27th May 2021