London CNN  — 

The UK government is attempting to justify flagship legislation that critics say would hand the police and ministers powers that could seriously curb the ability of citizens to protest, at a very difficult time.

Uncomfortably for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the legislation is being debated in Parliament this week, just days after officers from London’s Metropolitan Police physically restrained attendees at a peaceful demonstration mourning the death of a young woman, Sarah Everard. Disturbing images of police forcing women to the ground have led to public outrage. The man accused of killing Everard is a serving member of the same police force.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 is several hundred pages long and covers an enormous range of issues that one might typically expect a government to address in multiple pieces of legislation. Tuesday will be the second day of its second reading in the House of Commons.

At the top of a fact sheet for the bill on the government’s website, Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner, is quoted as saying that ever since the Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London, police forces have needed “change to powers and to legislation that would enable the police to deal better with protests” that “are not primarily violent or seriously disorderly,” but “had an avowed intent to bring policing to its knees and the city to a halt.”

The bill proposes new conditions on “one-person protests,” which would enable police to end the demonstration of a single person if the “noise generated by the person carrying on the protest may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the protest.” This, in theory, could mean someone protesting outside the headquarters of a private company could be moved along if their protest disrupts the activity of that private company.

The bill also suggests, in somewhat vague language, that demonstrations and protests should not “intentionally” or “recklessly” cause “public nuisance.” That, the bill states, might include an act that “obstructs the public or a section of the public in the exercise or enjoyment of a right that may be exercised or enjoyed by the public at large.”

The ambiguity of the bill has sounded alarm bells for critics, ranging from human rights lawyers to lawmakers.

“The powers in this bill could have been used against the suffragettes. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter might have upset people, but protests are supposed to,” said Diane Abbott, a high-profile opposition member of parliament. “We would be living in a very different society if the suffragettes hadn’t been able to protest.”

Another controversial feature of the bill has been the focus on issues that could be considered part of the UK’s ongoing culture wars. In a section covering damage of land or property, it makes specific mention of “monuments” in a clear reference to a public spat over statues of colonialists being damaged during last summer’s BLM protests.

Climate activists protest outside the Supreme Court, during the eleventh day of demonstrations by the climate change action group Extinction Rebellion, in London, on October 17, 2019.
Protestors hold placards during a protest calling for the removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes outside Oriel College at the University of Oxford on June 9, 2020.

Steve Peers, professor of human rights law at the University of Essex, fears that handing police greater powers to cancel certain demonstrations and single out specific types of behavior could “easily risk delegitimizing an issue being protested against with the authorities seemingly coming down clearly on one side of an issue.” Peers adds that the UK’s sudden cracking down on protests and free speech seems very strange in the context of this government’s criticism of China’s behavior in Hong Kong.

The specific inclusion of monuments has caused many to point out a notable exclusion from this enormous piece of legislation that touches so many areas of law. At no point in the bill do the words “women” or “woman” appear.

This is particularly unfortunate, given much of the UK has been grieving the disappearance and death of a woman in London. Everard, 33, went missing on March 3 after leaving a friend’s house in the early evening. Her remains were found nearly two weeks later. Everard’s death has prompted a wider public conversation about the violence, harassment and intimidation that women face, including at the hands of police.

On Saturday, thousands of people gathered near where she’d gone missing, both to grieve and highlight the treatment of women. As the peaceful demonstration extended into the evening, arguments broke out with police, who were demanding that attendees disperse due to coronavirus restrictions. Things then turned very ugly, as officers were filmed and photographed physically dragging people away and into police vans.

The timing, therefore, of a wide-ranging bill that makes greater criminals of those who deface statues of slave owners but makes no mention of gender-based violence could hardly be worse.

“The priorities of this bill are entirely wrong – suggesting bigger punishment for damaging a memorial than rape,” Sarah Jones, the opposition Labour party’s shadow police minister, told CNN. “There’s no concerted action to tackle violence against women and girls, at a time when rape convictions are at an all-time low, and the bill does nothing to tackle street harassment.”

Downing Street referred CNN’s list of questions about the bill to the Home Office, which declined to respond.

Police officers form a cordon at the Everard vigil in London on March 13.

Of course, the government didn’t know that events would collide in such a way. However, legitimate questions can be asked as to why such a comprehensive bill failed to mention such prevalent issues.

“The government clearly thought it was playing clever politics by making the bill so huge it could include their culture war points about statues but also stuff about getting tougher on child abusers. They thought it would make it impossible for us to oppose,” says Jess Phillips, shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding. “Instead, they’ve written a bill that tells women more about how they may not protest violence against women than how we are protected from that violence.”

On Monday evening, the government seemed to acknowledge that it had a problem when it announced new measures to keep women safe that would involve more CCTV surveillance and undercover police in bars and nights clubs. The announcement, however, seemed somewhat tone deaf, given the current levels of anger at the police and a recent scandal in which undercover officers abused their positions to such an extent they had long-term sexual relationships with women under false identities.

The bill, the scenes from the weekend and the issues that the UK is dealing with are extremely unedifying for the country. On one hand, the bill suggests that the government and police are responding to criticism with a power grab.

“The tabling of the bill does seem to support the idea that people in authority are struggling to proportionately react to protests that directly challenge their image as protectors of society. Both Black Lives Matter and the demonstration at the weekend directly condemn the police. We know from a range of academic research that people respond violently when their self-image is threatened and they seek to regain control,” said Francis Dodsworth, senior lecturer in criminology at Kingston University.

On the other, the government claims it is merely trying to update laws in order to allow modern demonstrations to take place safely. They point to the fact that a separate piece of legislation specifically looking at violence against women and girls is being worked on.

Regardless of intentions, the reality is that the UK government is currently placing before parliament a piece of major legislation that says more about a criminal who defaces a statue than assaults a woman. Which, given the very raw emotions and divisions in the country at the moment, will raise very important questions if amendments are overturned and Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues, with little good reason, to press for these laws to be passed sooner rather than later.

As Philips put it: “There is absolutely no need to rush this through now. And doing so sends a clear message: statues of dead men matter more in Britain than living women.”