Queen’s Speech heralds further attacks on our fundamental rights and freedoms

Tuesday 10 May 2022

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The Queen’s Speech heralds the legislative programme for 2022/23

38 bills are proposed. These include the Public Order Bill to ensure the police have the powers to take action against “selfish” protesters using guerrilla tactics, by way of offences for “locking on”, obstructing transport works or infrastructure, extending stop and search powers and “Serious Disruption Prevention Orders” - none of which made it into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act due to Parliamentary disapproval.

While commitments made to invest in the prevention of crime are welcome, after significant cuts, trust between police and the communities they protect is at a very low ebb, both among victims and those suspected of crime. Taking a criminal justice rather than social welfare and health-based approach to many issues is what invariably causes crime. An increase in police and their powers to stop and search the public will not help.

The proposals continue a trend which last week concluded the Parliamentary year with the Nationality and Borders Act, Judicial Review and Courts Act, and Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. The latter contains a wide-ranging set of curtailments to freedoms that Government and now Parliament consider “problematic”. Just three examples are:

  • (1) Processions and assemblies can now be limited for making noise that will seriously disrupt business or significantly impact individuals (including causing them “serious unease”). This fundamentally undermines the purpose of protest, which is to ensure public concerns are heard, as well as the rights to free speech and to peaceful assembly. Clearly, Government is not done with curbing protest rights, as the Public Order Bill suggests.
     
  • (2) The Act also criminalises people with vehicles staying on land without consent who ignore a request to move on where their presence causes or is considered likely to cause significant disruption or distress. This is clearly aimed at the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller community and by removing the need for police dispersal powers, authorises discriminatory acts by civilians against them and their way of life.
     
  • (3) The Act introduces Serious Violence Reduction Orders, to be imposed on conviction of anyone who had a knife with them, or was with someone carrying a knife at the time of the offence. These can impose additional reporting requirements and restrictions on their release from prison, and allow officers to stop and detain someone for a search at any time without reasonable suspicion, and use force to do so. These powers are likely to be used disproportionately against young black men, reinforcing discriminatory practices and increasing wrongful arrest.

Challenging the reach of these provisions will be essential to upholding fair and equal rights in society, as will giving careful scrutiny to any proposals brought forward during this Parliamentary session that are designed to further curtail important rights and freedoms. This includes to the Bill of Rights, which is also proposed “to defend the constitution by restoring the balance of power between the legislature and court” and “end the abuse of the human rights framework” by defending freedom of speech but curbing a “rights culture” and tackling “evasion of deportation”, constraining the imposition of “positive obligations” and requiring cases to demonstrate “significant disadvantage”.

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