Richard Rosser on Labour’s plans for amending the home affairs aspects of the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill
Covering a vast array of issues, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill inevitably proposes some changes to legislation that we will support, including the long-awaited Police Covenant and strengthening action on assaults against emergency workers. But there are of course significant new measures – including some vocally championed by the ministers – on which we will profoundly disagree with the government.
As widely known, the bill would allow police to impose conditions if a protest were noisy enough to cause ‘serious unease’. This is vague terminology and an extremely low threshold to interrupt the right to peaceful protest – a ministerial reaction no doubt to Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter, but which attacks a cornerstone of our democracy. Protests, by their nature, are rarely quiet but this bill considerably extends the conditions that the authorities can impose. And it could see protesters criminalised for unwittingly breaching a police-imposed condition which they “ought to have known” existed.
The police already have sufficient powers to address serious disruption arising from protests that never were, or ceased to be, peaceful and legitimate. There is also a real risk that some community groups who have legitimate concerns and want their voices heard will look at the provisions and powers in this bill and decide that protest is potentially too risky. That would have serious implications for the concept of policing by consent.
The bill also contains clauses on unauthorised encampments that are clearly targeted at Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities. Backed up by custodial or financial penalties, it creates a new offence of residing (and it seems also the intention to reside) on land without consent in or with a vehicle. With the police able to seize property if they “reasonably suspect” the new offence has been committed, they could actually end up taking away someone’s home. And all at a time when the police themselves believe a shortage of sites is the real problem.
A duty to tackle and prevent serious violence is also being introduced. Labour supports the intention to get every agency locally working together but we are concerned that there is no provision to safeguard children. Indeed, the government has rejected calls for a new definition of child criminal exploitation.
There are also concerns about the data capture elements of the bill, and the sharing of information between agencies. Labour wants protection for victims of rape and sexual abuse from demeaning and often unnecessary intrusion into their lives through the examination of their phone data, and we are working with the Victims Commissioner on these issues.
Under the bill, and following piloting, serious violence reduction orders would allow police officers to stop and search people with previous convictions involving an offensive weapon whether used or being carried at the time of the offence. It is hard to believe that such sweeping powers will reduce serious violence when evidence shows that it is intelligence-led searches that produce results.
This is a divisive bill which challenges the continuation of long-standing basic freedoms whilst failing to address legitimate public concerns about keeping people safe – not least women and girls. But I can only hope that government adopts a more considered approach in the Lords, and works with peers from all sides to make the bill more about making the legislation fit for purpose than grabbing a sensationalist passing headline or two.
Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords
Published 13th September 2021