A few weeks back I spoke in Parliament during the Second Reading debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In that speech, which you can see here, I praised the public, civic and police response to the Black Lives Matters protests in Bristol last year, and the toppling of the Colston statue. It’s unfortunate that events since then give us less reason to congratulate ourselves as a city.
There can be no excuses for people hijacking a peaceful protest by throwing missiles and fireworks at the police, committing arson, and damaging public property, as happened on Sunday 21st. It’s disappointing that the situation degenerated into this after the police had allowed what was, after all, an illegal protest under Covid restrictions. The police are not responsible for the PCSC Bill and there was no reason to make them a target by heading for Bridewell police station. It is also entirely counter-productive in terms of what we are trying to achieve in terms of galvanising opposition to the PCSC Bill.
I have now spoken to senior officers about policing tactics on Tuesday 23rd and, in particular, Friday 26th, raising concerns that the police were too heavy-handed and too ready to use force to disperse protestors. I have been assured at some length that all incidents will be fully investigated. I would urge anyone who has a complaint about police conduct to come forward, although I understand why some people may be reluctant to do so. If you are a constituent and were a witness to what went on, (ie in person, not just having seen clips on social media) or were injured yourself, please do get in touch. I promise to respect confidentiality when subsequently raising your concerns with the police, if that is what you request.
As the Mayor of Bristol has already said – let’s focus on how we can defeat this Bill. And that means that when protests are planned, think about how they can best influence the debate and help win the day in Parliament. That doesn’t mean making the police a target. No-one should be attending peaceful protests armed with fireworks, paint and eggs. You don’t need missiles to get your point across. Violent tactics are not only unacceptable and unlawful, they are completely counter-productive too. They play entirely into Priti Patel’s hands.
As from March 29th, the Covid restrictions on public protests have been lifted under the Government’s roadmap for coming out of lockdown. The organisers of the protests in the last week or so could have faced fines of up to £10,000, which meant that the police had no-one they could liaise with in terms of trying to get the protestors to disperse after what were, by all accounts, peaceful and positive marches. I hope that the organisers of any future protests will now liaise with the police. No-one is trying to stop the right to peaceful protest – apart from this Government!
I would question, however, why people from outside Bristol are travelling into the city to protest, rather than organising in their own areas. Yes, Bristol has a proud tradition of protest, but who is the target here? Bristol has four Labour MPs who have already voted against the Bill. And as I have already said, the target is not the police. I’d urge people to join – or perhaps even organise? – peaceful protests in their own areas. Especially if you have Tory MPs.
I have arranged to join police in their Bristol control centre on Saturday, to get an insight into the operational command of the protest that is planned for that day.
So what is happening with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?
It is worth noting that it will take a long time for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to go through Parliament. So far it has only had its Second Reading in the Commons. Labour tabled a Reasoned Amendment explaining why we couldn’t support the Bill, but we were defeated on that vote. We then voted against the Second Reading itself, but again, we were defeated.
The Bill will now go into Committee, before returning to the Commons for Report Stage and then going to the Lords. It’s a hefty Bill, and Committee stage will take some time. (By way of comparison, the Environment Bill had 20 sessions in Committee, at the rate of four sessions a week.) Given that Parliament is currently in recess until April 13th, will be prorogued before the Queen’s Speech on May 11th, and will also break for May half-term, I can’t see the Bill completing Report Stage – when the most important issues are voted on by the entire Commons – until June at the earliest.
These stages will then be repeated in the House of Lords, which is our best hope of defeating key provisions in the Bill about restrictions on the right to protest, criminalising trespass (which is seen as an attack on the gypsy, Roma and traveller communities), 10 year maximum sentences for defacing statues, etc – and is also our best hope of amending the Bill to include measures put forward by Labour, e.g. on violence against women.
This is a basic matter of parliamentary arithmetic. The Tories have a majority in the Commons of 80. However – this does not mean that we shouldn’t be trying to win the argument with Tory MPs. There will be some who are deeply uncomfortable about certain provisions in this Bill, or at least will have constituents who are very unhappy about it.
If the Lords defeat the Government on any amendments to the Bill, they will then return to the Commons in what is colloquially known as ‘ping pong’. (We’ve seen this recently with the Genocide amendment to the Trade Bill, where the Lords keeps sending it back to the Commons – but unfortunately not quite enough Tory MPs have been persuaded to rebel: at least, not yet).
With summer recess and then Conference season, I can’t see the Bill clearing the Lords and “ping pong” commencing until the autumn. So this is a marathon, not a sprint.
I have had a huge number of emails from constituents about the PCSC Bill, and I know the strength of feeling there is out there about the Government’s moves to curb freedom of assembly and freedom of speech by imposing draconian restrictions on the right to peaceful protest. Let’s show how united we are, and, together, through peaceful and parliamentary means, stop this Bill becoming law.