What is the Police and Crime Bill, why does it matter, and why are people so angry?

The wave of dissent ongoing in Bristol looks set to continue across the UK as the Home Office’s Police and Crime Bill progresses. What’s at stake in the proposed legislation, how will it impact individuals and communities, and what alternatives do its opponents propose?

Photo: Filiz

Millions have viewed footage from Cable reporters on the ground during four recent protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC). 

Our coverage has documented the particular sequence of events each night, capturing flashpoints and establishing a chronology.

Wider commentary has focused on whether the policing tactics we’ve seen over the past two weeks – including the weaponisation of shields, batons, dogs and horses – has been proportionate. But to understand the course of events more fully, we need to examine what brought protesters out to the streets – and might keep them there through the summer – and the deep concerns others have about the proposed legislation. 

New powers

The 307-page PCSC Bill was announced on 9 March 2020, with the government arguing that the proposals would “equip officers with the powers and tools they need”, “introduce tougher sentencing” and “improve efficiency” by modernising the technology used in court proceedings and prison escort. 

The government had intended to rush the legislation through parliament, attracting claims that they were stifling scrutiny. The Institute of Employment Rights dubbed the Bill a ‘trojan horse’, burying deeply controversial measures among those that are relatively uncontentious. 

Bruno Min, the legal director of Fair Trials, an international organisation that seeks to identify failures in criminal justice, described the bill as “one of the most dangerous pieces of criminal justice legislation in years”, adding: “It contains a raft of measures that would perpetuate discrimination in our criminal justice system and undermine fundamental human rights in the UK.” 

Timeline of resistance

Between 13 and 18 March, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut organised five consecutive days of action across London against the PCSC Bill. Thousands of protesters were joined by MPs and trade unionists. 

The wave of actions culminated in an online event during which 4,000 people heard condemnations of the bill from speakers from groups including Sisters Uncut, Public Interest Law Centre, Black Lives Matter, Traveller Pride, No More Exclusions, Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement and Disability Justice. 

On 15 March, 245 charities and campaigning organisations coordinated by Friends of the Earth and Liberty wrote an open letter to the Home Secretary and Justice Secretary to share their “profound concern and alarm” at the contents of the Bill and the speed with which it was being rushed through parliament. 

On 17 March, it was quietly announced that the PCSC Bill’s passage through parliament would be delayed until the summer. 

In May, the bill will reach the committee stage – a detailed line-by-line examination. It will likely be back in Parliament for a third reading in July, the final chance for the House of Commons to debate its contents. Opposition groups have pledged to keep up the pressure as the bill moves through Parliament. 

‘Paramilitary’ policing allegations

Beyond its critical reception by human rights groups and activists, the PCSC Bill has divided professional policing bodies. The Police Federation of England and Wales, a staff association for police constables, welcomed ‘important changes’ granting broader and deeper police powers. 

By contrast, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, a body representing officials elected to increase the accountability chief constables to communities, has struck a more cautionary tone while maintaining broad support for the bill. The association warned that it is important “that measures are effective at preventing crime and do not have unintended consequences for minority communities […] these powers must not increase existing disproportionality faced by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people”. 

Following events in Bristol this weekend, former police chief Michael Barton told the Guardian of his ‘deep concern’ at the proposed bill. He argued that the legislation represents a departure from what he described as the British tradition of policing by consent, threatening instead a turn toward “paramilitary” policing. 

For academics, lawyers and campaigners who have been tracking the development of a wider programme of militarised and racialised policing in the UK, Barton’s condemnation of the Bill will raise further alarm. 

‘A mass of attacks on freedom’

Speaking to the Cable about the emergency powers granted to the police during the coronavirus pandemic, Becka Hudson, a criminal justice researcher at Birkbeck (University of London) warned that the PCSC Bill “threatens to make permanent” the aggressive repression of protests.

But the bill reaches beyond protests and policing, attempting to tackle crime by making sentences harsher – an approach Hudson argues is counterproductive. “Paramilitary-style protest policing, extending custodial sentences, and making street harassment and public health issues matters of criminal policing in fact have dangerous consequences, for individuals, families, communities and our democracy,” she said. “The Bill represents a mass of attacks on freedom and an expansion of criminalisation that affronts the basic rights of people from all sections of society.”

Approaches that focus on increasing funding and support at a grassroots level would be more effective at reducing harm. This could include providing support for specific communities, like access to safe and legal sites for Travellers, as well as properly resourcing schools and youth services, and improving housing and income security. Hudson added: “Safety looks like scrapping this Bill and instead working to protect our basic rights, and nurture the health and freedom of our communities”.

Transformative justice alternatives

Mo Mansfield is a researcher at the Open University’s Harm and Evidence Research Collaborative and community organiser.  She spoke to the Cable on behalf of the collective Abolitionist Futures, which works towards the aim of reforming justice away from prisons, police and punishment.

She described how looking for solutions outside of the criminal justice system can help us to “begin to re-imagine what justice looks like, rethink what safety means to us and explore ways to prevent problems before they happen”.  For example, Mansfield described how this could include treating drug problems as a public health matter rather than a criminal matter, making sure that everyone has the support they need to survive rather than penalising those who don’t. 

“We look towards building more transformative justice approaches, where communities are resourced and involved in addressing, preventing and healing from violence and harms, rather than relying on a criminal justice system that is broken,” Mansfield added. “Does this sound radical? Perhaps, but giving unprecedented power to the police is also radical. Does this sound too ideological? Perhaps, but this bill is 100% ideological.”

Bristol’s protests have kept  #KillTheBill in the spotlight this week – but they’re connected to a  deeper story with a long history, and a potentially transformative future. 

The Bristol Cable