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Standing up to power works. We saw that this week, as the government dropped plans to criminalise charities for giving out tents to people living on the streets, because it was clear that the public wouldn’t tolerate such needless cruelty from our politicians.
But we’ve seen a slew of deliberately divisive comments from the government in recent weeks. That means it’s never been more important for us all to speak up for what’s right.
This month alone, the Home Secretary has wrongly claimed waving a Palestinian flag could be a criminal offence, and has repeatedly labelled peaceful protests as ‘hate marches’. The secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities plans reckless changes to the definition of extremism – which would make it so broad that the government could crack down on any community group it disagrees with.
And this week, reactions from some politicians became so extreme that some in Government are calling on the police to ban a pro-Palestine demonstration this weekend – something that the police have said there is no grounds for.
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We know that historically, governments have used times of crisis to crack down on our civil liberties – and this new pushback against our right to speak out comes in the context of a wider government effort to shut down accountability routes and silence dissent.
In the last two years, the government has passed the Policing Act and the Public Order Act, which massively restrict our right to protest and hand sweeping new powers to the police, and the Home Secretary has unlawfully brought in new protest-related powers which Liberty is currently challenging through the Courts.
These powers have been used to subject pro-Palestine protests to sweeping and stringent conditions – including conditions on where protesters could go, preventing ‘any person participating in or associated with’ the protest for deviating from the route. In practice, this meant that people faced arrest if they left the route for any reason, such as tending to an emergency, going to the toilet, or simply leaving early.
Met Chief Sir Mark Rowley has also announced that the Metropolitan Police will make use of retrospective facial recognition in order to make arrests over pro-Palestine demonstrations – a further creep of this invasive technology which breaches our human rights and invades our privacy.
Anti-protest rhetoric was ramped up so far this week that senior politicians were calling on the Metropolitan police to ban an upcoming pro-Palestine demonstration – an extreme and unprecedented response.
In a functioning democracy people must be able to stand up to power and make their voices heard. Shutting down protests would be a shocking breach of our right to freedom of expression – it is not up to the Government or the police to pick and choose what people can speak out about on any given day. But it seems that increasingly, this Government thinks that it should be.
It’s not only pro-Palestine protesters who have been targeted in extreme ways by the police. New powers contained in the Public Order Act were used for the first time earlier this week to arrest en masse more than 60 climate protesters taking part in a slow march outside Parliament.
The new powers used by the police criminalise interference with the “use or operation of key national infrastructure”. It carries a potential sentence of up to a year in prison – a much higher potential penalty than other more commonly used anti-protest powers, which tend to be a fine. The use of this new power is a dangerous escalation of the attack on the right to protest and shouldn’t go unremarked.
Beyond protest, the government is creating a hostile climate for dissent. From the Home Secretary’s inflammatory statement that a pro-Palestine demonstration, attended by hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, was a ‘hate march’, to proposals to widen the definition of extremism in a way which could criminalise anyone speaking out on things they believe in – the direction of travel is extremely worrying.
The Economic Activity of Public Bodies Bill is also currently going through Parliament. The Bill seeks to ban public bodies like local councils from engaging in boycotts based on foreign states’ human rights abuses.
Boycotts are a time-honoured, cherished form of protest and were vital to ending apartheid in South Africa. The Bill is an attack on freedom of conscience and expression, and risks creating a significant chilling effect for democratic debate.
In the past, governments in the UK, like others across the world, have used moments of crisis to launch attacks on civil liberties, often starting with those who are already marginalised. We saw this in response to 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings, with the creation and subsequent misuse of new and broad offences around ‘glorifying’ terrorism and the extension of the period for which terror suspects could be held without charge. We saw it too during the Covid pandemic, with the police handed draconian new powers, which we now know were disproportionately used against people of colour.
Now, we are seeing this Government use this moment of crisis, heightened tension and uncertainty to further pursue an agenda of clamping down on the routes by which ordinary people can make their voices heard.
But this isn’t inevitable. Anyone who cares about free speech and the health of our democracy must stand up and make it clear to the government that we won’t tolerate having our voices silenced – because when we stand together against injustice, we can win.
Akiko Hart is Interim Director of human rights group Liberty.