After this week, it's clearer than ever that civil rights matter to all of us

Figcaption After This Week Its Clearer Than Ever That Civil Rights Matter To All Of Us
Posted at: Author: Rain TV UK

“D emocracy is in retreat,” the UK’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, told the Aspen security forum this week. He clearly did not intend for his statement to apply to the country in which he is a minister. And yet, the events of the past seven days will have brought many people – and not just long-term civil rights campaigners – to the realisation that this government is coming for our liberties.

Last Saturday evening, as women gathered peacefully in collective mourning over the killing of Sarah Everard, and to take a stand against male violence and harassment, police weighed in. We’ve all seen the images. Videos of women being surrounded by officers, pushed to the ground and arrested – all circulated amid growing outrage on social and national media. We now know that the Met officers were responding to an intervention by the home secretary.

This was despite a high court ruling the day before confirming that protests can be lawful under the current lockdown rules. Reacting to the political storm, Priti Patel with one breath expressed her upset, but with the next pressed ahead with the policing, crime, sentencing and courts bill, which threatens to silence women – and anyone lifting their voice in protest – for good.

The 300-page bill was introduced to parliament on Monday. If allowed to become law, it will hand the police and the home secretary sweeping new powers to crack down on any protest that risks causing even the smallest disruption, effectively any protest that is a protest.

The bill is enormous, and extends well beyond an assault on our rights to free expression and assembly. It takes aim at nomadic Gypsy and Traveller ways of life, paving the way for more police enforcement against “unauthorised encampments”. It will introduce a Prevent-style duty for knife crime, making it easier for public agencies to institute their own versions of the Met’s rights-infringing gangs matrix. It will give police yet another power to stop and search people.

And the bill will dramatically increase sentences – including for vandalising statues and war memorials – meaning more people in prison for increasing stretches of time. In case you’d forgotten, England and Wales already has the highest per capita prison population in western Europe.

The mood music for this bill, the events at Clapham Common last weekend, and, shockingly, the arrest of legal observers at the ensuing protests, is the government’s punishment-focused approach to the pandemic. This has taken place alongside a long-running war on every accountability mechanism that makes democracy meaningful.

And at the end of this sorry week the government has announced the next phase in its campaign to weaken our ability to hold it to account in court – as if voter disenfranchisement, undermining freedom of information, immunity for soldiers and spies, and watering down the Human Rights Act weren’t enough. It is now looking at changing the judicial review process, which allows ordinary citizens to challenge those in authority. Gina Miller used this process successfully to defeat the government when it shut down parliament; but it’s also been used by the parents of disabled children who were not supported during lockdown, and by elderly people whose councils illegally cut their care.

A year ago parliament passed emergency legislation setting out the biggest restrictions in civil liberties in more than a generation: the Coronavirus Act. Around the same time, emergency laws were passed using a procedure that meant that they came into force immediately even though parliament wouldn’t get to vote on them for weeks. In combination, these emergency laws have been used to wrongfully prosecute hundreds of people, as grounds to threaten or fine protesters and even to claim that protest is banned outright.

Liberty has always supported proportionate action to protect public health. That’s why though we have sounded the alarm about disproportionate restrictions on civil rights, we’ve also consistently advocated for measures that would have supported people to comply with public health guidance. Things such as proper sick pay, enforcement against unsafe workplaces and suspension of the hostile environment. MPs vote on renewal of the Coronavirus Act next week – and it’s time this authoritarian legislation was replaced with measures to protect everyone.

Crisis is the ground on which long-term erosions of our rights and freedoms are often seeded, and this pandemic is no different. The lessons of the past week have shown that everyone’s rights are under threat – even those of people gathering to mark a young woman’s death. But we have every reason not to lose hope.

All of these crude attempts to hide from scrutiny show that the state is rightly running scared in response to people’s commitment to voicing dissent and changing the things that they cannot accept – be that civil liberties infringements, sexual violence, or structural racism. It’s heartening. The mobilisation spearheaded in the past week by campaign group Sisters Uncut shows exactly why, when it comes to the policing bill, public pressure will be key in thwarting the government’s aims.

But we can’t stay in defensive mode. In the long term, it is by giving expression to our own visions of what it means to be safe and free that we will make the draconian visions offered to us by successive governments obsolete. Power concedes nothing without a demand – and despite their brazen, desperate efforts, those in power cannot be allowed to silence us.

  • Gracie Mae Bradley is the interim director of Liberty

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