Last week, as Monday night drifted into the early hours of Tuesday morning, the latest version of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was approved by MPs. This means the fraught and contested passage of this controversial Bill will continue, as it returns to the House of Lords.
The votes in the House of Commons reinstated to the Bill a number of restrictions on protest that had been removed by Peers in the House of Lords in January, although some new proposals that had been added in the Lords could not be reintroduced. The legislation will give police powers to significantly control protest. This includes the ability to impose start and finish times, to set noise limits and to apply these rules to a demonstration by just one person. There is deep concern across civil society that these powers are an unwarranted and unnecessary overreach.
In February, leaders from the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches signed an open letter to MPs, urging them to reconsider the Bill and its ramifications. They noted that “human beings have inherent dignity, which is protected by human rights” and found “this Bill to be incompatible with these values.” This assessment is clearly damning.
There is also an unpleasant and unavoidable subtext that frames the votes on Monday night. At the very moment when freedom to express views that disagree with those in power is dissolved in parts of Eastern Europe, it is unpalatable that restrictions on expressing dissent would be tightened on our own shores. This is not to draw flippant parallels with immense and unimaginable suffering but to serve as a solemn reminder of the precious privilege it is to be able to vocally object.
In this light, the votes by MPs to reinstate these parts of the Bill will lead many to feel disappointed, alarmed and angry. Though, to allow this debate to become characterised solely by anger would be missing the point of why our denominations spoke out in the first place. As we have said before, our traditions all contain theology and a history of practice that draws us into a radical politics of love, one which must love our enemies and yet causes us to constantly critique power. This love suggests violence against another would not be appropriate, yet it will often lead to protest, as the need to press into a positive peace with the presence of justice must always take precedence over the absence of tension or conflict.
We remain encouraged then that these principles of love, expression and justice will prove themselves undeniable. Our friends at the Police Bill Alliance successfully campaigned for the Lords to make amendments in January around noise, public assemblies and one-person protests. It is our optimistic hope that the Lords will be resolute.