Campaigners say new police powers would stifle the right to protest

Waltham Forest environmental campaigners say police powers to crack down on protests are already too strong, as Parliament prepares to debate proposed new laws.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will be debated by MPs this week and, if passed, will make it a criminal offence to protest in a way that causes or even risks “serious annoyance”.

Police will be able to impose start and end times and set noise limits even for protests of just one person. Protestors who do not comply may receive fines of up to thousands of pounds.

Waltham Forest environmental group Save Lea Marshes, which was threatened with fines of £30,000 for protests in 2012, say the laws would undermine their democratic right to speak out.

Caroline Day, of Save Lea Marshes, said: “There’s existing legislation enough to police protests, in fact there’s too much.

“Any protest is going to be annoying to the people it is protesting against so this could include any protest not wanted by the people in power.

“I think the bill has come about because (the Government) knows the extent of discontent right now. Why not address the reasons people are protesting rather than try to stop them?”

In 2012, in the run up to the London Olympics, Save Lea Marshes was threatened with a fine of £30,000 for protesting against plans to build a temporary basketball facility on Leyton Marsh.

Save Lea Marshes was able to reduce its fine to £3,000, which it had to fundraise to pay, but one woman ended up paying £10,000, despite not being aware of the injunction.

Ms Day said: “This all happened without this bill, just for people standing on a path in front of a vehicle.

“(Protestors) are the ones putting themselves at risk, the fact that they would be liable for thousands of pounds in fines and jail sentences is a complete reversal of a just society.

Labour has already committed to voting against the proposal, with shadow justice secretary David Lammy calling the legislation “a mess” of “poorly thought-out measures”.

Asked on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether the bill would inhibit personal freedom, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins defended the proposed measures.

She said: “I want to draw a very firm distinction between the peaceful vigil that [Saturday’s] was and was intended to be and some of the very, very disruptive protests that we’ve seen in the last few years.

“Of course make your protest, but can we try to do it in a way that’s slightly more balanced than the law will currently allow?”

Other parts of the legislation toughen sentencing for serious violent and sexual offences and introduce new police bail rules for suspects under investigation.

The bill would also introduce a maximum sentence of 10 years for damaging a memorial, strengthen police powers to crack down on “unauthorised encampments” and place a legal duty on councils to share more data with police.

A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council confirmed that it “already works closely in this way with police” and doesn’t “anticipate that this new duty will create any additional requirements”.

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Victoria Munro

Local Democracy Reporter