By Megan Warren-Lister
Restrictions on protest and regulations tantamount to voter suppression pose significant threats to the rights of young people in the UK.
The Public Order Bill is currently going through the House of Lords. If passed, it will create new protest-related offences, and increase police stop and search powers.
Whilst the Elections Act 2022 was passed by parliament in April of this year, newly released regulations set out a restrictive list of the kinds of ID that will be acceptable for voting at elections.
Although neither legislative instrument applies only to young people, their provisions are likely to impact Gen Z and below the most. Lucky us!
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So, what’s the Public Order Bill (POB) all about?
The bill was announced during the Queen’s speech back in May. Its effect will be to restrict the ways in which members of the public can legally protest. This is disconcerting when you consider the numerous protests that have taken place in the preceding two years, particularly those relating to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the climate crisis.
It purports to tackle “guerilla” tactics, but the bill itself is a part of the government’s guerrilla crackdown on civil liberties. The criminalisation of protesting is nothing new, and the POB builds on Priti Patel’s controversial Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (PCSCA), which passed in April. Worryingly, the POB in its current form includes provisions that parliament previously struck out from the PCSCA.
Both the context and structure of the bill reveal that it is focused on capturing the activities of climate crisis protestors. In October the Met arrested more than 650 people partaking in Just Stop oil activity. Tellingly, the notice for the new bill itself explicitly names this organisation, along with Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, as targets.
Like in the case of its predecessor, the impetus for the bill comes from a desire not just to stop dangerous protests, but to prevent those which are merely “disruptive”, too. This change in threshold is emblematic of a misunderstanding of the purpose of protest. Taken literally, to protest means to express disapproval. When non-disruptive protests don’t work, and ministers turn a blind eye to placards, disruption is an essential instrument with which to hold the government to account.
During the bill’s second reading, the parliamentary under-secretary of state to the home office claimed that it will target “acts by a minority of people that cause serious disruption to the hard-working majority”. This might seem benign, but taking away the ability of protestors to use non-violent methods of disruption is an erosion of the fundamental tenets of democracy. Whilst blocked roads and delayed emergency services are convenient to no one, as climate activist Miranda Whelehan told the Guardian: “these choices are being made because of the situation we’re in.”
The speed of the news cycle is also to blame. Whilst a street swarmed with protestors might make the headlines the first time a big organisation gives it a go, or at the outset of a boom in public sympathy for the relevant cause, with time, newsrooms lose interest. It’s this kind of protest fatigue that drove activists to throw soup over van Goph last month, and it’s for this reason that disruptive protests are essential ingredients of any democracy.
And what will it actually do?
Substantively, the POB will create novel criminal offences, and increase police powers.
Amongst other things, the bill creates a new offence called “locking on,” which criminalises any conduct that involves attaching yourself to something else – be it a road, or another protestor, providing that it’s capable of causing serious disruption. It also criminalises behaviour that interferes with national infrastructure, and the disruption of transport works. It’s no coincidence these offences overlap with the tactics of climate protestors who have in recent specifically targeted artwork, oil industry related infrastructure and London roads.
The most Orwellian aspect of the bill is its introduction of serious disruption prevention orders (SDPOs). The relevant provisions will give courts the power to issue orders preventing individuals from protesting where it might cause serious disruption (a term that falls to be defined by the Home Secretary). Breaching an SDPO could result in 51 weeks in prison.
Police stop and search powers will also be expanded, applying to those who are suspected of protest-related offences. The police will also be endowed with suspicion-less stop and search powers.
The Runnymede trust have condemned this aspect of the bill in particular, calling it “a drastic extension of existing stop-and-search powers that we already know are racist, ineffective and cause long-term physical and psychological trauma, especially to Black men and children”. Statistics published this year revealed that Black people are 7 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.
Oliver Sprague, Military, Security and Police Programme Director at Amnesty International UK said: “All of the provisions in the Public Order Bill are deeply troubling.” He also encouraged people to their MP, and particularly Conservative MPs in protest.
Why does any of this matter?
The timing of the bill has exacerbated public concern. The UCU union of lecturers strike in November was the biggest strike in the history of education, and Christmas is due to be preceded by the largest strike of nurses in the history of the NHS. Discontent with the government is also simmering in other realms. In October ministers opened a new licensing round for oil and gas exploration in the North sea, and with the cost-of-living and environmental crises escalating, there is undoubtedly cause for concern (and protest).
Woefully, the current home secretary still attributes the cause of protests to “wokeness” rather than a slow-burning discontent with years of damaging socio-economic and environmental policies.
The bill has already been passed by the House of Commons, and it’s currently well on its way through the House of Lords. If it goes through, it will increase the conveyor belt of young and racialised people falling into contact with the critical justice system, and deter non-violent protests in the midst of environmental and cost of living emergencies.
Simultaneously, the government has also published regulations supplementary to the Elections Act 2022. The Act, given royal assent in April, restricts the ability of young and marginalised individuals to vote in electoral polls by introducing a restrictive prescription for voter ID.
Like the Public Order Bill, its function is to suppress the democratic actions of young people. Noticing a pattern yet?
You need ID to vote – so what?
Photo ID will now be compulsory for voting in England. According to the Constitution Society, thousands are likely to be refused a ballot in May’s local elections as a result.
The government’s newly published supplementary list sets out exactly which forms of ID will be valid. It doesn’t take more than a quick scan to realise that compliance will be much easier for older demographics.
An older person’s bus pass will suffice, as will a 60+ Oyster card, but student equivalents will not. Although the House of Lords voted to include student ID, and bank statements, the amendment was overturned in the House of Commons.
Whilst voting fraud has been cited as evidence of the regulations’ importance, this appears to be a façade, reminiscent of the mythological rhetoric used in the 2020 American General Election. According to research by The Electoral Reform Society, during a UK trial piloting voter ID in 2018, the number of people blocked from voting was double the number of instances of voter fraud in the seven years prior.
The sinister tentacles of the act shift the onus onto those without a form of approved ID, who must now apply to their local authority for a free ID card. Liberty reported that those who are young and already marginalised are the demographics less likely to have photographic IDs. This creates another obstacle to democratic participation, ironically for those who are likely to need it most.
Without being cynical, it’s hard to ignore the voting statistics that are an integral backdrop to the new regulations. If you cast your mind back, you might remember that in the Brexit vote, 74% of those under 24 voted to remain. It’s also likely no coincidence that YouGov found that over 55s are more favourable to the conservatives than their younger counterparts. More recently, polling found that over-65s are the only age group in which the Tories have a narrow lead. The inclusion of that 60+ Oyster card is starting to make sense now, isn’t it…
What should we all take away from this?
The right to protest and the right to vote act as safeguards of the rule of law, and democracy. Their erosion by the POB and new voting regulations will impact those who are young and already marginalised the most. It’s tempting to view legislation in isolation, but we must view the impending restrictions as part of an ongoing government project to construct a policy landscape that is hostile to human rights and political accountability.
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