Frontline workers condemn UK policing bill for privacy invasion and human rights violations
On the 13th of September 2021, a group of 665 frontline workers, including social, youth, education, healthcare, and charity workers protested against the British Parliament’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (PCSC) for its potential involvement in privacy violations. The protesters argued that the bill would “directly conflict with our duties and will actively put people we work with in harm’s way” (Letter to the Home Secretary, 2021).
The letter expresses concern for the bill’s proposal for information sharing between public bodies without the usual data protection safeguards. This means that the police in England and Wales would have more extensive powers to demand information from various public bodies. Furthermore, the Home Secretary would be granted powers to compel public authorities to potentially disclose any information requested, even if the said authorities believe this would violate “professional duties of confidence, statutory restrictions, or even contractual restrictions”.
The frontline workers have warned that this may undermine public trust in essential services and violate the “dignity and privacy” of those most vulnerable in British society.
Additionally, the letter stresses that people of colour are particularly likely to be affected by this bill, stating that it will lead to further criminalization and surveillance of young people of colour. This feeds into the already existing distrust of public authorities, which prevents people of colour from accessing vital educational, accommodation and health-care services for fear of over-surveillance and further discrimination (Letter to the Home Secretary, 2021).
The PCSC Bill also proposes the introduction of serious violence reduction orders (SVROs), which would aim to make it easier for police to stop and search those who have been convicted of crimes in which they used offensive weapons or in which others involved in the crime used weapons (Home Office, 2021). It is feared that SVROs would extend the harmful legacy of stop and search, a practice that has been demonstrated to disproportionately affect people of colour, with black people being 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts (UK Government data, 2021).
These increased powers will likely only lead to further targeting of ethnic minorities by police, as even those who have not been convicted of violent offences may still be considered by police to be likely to commit serious violent offences based on racial prejudices. It is also argued that their introduction would exacerbate the effects of over-policing within these groups – namely trauma, depression, anxiety and the reinforcement of the idea that those stopped and searched are a threat to British society (Williams, 2018, pp. 6, 21). Williams affirms that the practices of the British police in targeting those perceived as gang members has “served only to infringe the human rights of young people who reside in police-defined gang affected communities and in turn, curtailed the possibility of prosocial self-beneficial opportunities” (Williams, 2018, p.28). As Gavin Moorghen of the British Association of Social Workers has stated, “The only effective approach to serious violence is to focus on the root causes such as poverty, racism, and other forms of structural injustice” (Sharman, 2021).
Furthermore, Agenda, a charity alliance for women and girls at risk, has pointed out that women coerced into criminal activity by partners or through criminal exploitation are particularly at danger of being unfairly penalised with up to two years’ imprisonment. This happens because they are associated with others who carry offensive weapons (Mohdin and Topping, 2021). The director of the Alliance for Youth Justice, Pippa Goodfellow, also warned that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on at-risk girls and women could lead to an increase in offending. She stated that “It is vital that systems and services work together to meet these growing and emerging needs, whilst standing firmly against punitive measures that will criminalise those most in need of support” (Goodfellow, cited in Mohdin and Topping, 2021).
The Letter to the Home Secretary (2021) also points towards other major criticisms of the PCSC Bill. For instance, restriction of the right to protest and the government’s increased criminalisation and punishment of the way of life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.
Regarding the right to protest, the Bill curtails protesting by clamping down on or preventing any protests that cause levels of noise the police deem likely to cause “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the procession” (Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts HL Bill 40, 2021). The nebulous use of language on the interpretation of what constitutes “serious disruption” highlights the British government’s intention to limit any kind of protest that may be impactful. Legal Professor David Mead (2021) has emphasised that these measures amount to an “existential threat to protest, so closely entangled are protests with noise”.
GRT communities’ nomadic way of life depends on their rights to travel. This Bill proposes punitive measures that criminalise trespassing, which in turn forces more members of these communities into the criminal justice system (Kirkby, 2021, p.3). The criminalisation of trespassing breaches the British government’s duty to “facilitate the Gypsy way of life” (ECtHR Chapman v. the United Kingdom, 2001). Due to the existing lack of adequate and authorised transit and permanent encampment sites, with only 6 of 68 authorities having met pitch needs,
GRT communities will face even more regular evictions, family separations, imprisonment and fines under this proposed law (Kirkby, 2021, pp. 4, 7-8).
Overall, the letter asserts that the proposed Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill reflects the current British government’s human rights restricting agenda. These key workers believe that the bill shows a disregard for the complex struggles faced by ethnic minorities and women, and how these are best tackled according to experts in these fields. They state that, instead, this Bill demonstrates the British government’s turning towards harsher measures which do not address the underlying causes of crime. This may further serve to entrench public distrust in key services, which is not conducive to ameliorating the United Kingdom’s social issues.
European Court of Human Rights’ Chapman v. the United Kingdom (2001), Application no. 27238/95.
Home Office (2021) Home Office measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: Equalities Impact Assessment. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-2021-equality-statements/home-office-measures-in-the-police-crime-sentencing-and-courts-bill-equalities-impact-assessment
Kirkby, A. (2021) Briefing for House of Lords Second Reading PCSCB: Part 4. Friends, Families and Travellers. https://www.gypsy-traveller.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Briefing-on-Part-4-PCSCBill.docx
Letter to the Home Secretary on the serious violence provisions of the PCSC Bill (2021, September 13). https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Letter-to-the-Home-Secretary-on-the-serious-violence-provisions-of-the-PCSC-Bill-no-sigs.pdf
Mead, D. (2021) ‘Yes, you can… but only if you’re quiet’. Verfassungsblog. https://verfassungsblog.de/uksilence-protest/
Mohdin, A. and Topping, A. (2021, September 13) Policing bill will deepen racial disparities, say experts. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/sep/13/policing-bill-will-deepen-racial-and-gender-disparities-say-experts
Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts HL Bill (2021-2022) 40. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/58-02/040/5802040_en_1.htm
Sharman, J. (2021, September 13) Policing bill ‘will put young people at risk’, hundreds of experts warn. Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/policing-bill-2021-data-surveillance-b1918664.htmll
UK Government (2021) Stop and Search. https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/crime-justice-and-the-law/policing/stop-and-search/latest#by-ethnicity
Williams, P. (2018) Being Matrixed: the (over)policing of gang suspects in London. Stopwatch: Research and Actions for Fair and Inclusive Policing. https://e-space.mmu.ac.uk/621731/1/Being%20Matrixed.pdf