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Students vs Climate change: What could the new policing bill mean for student climate activism?

Introduced in March 2021, the UK government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill proposes widespread new crime and justice legislation. Amongst other proposals, the bill proposes changes to rights of assembly and freedom of expression, which threatens the right to protest. 

Direct action has long been key to environmental movements, disturbing business as usual to communicate an issue’s urgency and hold authorities accountable. Following recent disruption caused by Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion (XR) and anti-HS2 activists, the bill includes clauses that would allow police to break up static protests, impose time and noise limits on protests, stop and search anyone suspected of being a public nuisance, restrict solo protesters, and divert those located near Parliament. Those refusing to comply, or those engaging in lock-on or highway-obstruction tactics could face fines and even imprisonment. Perhaps most threatening of all, the proposed addition of Serious Disruption Prevention Orders could control behaviour, where even without causing disruption, individuals could be accused of having the potential to cause disruption. 

As a win for many campaigners, various of the aforementioned proposals were defeated in the House of Lords on the 17th January, and so can only be re-introduced to government in a new bill. However, discussion will continue until the Houses reach an agreement, which could still feature elements of the previous proposals.  

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The policing bill gave the Home Secretary powers to define serious disruption, and accordingly, the identification of highway obstruction and key infrastructure interference as new crimes seemed to target climate protests. This aligns with Priti Patel’s claim that XR activists disrupt Britain’s “way of life,” and Cressida Dick labelling the 2019 XR protests as driving for change in police powers. Creating these new crimes is problematic for climate activism, as often, the drivers of climate breakdown that activists interfere with, are the roads, power stations, and oil plants that the new legislation would protect. 

Although many Edinburgh students may not be involved in such disruptive protests, peaceful student climate activism could also be affected by the policing bill’s implications, and so prevent students from holding the government and key polluters to account. The Home office’s quiet addition of amendments to protest rights, away from public and parliamentary scrutiny, should also be a cause of concern for the student body. The right to protest is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, and the Home Office insists its proposals respect these rights, but complex power relations between the government, police force, and people must be continually questioned to prevent human rights violations. For example, police powers to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest may have threatened individual liberties, if it’s accepted.  

Moving forwards, further discussions regarding the policing of protests are necessary, but for now, it is important to recognise that the anti-protest measures proposed in the policing bill shift away from liberal democratic norms and the UK’s long tradition of protest. Following Monday’s outcomes, we must continue to uphold freedoms to protest, especially in an accelerating climate emergency, where the IPCC has highlighted the need to disrupt the status quo. As students, protest allows us to advocate for progressive climate action, and so maintaining our rights to do so is more important than ever. 

Image courtesy of ArchDaily