WeeklyWorker

25.03.2021
‘Rebecca riots’ Illustrated London News (1843). Agricultural workers, dressed as the biblical figure, Rebecca, attacked toll gates, workhouses and C of E churchmen

Police Bill spin

Mike Macnair says the ‘Old Corruption’ of the 18th and 19th centuries is returning and we need to respond accordingly

The weekend of March 20-21 saw protests in several cities - some themed on ‘Kill the Bill’: opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently before the House of Commons. In Bristol, police instructed demonstrators to disperse, and then attacked those who did not; the result was a serious fightback. The rightwing press has seized on this to demand public support for the police and ‘condemnation of violence’.

However, the police attack on the March 13 Clapham Common vigil for murder victim Sarah Everard was widely condemned, and the government seems to have decided to slow somewhat the progress of the bill. In response, feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut claimed a victory.1 But the timetable change seems to be merely news management. In that context, the Bristol police attack looks like a provocation for the purposes of media spin, to reverse the political doubts about the bill produced by the Clapham attack.

If this is so, it fits with the general conduct of the present government in relation to the Covid pandemic, which has been entirely dominated by news management, with practical policy held in subordination. It is also consistent with the purposes of the Police Bill itself - which can be fairly characterised as 307 pages of dog-whistle spin, almost entirely aimed to allow the Conservative government to be seen as ‘supporting our boys in blue’ and promoting ‘public order’ - while holding central government expenditure increases on police funding to 2.7%.2

The left’s coverage of the bill has focused on the measures to create further controls on demonstrations - and to a lesser extent the additional anti-trespass measures, ‘spun’ as aimed at ‘climate camps’.3 But there is much more in there. The bill’s 176 clauses are divided into 13 parts, ranging from ‘Protection of the police, etc’ and ‘Prevention, investigation and prosecution of crime’ to ‘Sentencing and release’ and ‘Rehabilitation of offenders’. On top of this, there are 20 ‘schedules’, making specific rules, or amendments to other acts, to which the government does not wish to give so much publicity.

It is, in short, an ‘omnibus bill’, containing a large number of measures which are only loosely connected to each other. The point of omnibus bills is, by drowning the legislators in proposals, to allow some provisions to be sneaked through without proper scrutiny. If MPs were doing the job they are in theory paid for - that of proposing and scrutinising legislation - they would throw the bill out on this ground alone, and insist that the government comes back with narrower proposals.

But, of course, MPs (with a few honourable exceptions) no longer think of themselves as legislators. They are ombudsmen for problems and complaints raised by their individual constituents; they are potential ministers (as long as they keep their noses well to the arses of their parliamentary-party leaderships) and they are highly-paid employees on five-year temporary contracts, which can be renewed (or not) by the voters. And this election campaign starts on day one of the new parliament. So the Police Bill is an important part of the Conservatives’ 2024 general election campaign. It is a device to support a Trump-style ‘culture war’ on Labour and small-l ‘liberals’.

To go through the whole bill in detail would be merely tedious; and some sections are mere tinkering, which has been tacked onto it for convenience. But a number of the ‘parts’ can illustrate the basic points.

Part 1, ‘Protection of the police, etc’, contains six clauses. Clause 1 creates an obligation on the Home Secretary to produce an annual “police covenant report” on police well-being and related matters. This is copied from the ‘Armed Forces Covenant’ introduced by the Blair administration in 2000, and is just as much mere spin as that has been. Clause 2 increases the maximum penalty under Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, section 1, from 12 months to two years imprisonment. This is merely ‘demonstrative’: all maximum sentences are very rarely used, and a two-year maximum remains a low one. Clause 3 tinkers with the Police Act 1996 to include special constables (part-timers) in the Police Federation.

Clauses 4-6 purport to modify the law relating to dangerous and careless driving by police officers in the course of their duty. The formulas can no doubt be spun as making it harder for police officers to be convicted of dangerous or careless driving when in hot pursuit or responding to emergency calls. But in fact the law already takes into account the special situation of the police (and other emergency workers) responding to emergencies, and so on, and has done so for decades.4

Wasting police time

Part 2, ‘Prevention, investigation and prosecution of crime’, has four ‘chapters’. Chapter 1, ‘Functions relating to serious violence’, and chapter 2, ‘Offensive weapons homicide reviews’, both impose new managerialist bullshit requirements to produce “strategies” and “reports” and to “collaborate” on police authorities, local authorities, and so on, in relation to ‘serious violence’ under chapter 1 and to homicide and offensive weapons under chapter 2.

‘Violence’ under chapter 1 includes “violence against property and threats of violence”; the home secretary is given very broad powers to issue binding “guidance” to local authorities, where they appear to her to be in breach of the (complicated and obscure) duties imposed. Nonetheless, both of these ‘chapters’ are best understood as Priti Patel wasting police time (not, I admit, within the terms of the actual offence) with a view to ‘being seen to do something’ about ‘violence’.

Chapter 3 regulates at length “extraction of information from electronic devices”. On the one hand, police and public authorities are given very wide powers to do this; but, on the other hand, it seems that the chapter illegalises all extraction of information other than by authorised persons - for example, commercial data retrieval services, or employers extracting purely employment-related information from laptops handed over by employees on leaving their jobs.

Chapter 4, ‘Other provisions’, is a ragbag of amendments to the law relating to bail, sexual offences against children and “damaging memorials” - which is not newly criminalised, but is defined and made triable “either way”: ie, either by jury or before magistrates. This is clearly enough aimed at the post-Black Lives Matter campaigns against statues; but, again, it is for most practical purposes rhetorical in operation only.

For polluters and landlords

Parts 3 and 4 are the two parts of the bill which the left press has been particularly concerned about. Part 3, ‘Public order’, makes amendments to the Public Order Act 1986 with a view to making it easier to ban demonstrations (both moving and static), if they may cause to persons in the vicinity “serious unease, alarm or distress”; or “serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of a public procession, or ... serious disruption to the life of the community”; and make it easier to convict for the offences created (by making it possible to commit them when you ought to have known that bans or restriction directions were in place). The maximum sentences available are increased (as I have already indicated, this is rhetorical); and the existing controls on activities around parliament5 are extended (clause 58). Clause 60 allows the police to control one-person protests in the same way as marches and assemblies.

Clause 59 is another sting in the tail. The present common-law offence of public nuisance is widely defined and includes - importantly - industrial pollution affecting large sectors of the public. Where people are personally injured or suffer other ‘special damage’ by virtue of public nuisances, they are allowed to sue for damages; a recent example is the Corby Group Litigation in 2009.6 Clause 59 will abolish this law and replace it with a statutory offence, under which the offender has to intend or be reckless as to the bad consequences of the act. The proposal implements a Law Commission report, but this is no reason to support it: rather another good reason for abolishing the Law Commission. This was originally set up to codify the law, but has become a means by which lobbyists and the legal profession can control law reform without even the limited risks of exposure involved in persuading MPs.

Part 4 criminalises trespass on land with a vehicle under certain fairly narrowly defined circumstances, by making amendments to the existing criminal trespass liability. The narrow definition is necessary to avoid criminalising certain activities of foxhunters and of property developers; but then the consequence is that the legal effect is limited, and the result, once again, is mainly spin. Nonetheless, the whole process of criminalising trespass to land is objectionable even within the terms of capitalist law, because it is in essence again a form of wasting police time, in order to save the landowner from the costs involved in enforcing their rights through civil proceedings. The fact is reflected in the power given to the home secretary to issue binding guidance to police forces as to how they should exercise the powers given: that is, the police would normally prefer to deal with ‘ordinary crime’ than divert resources to help out the landlord class.

Towards carcerality

Part 6, ‘Cautions’, and part 7, ‘Sentencing and release’, are both actually important for reasons which are not completely obvious. Part 6 essentially radically regulates cautions issued out of court - in ways which make them substantially more like fines and other non-custodial sentences imposed in court, but without the right to a trial.

The old informal caution was a mode of flexible ‘diversion’ from the penal system. The new elaborate system proposed is quite likely to violate article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to a fair trial) - which is, of course, remotely derived from the medieval Magna Carta and 1628 Petition of Right. More concretely, the complexity of regulation will probably mean that police will be incentivised to prosecute rather than caution (a view likely to be preferred by the Daily Mail).

Part 7 has two chapters: ‘custodial sentences’ and ‘community sentences’. The first consists in substance of a series of minimum-sentence rules, designed to ensure that more offenders stay in prison for longer - plus a power to send ‘dangerous’ offenders to the Parole Board rather than releasing them at the end of their so-called fixed terms of imprisonment (clause 108) and powers in the Parole Board to reverse its own decisions (clause 109). The chapter on ‘community sentences’ gives parole officers more powers, but does not offer money for more parole officers. The result will inevitably be more ‘supervision failure scandals’, driving towards ... more people in prison. It also aims to supply more unpaid workers to employers by forcing the parole bodies to consult a person nominated by the secretary of state as to what is ‘suitable’ unpaid work.

Parts 8 and 9 on ‘Youth justice’ and related matters similarly tinker with a view to being seen to ‘toughen up’ the regime, and part 10 on ‘Management of offenders’ adds a series of post-imprisonment restrictions to be available in the cases of ‘serious violence’, sexual and terrorism offenders. The single clause in part 11, ‘Rehabilitation of offenders’, clause 163, extends the periods of time before convictions will be “spent” in relation to “serious violence”, “sex offenders” and “terrorism offenders”: ie, it reduces rehabilitation.

The fact that this stuff will certainly be used to spin the Tories as ‘tough on crime’ is a piece of Americanisation - trying to force British penal policy further towards the US model, in which rival politicians bid up the severity of sentence, with the consequence of ‘carceralisation’ (over-imprisonment) - chiefly of black people.7

It is worth adding that this sort of policy adds to cost. The Conservative Party constantly goes on about the need for prudence with the public funds, but this bill would in fact, by virtue of its aspirations to Americanise British criminal justice politics, involve open-ended commitments to the increased use of imprisonment, at an average cost of £43,000 per prisoner per year.8

Spin

Once we see that this bill is primarily an exercise in spin, to present the Tories as ‘tough on crime’ and Labour/‘liberals’ as ‘soft’ and friendly to criminals, the question as to how the left should respond to it poses itself in a different (and in some respects more difficult) way.

Neil Faulkner at Anti*Capitalist Resistance has celebrated the Bristol fightback as perhaps the start of a more general one.9 Richard Linsert at RS21 has written ‘In defence of the mob’, arguing that riots have in the past achieved change.10 Socialist Worker says: “The brilliant protests over the last two weeks should be the start of a spring and summer of rage against the Tories, the cops and their entire violent system.”11

True enough in principle, but is the context really one of a tinder-box, in which this sort of celebration ‘leads the way’? Even in the immediate aftermath of the Clapham Common vigil attack, a snap YouGov poll found that 43% were still for banning the vigil and 40% against.12 It may be guessed that there will be less public support for the Bristol fightback.

Fighting back is morally justified: this should be perfectly clear. Over the past 40 years the Tory Party and its ‘New Labour’ imitators have been gradually boiling the democratic frog, step by step, with anti-union laws, anti-protest laws, and so on, and so on. Meanwhile, they have given increased power to bribe-payers, lobbyists and ministers’ cronies (visible in this bill, as in many others, and on disgusting display in the Grenfell Tower enquiry and in the distribution of Covid equipment contracts). But the advertising-funded media and the justice-selling bar between them have run a campaign of defamation (the ‘anti-Semitism’ big lie) to bar electoral campaigning against the bribe-payers through the Labour Party - and put the former director of public prosecutions in to control its leadership.

We are drifting back to the ‘Old Corruption’ of 18th-19th century England - and the workers’ movement and anyone prepared to fight for democracy needs to think about bringing back ‘Ned Ludd’, ‘Captain Swing’, ‘Rebecca’ and so on, on the basis that the regime is excluding legal means of opposition. But ‘Ned Ludd’, ‘Captain Swing,’ ‘Rebecca’ and so on were more than occasional acts of street rebellion. They were mass (not minority) actions; and they could take place in the context of sustained political campaigns of persuasion against ‘Old Corruption’ and its claims to legitimacy.

In relation to this bill, we have to oppose it. But we need political explanation of why - not just the bare call to ‘fight now’ through street action and strikes.

mike.macnair@weeklyworker.co.uk


  1. sistersuncut.org/2021/03/18/breaking-sisters-uncut-declare-victory-at-halting-police-powers-bill-in-parliament.↩︎

  2. homeofficemedia.blog.gov.uk/2020/12/17/provisional-police-funding-settlement-2021-22.↩︎

  3. Eg, D Kellaway, ‘Oppose police crackdown bill’ Anti*capitalist resistance March 18; D Landau, ‘An existential threat to gypsies, travellers and Roma people’ Anti*capitalist resistance March 19.↩︎

  4. Eg, Marshall v Osmond [1983] 1 QB 1034.↩︎

  5. These are arguably in breach of the Declaration of Right 1689, given the meaning of the right to petition. James II was declared to have violated this right, so as to divest the crown out of the House of Windsor and by doing so re-vest it in the current Jacobite heir (the Duke of Bavaria). But this entertaining possibility can be disregarded.↩︎

  6. [2009] EWHC 1944 (TCC).↩︎

  7. The ‘Bame’ tag would be misleading here: the victims of this policy are mainly of African/West Indian origin and poorer people of south Asian origin. (Cf also ‘'Don't call me Bame’: why some people are rejecting the term’ (bbc.co.uk/news/uk-53194376).↩︎

  8. thesun.co.uk/news/10633180/cost-of-keeping-prisoner-in-uk-higher-elsewhere.↩︎

  9. ‘From Clapham to Bristol: the battle for the future has begun’, March 22.↩︎

  10. rs21.org.uk/2021/03/22/in-defence-of-the-mob.↩︎

  11. socialistworker.co.uk/art/51521/Unite+to+smash+the+system+of+the+real+thugs.↩︎

  12. yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/03/15/snap-poll-public-split-whether-police-should-have-.↩︎