THE UK GOVERNMENT is seeking to rush a new law through Parliament which would drastically limit people’s right to protest , with harsh sentences, even when COVID restrictions are lifted. This has been widely criticised, especially after violent policing of a vigil prompted by violence against women led many people to recognise the danger of giving police even more power.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 mainly targets people in England and Wales. Though it undermines freedom of assembly and of speech (even one-person protests could be banned on flimsy grounds), the government may use its majority in the House of Commons to push it through . Defacing a monument to a slave-trader or rapist could carry a ten-year prison sentence. The Conservative government had a sizeable majority at the bill’s second reading in the House of Commons on 16 March.

Disturbingly, it might have passed with widespread public approval, while Labour MPs would have mostly abstained. But the mood changed after the Metropolitan Police mishandled a gathering to mourn Sarah Everard and protest against male violence against women and girls. Previous governments would probably have shied away from the political risks of trying to push through such measures, since there was once far broader support for human rights, including in Christian and other faith and belief-based communities. How can this be revived and attempts to crush dissent resisted?

A worrying bill

“Not only does this Bill contain numerous threats to the right to peaceful protest and access to the countryside, criminalise Gypsy and Traveller communities’ way of life, as well as a whole host of expansive policing powers, but it is being rushed through parliament during a pandemic and before civil society and the public have been able to fully understand its profound implications”, according to an open letter to the Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Justice which has over 150 signatories.

These include human rights groups, charities, trade unions and a few religious organisations and clergy. Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Quakers in Britain, some Christian environmental and aid groups, several rabbis and Nicholas Holtam, the Bishop of Salisbury, are among the signatories, though there has not been an obvious outcry among religious leaders in general.

The letter expressed concern that “For a country that so often prides itself on civil liberties, this Bill represents an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens, in particular those from marginalised communities, and is being driven through at a time and in a way where those who will be subject to its provisions are least able to respond.”

Another open letter from a number of criminal justice and racial equality organisations pointed out that the measures would increase racial inequality and called for proper consultation.

Some aspects of the bill might appear to respond to the understandable wish of some victims of crime for perpetrators to be jailed for longer. Yet given the dire state of the courts, probation and prison services, badly damaged by years of cuts and privatisation , this may result in even longer delays and more haphazard treatment of witnesses and suspects.

A Serious Violence Duty, under which local authorities, the police, criminal justice agencies, health authorities and educational authorities, among others, would work together more closely, may at first sound sensible. This would supposedly  emphasise “early intervention with young people in order to prevent them from becoming either a victim or perpetrator of serious violence.” Yet in reality, this is largely about “data and intelligence sharing”. Even after a decade of harsh cuts, teachers, youth workers, social workers and health professionals do indeed play an important part in countering violence. But this depends on building trusting relationships and supporting youth in accessing opportunities. As with ‘Prevent’, if caring professionals are expected to act as agents of surveillance, especially among young people who are working class, black and minority ethnic or disabled, this will damage trust as well as being repressive.

Rebuilding a culture which values human rights

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, presumably expected to be able to get this law passed swiftly, with little or no damage to their political careers. And indeed, human rights and democracy have been much eroded in recent years, with limited public protest.

This might seem surprising, since in post-war Britain there was broad support for the principles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other such international documents, including in faith communities. I can suggest various ways in which this might have been whittled away.

These include a shift, among some people with high ideals, towards an inward focus on individual piety or virtue and sometimes also immediate relationships – very important but not sufficient – in an interconnected and often unjust world. For some, the opposite tendency of challenging injustice in competitive or judgmental ways with little self-awareness, might have made it harder to unite with others in effective movements for a better world.

As lessons from history faded from memory, more people perhaps came to regard human rights (with occasional exceptions) as benefiting ‘them’ rather than ‘us’, not recognising that their erosion would ultimately put all but the most powerful at risk. If ‘they’ were from minorities or regarded as a menace or nuisance to society, this process was easier to rationalise.

Some people may have been reluctant to explore systemic injustice and misuse of power too deeply, because of the difficulty and potential hazards of confronting these. Indeed, the state has sometimes been idolised: in the Church of England, this has been particularly tempting because of the closeness of the relationship, despite warnings from the Bible and tradition. For a handful of people, a different problem may have arisen where hostility to the state was so intense that the value of operating in a setting with some respect for human rights was brushed aside.

Others may fear that rights such as freedom of expression can be used to promote beliefs which can be harmful to some: for instance, those that might bolster economic or social inequality or lead to bad conduct. Indeed this can occur, even if acts such as hate speech are prohibited. But the odds that the truth can be found, shared and ultimately win out are far greater when rights are guaranteed. And if the state or any other powerful institution has too much control, almost invariably, it will at some point be abused.

Human rights frameworks were derived from a wide range of nations and belief systems. But, as this faded from collective memory, it perhaps became easier to claim that these were, for example, too ‘secular’, or too ‘Western’. Some called for an emphasis on responsibilities rather than rights, thus failing to recognise that ensuring others’ rights is about taking responsibility ,and also that people often need basic rights so as to be able to contribute to the community. Those weak with hunger, isolated in detention or silenced may be held back from using their gifts to benefit others.

Even if this bill is pushed through Parliament by the government, publicity around the scenes at the event commemorating Sarah Everard has reminded many people of the risks of giving the state too much power. Those who care about human rights can maybe build on the awareness that has developed and seek to work with others to push back, so that some of the political, social, economic and cultural rights which have been taken away may be restored.

This will be a long, hard task. But if people of goodwill draw on their varying sources of knowledge and values, as well as strengthening connections and becoming more persuasive (in part through being better listeners), lost freedoms may be regained.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion. She wrote on ‘Health or Wealth?’ in Feast or Famine? (http://dltbooks.com/titles/2195-9780232532616-feast-or-famine)

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