UK: What is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill?

The draft law aims to hand police greater powers to control protests – a measure which has already seen riots.

Local police in Bristol said the demonstration began peacefully but later morphed into a violent riot [Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

A demonstration in southwest England against proposed legislation that would grant police new powers to restrict street protests turned violent on Sunday, leaving 20 officers injured.

Thousands of demonstrators converged on Bristol’s city centre, ignoring COVID-19 restrictions, to protest against the government’s wide-ranging Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The local Avon and Somerset Police force said the rally began peacefully but a minority of attendees turned the gathering into a violent riot.

Here is what you need to know:

What is the police and crime bill?

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a major piece of legislation brought forward by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s governing Conservative Party government.

It includes a range of proposals for reform of the crime and justice system in England and Wales, from toughening sentences for those who assault emergency workers to modernising court proceedings.

So what is controversial about it? Critics are particularly concerned because if the law is passed, police will have greater powers over protests – including being able to decide when rallies start and finish, and control noise levels.

The government says the measures will “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public”.

But some politicians, including those from the main opposition Labour Party, have warned they would curtail freedoms.

The bill passed a first parliamentary hurdle last week, with members of parliament voting 359 to 263 in favour of the legislation.

It will now be scrutinised by legislators during a so-called committee stage before facing another vote in the House of Commons at a later date.

If it passes that stage, it will need to be signed off by the upper chamber House of Lords and, finally, receive royal assent from Queen Elizabeth II to become law.

What happened at Sunday’s protest?

About 3,000 people gathered at Bristol’s College Green, a public open space.

Some carried placards with slogans such as “Kill the Bill”, “The Day Democracy Became Dictatorship” and “We Can’t Be Silenced That Easy”.

Critics of the proposed reforms have warned they are a draconian backstep that will curtail people’s ability to express peaceful dissent [Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

The situation became violent when about 450 protesters targeted the city’s central New Bridewell police station. Three hundred officers were deployed to the scene.

Local police said officers were pelted with stones and fireworks, leaving 20 injured, two seriously.

Twelve police vehicles and the police station was damaged.

The protest ended around 01:30 GMT on Monday.

How did officials react?

Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is leading the push for the bill, called the scenes in Bristol “unacceptable”.

“Thuggery and disorder by a minority will never be tolerated,” she tweeted.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s mayor and a Labour member, said the violence marked a “shameful day” for the city.

“Smashing buildings in our city centre, vandalising vehicles, attacking our police will do nothing to lessen the likelihood of the bill going through,” Rees said.

“On the contrary, the lawlessness on show will be used as evidence and promote the need for the bill.”

Hundreds of police officers were deployed to deal with the protest as it turned violent [Peter Cziborra/Reuters]

Local police warned of “significant consequences” for those who took part in the riot.

“All those involved in this criminal behaviour will be identified and brought to justice,” said Will White, Avon and Somerset’s chief superintendent.

Sue Mountstevens, police and crime commissioner for the Avon and Somerset region, said seven people had been arrested as of mid-morning on Monday but added that there would be “many more” to follow.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies