The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (“PCSC Bill”) was introduced by the Home Office in order to strengthen police powers, introduce tougher sentences for the worst offenders, and modernise court processes. It was debated in the House of Commons in the Spring and Summer of 2021, and in the House of Lords in Autumn 2021.
While the draft legislation proposes a lot of positive reforms, Part 3 of the Bill as currently worded would grant police officers greater powers to regulate and control public speech and gatherings. This could result in serious issues to Roman Catholic events, gatherings, and public ministry.
Without amendment or Part 3 being scrapped entirely, the Bill would limit weaken free speech and expression in the UK.
The long and rich history of individuals and groups offering help to women, handing out leaflets, and peacefully praying outside abortion clinics could be impacted by the Bill. Councils imposing Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) around abortion clinics have already curtailed peaceful assistance in at least three areas in the UK, and now the PCSC Bill could give police powers to impose additional conditions. Police would be given discretion, under section 54, to impose any conditions in order to prevent passers-by feeling “serious unease, alarm or distress” to the activity. The ‘impact’ will depend on how bystanders feel or even the risk of how they feel, and the bar is low. A sentence of up to 51 weeks imprisonment could be imposed by the courts if the ‘protestors’ refuse to comply with the police.
Public demonstrations, such as Corpus Christi processions or the March for Life could face restrictions under the Bill because it seeks to introduce a new offence of public nuisance. Until now, the law on nuisance applied to events such as the obstruction of highways and unauthorised firework events, but the Bill now defines ‘nuisance’ as acts or omissions which ‘causes serious harm’ to ‘the public or a section of the public’ – intentionally or recklessly.
‘Serious harm’ includes acts which risk causing “serious distress, serious annoyance, serious inconvenience” to the public or a section of the public. This could include a group of people who fit within the ‘protected characteristics’ categories of the Equality Act 2010. If the corporate gathering of people processing or singing in the streets risks causing ‘serious inconvenience’ or ‘annoyance’ to the public, it could be categorised a legal ‘nuisance’ with a court imposing a sentence up to 10 years imprisonment. for contravention of conditions.
III.- Public Evangelism
Street evangelists have faced issues with the police over the past few years under existing public order legislation for espousing religious beliefs such as the Biblical passages on traditional marriage. Now, the PCSC Bill would categorise a singular evangelist as a ‘one-person protestor’ under section 60 and impose conditions on the speech such as to limit the length or duration of the ‘protest’. If the police receive as little as a complaint from a member of the public about the preaching or teaching, this could give rise to suspicion of it causing ‘serious unease’.