‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ – some of the outcomes

Chris Game

Back in early February, I wrote a blog dissecting one of two big and controversial Government Bills involved in what I slightly hyperbolically termed the “historic Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance” – Monday, 17th January, when the Elections Bill received its Third Commons Reading, while across the way the Lords were savaging the ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill by defeating the Government a Parliamentary record 14 times in the same sitting[1].

Both Bills, in being big and controversial, were fiercely contested throughout their Parliamentary progress and significantly amended – to the extent that my initial idea of highlighting and summarising such amendments in two linked blogs in, say, February and March, proved ludicrously unrealisable. Not least because neither received their Royal Assent until 28th April.

On the ball, as ever, Jason Lowther blogged immediately about the particular aspects of the now Elections Act with which he had been particularly concerned – the Government’s ‘solution’ to the undemonstrated ‘problem’ of ‘personation’, of having in future to show counter-signed photo ID at UK Parliamentary and English local and PCC elections.

This single blog, therefore, will attempt two ludicrously daunting tasks: (a) to at least mention some of the additional, less publicised, measures in or out of the Elections Act, and (b) similarly, but even more summarily, for the considerably more complex Police, Crime etc. Act.

There were two key and particularly controversial Elections Act proposals, that went down to the proverbial wire at the so-called Ping pong stage of the Parliamentary process (pp.79ff. of the H/Commons Library briefing noted by Jason).

First, obviously, the several proposed age-discriminatory and non-photographic forms of ID that had been in and out of the Bill throughout – mentioned again here frankly as a pretext for reminding anyone who needs it of just how long and how implacably opposed the PM himself has been to ID cards of any description, and accordingly what we can presumably look out for come Election Day.

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The other long-running dispute concerned the Act’s provision for the Government to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the constitutionally independent Electoral Commission.  Some suspicious Parliamentarians suggested this might go beyond scrutiny and accountability, and “potentially into providing guidance about how [the Commission carries out its] functions on a day-to-day basis”.

They wanted it “not bound by” the Government’s “statement”, but apparently they were guilty of a “mischaracterisation” of the Government’s intentions, and the relevant amendments were defeated.

The Government’s listing of the Act’s additional benefits appears, of course, on the relevant Gov.UK page – summarised under the comfort blanket of the several “greater protections” it provides for voters, and also for candidates and campaigners.

Protection from fraud through photo ID, of course, but also from intimidation at the ballot box – the latter by fines, up to 5-year bans, and even imprisonment for offenders convicted of attempting an extended definition of ‘undue influence’.

Voters with disabilities must in future be provided with specialist equipment, and may be accompanied by an adult.  And the 15-year limit on the voting rights of British ex-pats, retired or working abroad, will be removed. An estimated 3 million potential voters are currently affected by the limit, and – read into this what you will – it fulfils a pledge in three recent Conservative manifestos.

Finally – although it was actually the first bit of the legislation I blogged about, back last April – the Act will change the voting system for both Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections from the ‘transferable’/choice-extending Supplementary Vote to First Past The Post – on the basis of “no other plausible argument” than it might fractionally reduce the numbers of rejected ballots”.

I have views – as doubtless do Mayors Tracy Brabin (Lab – West Yorkshire), Ben Houchen (Cons – Tees Valley) and Andy Burnham (Lab – Greater Manchester), all recently elected after transfers – but not here.

And so to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a real pantechnicon of a Bill/Act, highly technical in places, with even the ‘short’ and definitely the ‘long’ (150-word) titles signalling how impossible it is seriously to summarise.

It makes major changes across the criminal justice system, significantly extending police powers and the treatment of suspected, arrested, charged and convicted offenders. Again, there is a substantial (100+ pages) Commons Library summary of the whole legislative process; also a detailed House of Lords account – presented, slightly disconcertingly, in reverse chronological order – covering the fate of at least some of the Lords’ 17th Jan. amendments.

I was never keen on listing Wiki on student reading lists, but in this case I might well make an exception.  For this blog, though, I have borrowed (sounds so much better than plagiarised!) the content of the next few paragraphs from the BBC’s summary –mainly because it focuses, as many of those Lords motions did, on the implications for and threats to the right to protest.

Until now, it has generally been the police’s responsibility, if they want to restrict a protest, to show it may result in “serious public disorder, property damage, or disruption to the life of the community” (emphasis added). They can also change/restrict the routes of marches. For major events, like the COP26 protests, details are typically agreed with the organisers weeks in advance.

The new Act enables particular measures to be designed for ‘static protests’, like those of Extinction Rebellion, whose modus operandi is to force governmental action on the “climate and ecological emergency” through non-violent civil disobedience, the occupation of roads and bridges, etc.  Start and finish times and noise limits will now be set, even for protests involving just one person, with fines up to £2,500.

Edward Colston, the C18th merchant/slave trader whose statue was pushed into Bristol docks gets his own clause, with damage to memorials earning up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has described the “rushed” legislation as creating “incredibly widely drawn” powers …”, allowing the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including passers-by, people on the way to work and peaceful protesters.”

The Government/Home Office/Police viewpoint is set out in a Home Office Policy Paper.

[1] It appeared on 4th February, at the start of what proved a particularly active blogging month, with the consequence that, to access it, you may need to key ‘Older Posts’ at the end of the February 2022 selection.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

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