Where do we begin? Ironically, the month of International Women’s Day has been a horrible one for women. Do we start with the murder of Sarah Everard, the UK’s government’s overwhelming approval for the new Policing Bill or the fact that 97% of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed? And that’s without mentioning that Oprah interview.
This week, the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill passed its second reading in Parliament. This puts it one step closer to becoming law. 359 MPs voted in favour; only 263 opposed it. Most Conservatives backed it, with Labour changing its tune in light of the public backlash against police powers. The government argues the 1986 legislation is now outdated. It wants to give the police new powers to tackle non-violent protests, with Home Secretary Priti Patel deciding what constitutes “serious disruption”.This is a woman whose hostile migrant policies have seen asylum seekers criminalised for seeking safety, a fundamental human right, and a woman who condemned the Black Lives Matter protests. In short, she is no great advocate for human rights.
In light of the heavy handedness displaced by the police last week, it is insensitive at best to vote in favour of such a Bill. Sarah Everard just wanted to go home, but a police officer murdered her who, just a few days earlier, allegedly indecently exposed themselves in public. The Met face criticism after its officers handcuffed peaceful protesters and threw them onto the ground at Sarah’s vigil in Clapham. Why are the police repeatedly failing to protect women?
Ironically, the Home Office criticised the Met’s handling of the incident. In light of the new Policing Bill, this criticism may be an attempt to pass the buck. Rather than examining police brutality and institutional misogyny, it allowed the government to scapegoat the Met and put any blame for Sarah’s case onto them.
The government claims it wants to do more to protect women and girls. It has reopened its public consultation into ending violence against women and girls and said police will now treat misogny as a hate crime. That’s all very well and good, but what about the new Policing Bill? The Bill doesn’t mention women or girls once. It says nothing about domestic violence or mimimum sentences for rape, two issues whose victims are predominantly women and those from marginalised genders.
Why doesn’t the Bill aim to protect rape survivors instead? Why is the government choosing to criminalise protest, a fundamental human right, instead of tackling misogyny within the police and justice system?
Giving the police more powers makes it harder to protest against the government. In a year that has seen the government widely mismanage the pandemic and our Health Secretary get away with breaking the law, it’s shocking but not surprising. It allows the government to continuously avoid accountability and puts the onus on the public. By prohibiting the right to protest, the Bill would make it harder for citizens to speak up, a worrying move towards authoritarianism in a country that prides itself on democracy. It is also another setback in the fight for gender equality. If we cannot legally protest for the rights of women and other marginalised genders then how can we protect them? If we have to seek Priti Patel’s permission every time there’s a problem we want to solve,
If our government, police and legal systems are supposed to protect us and fail to do so, who will?