I can confirm that the Scottish National party will be voting against this Bill tomorrow. That is not to say that there are not sections of the proposed legislation that we support or are satisfied with, but the Bill as introduced will not achieve what the Government say they want to achieve, will seriously curtail the rights to protest, will criminalise the way of life of Gypsy/Travellers, is likely to have a disproportionate negative impact on ethnic minority communities and women, and will allow the ridiculous and unjust possibility of a tougher jail sentence for someone who topples over a statue than for someone who does the same thing to a living human being.
There is one overarching thing on which I think we can all agree, and it is certainly the view of the Scottish National party: tackling serious crime has to be a priority. But rather than creating policy to elicit macho headlines about tougher sentences and who comes down hardest on crime, the bottom line for us is: what works? What reduces crime? When it comes to reducing reoffending, Scotland’s rates are the lowest they have been since comparable records began, because of our focus on community justice.
“The evidence is mixed, although harsher sentencing tends to be associated with limited or no general deterrent effect.”
So why make that a central plank of the Bill? That is a question the UK Government have to answer. Why do it if it does not work?
Someone we should always listen to is the chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, Karyn McCluskey. She said:
“Community justice allows people who commit a crime to pay back to the community they harmed whilst addressing any underlying causes of crime such as addiction, homelessness and mental health issues.”
It is not hard justice, it is not soft justice; it is smart justice that genuinely reduces reoffending. I will say it again: Scotland now has the lowest reconviction rates since comparable records began 21 years ago.
I turn to the right to protest, which is a right. I know the Government have a bit of a disdain for international law, but article 11 of the European convention on human rights is the right to freedom of assembly and association. The Bill directly contradicts the rights of citizens to protest where, when and how they choose. If it goes through, there will be very few rights to protest in England and Wales at all, and that is unacceptable in a democracy—especially one that likes to claim to be the bastion of democracy and has a history of telling the rest of the world how to behave.
Let us not forget the rights of the people of Scotland to protest in England. While decisions about our lives are made in London, we, the people of Scotland, reserve the right to peacefully protest at the seat of power. Let me note some of the things that the people of Scotland have protested about in England: the Iraq war, over which Scotland had no choice; the obscenity of nuclear weapons conveniently stationed in Scotland, over which Scotland has no choice; and the wonderful women and their allies in the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. Allow me to quote Rosie Dickson from WASPI in Scotland, who called this
“truly a step too far for those 1950s-born women who have not only been unfairly denied their pensions by a Westminster Government but now also face having their human right to protest against it, without fear of arrest, removed.”
Of course, we in the Scottish National party intend for London not to be the seat of power for much longer. We intend to win our independence so that all the decisions governing the lives of the people of Scotland are made in Scotland, where the right to protest is respected. When the Government of an independent Scotland get it wrong, as all Governments do from time to time, the people will be perfectly entitled to tell them that. However, even if independence were happening next week, I would leave this Parliament still fighting for the right of every citizen to protest.
These draconian powers are wide reaching, We have heard a comprehensive analysis of most of them from the shadow Home Secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, so I will focus on just a few. First, we as Members of Parliament are accountable to our constituents, but now our constituents are to be told that they can protest and let us know of their disapproval, only we would prefer silent protests so we are introducing noise as a basis on which the police can intervene and impose any type of condition to stop them. Even if they do make noise, it will not matter. We will not hear them because we are putting in an exclusion zone around Parliament so far-reaching that what they have to say—their legitimate protest—will not fall on deaf ears; they will simply be so far away that it will not be audible. They will effectively be silenced. I want those people to know that I do not want them silenced, even if they are opposed to what I stand for. I want to be a Member of a Parliament that embraces democracy; the Bill is doing the opposite, and it is embarrassing.
Speaking of embarrassing, that word does not cover how the events of Saturday night felt for most of us watching them. I want to say something about what happened at Clapham common in the context of the police using the powers they already have and for us to think about how much worse it will get if the sweeping powers in the Bill are handed over to senior police officers.
First, I want to add my voice to those of the many thousands who are heartbroken for the family and friends of Sarah Everard. The torment that her family must be going through is something that nobody in this House would wish on anyone. I know we all share the despair. I attended an online vigil on Saturday night, but I understood why those women who met in person did so—particularly those who live near to where Sarah was taken. I got it. I know they were breaking regulations, and I would never encourage that, but they were in pain and they wanted to come together to help others also in pain. I do not know any woman who has not got a story to tell. Male violence against women takes such a heavy toll on all of us, and sometimes we need to be with other people.
Given the context of Clapham common on Saturday night, surely sensitivity should have been the watchword. I cannot imagine how frightened some of the women must have been, particularly given the circumstances. They have just had an alarming reminder that the police uniform does not give a cast-iron guarantee of safety and some of them find themselves on the ground, handcuffed, with knees on their back, flowers for Sarah trampled on, legs held down and unable to move at the hands of the police. Sarah Everard was just walking home; those women were just expressing their grief. If the current powers to curb protest can lead to what happened on Saturday night, imagine how much worse it will get if this legislation goes through.
I am deeply concerned about the attacks in the Bill on the way of life of some of our citizens. I am speaking, of course, about the Gypsy/Traveller community, who are among the most persecuted on these islands and among the most misunderstood. This Tory Government want to criminalise their way of life at the same time as the Scottish Government have produced an action plan entitled “Improving the Lives of Scotland’s Gypsy/Travellers”. What a contrast! Why are this Government so intent on cracking down hardest on the most vulnerable in our society?
While we are on the issue of racism in society, let me come to clause 46 on memorials. Is it not interesting that this legislation that comes down hard on anyone damaging a memorial comes about shortly after a group of people in Bristol toppled a statue of someone who made his money from slavery? Would I have toppled the statue? No. But do I think slave owners should have lasting memorials to them? Definitely not. This Bill would increase the maximum jail sentence for someone convicted of this to 10 years: 10 years for damaging an inanimate and, to some, very offensive object, when it is rare to get anything like as much as that for damaging a living, breathing person or animal. It is interesting, isn’t it, that the toppled statue that I believe prompted some of this legislation was toppled as part of a Black Lives Matter demonstration, when black people and their allies finally said, “Enough is enough”? As soon as they organise to have their voices heard, legislation pops up to silence them. I find that very interesting. I have spoken this weekend to people in the Black Lives Matter movement who believe that this endangers their very existence. They are in no doubt that they will be targeted.
I have had a lot of emails about this in the past two days, and there will be many people watching who—believe it or not—do not normally tune into Parliament, so it is worth mentioning that this is Second Reading and the next stage is Committee, where the Bill will be scrutinised line by line, word for word, by Members from each party, where evidence will be considered, and where amendments may be proposed. One of the things we will want to pay particular attention to is clause 36 on data extraction from mobile devices. I know the Scottish Government have been speaking to the UK Government about safeguarding and some progress has been made. This is certainly something we will want to interrogate. We have to be exceptionally careful about the use of people’s personal data.
Let me turn briefly to stop and search. Although this will not impact directly on Scotland, I want to add my voice to those on the Opposition Benches who are saying “Enough is enough.” It is not just politicians who are saying that the impact on black communities is disproportionate and it is not just black communities who are saying it. Newly retired chief executive of the College of Policing, Mike Cunningham, has voiced his concern that existing stop-and-search powers are disproportionate to what he calls an “eye-watering” degree. We should be listening to him and to groups like Liberty, Amnesty and Fair Trials who have called for a review of existing powers rather than an extension.
If it is to be fair, the law must be foreseeable. We must be able to foresee, to a degree that is reasonable in the circumstances, the consequences that any given action may entail. This Bill is peppered with ambiguous wording left to be defined by statutory instruments. For example, there are regular references throughout to “serious disruption” as a reason to criminalise somebody, but there is nothing in the Bill to define “serious disruption”, leaving it effectively to the Home Secretary to decide. I want to know what the Home Secretary’s definition is. I want the right to debate it. The Home Secretary and I interpret things very differently. She thought the Black Lives Matter movement was “dreadful” while I think it is magnificent, so her idea of “serious disruption” will likely be very different from mine. Yet we are signing over to her the right to come up with a definition that will not be debated and we are simply expected to accept that. It is not good enough. The Scottish National party will be voting against this Bill tomorrow and scrutinising it very carefully when it comes to Committee.