When life is difficult we need strength and sense, goodwill and cooperation. By and large that’s what the majority do, they behave in a sensible way and they care for others as well as themselves. The Brits should be proud of the like of racer Billy and many, many others who have shown selfless support for others, others they often don’t know.
What then, of the minority of idiots who smash windows, deface property, burn police cars and worst of all delight in physically harming those charged with keeping us safe?
There is no doubt that there is a reasoned argument that riles against any infringement of our civil liberties. Our right to freedom of speech, the right of free assembly, our right to demonstrate peacefully, are all very dear to those who believe in our democratic way of life. The key tenets of our belief are the ideas of freedom and peace. The assumption being that we are free to argue peacefully against change believed to be detrimental to our freedom.
The Police and Public Order Act now under consideration by parliament is seen by many an an infringement of our basic rights. Those for the changes have to consider the many complexities of the Bill, however the majority see the Bill as a consequence of the Corvid plague. They see keeping us safe is more important than our right of undisciplined assembly where social distancing is ignored. Of course disciplined assembly where social distancing is maintained is a different matter. Clearly the police should act in favour of peaceful socially distanced assembly even if it is to protest.
The complication arises where the protest incites to a breakdown of social distancing and to a breach of the peace. When does a peaceful protest become an incitement to a breach of the peace, and who is to judge the moment or the action and respond accordingly? Where the use of freedom of expression endangers the safety of the majority or even a minority then surely those charged with keeping society safe must act.
The Public Order Act 1986 was arguably one of the three great reforming pieces of criminal legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Along with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Public Order Act 1986 recognises the change in policing that occurred in the UK. During this period, there was an evolution from “policing the margins” of society to control of large blocks of the populations, The Act was passed after a prolonged period of public unrest and radically reformed public order offences in England and Wales.
Britain has a long history of rioting; sometimes as a form of political protest, other times in the context of industrial disputes or as a reaction to feelings of disconnection between different parts of the community.
During 1984 and 1985, the long running miner’s strike saw a significant number of serious public order incidents as strikers fought running battles with the police The general common law powers that were relied upon to combat public order, were felt to be inadequate to deal with the modern world. This contention was and remains hotly disputed.
The need for a new act came at the time that the nature of public order policing in the UK was undergoing a radical change. Until the late 1970s, the police approached tackling public order without any specialist training or equipment, preferring to rely on the image and reputation of the “British Bobby” to encourage compliance with the law The mass disorder during the miner’s strike led to the government concluding that this approach could no longer be relied on.
Instead they oversaw a new regime where specialist uniforms, helmets and riot shields, as well as other equipment, were available to the police and significant training was developed to help officers control public order situations. This new style of paramilitary policing rapidly became the norm, and this modernised style of policing needed a new legal structure to support it.
Even prior to the Miner’s Strike the Law Commission had recommended that the law on public order be modified, and following the strike the Government introduced a Bill into Parliament that in due course became the Public Order Act 1986. The Law Commission had concluded that public order laws as they currently stood, comprising a mix of common law and statutory offences, was inadequate and ineffective, and that a comprehensive statute was required to bring the law up to date The Public Order Act 1996 was the result.
The Act as originally drafted contained five main offences relating to public order, which are set out below. Although there have been some modifications since these continue to be the main framework for public order policing. The five offences are riot, violent disorder, affray, threatening behaviour and disorderly conduct.
Section 1 of the Act creates the offence of riot. For a riot there needs to be at least 12 people involved who must be present together and must be acting with a “common purpose”. They must use or threaten unlawful violence and this must be of such a level as would cause a person of reasonable firmness to fear for their personal safety. This is a test that occurs on a number of occasions in the Act. Riot is an indictable only offence and carries a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. It is the most serious public order offence under the act.
Violent disorder is created by Section Two of the Act. This requires the involvement of at least three people and again has the requirement that there is a use or threat of unlawful violence. The reasonable person test again applies.
Violent disorder can be tried either at the magistrates or the Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment.
The most serious public order offence that can be committed by a person acting alone is affray under Section Three of the Act. This is an offence that can be tried at the Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court and has a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment.
The second part of the Act contains a number of rules relating to public processions and demonstrations.
These required that the police are given six days written notice of any procession and also give the police the power to impose conditions on processions including specifying the route that it shall take or prohibiting it from entering a particular area These conditions may only be imposed where the police believe that they are necessary to prevent serious public disorder or damage or where there will be serious intimidation of people.
They also permit the police to apply to the local authority for an order banning public processions for a period of up to three months.
Part three of the act contains a number of provisions relating to behaviour likely to stir up racial hatred.
As set out above there had been significant race riots in the UK during the early 1980`s and the Act prohibits behaviour intending to stir up racial hatred or where it is likely that racial hatred will be stirred up.
Since the passing of the Act there have been a number of amendments made.
Of most importance are the addition of an offence of intentional harassment, alarm or distress under s4A of the Act and the removal of insulting behaviour from the ways that an offence can be committed under s5.
This latter campaign was unusual in that its supporters included both the National Secular Society and the Christian Institute, and reform was championed by the Liberal Democrat political party who were part of the coalition government between 2010 and 2015.
However the Act has stood the test of time and the structure of offences that it introduced remain in effect today.
The effect of the corvid 19 plague has been to induce parliament or the Government thereof to impose what they perceive to be in the best interest of the UK population at large. The right to enforce these rules impose on personal liberties in several ways. Whilst most of us live comfortable under the 1986 act and all its implications, a few now feel that the police are being given powers that really do lessen our individual freedom of choice.
In the opening paragraph of this blog, strength, sense, goodwill and kindness are the described as the keys to a long lasting democracy. That remains the case and those who riot against the perceived safely of the majority are half-wits who fail to see the greater good.