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Fears new laws overhauling justice system could threaten free speech

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Rushed” legislation could pose a threat to free speech rights and make the job of officers policing protests harder, it is claimed.

As part of efforts to overhaul the justice system, the Government is proposing a raft of measures in its Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, which is due to receive its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday.

It includes plans to give police more powers to tackle non-violent protests which cause significant disruption to the public or on access to Parliament.

But police and legal figures have warned this could pose a threat to democracy.

Sir Peter Fahy, former Greater Manchester Police chief constable told Times Radio there was a “real danger” that rushed legislation could make the job of the police “more difficult”, adding: “People need to be really worried about this.”

Officers from the Metropolitan Police and the National Eviction Team (NET) block the entrance to the anti-HS2 camp at Euston Square Gardens, London (Victoria Jones/PA) / PA Wire

He said: “If we’ve learned one thing this weekend, it’s the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.

“And bringing in legislation on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of…

“Again, if we’ve learned one thing from the coronavirus legislation, (it) is that rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.

“This weekend has shown the crucial importance of the right to protest, and you’ve got to be really wary of more legislation being rushed through just because certain politicians didn’t like certain protests during the summer.”

Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, of Doughty Street Chambers, warned the Bill could “hugely expand” police powers to “allow them to stop protests which would cause ‘serious unease’ and create criminal penalties for people who cause ‘serious annoyance’.”

He added: “This would effectively put the current situation where Covid regulations have given police too much power over our free speech rights on a permanent footing.”

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