From the Chartist uprising in Newport to the Rebecca Riots and the Miners' Strike of the 1980s, Wales has a proud history of protest and social unrest dating back centuries.

This culture of spirited dissent could soon be at risk, however, under new UK government legislation.

In recent months, a raft of further measures limiting public protest was added, last minute, to the already-controversial Policing Bill.

The original version of the Bill, labelled “an assault on our freedoms” by human rights charity Amnesty International, proposed granting police forces significant new powers to limit public protest -  even one-person protests - on the basis of noise, and would make it easier for courts to prosecute protestors.

The new amendments, introduced by the Ministry of Justice, add new criminal offences and penalties to this toolbox of restrictions, in what appears to be a direct response to the recent headline-grabbing activities of Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion (XR).

We spoke to Welsh activists and Dr Val Aston, an expert in UK protest law, about what these late additions to the Bill mean for the future of political freedom in Wales and England.

WHAT’S NEW?

Firstly, the Ministry of Justice intends to make “locking on” and “going equipped to lock on” criminal offences.

This tactic, in which protestors lock or glue themselves in place, has recently become associated with climate crisis campaigners such as Insulate Britain and XR.

Insulate Britain has staged at least twelve roadblock protests to date, with activists gluing themselves to motorways in an attempt to halt traffic. 

The National Wales: Insulate Britain members protest on Lambeth Bridge, London, in support of nine jailed activists (Source: PA Wire)Insulate Britain members protest on Lambeth Bridge, London, in support of nine jailed activists (Source: PA Wire)

In another high-profile incident late last year, XR delayed the distribution of Rupert Murdoch-owned newspapers when protestors blocked access to printing presses by chaining themselves to vehicles and wooden structures.

The papers, including The Sun and The Times, were targeted for "failure to report on the climate and ecological emergency" and "polluting national debate" on social issues.

READ MORE: Protestors scale roof of Wrexham factory

Locking on and roadblock protests, however, are far from new inventions.

Back in 1908, when women were campaigning for their right to vote, suffragettes chained themselves to a metal grille in the House of Commons, while more recently here in Wales, campaigners chained themselves to bookshelves in Rhysyfelin Library, near Pontypridd, to protest its 2014 closure by the local council.

The National Wales: Cymdeithas yr Iaith blocks Pont Trefechan at its first ever protest in 1963 (Source: Geoff Charles; National Museum Wales)Cymdeithas yr Iaith blocks Pont Trefechan at its first ever protest in 1963 (Source: Geoff Charles; National Museum Wales)

“These are very basic protest tactics that people have always used,” said Mabli Siriol, chair of Welsh language campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith.

“For Cymdeithas’s first ever protest, at Pont Trefechan in Aberystwyth, people sat down and blocked a road – that was back in 1963.”

Cymdeithas aims to protect and promote Cymraeg through peaceful “direct action” – forms of protest that seek to apply pressure by causing disruption.

READ MORE: Eyewitness accounts of Chartists' Newport Rising uncovered

In its nearly sixty years, the group has tried a variety of tactics – members have chained themselves to government offices, removed and defaced non-bilingual road signs, and occupied a school in Kidwelly to protest its closure – but the group is perhaps best known for its activities during the 1970s, when activists climbed television masts and invaded TV studios in a campaign to secure Welsh language TV and radio channels.

The National Wales: Welsh language activists dump English-only road signs on the steps of the UK government's Welsh Office in 1972 (Source: Aled Betts)Welsh language activists dump English-only road signs on the steps of the UK government's Welsh Office in 1972 (Source: Aled Betts)

BBC Radio Cymru was launched by 1977, and S4C came soon after, in 1982.

“Everything we’ve ever won – official status for the Welsh language, TV and radio, the growth of Welsh medium education – was won because people were prepared to take that kind of nonviolent direct action,” Mabli, who has organised a number of high-profile demonstrations against the Welsh housing crisis this year, added.

READ MORE: Landmark Cymdeithas yr Iaith protest announced for February 2022

Under the new proposals, locking on could land activists with just under a year’s imprisonment, an as-yet-undefined fine, or both.

Similarly, the maximum punishment for wilfully obstructing a highway would be increased to 51 weeks’ imprisonment and a fine, while being found in possession of items that could be perceived as tools for locking on – like glue, or a bike lock – could also result in a fine.

The National Wales: Cymdeithas yr Iaith protest against the Welsh housing crisis outside the Senedd (Source: Rebecca Wilks)Cymdeithas yr Iaith protest against the Welsh housing crisis outside the Senedd (Source: Rebecca Wilks)

'TYRANT’S CHARTER'

If passed, the amendments will also introduce Serious Disruption Prevention Orders (SDPOs), which courts could impose on people who are considered to have caused or contributed to “serious disruption” as part of a protest within the past five years. 

Under an SDPO, a person may be banned from being at specific locations at certain times of day, from carrying certain items, from using the internet for protest-related activities, or even from associating with particular people. They may also be required to regularly report to a police station, and keep forces updated on their address and contact details.

These conditions could last between one week and two years, and being found to have violated the SDPO may result in a prison sentence.

The National Wales: Cardiff women protest gendered violence and police brutality in the wake of Sarah Everard's murder (Source: Huw Evans Agency)Cardiff women protest gendered violence and police brutality in the wake of Sarah Everard's murder (Source: Huw Evans Agency)

Police monitoring network Netpol has criticised the measures as “so broad that it could criminalise sharing a protest announcement on Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s a protest banning order, and it’s extremely concerning,” said Dr Val Aston, a Swansea University law teacher specialising in policing, protest and human rights law.

“It will enable the state to impose restrictions on protesters even if they’ve not been convicted of anything. 

“That's hugely problematic, because these are fundamental rights we're talking about - the right to protest, the right to freedom of assembly and association.”

These rights are currently protected under Article 11 of the Human Rights Act (1998).

Justice secretary Dominic Raab last week announced plans to "revise" the Human Rights Act, "to deter spurious human rights claims."

The National Wales: Justice secretary Dominic Raab insists that his proposed changes to the Human Rights Act will "strengthen" freedoms and "curtail" alleged abuses of the system (Source: PA Wire)Justice secretary Dominic Raab insists that his proposed changes to the Human Rights Act will "strengthen" freedoms and "curtail" alleged abuses of the system (Source: PA Wire)

Of particular concern, Dr Aston says, is that SDPOs would use the civil court “on the balance of probabilities” standard of proof, instead of the “beyond reasonable doubt” standard used in criminal justice.

In other words, the court would only need to be convinced by police that a protestor was more likely to have engaged in disruptive activity than not.

“That’s a low bar,” Dr Aston added.

The Policing Bill would also allow the Home Secretary, currently Priti Patel, to “issue guidance” to police on identifying who would be “appropriate” targets for SDPOs.

READ MORE: Are the 'creeping tentacles' of the UK government threatening Welsh democracy?

Tessa Marshall, an activist involved in a campaign to save Cardiff’s Northern Meadows from destruction, has taken part in protests since she was 16.

After a number of defeats in court, the Save The Northern Meadows group is now holding regular vigils at the woodland site, where preparation works are already underway.

“It’s going to change the whole nature of how we can engage,” she said of the Policing Bill.

“You could have one or two local people having a discussion with site managers, observing the works, and if they’re portrayed as a nuisance or annoyance to police, they could be criminalised for it.

The National Wales: Tessa speaking at a protest on behalf of Save the Northern Meadows (Source: Tessa Marshall)Tessa speaking at a protest on behalf of Save the Northern Meadows (Source: Tessa Marshall)

“We’re just trying to defend a nature reserve – it’s scary.

“You could be criminalised for nothing more than asking for what you deserve.”

Shavannah Taj, general secretary of Wales’s Trades Union Congress, echoed this sentiment.

Calling the Policing Bill a “tyrant’s charter”, she told The National she feared the measures would “undoubtedly” be used against trade union members engaging in protest or industrial action, “punishing them for using one of the few means they have to defend themselves against the powerful.”

'A LONG TIME COMING'

The new amendments would also expand police stop and search powers, allowing officers to search protest attendees without grounds for suspicion.

If a person is perceived as obstructing the officer in carrying out a search, that too may result in a £1,000 fine and/or a prison sentence.

“The measures that are being proposed here are neither untried nor untested,” Dr Aston said.

“Police have long attempted, unsuccessfully, to utilise existing legislation in a way that gives them powers to blanket search protestors.

“They did this at Kingsnorth Power Station in 2008, to thousands of people attending a climate camp protest – to such an extent that people were queuing for hours.

“This was found to be unlawful.”

The National Wales: Police search activists on their way to Kingsnorth Climate Camp, 2008 (Source: Global Justice Now)Police search activists on their way to Kingsnorth Climate Camp, 2008 (Source: Global Justice Now)

Around 3,500 searches were carried out during the Kingsnorth incident. Kent Police issued a public apology, and were ordered to pay compensation over unlawful searches conducted on two 11-year-olds.

“This legislation, it’s been a long time coming,” Dr Aston added.

“The police have wanted these powers for a long, long time.”

These expanded powers, she said, should be considered in light of the powers and resources police already have.

“This Bill seems to be directed at obstructive protests, but the police already have extensive public order and public nuisance powers to deal with that.

“Where we are currently is quite a limited space for protest, in terms of the law.

“We’ve also now got routine use of camera teams, intelligence officers, and facial recognition technology – which has already been used at a protest and will undoubtedly be used in that context in future.”

The National Wales: A police officer films the crowd at a protest over the death of Mohamud Hassan, who died following detention at Cardiff Bay Police Station (Source: Huw Evans Agency)A police officer films the crowd at a protest over the death of Mohamud Hassan, who died following detention at Cardiff Bay Police Station (Source: Huw Evans Agency)

Last year South Wales Police lost a landmark court case over its use of live facial recognition technology at a peaceful anti-arms fair protest in 2018. 

More recently, activist Bianca Ali complained that South Wales Police officers had parked outside her home and repeatedly drove around her street, after she took part in protests over the death of 24-year-old Mohamud Hassan following police contact in January this year.

The Guardian reported in October that the force had attempted to recruit Swansea-based BLM activist Lowri Davies as an informant.

The National Wales: Early this year saw a flurry of racial justice protests following the deaths of both Mohamud Hassan and Mouayed Bashir (Source: Huw Evans Agency)Early this year saw a flurry of racial justice protests following the deaths of both Mohamud Hassan and Mouayed Bashir (Source: Huw Evans Agency)

“Stop and search has a secondary purpose in establishing a person’s identity,” Dr Aston added.

“You can ask for a person’s name, their address – so it’s not just a mechanism for seizing prohibited items, but also a surveillance measure.

“When you put these measures together - the prevention orders, further powers to stop and search and therefore identify large numbers of protesters who are participating, along with quite extensive surveillance – you understand just how restrictive and repressive this could be.”

The Policing Bill is currently in its report stage at the House of Lords, during which time each amendment will be debated and voted on. 

The process has been adjourned for Christmas, and will resume on January 10 2022.

The National Wales: Mabli Siriol speaks at a Nid yw Cymru ar Werth ("Wales is not for sale") protest on the housing crisis (Source: Rebecca Wilks)Mabli Siriol speaks at a Nid yw Cymru ar Werth ("Wales is not for sale") protest on the housing crisis (Source: Rebecca Wilks)

“This legislation will almost certainly pass,” Mabli Siriol said.

Asked if this outcome would deter her and Cymdeithas yr Iaith, she replied: “It’s important for people to remember that the fight against this was never going to be won in Parliament.

“It wasn’t governments that gave us the right to protest, and they can’t take it away from us either.

“From our perspective – we’ve always been prepared to break the law and take non-violent action.

“So we’ve got no intention of stopping.”

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