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There have been protests and much talk about the Government’s recent passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, so we spoke to our local MP, Anthony Mangnall, who voted for the legislation this week.
CONTENT WARNING: Mention of rape and sexual assault.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is enormous, and there are pieces of it that look to be positive to most people, including doubling maximum sentences for low-level assaults against emergency service workers to two years, and on terrorism, the bill creates powers to more closely monitor offenders released from prison. It also proposes community sentences for less serious crimes, to address underlying problems in offenders' lives, and changes to sexual offences law to tackle abusive adults in positions of trust, such as sports coaches and religious figures.
But it also includes proposals that many people are worried about, mainly when it comes to curbing our right to protest, giving the police more powers and increasing the maximum punishment for defacing a statue from three months in prison to a decade behind bars. Many have pointed out that this is longer than some sentences for rape, sexual assault, violence against children, possession of indecent images of children, kidnapping, possession of a knife in public, harassment, stalking and drink driving.
The bill includes an offence of "intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance" and says that protests can become illegal if they are considered “noisy” or “disruptive”. Many say that it is difficult to protest without being either noisy and/or disruptive and most protests have to cross those lines in order to be effective.
The right to protest is enshrined in the Human Rights Act, but that right is not absolute and the police already have powers to impose restrictions on such gatherings, for instance in order to ensure public safety or to prevent crime.
We spoke to the MP for Totnes and South Devon, Anthony Mangnall, to find out more about his views on this bill and to hopefully reassure those who are worried about its possible effects.
When asked if he supported the right to protest, Mr Mangnall said: “Yes, the right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy. This bill does not limit the right of an individual or group to protest but seeks to implement the Law Commission’s suggestions of 2015.”
Some people worry that this bill is a move towards authoritarianism in the UK, including DUP MP Gavin Robinson, who said the bill was enough to "make a dictator blush", but Mr Mangnall said: “I disagree with the statement entirely and, having lived in Zimbabwe while under Robert Mugabe, I can tell you what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime. The UK is in no way an authoritarian nation.
“What I am keen to end are the Covid restrictions that do limit the ability for people to gather together and to protest. These Covid measures have served their purpose and wrestled the [virus] under control, now they must be repealed for good!”
Talking about the curbing of protests that are “noisy” or “disruptive”, Mr Mangnall said: “The vote this week sends the Bill to Committee Stage where more clarification and specificity can be added where required. ‘Noisy’, ‘disruptive’ and ‘annoyance’ are all terms that have legal standing and the bar must be set high to ensure that they are not misused or poorly interpreted by the police.
“I expect to see the Bill return with that additional clarification and to reassure that civil liberties are [not] under assault.” We asked Mr Mangnall whether he would vote against the bill the next time it came to the House of Commons if those points were not clarified strongly enough, but he has not responded.
We then asked him if he agreed with the fact that this bill would mean that it was possible to get longer in prison (10 years) for defacing a statue, than you can get for rape. He said: “That is factually incorrect. The maximum sentence for rape is life. The maximum sentence for defacing a war memorial is ten years.
“As you will be aware MPs do not have a hand in sentencing perpetrators of crimes (and rightly so). This legislation seeks to enhance the sentencing scale for a range of different crimes, from assaulting front line workers, to those driving dangerously.
“This bill has been directed to ensure that the sentencing fits the crime and rightly so. The suggestion, by the Labour party that ‘rape has been decriminalised’ is dangerous, irresponsible and wholly incorrect.”
Sadly, Mr Mangnall is not correct here. While it is true that the maximum sentence for rape is life, the minimum sentence is four years (factcheck). Another MP, David Lammy (Tottenham), pointed out in the House of Commons this week that there have been cases, including the rape of a minor, in which offenders have been sentenced to less than 10 years. The maximum sentence for stalking is six months in custody.
Mr Mangnall also states that the Labour Party have said that ‘rape has been decriminalised’. While he is right to say that this has been shared by members of the opposition party, the statement is from a report by Dame Vera Baird QC last year, when she concluded that “In effect, what we are witnessing is the decriminalisation of rape.” This was not to do with the recent bill, but was talking about the sharp fall in rape allegations moving to trial and getting a conviction. The Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted and convicted fewer people for rape in the year ending March 2020 than in any other year for which data exists. In 2010, six percent of alleged rapes that were reported to police ended in a full rape charge and 14 per cent ended in a prosecution of rape or a lesser charge of sexual assault etc. In the year to March 2020, just 1.4 per cent of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged (or receiving a summons) (factcheck). This drop in prosecutions has been linked with a decade of cuts to the CPS - Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said that the CPS had suffered a 30 per cent funding reduction and ‘significant’ reduction in staff since 2010. We asked Mr Mangnall for a clarification about this, and whether he believed the funding for the CPS should be increased, but he has again not responded.
So while of course, rape is not decriminalised, you do currently have a 98.6 per cent chance of getting away with it, even if your victim reports it to the police. And that is only for the rapes that are reported - a 2013 report says only around 15 per cent of those who experience sexual violence report it to the police (factcheck).
Main image: Anthony Mangnall MP - credit Richard Townshend
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