MPs called on the home secretary tonight to abandon plans to give police greater powers to curtail the right to protest.
The shadow home secretary, Nick Thomas-Symonds, said arrests at Saturday’s vigil for Sarah Everard “should be a red warning signal”.
Speaking in a debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, he said:
“rushing through ill-judged, ill-thought-out restrictions on the right to protest would be a profound mistake. It would have long-lasting consequences and do great damage to our democracy.”
Labour, the SNP, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have said they will vote against the second reading of the bill tomorrow because of the protest provisions. More than 150 groups have warned it would be an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens.
The 307-page bill, published last week, includes a new offence of “intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance”.
It would give police powers to impose start and finish times and set noise limits for static protests, even if they involved just one person. The home secretary would be able to define what was meant by “serious disruption” to a community.
Under the bill, people who refused to follow police directions could be fined up to £2,500. It would be a crime to fail to follow restrictions that protesters “ought” to have known about, even if they had not received a direct order from an officer.
The legislation also includes new laws to criminalise unauthorised encampments and sets a maximum sentence of 10 years for damage to statues and memorials.
Mr Thomas-Symonds told the debate:
“The right to protest to those in power is extremely precious.
“Whether it is our trades unions, whether it is another group that wants to make its views known loudly in our streets, we curtail their ability to do so at our peril.
“The right to protest is one of our proudest democratic traditions. That this government seeks to attack it is to its great shame.
“Our existing laws on protest strike a careful balance between legitimate right to protest and the need to keep order. What our laws on protest do not do and should never do is seek to shield those in power from criticism and public protest.”
He said the government should be ashamed that under the bill someone who damaged a statute could receive a longer prison sentence than someone who attacked a person.
The chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Labour’s Yvette Cooper, said:
“I would urge the home secretary to withdraw those measures and reconsult on them and to try to build consensus so that we can all support the action needed to cut crime.”
The Lib Dem’s justice spokesperson, Wera Hobhouse, said:
“The government says it wants to clamp down on the most disruptive protest. But let us be clear, it aims to silence protest, quite literally.
“It is a thinly-veiled reaction to the climate protest that have taken place for the past couple of years around parliament and in cities and towns across the country.”
“If the government was really serious about protecting women from violence, it would never attempt to silent their protest. This part of the bill must go.”
“Proactive approach to dangerous protest”
The home secretary, Priti Patel, told MPs the legislation was “a criminal justice bill as much as a policing bill”. She said:
“The right to protest peacefully is a cornerstone of our democracy and one that this government will defend.
“But there is, of course, a balance to be struck between the rights of the protester and the rights of individuals to go about their daily lives.”
She said the Public Order Act was more than 30 years old and recent changes in protest tactics had led to “disproportionate amounts of disruption”.
Last year, she said an emergency ambulance had been blocked, protesters had glued themselves to trains during the rush hour, airport runways had been blocked and people had been prevented from going to work.
The home secretary added:
“On one day last year, many people across the country were prevented from reading their morning newspaper due to the tactic of some groups, a clear attempt to limit a free and fair press, a cornerstone of our democracy and society.”
“this bill will give the police the powers to take a more proactive approach in tackling dangerous and disruptive protest.”
The threshold on protest noise would be “rightfully high”, she said, and the police response would “still need to be proportionate”.
The former prime minister, Theresa May, said the measures could have unintended consequences:
“Freedom of speech is an important right in our democracy, however annoying or uncomfortable that might be.
“I do worry about the potential unintended consequences of some of the measures in the bill that have been drawn quite widely.
“Protests have to be under the rule of law but the law has to be proportionate.”
On the provision to allow the home secretary to define “serious disruption”, Mrs May said:
“It is tempting with a home secretary to think that giving powers to the home secretary is very reasonable because we all think we’re reasonable. But actually, future home secretaries may not be so reasonable.”
She said the government should “consider carefully the need to walk a fine line between being popular and being populist. Our freedoms depend on it.”
Another Conservative, Fiona Bruce (Congleton), said the protest measures could outlaw street preachers and people with “non-mainstream views”. It could have a profound effect on free speech, she said.
Anne McLaughlin, the SNP’s justice spokesperson, described the bill’s powers on protests as “draconian” and wide-reaching”. She said people would “effectively be silenced”.
Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts, said the bill was “rushed” and “punitive”. On its effect on Wales, she said:
“It will infringe our right to protest, it will worsen inequality and it will lead to a more unjust society.”
Conservatives Andrea Leadsom, Mark Francois, Tim Laughton and Sarah Dines welcomed the measures to criminalise unauthorised encampments. There was also support from several Conservatives for the proposal to increase to 10 years the maximum prison sentence for damaging statues and memorials.
The debate continues tomorrow.