Opposition MPs have criticised government plans to give police greater powers to control protests as “draconian, undemocratic and disproportionate”.
Almost a quarter of a million people signed a petition against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, prompting a parliamentary debate.
The legislation, which received its second reading last month, would allow police to impose start and finish times and set noise limits on static protests. The home secretary would be able to define what was meant by “serious disruption” to a community.
People who refuse 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. New laws would also criminalise unauthorised encampments and sets a maximum sentence of 10 years for damage to statues and memorials.
During a short debate in Westminster Hall (Monday 26 April 2021), most of the speakers dissociated themselves from comments by the Conservative Matt Vickers (Stockton South), who said “looney left, wokey-cokey social media accounts” would have people “believe that the Government were removing any meaningful right to protest”.
Mr Vickers said the provisions of the bill were necessary:
“The Government must protect protesters from abusive and violent thugs who seek to hijack their causes. Similarly, the Government must protect the rights of citizens to go about their daily lives, unaffected by the protests of others.”
But the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, who was arrested at an anti-fracking protest and later acquitted, described the bill as “dangerous, undemocratic and disproportionate”. She said:
“the Bill is a blatant and biased attack on the long-standing right to protest from a Government that have a track record of dismissing the rule of law, the truth, legal obligations and human rights as disposable inconveniences.”
“Protest works; it changes things. Throughout the long history of this country, people have assembled to express their dissent and have changed the course of that history.”
“Members from all parties were falling over themselves to be associated with the Suffragettes on the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Back then, protest was suddenly not a dirty word. Now, when the protests are a little closer to home, whether that is Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion, it seems the right to protest is no longer quite so universally celebrated.”
Labour’s Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) said:
“The problem with the Bill is that it gives the police and the courts powers to decide what is acceptable, what is troublesome, what is annoying and what is too noisy. The police have a difficult enough time as it is when it comes to policing protests, and this Bill means that there is huge potential for political interference and for pressure on the police to intervene.”
She dismissed the suggestion that there was a problem with “uncontained, out-of-hand, destructive political demonstrations”. But she urged people to exercise the right to protest “wisely and well”. Working together, using democratic and peaceful means, could stop the protest parts of the bill, she said.
The Lib Dem MP, Wera Hobhouse (Bath), said:
“Peaceful protest can be noisy, inconvenient and cause disruption, and not everybody agrees on which issues to pick when protesting, but it should not be for the Government or the police to decide what people should be allowed to protest about.”
Labour’s Kim Johnson (Liverpoool Riverside), said:
“The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill gives unprecedented powers to police and the Home Secretary to criminalise people standing up for social justice. Those powers include draconian punishment of up to 10 years in prison for anyone who poses a risk of serious annoyance or who causes a public nuisance. Those provisions strike at the heart of our democracy and the trade union movement, and they severely erode the public’s right to protest and hold the Government to account.”
Sarah Jones (Labour, Croydon central), criticised the bill as “incredibly broad and vague”. She said measures to target protesters for causing serious unease or annoyance would have prevented the great protests of history.
“The point of protests, as has been said, is to capture the attention of people and of the Government. Sometimes—pretty much always—protests are noisy. That is the point of them. Sometimes they are annoying; but they are as fundamental to our democracy as Parliament and the courts are.”
She said the 1986 Public Order Act and other existing legislation was already in force to police protests.
The crime and policing minister, Kit Malthouse, said the government had a “firm commitment to the right to peaceful protest”. He said ministers also remained committed to articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights, which set out rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
But he said:
“the very same human rights legislation makes it clear that these rights are not absolute and must be balanced with the rights and freedoms of others.”
Mr Malthouse said Extinction Rebellion protests in London in 2019 and 2020 had disrupted commuters, businesses and the emergency services. He said the policing operation diverted officers from other duties and protests in April and October 2019 cost £37 million.
On the measures in the bill, he said:
“It is not the case that they will unnecessarily restrict civil liberties. The impact that these measures will have has been misinterpreted, and the majority of protesters in the UK, who behave lawfully, will be entirely unaffected by the changes.
“It is not the case that these measures allow the police to ban protests. It is not the case that these measures will criminalise protesters who are annoying. Public nuisance is already an existing offence, and we are simply stating it in statute to provide certainty for everybody.
“It is not the case that these measures will ban protests outside of Parliament.”