Politics

MPs divided over protest policing bill

Opposition MPs have criticised government plans to give police greater powers to control protests as “draconian, undemocratic and disproportionate”.

Rally in Parliament Square in central London in protest against government inaction on climate change, 17 November 2018. Photo: Eddie Thornton

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.”

She said:

“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.”

8 replies »

  1. It’s not about the rights of citizens to go about their daily lives free from disruption of protesters. It’s about allowing companies to go about their polluting businesses free from disruption from protesters. What about the rights of citizens to drink clean water and breathe clean air? If a business is destroying the planet and poisoning us/ compromising our health and well being, we ought to have the right to stop it.

  2. No, you don’t Richard. You can decide to vote for the above mentioned individuals and produce legislation to start or stop what you want. However, I suspect there are too few to get what the too few want. Meanwhile, the majority-like those who type away on the plastic reliant Internet-will have the right to vote through legislation they want.

    MPs divided over a Bill!!

    Shock/horror. Not many Bills that do not have someone dissenting. That is why Bills can be debated and amended.

  3. In a perfect Democracy, where any change is always the result of collective decision making, you would be right Martyn.

    I think we all know that most of what impacts our society is not the product of legislation.. Parliament controls very little, not even the commanding heights of the economy. There is an asymmetry of power in our society which is why the balance has to be corrected at times by protest.

    A useful illustration would be the changes to the National Planning Policy Framework in 2011 that prioritised Fracking over the restraint of local planning considerations. This change was the initiative of the Petroleum Companies which had the ear of Government. There was no vote in Parliament. And no vote either when the number of PEDLs was extended in 2014.

    By the time most readers of this forum woke up to the horrors of Fracking, the die had already been cast. Democratic consent was visible by its absence. The protests were messy and prolonged because due process had been suborned. And as you know, the moratorium was not voted on in Parliament.

  4. Don’t agree with that, Philip. (Do try and get my name correct, not too much research required there.)

    I have as many rights to have my freedoms protected as anyone else, and if some wish to protest they should make sure they do not adversely impact others freedoms. When they deliberately try and impact upon others freedoms, which has now become common place, then they should be controlled. Laws are the better way rather than those being impacted to take the law into their own hands, and those conducting the impact then expecting laws to protect them from that.

    In respect of the strange comments regarding fracking, then if the messy and prolonged protests had NOT taken place, then the moratorium would have happened SOONER, as Cuadrilla would have progressed quicker and the seismic events would have happened sooner. So, those messy and prolonged protests achieved what? A delay in the moratorium! So, no, the asymmetry of power you refer to was NOT adjusted by protest, unless you accept that the only adjustment was to delay the moratorium! I don’t feel that sort of protest has achieved anything but has certainly adversely infringed the freedoms of many.

    Protest methods change, and that is obvious, so laws will react to that. Always have, always will. I lived in Newbury not only with the bypass protests but also Greenham Common. There was very little sympathy for Swampy and his friends but quite a lot for the Greenham Common ladies. One lot were fixed on causing disruption for locals the other to protest but not cause disruption. That distinction can be achieved. If it is deliberately ignored, then someone will control that-hence new Bills.

  5. Protests about test fracking didn’t exist in the early years of this century and in 2011 the frackers proceeded to cause earthquakes on the Fylde pretty much unnoticed by the rest of the Country. That is why when they returned 2017 to try again their packs of lies about the safety of the process were initially promoted by local sports clubs, businesses and handouts of cash to nearby residents.. Anti-fracking activists both local and national needed to ensure that this time around their failure was anticipated and PNR became ‘……the most monitored oil and gas site in the World’ in order to ensure a permanent cessation of UK fracking exploration.

    WE SUCCEEDED!

    Now it looks like government, universities and the Oil and Gas industry are exploring the possibilities offered by failed fracking wells to provide deep storage of various products including radioactive waste. Which exists in vast amounts around Cumbria and of course once again the Fylde.
    I hope that the relevant Members of Parliament will be vigorous in their demands that this does not happen!

  6. Oh, really??

    So, it was the monitoring that caused the moratorium? Nope. The monitoring takes place at many such sites.

    So, it was the protest that caused the seismic activity? Nope. It would have happened with or without protest-just sooner without.

    WE SUCCEEDED!??

    Well, Peter, the delay in the inevitable succeeded in providing the time for Polyfilla to increase in price and thousands of liters of fossil fuel to be consumed visiting the site. But, interesting you mention how much Cuadrilla paid into the local community. How much did you cost that same community?

  7. Surely there can be no doubt that protest can contribute to the democratic process when all else fails or seems to be failing. Take black emancipation in the US – certainly King did not doubt this. Take the protests over involvement in Vietnam, eventually. Take the reunification of Germany. Take apartheid. Take the objections to fracking in the US, and the enormous amount of research which took place in the wake of protests. No doubt these protests and others had a deleterious impact upon the freedoms of others…..thank heavens for that! I rather doubt that in any of these cases, the end result, imperfect though it may be, would have occurred spontaneously.

  8. So, fracking in the US has stopped? No, it has developed. Read up on how such industries start and refine in the US, fracking has just followed the standard model.

    You also make the classic mistake of mentioning protest where the vast MAJORITY are against something-such as apartheid. Quite a different matter, and where lack of democracy did not allow any other means.

    Small groups of individuals trying to use such as an excuse to further their individual agendas is not the same, especially, when they can not even provide a coherent reason what they are protesting about! (I can provide links, if you like-but, you wouldn’t.) “Politically illiterate” individuals was the term used for elements within the recent Bristol protests regarding this Bill. Must have been by some Tory? NO-the Mayor of Bristol. Not exactly the poster boy for the right!

    So, yes, some adjustment to legislation is needed, and will be applied.

    When Ms. Lucas is let back on the BBC, she can complain some more.

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