The government should drop its plan to ban noisy protests in England and Wales, a parliamentary committee has warned.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights said proposals in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill were “not necessary nor proportionate” and could undermine freedom of expression.
The committee’s chair, Harriet Harman, described this section of the legislation as “oppressive and wrong”.
The bill, which is now being scrutinised by parliament, was announced in March 2021 and has itself provoked large protests.
It would allow police to impose controls on group or individual protests where the noise “may result in serious disruption”.
The Home Office has said the new laws would enable police to “safely manage protests where they threaten public order or stop people from getting on with their daily lives”.
But the joint committee of MPs and peers, which examines the compatibility of government bills with human rights laws, is highly critical of some of the proposals.
In a report published today, it said:
“Demonstrations with the greatest public backing could be disproportionately impacted by this expansion of police powers to move the location of a demonstration, limit its numbers, duration or even silence chants.”
It called on the government to:
- Remove the power to control noise at protests
- Drop powers to impose conditions on one-person protests
- Remove increased penalties on breaching conditions on protest because the case had not been made
The law already provides a range of powers to deal with noise, the report said.
It also called for the introduction of a statutory protection for the right to protest. It said there should be a duty on public authorities to facilitate protest and they must refrain from interfering unlawfully with the right to protest.
The proposed Clause 59, which creates a new offence of intentionally or recklessly causing public nuisance was, the committee said, “broadly drafted and risks criminalising some forms of peaceful protest, leading to fines or custodial sentences”. It must be rewritten so that an offence was committed only when serious harm was caused to the public.
The report said too much of this part of the bill “leaves room for confusion and the potential for arbitrary or discriminatory use of new powers”.
Multiple terms, such as “intensity” and “serious unease”, were open to wide interpretation, it said. They left an “excessive degree of judgement in the hand of a police officer”, the report said.
The Home Secretary’s intention to clarify the meaning of “serious disruption” must be explained before scrutiny of the bill was completed, the report added. This would have a direct impact on the use of police powers against protesters.
The report said some changes to the offence of failing to comply with police conditions may be justified. But it said “the Bill goes further than is necessary, making the criminalisation of peaceful protesters more likely.”
The chair of the joint committee, Harriet Harman, said:
“One of our most fundamental rights is to protest. It is the essence of our democracy. To do that, we need to make ourselves heard. The Government proposals to allow police to restrict “noisy” protests are oppressive and wrong.
“The Government put forward new powers in area areas where the police already have access to powers and offences which are perfectly adequate. The Government has served up confusion where clarity and precision is essential.
“Noisy protests are the exercises of the lungs of a healthy democracy. They should not be treated as an inconvenience by those in power. We are calling for the right to protest peacefully to be given explicit statutory protection.”