Controversial government plans to crack down on protests have been defeated by peers in a series of late night votes.
In a debate on the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, the House of Lords voted down:
- A proposed new offence of locking-on at protests
- Additional police powers to stop and search people near a protest with or without suspicion
- Serious Disruption Prevention Orders allowing police to ban people from attending protests, even if they had never been to a protest or been convicted of an offence
- New offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with key national infrastructure
The government was also defeated when peers supported opposition and cross-bench amendments on protecting Parliament Square as a place to protest; police powers to impose conditions on marches where noise may result in serious disruption; and increased penalties for wilful obstruction of the highway.
Large crowds gathered outside parliament during the votes and drumming from opponents could be heard in the chamber.
The debate, which began at just after 2.30pm on Monday, finally ended at 12.45am on Tuesday morning. On the entire bill, the government was defeated 14 times.
Earlier, Friends of the Earth presented a petition to the Home Office signed by 811,833 defending the right to protest. The Muslim Council of Britain described the protest sections of the bill as “toxic” and “draconian”.
“Noise is fundamental part of freedom to protest”
Speaking in the debate, the Labour frontbencher, Lord Coaker, said:
“the right to protest in this country has never, ever had to have a condition placed upon it which is about noise.
“Making a noise is a fundamental part of the freedom to protest properly in a democracy.”
The Green Party peer, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, described the noise measures as “so oppressive”.
“These clauses should be deleted from the Bill. They are repressive and plain nasty, and they really have to go.”
She said she could see herself getting arrested at future protests about climate change.
“We have a government who is actually passing rules for us, but not acting according to those rules themselves, and the police protect the powerful while getting more oppressive power to use against the voiceless. This is an autocracy not a democracy.”
A former reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile (Lib Dem) described the without suspicion stop and search powers as “a menacing and dangerous measure”.
He said stop and search without suspicion under the Terrorism Act required authorisation from a higher level of officer than that needed under the protest proposals.
The Labour former cabinet minister Lord Hain, a leading anti-apartheid campaigner, said:
“the Bill represents the biggest threat to the right to dissent and non-violent protest in my lifetime. It’s deeply reactionary. It’s an authoritarian attack on the fundamental liberties of our citizens.”
The cross-bencher, Viscount Colville of Culross, criticised the government for introducing a series of amendments just before Christmas, which included stop-and-search without suspicion, serious disruption prevention orders and the measures against locking-on.
“these sweeping, significant and further controversial powers from the government have not been looked at for a single minute by the elected House, which is normal practice in relation to controversial measures.
“In this House they have had just over one hour’s consideration, after midnight at the end of Committee, which meant, in effect, that the overwhelming majority of noble Lords were denied the opportunity to participate.”
Viscount Colville described the stop and search powers and serious disruption prevention orders as the “most extreme and pernicious”.
He said other proposals against obstruction of major transport works and key infrastructure were “overreaching and unnecessary”. He said:
“we have reached a sorry state of affairs when we legislate still further specifically against those concerned about the proven threat of climate change and its impact on our way of life and that of our children and grandchildren, and the tardy action on environmental issues.”
The former senior police officer, Lord Paddick (Lib Dem) described the measures in the late amendments as:
“draconian, anti-democratic, reminiscent of Cold War Eastern bloc police states”.
He said they were a “hurried response to the Home Secretary’s knee-jerk, populist reaction to Insulate Britain protests at the Conservative Party conference”.
“The anti-protest measures in the original bill were dreadful. These measures [in the late amendments] and the way they have been introduced, are outrageous.”
Another ex-police officer, the former metropolitan police commissioner, Lord Hogan Howe (cross bench), said a change in the law on locking on was needed. And he added:
“If you are going to look for equipment that is going to be used for locking on, there is not much point unless you have a stop and search power.”
The Home Office minister, Baroness Williams of Trafford, defending the protest measures, said:
“The rights to freedom of speech and assembly are … a cornerstone of our democracy, and the government will not shrink from defending them.
“But a responsible Government, who stand up for the rule of law, must also defend the rights and freedoms of the law-abiding majority.
“Their rights cannot and must not be trampled on by a small minority of protesters, who believe they should not be answerable to the law and should be given carte blanche to cause any amount of disruption at any cost.”
She said the protest measures in the bill were “reasonable and proportionate”. She thought the British public would support them to ensure their daily lives were not disrupted by protests, such as those carried out by Insulate Britain last autumn.
Baroness Williams said the House of Lords had a choice:
“It can stand by the British public, who respect and value the right to peaceful protest but recognise that the protestors should not have free rein to trample on the rights of others; or it can send a signal to the militants who believe that their right to protest trumps all other rights and that there should be no limit on the amount of disruption they cause, whatever the cost to the wider public.”
Just before the votes began, she said:
“this House should look at itself. The arguments deployed here tonight are about the middle classes trying to stop working people going to work.”
The defeated late government amendments have now been removed from the bill. Other defeats will go back to the House of Commons.
Labour amendment 115 removing police powers to impose conditions on marches because noise may result in serious disruption: For 261, Against 166
Cross bench amendment 133a on obstruction of vehicle access to parliament : For 236, Against 158
Government amendment 148 making a specific offence of locking-on: For 163, Against 216
Labour amendment 150a to restrict extra penalties for willful obstruction of the highway to protests on the strategic road network: For 216, Against 160
Government amendment 151 on obstruction of major transport works: For 154, Against 208
Government amendment 152 on obstruction of key national infrastructure: For 153, Against 198
Government amendment 154 on stop and search powers with suspicion: For 141, Against 205
Government amendment 155 on stop and search powers without suspicion: For 128, Against 212
Government amendment 159 on Serious Disruption Prevention Orders: For, Against