[James Gray in the Chair]
Before the debate begins, I remind the House that any live legal cases connected with recent protests will engage the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be raised. Members are advised to exercise restraint and to try to avoid remarks that may prejudice the legal processes in any way.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 579012, relating to right to protest.
I thank the petition creator Samantha Hurst, and all those who signed the petition, for creating this opportunity to debate what I am sure we all consider an important issue. As of 19 April, the petition had received more than 248,000 signatures from across the UK. It has attracted a lot of attention; rightly, there is a lot of concern about anything that could be perceived as interfering with the right to protest.
The petition begins by stating:
“The right to peaceful assembly and protest are fundamental principles of any democracy”.
All Members will wholeheartedly agree with and believe in that. Our history and way of life have been shaped by protests and the right of people across the country to express their opinions. That freedom must be protected at all costs. The right to peaceful protest cannot, however, come at the expense of the rights of others: the rights of thousands of people to get to work; for an ambulance to get to a hospital; for a newspaper to be printed; or for a public transport network to operate. It is regrettable that during this incredibly challenging year, some protesters have adopted disruptive tactics, creating a huge impact on thousands of people trying to go about their daily lives. They have placed huge additional pressures on our incredible emergency service workers and have created a huge drain on public funds.
During the Extinction Rebellion protests in April and October 2019, areas of London were brought to a standstill. The cost of policing those protests was a staggering £37 million. Imagine how that police time could be put to better use, or what we could do in our constituencies with that money. Imagine how that money could have been used to tackle climate change or help to decarbonise our economy. Over the summer of 2020, 172 Metropolitan Police officers were assaulted by a violent minority during a Black Lives Matter protest. That was not a peaceful protest. That is why the Government need to give our frontline police officers the power they need to ensure that does not happen again.
Strengthening the powers of the police to safely manage legitimate protests benefits not only wider society but specifically those who wish to undertake meaningful peaceful protest. When someone’s son, daughter, husband or wife tells them they are off to a protest, they should not be filled with dread that they could be hurt or subject to abuse, or that they might get mixed up in something. For the interests of legitimate protesters, we must look at what is needed to prevent some of the violent and abusive behaviour we have seen at protests in the last year. There are serial protesters out there who choose to go along to legitimate demonstrations, sometimes even fuelled by drink or drugs. They go along to disrupt and to abuse others. They undermine our meaningful protests and can tarnish causes and the reputations of others who wish to promote such causes. It is right that the Government give the police powers to ensure that protests are not hijacked by small minorities who adopt abusive, violent and disruptive tactics.
I understand that concerns about the Bill are possibly based in some ways on misconceptions and misinformation around a few specific points, and I am sure that the Minister will add clarity on those today. There are loony-lefty, wokey-cokey social media accounts out there that would have people believe that the Government were removing any meaningful right to protest. I am sure that those who took the time to look at the detail will be aware that that is not the case. The right to protest remains rightfully protected, and the vast majority of protests and protesters will be entirely unaffected by these measures.
There are suggestions that the measures ban protests that are annoying. That is not the case. The Bill does not introduce a power to ban protests and annoyance is not a concept plucked from thin air. The public nuisance offence looks to capture behaviour that causes the public or a section of the public to suffer serious annoyance. This is consistent with the existing common-law offence of public nuisance and does not connote merely feeling annoyed.
There have also been suggestions that the measures will ban protests outside Parliament and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that will not be the case. Many causes and characters should rightly continue to be represented here, at the heart of our democratic system. However, the powers should and will mean that police officers have the power to prevent elected representatives and those with business being prevented from entering the estate, and rightly so—to prevent access to Parliament is to deny rightful democratic process.
I think the provisions within the Bill are necessary, but we should continue to have robust debates, such as the one that I am sure we are about to see, and discussions about the right to protest. 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.
Thank you, Sir James. It is rather disappointing—
Order. The hon. Lady may know something that I do not, but I regret to say that it is just “Mr Gray”. One day, perhaps—you never know.
It is long overdue; I find it very hard to believe that it is not already the case. Sorry, Mr Gray.
As I was saying, it is disappointing that the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) has chosen to frame the debate in the way that he has done, with talk of loony lefties and other pejoratives. I do not think that is at all helpful, and I hope that today we can try to have a measured debate about what is a very sensitive—indeed, controversial—topic.
Being a Bristol MP, I thought that it was important to speak in this debate, given that three of the top four constituencies in terms of the number of signatures to this petition are Bristol seats: there were 3,615 signatories from Bristol West, which comes as no surprise, as it usually tops the charts on these occasions; 1,455 signatories from Bristol South; and 1,343 signatories from my own constituency of Bristol East. Bristol North West was a little further down the list with 972 signatories.
In addition, I had lots of emails from constituents about the Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Some of them touched on other elements of the Bill, for example the provisions that would affect Gypsies and Travellers, and those that perhaps would have an impact on ramblers. Others called for stronger protections in the Bill against violence directed towards women and girls, which are notable by their absence. However, the majority of the emails I received were from people who were alarmed and angry about the public order provisions in part 3 of the Bill, which have given rise to the petition that we are debating today.
Bristol has a proud radical tradition. In 1788, we were the first city outside London to set up a committee for the abolition of the slave trade. The first petition that that committee set up received some 800 signatures. Actually, if we think about that time, long before the days of social media, that was no mean feat; I think it more than rivals the number of signatures that the petition we are debating has received in this day and age. It is also noteworthy that that campaign was one of the first political campaigns in which women were allowed to be involved. More recently, in the 1960s the Bristol bus boycott led to the first UK racial equality legislation, spearheaded by one of my predecessors in this seat, Tony Benn. Last summer, we saw the toppling of the statute of Edward Colston, a slave trader, during Black Lives Matter protests in the city. All those protests were significant moments, historically and in a local sense.
There have been many more protests of less significance in the city that have not sparked international debate or led to change—or, at least, not yet. In some cases, such as the school climate strikes, the significance is in being a tiny part of a greater global movement. Young people in particular feel that, just maybe, they can make a difference by making banners, painting their faces, taking to the streets and making their voices heard. That is hugely important for young people. It is too easy to look at what appears to be vast global indifference to the fate of the planet and despair, so I applaud all those who have not given up hope.
Of course, it is easy to celebrate the school climate strikers, and the chances are that this legislation would not be used against them, but that is why clauses 54 to 60 of the Bill are so dangerous, because a subjective element starts to creep in in terms of what is deemed to be acceptable and, in the words of the hon. Member for Stockton South, legitimate protest, and what is deemed to be not acceptable and not legitimate. As I read through those clauses, I could see the appeal in invoking some of the provisions against, for example, the far-right thugs who occasionally attempt to march—in pitiful numbers, it has to be said—in Bristol, but there will be others who see exactly the same opportunities when it comes to Black Lives Matter protesters.
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. As was said on Second Reading, the definition of “nuisance” could apply to almost any protest outside Parliament.
I want to say a little about the recent protests in Bristol. I have made clear my condemnation of the violence, particularly on 21 March, and my concern about some policing tactics on 26 March. I do not want to revisit that here, other than to say that, since then, I have spent the best part of a day with the police at Silver command during one of the more recent protests, observing the decisions that were made on crowd control and so on. There had been a very peaceful, positive protest during the late afternoon, but a group of people stayed on very late and at one point tried to block the motorway by having a sit-down, and they were having a bit of a rave too. In general, I think the police have got it right when it comes to policing these protests, but I appreciate that theirs is not an easy job.
I want to say this to the protesters, and I preface it by saying that I absolutely want people in Bristol to take part in peaceful protest. People have a right to be heard and to get out on the streets and express their views, but as I have said when I have met representatives of various groups that oppose this Bill—and as the Mayor of Bristol has told them too—“Think about what you are trying to achieve. Think about who you need to win over. Think about how you can best do that. If you are protesting against this Bill, educate yourself about the parliamentary process and when the crucial votes will come.”
If people are campaigning for the right to assemble and protest, and trying to stop the introduction of laws that are predicated upon the—in my view, false—assertion that we have a problem in this country with uncontained, out-of-hand, destructive political demonstrations, it is entirely counterproductive to take part in a protest that culminates in people throwing eggs, fireworks and other missiles at the police, torching police vehicles and attempting to trash a police station. It is not acceptable for very many reasons. It is not acceptable in itself, but it is tactically stupid too, and it plays entirely into the hands of the Home Secretary and others who are attempting to stir up division and exploit fear and prejudice. Dare I say it, if people live somewhere with a Tory MP within travelling distance of Bristol, it might be an idea to focus their political activity—their peaceful protest—there, instead of coming to Bristol to join in a much larger protest here, given that the Bristol Labour Mayor and the four Bristol Labour MPs are all committed to opposing the Bill.
It is also worth saying that even policing a peaceful protest costs the city a lot of money and diverts resources away from other police activities. Blocking the streets in the city centre not only causes inconvenience to motorists. My main worry when I went along and observed the operation with Silver command was that I learned that the buses were all on divert through the city centre. When key workers and people in low-paid jobs have to walk home alone through city streets late at night because the buses are on divert and they have to go some distance to get to a bus stop, it comes to a point when those protesting have had their say and it is time to let people resume their normal lives.
While I entirely respect people’s right to protest, I urge them to exercise that right wisely and well. I believe that with concerted action, by joining together, by making the arguments and by peaceful protest using democratic and peaceful means, we can stop part 3 of this Bill becoming law. Let us all try to work together to do that and not play into the Home Secretary’s hands by abusing the rights that we have.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I join the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) in dissociating myself from what I think were, frankly, smears from the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). There is no misunderstanding about what the Bill will do, and it is quite condescending to suggest otherwise. The vast majority of protesters are entirely peaceful. They represent a cross-section of our constituents, and they know that there is a proud history of peaceful protest in this country that needs to be defended.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to add to what I said on Second Reading of the Bill—namely that this legislation is dangerous, undemocratic and disproportionate. It is clear that huge numbers of our constituents feel the same: nearly 2,500 Brighton, Pavilion residents signed the petition opposing any restrictions on our right to peaceful protest. I know from my inbox that there is grave concern about giving the police new powers to undermine what are treasured and critical fundamental rights in any democracy. Handing more draconian powers to the police would be troubling at any time. It is especially dangerous when too much of the police response to the outpouring of anger and grief at the murder of Sarah Everard has been characterised by bad judgment, heavy-handedness and tone deafness. Footage of women apparently being wrestled to the ground by male police officers at vigils to protest male violence and to remember a woman killed by a police officer sent shockwaves around the country.
Moreover, this Bill has been tabled at a time when, as a recent police watchdog report makes clear, the police have responded to the demands of the pandemic and the frightening lack of clarity from Ministers about what was and was not a criminal offence by overreaching and with overzealousness. A review from the Crown Prosecution Service suggests that the Coronavirus Act 2020 has been misapplied by the police 232 times since last year; in fact, that is every single time it has been used to charge someone. Throughout the pandemic, heavy-handed police interpretation has not only been sanctioned but has been encouraged by Ministers.
Let us be clear: 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. As an aside, I remind colleagues that the Government are also seeking to change how judicial review works—further evidence of their ongoing opposition to future accountability and the rule of law. The Bill is about protecting those with power, and presumably with the Prime Minister’s mobile number on speed dial, from being challenged or held to account by the citizens of this country. It will do that through a range of restrictions on the right to freely assemble and to express dissent.
For example, the Bill seeks to extend the practice of handing out harsh sanctions as a disincentive to those considering organising protests to anyone simply taking part, which is insidious. At the same time, Ministers want to increase almost fourfold the length of time organisers could potentially be imprisoned. Those and countless other proposals are chilling. Put simply, everyone in this country risks being criminalised simply for exercising their democratic rights if the Bill becomes law. Friends of the Earth warn of the particular barriers that will be created for those from marginalised communities to having their voices heard, such as people of colour, who already have disproportionately negative experiences of policing and the criminal justice system. The hostile measures contained in part 4 of the Bill and which will clearly be used to target the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community appear nothing short of racist in their intention.
The Bill is about silencing our constituents and communities, metaphorically and indeed literally, with clauses that would allow a protest to be severely restricted by the police in anticipation that it might be too noisy and thereby disrupt those at whom it is aimed. But right now the voices of our constituents, and of campaigners clamouring for the Bill to be scrapped, are echoed far and wide. The opposition is cross-party and it is growing. Critics of aspects of part 3 of the Bill include two former Home Secretaries, Lord Blunkett and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). A former Greater Manchester police chief constable, a former Durham constabulary chief constable and a former Metropolitan police commander have all warned of the dangers this legislation poses to British democracy and to safe policing by consent in our communities. So will the Government stop and listen?
When I spoke on the Bill on Second Reading, I noted that it would have made Greta Thunberg, sitting alone with a placard, a potential criminal, likewise all the brave and passionate youngsters who know that the future of humanity and our planet depends on peaceful protest, exposing just how inadequate Government action is compared with the scale of the climate and nature emergencies.
As one of the few MPs to be arrested during a peaceful protest and subsequently, after a week’s court case, acquitted of any wrongdoing, I have first-hand experience of the power of non-violent direct action. My protest was against fracking, as part of a movement that has secured an effective moratorium on that technology. 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.
I remember when 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. Fundamental rights are not like multiple choice; we don’t get to pick the most convenient and carelessly ditch the rest. They are universal and they should be defended in their entirety.
I end by calling on the Minister to tell us the truth and answer this question honestly: are the Government committed to upholding the human rights and civil liberties set out in articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights? He recently affirmed:
“The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental tool of civic expression and will never be curtailed by the Government.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 385.]
Yet the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to do exactly that. He and his Government either need to level with the British public about the facts or put this dangerous, undemocratic and disproportionate Bill where it belongs—on the scrap heap.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I congratulate those who started the petition. Clearly, there are people out there who care about our democracy; it is debatable whether the Government care about democracy in the same way as those people. It is unbelievable that we need to be here today to debate the right to protest.
I too dissociate myself from the comments made by the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). It was unfortunate that this important debate was introduced in that way. The Government’s draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a timely reminder that we must never take our democratic rights for granted. The section of the Bill that amends the Public Order Act 1986 is an assault on our civil liberties and it must go.
This petition has been signed by a quarter of a million people, including more than 1,000 of my constituents in Bath. As they know and so clearly say, protest is a fundamental part of any functioning democracy. It is a way for every one of us to stand up for what we believe in, to have our voices heard and to speak truth to power. The Government say that this Bill is about protecting communities from the most destructive protest, but let us not be deceived. The Bill aims to quite literally silence protest and criminalise those who take part in and organise demonstrations.
More than 700 legal scholars have warned about the Bill’s anti-protest measures. There is no evidence to show that demonstration tactics have become more disruptive or more extreme. In fact, according to legal academics, mass arrest at protests very frequently leads to lower conviction rates. Indeed, we have just heard from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) about her experience of being arrested and then found to have done nothing wrong.
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. The whole idea of protest and of the protections in law is that the people pick the issues on which they want their voices heard. There is no reason to stifle protest. The whole purpose of a demonstration is to have one’s voice heard and to get the attention of those who make decisions.
Time and again, the right to protest has been a driver for positive change. Thanks to the right to protest, we now have a moratorium on fracking. Thanks to the right to protest, the UK’s anti-apartheid movement kept apartheid on the British political agenda. Let us not forget that thanks to the right to protest, women achieved the right to vote. The Government should not seek to shut down that legitimate way of holding the powerful to account.
The measure before us is a thinly veiled reaction to the climate protests that we have seen over the past few years, not just around Parliament, but in towns and cities across the country. The climate emergency has evoked strong feelings, especially among young people. Curtailing their voices would be absolutely the wrong thing to do, as it is the next generation especially who will bear the brunt of a climate catastrophe if the Government fail to act now. Every generation has to fight again for its freedoms, and each generation faces different challenges, but a diversity of voices from all sections of our society makes our democracy stronger. Those voices should never be silenced or suppressed.
The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy. To limit or curtail it would simply be undemocratic, and the Government should be ashamed for even proposing that. The proposals in the Bill must go.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I am pleased to contribute to this important debate as, like other Members, I have received a high number of emails about the Bill. I also dissociate myself from the derogatory comments made by the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers).
Liverpool has a long history of peaceful protests and campaigns for social justice. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is just one of a number of recent profoundly concerning moves in this Government’s calculated and authoritarian agenda to sweep aside democracy, stifle dissent and strengthen the hand of the state against the people. The recent Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act 2021 provides immunity to state agents breaking the law in our country. Last week, we debated the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which—now in its final stages—will create an unprecedented two-tier legal system of human rights. We will soon face a voter suppression Bill that will restrict the right to vote of black, working class and other disadvantaged communities, as well as plans to limit the judicial review process to stop the public challenging the Government’s decisions in court.
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 for their actions.
Working people throughout history have campaigned with protest and demonstrations for democratic rights in the face of exploitation and oppression by employers and Governments. In the last year, we have seen widespread and popular demonstrations around the Black Lives Matter movement, violence against women, environmental concerns and more. If the Bill passes into law, all those actions will come under threat.
The petition has received nearly a quarter of a million signatures, and there are more than 14,000 responses to the linked online survey, which shows the strength of people’s disgust about the content of the Bill. More than 250 civil society organisations have signed a letter warning that the Bill represents an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of our citizens. Those signatories span from human rights organisations to environmental campaign groups and homelessness organisations; from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights groups to trade unions representing millions of people.
The right to protest is the lifeblood of any democracy, and the provisions in the Bill will not make us safer. Instead, they strengthen the hand of the state against all who oppose or fall foul of it, and most concerningly for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, as the police will be given powers to break up so-called unauthorised encampments and needlessly push people into the criminal justice system.
Last week, campaigners forced the Government into a significant U-turn by making them exclude torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the scope of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. That victory shows that the fight is not yet over. We must, and we will, do this again and force the Government to drop the crackdown on our rights to collectively organise against injustice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) made some slightly misguided remarks about what we are debating today. It is perhaps a bit insulting to his constituents who enjoy the right to protest, and to mine.
On my screen, I am looking at four very powerful women who are in Parliament and have contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned the Suffragettes. Dorinda Neligan, who was a headteacher in Croydon and a great Suffragette, got arrested several times in Parliament in 1909 and 1910. I am sure that if she was watching today, she would say, “Well, it’s a jolly good thing that we got the vote and that these powerful women are here today making a case for British democracy,” which is what we are standing up for today—no more and no less than that. I hope the hon. Member for Stockton South will reflect on his comments.
All the speeches that we have heard have made powerful cases. I do not know what is in the water in Bristol, but there are a lot of protests there. There are many active members of the community, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a powerful case by saying that the police have pretty much got things right during this difficult past year, but that we have to protect the right to protest. People have to think wisely and well about how they do that and how they win arguments.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made a very powerful case when she said that our fundamental rights are not multiple choice. As she says, we cannot pick and choose which ones we like and which we do not. I have not been arrested, and I am not much of a protester, but I absolutely and fundamentally believe that we must protect the right to protest. Every six weeks, I meet a group in my constituency—they are largely women in their 50s, 60s and 70s—who are active campaigners on climate change. The last time I met them, they were absolutely adamant that the changes would be very damaging to them and their rights to make their case, which they want to do powerfully and peacefully, for more action on climate change.
We talked a bit about the petition. A quarter of a million people have signed it, which is a significant number. The Petitions Committee used an online survey to ask petitioners for their views, and 95% of respondents were concerned that proposals to increase police powers would prevent the public from being able to hold the Government to account. Three quarters of the respondents were also concerned that the proposals could result in restrictions being imposed on protests, prevent protests from going ahead and result in people who take part in protests facing criminal charges. Respondents said that peaceful protest is democratic, a human fundamental and a basic right, and they were concerned that increased police powers would limit opportunities for people to express dissent, hold the Government to account and bring about positive change. Respondents were also concerned that the Bill would curtail peaceful, well-managed protests and, in doing so, risk increasing unorganised violent protests.
As hon. Members of different political parties have pointed out, the right to protest is a fundamental freedom—a hard-won democratic tradition that we are deeply proud of.
Throughout our history, as we have heard, protests have led to significant change for the better. The Government’s proposals are risky and unnecessary and will be damaging to the traditions at the heart of our democracy.
The arguments have been well made, but I want to make four broad points. First, the Bill is incredibly broad and vague. It has already been mentioned that the measures target protesters for causing “serious unease” and “serious annoyance”. Such measures would definitely have prevented the great protests of history, and that vague term “serious unease” seems a low threshold for police-imposed conditions. It is hard to imagine our society as one where the police can impose directions on a protest for simply being noisy, but that is what the Bill would do. There is also a penalty in the Bill for someone who breaches a police-imposed condition on a protest when they “ought to know” that the condition existed. If someone attends a protest and the police have placed conditions on the number of people allowed to attend, how will those attending know that they are the 101st person to join, and that they are therefore breaching the conditions? The clause could effectively criminalise people who do not know that they are breaching conditions.
Currently, protest must involve at least two people to engage police powers, but the new measures would allow the police to issue conditions on a one-person protest; so if one person protesting causes another person in the vicinity to suffer
“serious unease, alarm or distress”
or the noise that the protesting person generates may have a
“relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest”
the police are able to impose conditions. Those powers are clearly too broad. Steve Bray’s shouts of “Stop Brexit!” were incredibly irritating for all of us, I suspect, but that does not mean he should not have been able to make his point, or that he was causing any damage or harm by doing what he did.
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. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), made that point on Second Reading, expressing concern about the proposals, and pointing out the risk of their going against the right to freedom of speech. Sir Peter Fahy, a respected former chief constable of Greater Manchester police said:
“People need to be really worried about this…the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.”
He spoke about the bringing in of legislation
“on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of”,
and said that if one thing had been learned from the coronavirus legislation it was that
“rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.”
That brings me to my second point. The Bill would put the police in a difficult situation, having to make judgment calls for every protest and no doubt getting the blame because those judgments would be seen as political choices. I support the police. As shadow Policing Minister I think they have done a good job through covid times, in difficult circumstances, with legislation that was brought in at the very last minute, which they had to try to understand. They had to try to police draconian legislation as they had never had to before.
It cannot be right for the police to be attacked or assaulted. We have seen attacks on police and other emergency services increasing in recent years, and more needs to be done about that. At the weekend police officers in the Met were injured as they dispersed crowds during an anti-lockdown protest. Violent protest is never right, but the new powers are so vague that they will force the police to make political decisions about which completely non-violent protests they are under pressure to deem unlawful. That is extremely concerning and will put the police and the public in a difficult position. Why do the Government want to make the police the gatekeepers of public protest?
The public order measures in the Bill risk putting the police in a difficult position more often and creating more disorder and disruption. The Government should not be putting the police in that position. Where the rules are too confusing and too broad, they will only create more flashpoints. It is also worth pointing out that the Government have decided to introduce this contentious legislation restricting the right to protest in the middle of a pandemic, when we have very difficult laws that the police are trying to implement. Why make a decision that potentially puts public health at risk by forcing the public to protest against their freedom to protest being taken away from them in the middle of a pandemic?
My third point, which again has been well rehearsed, is that the changes give dangerous powers to the Home Secretary to make regulations about the meaning of “serious disruption”. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, made a really important point in her speech on Second Reading. She said:
“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 78.]
The idea of giving the Home Secretary such a big power to impose their own perspective on what lawfully constitutes annoying or too noisy is deeply alarming.
If there is a peaceful protest outside the Home Office that the Home Secretary does not like, will they criminalise everyone for shouting too loud? If the Minister wanted to protest about a cause that he cared deeply about, would he really want the Home Secretary ultimately to decide whether what he was saying was right or wrong, or whether the protest was too loud? I know that I would not.
Finally, and really importantly, the existing legislation is sufficient to cover the concerns that have been raised. The Public Order Act 1986 and other powers appear on the statute book to police protests. I am not sure why that legislation is not enough. There are probably questions about when and how it is implemented, but the laws are there. They are really clear, and they are plenty strong enough to stop disruptive or violent protests—the kind of protests that the police would need to be able to stop. The police have the power to break up protests that cause harm or serious public disorder, serious damage to property, or serious disruption to the life of the community.
As the Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned, Michael Barton, who is the former chief constable of Durham police, compared the measures in the Bill to that of a paramilitary-style police force, and asked whether the Government are
“happy to be linked to the repressive regimes currently flexing their muscles via their police forces”.
That seems like strong words, but there is a delicate balance between the need for the police to keep order and ensure that protests are peaceful, and the legitimate right to protest on the causes that we all care about.
The police officers I speak to do not want to undermine that balance. They want our respect. They want fair pay. They do not want to be assaulted. They want to get on with their jobs. They want to fight crime, but they understand those Peelian principles. The right to express our thoughts collectively through protest is one of the cornerstones of our British tradition. It would be of great concern if the Government passed laws to protect them from any public proclamation of criticism.
The police are the people and the people are the police. The co-operation of the public diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of force. Can the Minister tell us what “serious unease” or “annoyance” is? Can he tell us what too much noise sounds like? Which protests would he have stopped under the new legislation, and can he tell us why the Government are introducing rushed, undefined, broad measures that will inevitably undermine the right to protest? Finally, will he reflect on the words of the former Prime Minister, senior police officers, and a quarter of a million petitioners, who are asking him to think again?
Mr Gray—soon to be Sir James—it is a great pleasure to appear under your wise and beneficent guidance today for what I think it is fair to say has been a binary debate, with not much nuance between the two sides.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers)—the first son of Stockton South—on his speech and on leading the debate about this petition. I thank other Members for contributing, not least the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who unwittingly made a strong case for the legislation, and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who gave us the hilarious routine of criticising my hon. Friend for his remarks, and then indulging in such hyperbole and invective that she neatly illustrated why, unlike in Germany, the Greens will always be a fringe party in this country.
Obviously, those who signed this petition are concerned about the impact that the new measures in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill may have on peaceful protest. I start by reaffirming the Government’s firm commitment to the right to peaceful protest. It is, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion pointed out, a fundamental tool of civic expression. I also wish to reaffirm our commitment to the European convention on human rights, namely articles 10 and 11, which set out everyone’s right to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and they are my rights as well as the rights of others. However, 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.
The hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), the Opposition spokesperson, said that we have put the police in a difficult position, yet it was the police who asked for a number of these measures. The Metropolitan Police Service and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have expressed concerns that existing public order legislation, which has not been updated for 35 years, is no longer appropriate for responding to the highly disruptive protest tactics that we have considered today.
In fact, in order to understand how effectively the police manage protests and how legislation could be updated to improve police effectiveness without eroding the right to protest, the Government commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to conduct an inspection of the policing of protests. The report found that too often:
“The balance may tip too readily in favour of protesters when—as is often the case—the police do not accurately assess the level of disruption caused, or likely to be caused, by a protest. These and other observations led us to conclude that a modest reset of the scales is needed.”
The disruption caused by those protests is made clearer when we examine the cost to the taxpayer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South pointed out, during the Extinction Rebellion protests of April and October 2019, some of London’s busiest areas were brought to a standstill for several days. That had a disproportionate impact on commuters, small businesses and ambulance services, with the policing operation for the two extended protests costing £37 million—more than twice the annual budget of London’s violent crime taskforce.
In another example, on 4 September 2020 protesters blocked the entrances and exits for the printing presses of News UK, which estimated that it lost over £1 million and was unable to send out 60% to 70% of its print run that day. These highly disruptive protests required police officers from around the country to step away from their regular responsibilities to police them instead. During Extinction Rebellion’s two-week so-called autumn uprising, in addition to thousands of Metropolitan police officers, nearly 1,100 officers were drawn from across England, Scotland and Wales. Instead, they could have been protecting the communities they are supposed to serve.
What is more, on top of this drain on resources, police officers are often threatened, verbally abused, assaulted and injured when policing protests. In London, a total of 23 Met police officers were seriously injured in the line of duty during a single weekend of protest in June last year, and Avon and Somerset police are investigating assaults on 40 officers and one member of the media during the recent disgraceful “Kill the Bill” protests in Bristol. This behaviour from extreme elements of the “Kill the Bill” protests, as well as from equally violent elements of other groups, is totally unacceptable and should be condemned by all right-thinking people.
Given the results of the inspectorate’s report, the spiralling cost to the taxpayer and the increasing pressure on and violence towards police officers and indeed others, it is imperative that the Government act.
I turn to the impact that these measures will have on protests. 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. This misinterpretation and hyperbole has been repeated across all of the public order measures in the Bill, and is unjustified. 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. You will remember, Mr Gray, because you were here at the time, that it was a Labour Government in 2005 that banned protests outside of Parliament, resulting on one famous occasion in the arrest of an individual woman reading the names of the war dead from Iraq outside the Cenotaph. The clause in our Bill merely relates to the passage of vehicles into and out of the parliamentary estate, allowing elected representatives to exercise their democratic rights and conduct our democracy in the way people would expect. Nor is it the case that these measures will ban noisy protests. The police will only be able to impose conditions on unjustifiably noisy protests that cause harm to others or prevent an organisation from operating, for example if a business has to shut down because of the noise being created.
We did, in fact, put forward several legislative measures to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary for its consideration. These included, for example, a measure to enable the police to stop and search protesters. The inspectorate concluded that
“with some qualifications, all five proposals would improve police effectiveness without eroding the right to protest.”
It went on to recommend that the Government consider further measures to require organisers of public assemblies to notify the police of their intention to assemble, and to enable the police, in exceptional circumstances, to apply for the prohibition of public assemblies. However, following careful consideration of the impact of these measures on the police’s ability to manage protests, as well as on civil liberties, we are not proceeding with the full range of measures that the inspectorate has supported. We therefore think that we have struck a balance between the legitimate and fundamental right to protest, and the rights of others to go about their business unmolested.
In short, these measures have been portrayed by some as draconian, and as a dismantling of our civil liberties. This is misinformed at best and misleading at worst. These measures simply seek to improve the balance of the rights of protesters with the rights of others, as I say, to go about their business unhindered, and will allow the police to take a more proactive approach in managing these disproportionately disruptive protests, but will not grant them sweeping powers to override their obligations. When using these measures or existing public order powers, the police must be able to demonstrate that their use is necessary and proportionate. They will also need to be able to show due regard to human rights obligations. This highlights our continued commitment to the absolutely fundamental right of peaceful protest, balanced against the rights of others to go about their business.
I commend the Government’s response to this e-petition.
Once again, I thank all the petitioners who have provided us with this opportunity to debate this very important topic. I would also like to thank all the Members who participated for a robust debate, and the Minister for his response and for the Government’s commitment to protect the right to protest.
Given the public interest in this topic and the passion with which everyone has made their argument, it is clear that this is something that we all care deeply about. While we have our disagreements on this issue, I look forward to us being able to have our say on this vital piece of legislation as it continues its progress through Parliament. I hope that we can get the balance right, for those who want to get to work; for ambulances that want to get to hospital; for those who want to print or read a newspaper or use public transport; and, moreover, for those who want to protest safely without their cause being hijacked by those who seek to cause disruption or harm.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 579012, relating to right to protest.