Monday 26 April 2021
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]
Air Ambulance Funding
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice, in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I must also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks email address. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I would also like to remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall—obviously not when speaking.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 259892, relating to air ambulance funding.
The e-petition that we are considering today was submitted during the 2017-19 Parliament, and I am delighted that we have now found time to consider it, after previous scheduled debates were postponed, first because of the general election and latterly because of the pandemic. I thank the petitioner and everyone who took the time to sign the petition for their patience and understanding in relation to the delays.
The petition is entitled “The Air Ambulances to be government funded”, and it states:
“The air ambulances that operate around the UK cost around £12,000 per day to run and maintain, and are mainly funded through charity organisations. This petition is to ask the Government to fully fund the air ambulances through the emergency services.”
Of course, the funding that the petition called for was not awarded. The UK Government response was broadly dismissive of the need for change. On 3 July 2019 they stated:
“NHS ambulance services provide clinical staff and equipment to air ambulance charities. A charitable model gives charities independence to deliver specialised, specific services to each locality.
Air ambulance services are not NHS funded and are provided by 18 charitable organisations across England, with the majority of their resources supported by their own fundraising activities.”
The petition was launched by Bethany Billington, who has kindly given me permission to tell her story. On 31 March 2019, Bethany’s sister Lee-Anne Parkin and her partner were involved in a road traffic accident. Tragically, Lee-Anne’s partner died at the scene. Lee-Anne was airlifted to the major trauma unit in Teesside where sadly she passed away one week later, never having regained consciousness. During that time the Great North Air Ambulance Service team, who had attended the accident, kept in contact with the hospital to check on Lee-Anne’s progress. The gratitude of Bethany and her family to the air ambulance crew, as well as to the wonderful hospital staff, for doing everything in their power to try to save Lee-Anne’s life, inspired the aspiration behind the petition. I am sure that all Members here today will join me in sending their condolences to Bethany and her family.
It is important that we take the time to recognise the hard work and dedication of air ambulance crews across the UK. They are committed and talented professionals, who often find themselves having to work in the most extreme circumstances. For example, they can administer general anaesthetics and even perform open heart surgery at the scene of incidents. I wish to pass on my deepest thanks to all the dedicated air ambulance crews up and down the country. Many people will know a family who have benefited from this service. It is a vital link in our emergency services.
There are 22 air ambulance organisations across the UK, the structures of which can be extremely complex. I have to admit that I was shocked to discover that all but one of the UK’s 22 air ambulance organisations are charitable organisations. Scotland is the only country in the UK to have NHS-funded air ambulance provision; the other 21 organisations are all funded by donations from generous members of the public. According to Air Ambulances UK, the UK’s air ambulances collectively make over 25,000 life-saving missions a year, at an average cost of £2,500 per mission, or, to put it another way, at an annual cost of more than £62.5 million, the vast majority of which is funded by charitable donations.
Generally, the medical teams on board air ambulances are seconded from local NHS trusts. However, some charities are responsible for employing their own medical staff. In addition, some of these organisations have chosen to lease their helicopters. However, the purchasing of helicopters has become increasingly popular in more recent times. For instance, Cornwall Air Ambulance recently bought the charity’s first helicopter in its 32-year history, while Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance launched its second air ambulance on 3 April last year.
The number of petitioners clearly demonstrates a strong public sentiment that air ambulances should receive Government funding. However, it would be injudicious of me not to mention that Devon Air Ambulance Trust actually asked its supporters not to sign this petition, stating:
“Whilst we appreciate the sentiment behind this petition, we firmly believe it is not in patients’ best interests. As we have seen over the last decade, government-funded services face significant cuts in funding alongside policy and priorities set by the government of the day. Many aspects of our essential services have been commercialised. The UK Air Ambulance sector has an excellent aviation safety record thanks to our ability to put patients and safety at the heart of our operations. Subject to the same constraints as our other essential services, we would face a stark choice between cutting services or cutting quality. Neither is acceptable or necessary.”
This sentiment appears to have been echoed in the findings of public engagement work that the Petitions Committee carried out on this topic. An e-survey, which ran between August 2020 and September 2020, was distributed to air ambulance charities via the Air Ambulances UK network and received 15 out of a possible 21 responses. All but one opposed the idea that air ambulance services should be fully funded by the Government. The reason provided by one charity was:
“Air ambulances would be a low priority for government funding”.
“The government is never going to be able to guarantee the same level of investment. The impact of austerity on public services has gone far beyond cost efficiency savings.”
Of the 14 charities that responded and opposed Government funding, it is worth noting that three of them were in favour of the Government providing capital grants for larger costs such as helipads.
Although UK Government support for air ambulances has been minimal, it is worth noting that these organisations receive sporadic access to Government funding. In the Government’s response to this petition, they said that in 2019 the 18 air ambulance charities across England were invited to bid for a share of £10 million of funding from the Department for Health and Social Care for a range of facilities and infrastructure projects, including high-tech medical equipment for critical care teams and new helicopters and helipads. However, only nine out of the 14 English air ambulance charities that put forward bids were successful. The money that was secured was used to upgrade equipment and improve facilities.
Responding at that time, Paula Martin, chair of the UK’s Association of Air Ambulances, or AAA, said
“this funding only represents a small amount of what has to be raised”
and that air ambulance charities were still heavily reliant on the public’s “kind and generous donations”. According to an article in the March 2019 edition of the AAA’s Airway magazine, this funding opportunity presented charities with something of a dilemma. There were concerns that it would adversely impact on their regular donors and entirely charity-funded status. For these charities, their independence is vital.
Funding for air ambulances has not been immune to the effects of coronavirus, either. All the charities that responded to the survey stated that their finances had been impacted by covid, with the relevant figures ranging between £500,000 and £3 million and the overwhelming reason appearing to be their inability to fundraise in the same way. A £6 million covid-19 Government funding grant for air ambulance charities was therefore warmly welcomed by the organisations at this very difficult time, although several had concerns about the bidding process, described as
“tortuous as projects must be unfunded but shovel-ready, which is illogical and high risk”
and “lengthy and delayed”; it was also said that
“funding only went to a select few AA’s and sadly they were mainly in the Southern half of the UK”.
As I have mentioned, Scotland is the only part of the UK to have fully NHS-funded air ambulance provision. I would like to take this opportunity to share the detail of that model. The Scottish Ambulance Service, which works closely with Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance, has two helicopters and two planes, which are fully funded by the NHS. In 2019-20, 3,732 air ambulance missions were undertaken by the Scottish Ambulance Service. That amounts to just over 10 per day, or one every two hours and 20 minutes. Funded centrally, air ambulance services in Scotland have been provided for well over 30 years as part of the wider healthcare provision for the country, based on its unique geography and demographics, and before any charitable helicopter services commenced elsewhere in the UK. The Scottish model shows the potential of a hybrid charity and Government-funded model of air ambulances that, if emulated, would, I believe, serve other parts of the UK well. It addresses the risk that a drop in fundraising revenue poses to charity-only models, while protecting the independence of charity-funded services. Clearly, finding the solution need not be a “one or the other” situation, as Government-funded air ambulance services can operate alongside charity services, as Scotland shows.
In conclusion, this is quite a complex subject, with a range of models and challenges. I look forward to the debate and to hearing from the Minister about a way forward on this important matter.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his considered speech. I am delighted, given that my constituents are so passionate about air ambulances, that this debate is taking place. This year alone, 13 incidents have been attended in Wakefield, and dozens more in the wider Yorkshire area, by the air ambulance helicopter or the rapid response vehicle. Yorkshire Air Ambulance is located at Nostell Priory, just outside Wakefield city centre, and has been marked as one of the best air ambulance facilities in the UK by the Civil Aviation Authority. It is therefore no surprise that the constituents of Wakefield hold their air ambulance in high regard.
Yorkshire Air Ambulance works closely with NHS emergency services, using a similar operational methodology that has been adopted by the NHS emergency service dispatch system, and with emergency staff and doctors on secondment to it. The services provided by the air ambulance are vital to Wakefield and the surrounding towns and villages, and to communities across West Yorkshire, in dealing with issues that cannot be dealt with as effectively by the employment of conventional ambulances alone. Some of the most experienced and highly qualified first responders are employed, complementing rather than competing with existing NHS emergency services. The high calibre of personnel employed by Yorkshire Air Ambulance means that bespoke responses can be delivered to meet the specific needs of Yorkshire’s most critically injured and unwell. Emergency surgery—including caesarean sections and open heart surgery—has on occasion, as we have heard, been conducted in the field.
The people of Wakefield, together with the rest of the United Kingdom, have rightly recognised in the petition that there is a clear need for a well-funded air ambulance. Bringing those services under the umbrella of emergency services could, however, result in a number of unintended consequences. First, doing so could unintentionally degrade the autonomy and flexibility that an independent regional air ambulance provides. If one compares Yorkshire Air Ambulance with London’s Air Ambulance, for example, one will see that there is a stark difference in the requirements needed, specific treatments provided and even frequency of use. London’s Air Ambulance predominantly focuses on violent injuries such as shootings and stabbings, while Yorkshire’s focuses more on road traffic accidents and cardiac arrests.
Even the geographical differences, such as terrain and urban density, make significant differences. A serious road traffic accident on the motorway network in my constituency could lead to simultaneous tailbacks on the M1, M62 and M621 into Leeds, and the A1/A1(M). The ability to land a helicopter directly at the scene means that lives can be saved in minutes. To the north of Yorkshire Air Ambulance’s operating area, it could be flying deep into the dales where there are no roads whatsoever.
As charities with their own independent operating procedures tailored to their specific local requirements, air ambulances have the ability to be flexible and to determine how they want their services to run. They are not subject to the constraints under which the public sector must, by necessity, operate, which is a constant issue facing the NHS when it comes to both day-to-day operations and emergency life-and-death situations. Rather, Yorkshire Air Ambulance is clearly a willing and constructive partner with its NHS colleagues, but critically does not form part of the NHS’s organisational structure.
Her Majesty’s Government have importantly made significant funds available to air ambulances, from LIBOR fines to recent financial support for their vital work throughout the pandemic. Upon inquiring, it has been made abundantly clear to me that Yorkshire Air Ambulance, as we have already heard from many of its colleagues around the UK, such as in Devon, is grateful for the stability that central Government grant funding provides, and would undoubtedly welcome further grants, but not if they are to come at the expense of its operational independence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading it. I always admire the skill with which members of the Petitions Committee introduce a broad range of topics for discussion in Westminster Hall. His point about the extreme circumstances that crews face not just in transit but in what they find when they make their extraordinary journeys was really well made.
We often think most visibly about air ambulances landing in all sorts of places, whether that is motorways, as the hon. Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) just said, or playing fields. We perhaps do not think so much about the extraordinary care that they give on the other end, whether that is caesarean sections, as we heard, open heart surgery or general anaesthetics—all sorts of things. It really is an incredible range of skills to be able both to get to the right place and then to provide the right care. We are truly lucky to have these individuals in our country.
The biggest thanks, of course, must go to Bethany Billington, who started the petition. I pay tribute to her sister, Lee-Anne Parkin, who tragically lost her life alongside her partner, Steve Carroll, in March 2019, as we have heard. It happened seven days after being taken to the trauma unit in Teesside following a motorcycle accident. Great North Air Ambulance was on the scene within minutes of the accident, and Bethany has praised its incredible efforts, and followed those words with actions of her own. She can be very proud of herself, and her sister’s legacy.
There are lots of parliamentary e-petitions, but it takes one that is truly special to get the 100,000 signatures required for a debate to be considered. In this case, there were more than 130,000 signatures before the e-petition closed prior to the last general election, which seems a long time ago. Bethany managed to secure this debate, and we are glad that she did.
I commend the hon. Member for Wakefield for his typically thoughtful contribution. He spoke about Wakefield and the many ways in which his constituents might need these services. There are significant parallels with my constituency in Nottingham, not least in that many of the roads that he mentioned also serve my community, and that his constituents’ high regard for these services mirrors that of my own. Our constituents will want us, their parliamentarians, to address the petition seriously and constructively, as we are doing today.
Let me start by stating how brilliant a contribution air ambulances make. Across the UK, there are about 70 life-saving missions each day. That is an extraordinary service provided to people who, by definition, really need it. A lot of loved ones are saved and lives are changed. In politics, we are never meant to say that we feel conflicted or have thoughts on both sides of an issue. We are supposed to have a firm and unequivocal view, but I do not have that on this issue; I find it quite conflicting.
One thing that makes this country so special is our national health service, which is there for us whoever we are, whatever we need and whenever we might need it. It is free at the point of need and funded by our taxes. I confess to having always found it a little odd that really important services, such as air ambulances and hospices—they are both, I believe, fundamental parts of the health service—are funded principally through charity. In reality, I am conscious that this is, to some extent, going to be a mixed economy. In 2018, the then Chancellor announced £10 million of capital funding to support air ambulances. I hope the Minister will update us on how this was used, its impact and any future plans, because clearly there is demand for such support.
The service is not cheap. The petition says that it costs about £12,000 each day to run; it may well be more. Air Ambulances UK says that each mission costs about £2,500. If there are 70 missions a day, that would put the daily figure at more than 10 times the one suggested in the petition. The real answer may be somewhere in between; either way, we can all agree that the work is priceless and we would never countenance it stopping because of a lack of money.
That gives me a certain confliction about whether air ambulances should be funded as a core NHS service. Happily, whatever my conflictions, the sector has rather resolved the issue for me. It says that it does not want to change its operating model, so I certainly shall not advocate that. If it wants to run the model in this way, and if it thinks that that gives it the best of both worlds and enables it to keep doing the wonderful things that it does—well, it is the expert. It is doing this great job, and it has my full backing.
The Government, via NHS England, still have an important role. At a minimum, they are a backer of last resort. Since the petition closed, events have put extraordinary pressures on charities and charitable giving. The Government were right—we supported them—to give air ambulances a £6 million covid-19 grant. That will have ensured that services that could have been under pressure will have been able to continue. Hopefully, when we get back to normal fundraising activities—perhaps the Minister will announce that he is running the London marathon to raise money for such causes; I will leave that space open for him—it will not be necessary to rely on Government support. Nevertheless, Governments across the UK should always commit to standing behind this crucial sector, in good times and in bad. I hope the Minister will affirm that today.
To conclude, one thing I have held in my head is the profound understanding that—given the volume of missions every day—while we have been having this debate, multiple people will have had to rely on air ambulance services. That is how important this is, and how much of a difference it makes to such individuals and the people who care about them. That is why this petition and this debate are so important. Air ambulances are there for us, and we must continue to support them in their work.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day). As the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), said, when members of the Petitions Committee turn their hands to giving extremely well-informed and erudite speeches on whatever topics come through the Committee, they display a certain dexterity. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk for his thoughtful speech, as ever, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) and the shadow Minister, who made typically measured, sensible and thoughtful contributions to this important debate. Although what goes on in the main Chamber may attract more public attention, I often think that if more people were aware of what goes on in this Chamber, they would find that the tone of many debates is different from the one at the Dispatch Box in the Chamber, and that there is a genuinely constructive exchange of views.
As the shadow Minister said, to date more than 130,000 people have signed this petition, and I thank them all for highlighting this important issue for debate. Like him, I pay particular tribute to Bethany for her work in getting such a huge number of signatures for this petition and echo the words of other hon. Members in sending our sympathies to her family. If I may slightly crave your indulgence, Mr Stringer, although this is not directly related to air ambulances, I will take this opportunity —I suspect it may be the only chance I have to do so before Prorogation—to put on the record the condolences and sympathies of all in the House to the family and friends of ambulance technician Jeremy Daw, who was tragically killed at the weekend when on duty when his ambulance was hit by an object. It is important to put on the record our sympathies and condolences to his family and friends.
I pay tribute, as others have done, to the air ambulance charities and to their critical care teams of doctors and paramedics, who are among some of the most highly skilled pre-hospital clinicians in the world. They are capable of performing life-saving hospital-level procedures on patients at the roadside and saving lives. That includes administering general anaesthetic and, indeed, open heart surgery. When a life-threatening injury or medical emergency happens, patients need to be transferred to hospital as quickly as possible. In some cases, survival can depend entirely upon the vital life-saving work of the UK’s air ambulance charities. Air Ambulances UK figures show that, on average, air ambulance charities across the UK collectively complete more than 25,000 of these life-saving missions a year. To put that another way, as the shadow Minister did, every 10 minutes an air ambulance helicopter takes off somewhere to attend an accident or medical trauma.
Last year, I had the huge privilege of visiting the amazing charity London’s Air Ambulance. I saw at first hand the amazing work of the crew who undertake their life-saving missions day in and day out, working alongside the staff of the Royal London Hospital and the London ambulance service to care for the most critically ill patients. I pay tribute to the team there who showed me around—their comms team includes a former member of a member of my staff who now works there, Kirsty McKellar—for their forbearance as I displayed, shall we say, certain symptoms of vertigo while I climbed a ramp to the top of the hospital to see the helicopter on its pad.
The shadow Minister highlighted the cost of every take-off and every mission, so he will be reassured to hear that I did not avail myself of an opportunity to go up in the helicopter; that would not have been a good use of funds. However, I was able to talk to the team and to see their work at first hand. They were clear that they are incredibly proud of their charitable status and their work as a charity. They quite rightly raised a number of issues with me, one of which I will put on the record now: they ask that councils in London and those who have open spaces are always mindful of the need to try to keep those spaces accessible for London’s air ambulances so they can find somewhere to land in this busy city in which we stand today. I was incredibly grateful to the team not only for showing me around the air ambulance and showing me their procedures, but for their amazing work day in and day out. Indeed, I put on the record my gratitude to all the air ambulance charities.
We recognise that air ambulances provide an invaluable service to our NHS. They support the NHS emergency response on the ground and ensure patients get specialised care in both urban settings and hard-to-reach rural areas. Air ambulances also provide additional support to on-road ambulances at times of high demand through the use of critical care cars to increase capacity and ease pressures on NHS services. Additionally, air ambulance services have supported the national covid-19 response by using their aircraft to transfer patients, doctors and equipment, including medical supplies, between hospitals.
I turn now to the heart of the petition and the debate. Although air ambulances provide services to the NHS, it is right that they are not directly funded by the NHS, and that the majority of their resources are drawn from their fundraising activities. That is something that the air ambulance charities support, as hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, have alluded to. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk set out, it is not about the predictability or certainty of Government funding; there are other things that make the charities support the current model. For example, Anna Perry, the chief executive of the Great Western Air Ambulance Charity, said, “In terms of funding and our day-to-day costs, we value the independence our charitable funding provides us. If we identify that our patients need a different kind of treatment or approach, then we can be responsive to those needs. We cover a diverse area, from the Forest of Dean to Cirencester, and from Bath to Weston-super-Mare, and our funding means we remain flexible and innovative in responding to what our communities need from our life-saving service.”
Similarly, the chief exec of the Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire Air Ambulance said, “While there are benefits to being Government-funded, as an independent, highly regulated charity, we greatly value the ability to be flexible to the changing needs of our patients—for example, by having the ability to quickly adapt to new technologies and medicines. The Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire Air Ambulance”—I believe it covers the constituency of the hon. Member for Nottingham North—“is very much a part of the communities we serve. We are funded by them and are accountable to them.”
I will share a final quote to emphasise the view from the charities. Amanda McLean, who is the chief executive of Thames Valley Air Ambulance, said, “Operating within a charitable model allows air ambulance charities up and down the country to provide efficient, responsive and tailored care to best meet the needs of their communities. By working independently, embedded within our local areas, we are able to collaborate and share best practice while offering a service that is targeted to meet the specific challenges we each face.”
Those are a few examples, and hon. Members have given similar examples from different chief executives of different charities. As the shadow Minister said, it is important that we listen to what the charities that run the air ambulances are telling us.
As has been alluded to, that is not to say that the Government do not provide significant support to the sector. In 2019, the Department of Health and Social Care launched a three-year capital grant programme, which allocated £10 million to nine air ambulance charities across England. These capital schemes provide a range of new equipment and upgrades to support air ambulance services to move towards 24/7 operations, allowing more patients in need of an emergency response to be reached. The funding will also support the modernisation of facilities at seven air bases across England, including building interactive training suites to better prepare crews for challenging conditions, with the addition of seven new critical care cars and a new helicopter.
As hon. Members have mentioned, last year the Government announced a further £6 million of covid-19 emergency funding for Air Ambulances UK to distribute to the air ambulance charities in order to ensure that each charity could continue to provide its life-saving services during the pandemic. Like the shadow Minister and hon. Members who have spoken, I believe that was the right thing to do, as the charitable fundraising activities that they would normally undertake were clearly impacted on by the constraints imposed by the pandemic and the restrictions that were necessary to tackle it. Of course, we support air ambulances through close collaboration with the NHS. For example, NHS ambulance services commonly provide key clinical staff and medical equipment to support air ambulance operations.
Given how vital such services are, it is not surprising that our electors—the public—are keen to see them funded by the Government as part of the NHS. Having listened to the sector, however, our view remains that the charitable model for air ambulances remains the right one—a view that, as I say, is shared by the sector’s independent professional body, Air Ambulances UK. That model has been a long-standing success; London’s Air Ambulance was established as a charity as far back as 1989, and I believe it has now helped more than 40,000 patients.
Decisions on the provision of services for the safe delivery of care are best made at local level. Maintaining a charitable model gives charities and the air ambulance the independence they need, as I alluded to in the earlier quotes, to deliver specialised services tailored to the needs of patients in each locality. A charitable model is also, in many ways, a more feasible way to fund the high capital and revenue costs associated with helicopter emergency medical services, including purchasing and maintaining helicopters. It also gives charities the independence to raise funds through commercial activity and sponsorship with their commercial partners.
Before the pandemic struck, I had the privilege of visiting and—for a brief period—helping in the Birstall air ambulance shop in my constituency, which supports the Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland Air Ambulance service. It would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to put on record my gratitude to it, as my local air ambulance service, for the amazing work it does, day in and day out, across that part of the east midlands. Indeed, even during the pandemic last year, two new helicopters were delivered to help to support that service. I believe it is the only air ambulance service that delivers a children’s air ambulance service. Let me put on record my gratitude for and recognition of the amazing work it does.
I believe, and the charities believe, that the current model still represents the best route to funding our air ambulances—those cherished institutions—because it gives them local flexibility to do what they need to do. In future, we want to build on the success of air ambulance services and their contribution to the delivery of safe and effective care to the nation. As part of transforming how urgent and emergency care operates, NHS England and NHS Improvement have been working with ambulance services on new ways to deliver care to patients. For example, rather than conveying all patients to hospitals, ambulance services are developing new ways to give healthcare advice through video consultations and by referring patients to a greater number of services in primary care in the community. As we move to a new model of integrated care, each system will have the duty to collaborate with health and care organisations in their local area, including considering how air ambulances can best contribute to their network of urgent and emergency care services.
Essential public donations combined with significant funding contributions from Government—be it for capital or in extremis, as we saw during the covid pandemic—will ensure that the air ambulance charities can continue to provide their world-class care for a patient-centred approach that works for the population they serve. Both the Government and Air Ambulances UK strongly believe that that is best achieved through a charitable model. I encourage everyone to support their local air ambulance charities, even if I do not give in to the gentle temptation offered by the shadow Minister to run the London marathon.
During these unprecedented times, I reiterate my unreserved thanks, and the thanks of all hon. Members who spoke and from across the House, to the staff at the air ambulance charities for continuing to provide their world-leading, life-saving care to patients and their local communities across the UK. They are genuinely inspirational to us all. There is a reason why so many people donate so generously to their air ambulance charities: they know that one day, they could be the one who needs that air ambulance. I suspect that across the country, there is the same huge admiration and gratitude for the fantastic work that these charities do every day.
We have had a thoughtful and informed debate. I hope we have successfully highlighted the tremendous work of air ambulances throughout these islands, and I hope we have given them a publicity boost for their charitable work and the donations they require. As I discovered in my research, this is a very complex matter, with a range of models across the country, and perhaps a one-size-fits-all solution is not what is needed. There are a lot of lessons we can still learn, and I look forward to finding out more in the weeks and months ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 259892, relating to air ambulance funding.
Rights to Protest
[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.
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.