Consideration of Lords message
[Relevant documents: Second Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Part 3 (Public Order), HC 331; Fifth Special Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, Part 3 (Public Order): Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report, HC 724.]
I beg to move,
That this House insists on its disagreement with Lords in their Amendment 73, insists on its Amendment 73C to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement to that Amendment, insists on its Amendment 74A to Lords Amendment 74, disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment 74B to that Amendment in lieu, disagrees with the Lords in their consequential Amendments 74C, 74D, 74E, 74F and 74G, insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 87, insists on its Amendments 87A, 87B, 87C, 87D, 87E, 87F and 87H to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement to that Amendment but proposes Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords Amendment 73 and additional Amendment (b) to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 87.
With this it will be convenient to consider the following Government motion:
That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 80, insists on its Amendments 80A, 80B, 80C, 80D, 80E, 80F and 80H to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with that Amendment, disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment 80J instead of the words left out by that Amendment but proposes additional Amendment (a) to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 80.
I rise to speak to the motions in the name of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, including the associated amendments in lieu. We return yet again, I have to say with a smidgin of ennui and irritation, to the issue of police powers to attach conditions to protests. It is disappointing that the debate on these provisions continues to be characterised by misinformation about what the Bill actually does and irrationality.
I shall start with the issue of noise. As I said in round 2 of ping-pong, at the Opposition’s behest, we have added provisions to the Bill that can be used to limit noise and disruptive protests outside schools and vaccination centres. I am therefore at a loss to understand why they would not agree to these provisions outside, say, a convent, a hospital, an animal sanctuary or, God forbid, a factory. What happened to the workers’ rights?
It cannot be that a protest can inflict any amount of noise on those living or working in the vicinity for prolonged periods of time, day or night. I agree that it would not be necessary or proportionate, for example, to attach conditions relating to the generation of noise to a procession that will pass a particular location within a matter of hours, but the same cannot be said of an ongoing raucous protest, perhaps encamped in a residential area, which includes the banging of drums and the use of loudhailers. It is intolerable that local residents should have to endure that day and night, and it is right that in those circumstances, the police should have the power to act. I do not understand why those residents’ rights are so lightly set aside by the Opposition. When the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) rises to address the motions, I hope she will answer that question.
I can, however, assure the hon. Members for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson)—they questioned me on this in the last round—that there are no new powers here to restrict what is said and, for that matter, sung. These provisions are simply about the harm caused by excessive noise; the content is irrelevant. Of course, the existing criminal law relating to hate or intimidatory speech will continue to apply.
I have a real concern about Lords amendment 80. I am not sure that my concern, or the concerns of my hon. Friends the Members for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), have been dispelled. Can the Minister give me an assurance in this House today, on the record in Hansard, that open-air or other events will not be affected? The letter of the law does not give that protection; sadly—this has been done in this country already—officers have the power to arrest those preaching the word of God. I seek an assurance from the Minister that on no occasion and under no circumstances will the opportunity to preach the gospel in the streets of this kingdom be in any way thwarted, reduced or restricted.
As I have already explained, what is said is irrelevant for the purposes of this legislation. The Bill merely covers the distress that may be caused by the volume or persistence of the noise. The existing criminal law already covers content. If the content—obviously, not in this case—is intimidating, somehow hateful or incites some kind of violence, there are already provisions against that kind of speech. The hon. Gentleman describes somebody simply preaching the gospel; if they are not causing alarm or distress through the level or persistence of the noise, I cannot see why that would be offensive to anybody, or that the police would use these powers.
I turn to the other provisions in clause 56, enabling the police to attach any condition to a public assembly where such conditions are necessary to prevent serious public disorder, serious damage to property, serious disruption to the life of the community or intimidation. I welcome the belated acceptance by the other place that existing powers in section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 are insufficient, but I am afraid Lords amendment 87J is not up to the task. The police have told us that the distinction drawn in that Act between processions and assemblies is outdated, and it does not reflect current-day challenges of policing dynamic protests that can morph from a procession to an assembly and back again. The current situation prompts all sorts of questions. For example, how slowly would a procession have to move before it becomes static? If protesters walk in a 200 metre circle, is that a procession or a static protest?
It will continue to be the case that any conditions must be proportionate, and necessary to prevent serious disorder and the other serious harms set out in the Bill. None of that, however, is to say that we have not listened to and reflected on the views expressed by the other place. In the last round, we raised the threshold for the exercise of noise-related powers by removing the “serious unease” trigger, and we have tabled an amendment in lieu that will place a duty on the Secretary of State to prepare and publish a report on the operation of the relevant provisions in clauses 55, 56 and 61 within two years of their commencement. In one of our earlier debates, my right hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick), and for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), stressed the need for a post-legislative review of those provisions, and the amendments would enshrine that in law.
We have reached a stage of the legislative process where the issue at stake is no longer simply the merits or otherwise of the measures that we are debating. A more fundamental issue is at stake: the primacy of this elected House in our constitutional arrangements. This House has already debated and expressly approved the noise-related provisions on no less than three occasions: on Report last July; on consideration of Lords amendments at the end of February; and again at the end of March. That is not to mention the separate votes on Second and Third Reading of the Bill. I hope and expect that hon. Members will endorse the provisions for a fourth time when we come to the Division. The other place, composed as it is of hereditary and appointed Members without any democratic mandate, has done its duty in asking this House to reconsider this issue. We have now done so and made our position abundantly clear. We should send the provisions back to the Lords again, with a clear and unequivocal message that they should now let them, and the Bill, proceed.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not mind how noisy the Minister is; I do not want to curtail his right to be as noisy as he likes.
We are debating one topic: the right to protest and make noise. We have indeed debated it several times. Members from across the House have spoken passionately about why this issue matters, and why the Government have got this so wrong. One might think that, with crime up 14%, the arrest rate having halved since 2010, and prosecution rates at an all-time low, the Government might spend their time on the bread-and-butter issues of law and order, such as fighting criminals. Instead, they seem intent on criminalising singing at peaceful protests. That suggests that the Government are tired, out of ideas and have no plan, and are searching round for anything eye-catching to distract from their years of failure.
The Lords responded to the Minister’s defence of his policy by voting against it again. Lords amendments 73 and 87 remove the Government’s proposed noise trigger, which would allow the police to put conditions on marches or one-person protests that are “too noisy”. Labour agrees with the Lords, and we support Lords amendment 80, which removes clause 56 from the Bill altogether. As with most Government policies thought up on the hoof, there are many questions about how the proposed powers would work.
This is a genuine question. For many years, I was a councillor in central London and a London Assembly member. I am conscious that central London is particularly targeted by protests, which happen pretty much every weekend and often every day of the week. Central London is characterised by a quite dense residential population. Where is the balance between the rights of those residents to the peaceful enjoyment of their homes, and the rights of protesters to protest throughout the night, which the hon. Lady seems intent on preserving? Will she please explain why residents do not deserve some kind of protection from noise?
I may be able to enlighten the Minister as to why there is no need for the provisions on noise. The Minister for Social Justice in Wales, Jane Hutt, has been quoted as saying that the current legal framework already provides sufficient scope, and that
“this means there is no requirement or need to include a new, far more draconian measure”.
We have sufficient laws in place, and there is no need for these provisions. The Bill rides roughshod over the devolution settlement.
My hon. Friend is right. I am proud to have campaigned with Jane Hutt. She knows what she is talking about, and she delivers results—something that this Government could learn from.
Recently published guidance on this bizarre change to the law gives us the helpful tip that
“a noisy protest outside an office with double glazing may not meet the threshold”
in the Bill. The guidance is seriously asking the police to base their consideration of whether a protest is too noisy on how many buildings around it have double-glazed windows. How on earth will the police know? Is it fair to our police if the law is so peculiar that they could interpret it in a million different ways, and would stand accused of bias whatever they did? I urge Ministers to bear in mind the consequences of these provisions on the police officers trying to put them into practice.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, if only so that I can, hopefully, enliven our proceedings slightly. I am a bit confused; the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter) seemed to imply that the Minister in the Welsh Government says that there is plenty of legislation to deal with this problem. Is she therefore content for legislation to be used in Wales to control protest noise?
The point we are trying to make is that there is a balance to be struck between what is reasonable in protests and what is not. We believe that the right to protest is not an absolute right; there have to be provisions in place to ensure that protests are reasonable, and do not put out the public too much. These provisions on noise are almost impossible to interpret—they are really unclear—and the police and the public have not asked for them. There are existing rules to ensure that reasonable, peaceful protest can take place, and the Bill rides roughshod over those genuine rights.
My hon. Friend is making some good points, particularly around interpretation. In Wirral West, we had a successful campaign against underground coal gasification after the coalition Government granted a licence for drilling in the Dee estuary underneath Hilbre island. People were very concerned about that, and we had a mass demonstration on the beach. When people go to a demonstration, they do not know who else will be there. I am concerned that people will feel intimidated by this law, and will perhaps feel that they should not attend a protest that they want to go on because of concerns that they will not be in control of the noise volume.
That is an interesting point. Thank goodness for those protests and for our right to protest in that way. It is not fair and not right to force the police to make political decisions about how much is too much noise. Imagine a scenario where two sides of a public debate are protesting, with one group on a street where there is lots of double glazing and the other on a street where there are old houses and no double glazing. Are we really saying that the police, who might close one protest for being too noisy and not the other, would not find themselves in a difficult political situation, with criticism from the public?
The Government often point to a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services that argued that the police needed to balance better the rights of protesters with disruption to the wider public. It asked for a
“modest reset of the scales”.
However, Inspector Matt Parr, who wrote the report, gave evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights in which he said:
“Neither the police nor HMCIFRS called for a new trigger based on the noise generated by demonstrations”.
He also said that he was not even asked by the Government to
“look specifically at whether noise should be included”
or assess whether the change was necessary. The Joint Committee on Human Rights said that there was “no evidence” of a gap in the law that needed to be filled and that there was already a
“range of powers to deal with noise that impacts on the rights and freedoms of others”.
Why on earth is the Home Secretary continuing to push for those powers when the police did not even ask for them?
As the Bill has progressed through Parliament, we have seen many and various attempts to justify the provisions on noisy protest that no one has asked for and no one wants. In Committee, the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), said:
“The police will impose conditions on the use of noise only in the exceptional circumstances where noise causes unjustifiable disruption”.––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee, 8 June 2021; c. 397.]
The Government also added the caveat of the word “serious”, raising the bar for securing a conviction, and the Minister for Crime and Policing has said a number of times that the power may be used only in the most exceptional circumstances. However, since then, Ministers have taken away the “serious” caveat, so they have lowered the bar. If alarm or distress does not have to be serious, surely the powers may not be used only in such exceptional circumstances.
The Minister talked about Labour’s amendments on public space protection orders outside schools and vaccination centres as if they included noise. However, the word “noise” does not feature in any of them. Our proposal to offer councils fast-track powers to set up protection zones around schools and vaccine clinics is quite different from the Government’s sweeping powers on protest that could criminalise peaceful protesters singing in the street. The truth is, the police have a raft of powers that they can use. We do not need these new provisions, and the Government know it. That is why, in this round of ping-pong, they have tabled amendments to review the changes in two years’ time. However, Ministers are kidding themselves if they expect a review in two years to reassure us. I urge the Minister to scrap this cut-and-paste job of amendments, change the guidance that does not make sense and accept Labour’s sensible amendments.
If I were the Minister, I would not want to be known as the Minister who pushed through these provisions on protest. Is that the legacy that he wants? Think of the freedom songs of the civil rights movement or of the protesters singing the Ukrainian national anthem all over Europe and here on Whitehall. Protests, song and the sounds of protests give voice to the voiceless. Let protest annoy us. Let protest be loud. Let us accept that noisy protest can be uncomfortable.
The conditions in part 3 on noise are anti-democratic and we should all vote to reject them. It would be a great shame if Conservative Members voted to curtail the freedoms that so many before us fought for and which so many more are still fighting for around the world.
I will not detain the House for long, because that is what the other Chamber is doing. The House has voted with huge majorities to put the legislation through, and actually the need for it is found in most of our constituency surgeries. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) listens for five minutes, she might hear my argument. It is fine to disagree with me, but chuntering is probably not the answer.
One of the biggest things that upsets my constituents is noisy neighbours, whether the noise comes from music or hard floors upstairs. At my surgeries, people often ask, “How can we control this? Can the council make recordings?” The council works hard to try to address these disputes, which are small in scale but mean a lot to the individuals who are having their lives blighted by noise.
As a trade unionist, I am more than happy to have legal demonstrations. They are part and parcel of the process—[Interruption.] I was in the Fire Brigades Union when we were thrown out of the Labour party, so I have a bit of a track record here. However, we are talking about people having their lives blighted continually because of a right being exercised near their homes or offices day in, day out. To be fair, we are talking not about a demonstration on a beach but about one right outside where people live.
The right hon. Member brings a lot of experience to the House, and I listen to him carefully. I agree with him about noisy neighbours, which are a distressing part of my case load because we often struggle hard to do something about it. However, the Bill does not do anything on that; it is about protests. We need to be clear that those are two completely different things. There are rules on antisocial behaviour and neighbours, and local authorities and the police have powers to deal with that—sadly, often those cases do not get dealt with—but that is not what we are arguing about.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, you made my point exactly. With respect to the shadow Minister, they are different, and I agree that the Bill has nothing to do with noisy neighbours, but noisy demonstrations blight people’s lives in exactly the same way, and that is why the legislation is trying to do something about them.
We may disagree, and that is probably right and proper—this place is about debating and not just agreeing with each other all the time—but the principle must be that this House, with huge majorities, has voted for these measures. I respect many of the people on both sides of the other House—they bring huge amounts of experience—but they are not elected. They should listen to this House and consider the size of the majority. If it had been tiny, we could argue about the principle, but it was not, and the measures have been voted through. On that, I completely agree with the Minister, who is in the position where I used to be.
Throughout the proceedings on this woefully drafted Bill, I have maintained that, although it is largely reserved to England and Wales, part 3 on protest will severely restrict anyone from Scotland, or indeed anyone across these islands, from exercising their fundamental and democratic right to protest. None of us can sit back and allow that to happen. What happens here in the coming days will outlive this Government, so the Scottish National party will vote against the Government motions to disagree with the Lords, who have worked tirelessly to help restore some balance to the Bill. I am seriously concerned about what will happen when the Bill is forced through the Lobby, and I know that that worries some Conservative Back Benchers who have been lobbying Members of the other place to allow the Commons the opportunity to think again on protest measures. We are back here to consider part 3 on protest, and rightly so.
The protest measures in the Bill have been the headline grabbers—the clauses most briefed on, tweeted on, reported and debated—and, most importantly, they are the clauses that people are concerned about, because they are a threat to our long-held right to have our voices heard. My office also receives hundreds of emails on a daily basis asking me to stand up and act against the threat to those rights. People are worried not just because of this Bill in particular—although it is terrifying—but because of the context in which it is being pushed through this place.
This week, we will debate the Elections Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, each carrying its own threat to our fundamental rights. People know how this works: they know that the Government have seemingly unfettered powers to make any law that they want. Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb put it best when she said:
“Because they have a huge majority…they can afford not to care about how the Bills are written or about their content.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 31 March 2022; Vol. 820, c. 1707.]
The Bill is badly written. No well written legislation would require so many amendments—it borders on the ridiculous. When we are forced to create a database for amendments just to keep track, we know that fundamentally something has gone wrong at the front end. However, it is our job to amend, correct and stop badly drafted legislation and, whatever the Minister says, it is the second House’s job to have its say on that.
I will speak briefly on specific amendments, but I would like to make a general point: all the amendments under discussion clean up ambiguous and badly worded clauses that will, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), said, only force the police into making quasi-political decisions on the spot. Former police chiefs and senior officers have warned against the
“political pressure the Bill will place on frontline officers.”
It has become apparent through these debates that it is not more legislation or laws that the police need or want.
Lords Amendment 73 would remove sections of the Bill that allow the police to intervene and limit processions based on the criterion of noise. We have heard a lot about that today. The Government have got this wrong—they simply have. They have tried to make assurances that powers to act on noise will be used only in the most extreme circumstances, but it is all just too vague. As the shadow Minister said, what kind of law would ask a frontline police officer to assess the thickness of walls in an office or the kind of glazing in a building prior to intervening on a protest? Seriously! It is in the guidance, if Government Members opposite want to check it. Here is a quote from the guidance:
“A noisy protest outside an office with double glazing may not meet the threshold”.
It is not just the way a building is constructed that frontline officers might have to contend with, but the duration of the noise and the type of noise. The list goes on. This is ill-conceived and ill-defined. It will load pressure on to already pressurised police forces and simply will not work. And that is before we get to the crux of the matter: our right to protest is our democratic right. It is not for this Government or any successive Governments to take that away.
We continue to oppose the Government’s apparent concession to remove the term “serious unease” for the simple fact that it is nestled in badly drafted sections and has the unintentional—or possibly intentional—effect of lowering the threshold for police intervention. Removing the term would lower the threshold of “serious alarm or distress” to “alarm or distress”. My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) eloquently made that point in a previous debate, and I stand by his remarks.
We supported Lords amendment 80, to remove clause 56 on public assemblies, and we continue to support it. This is yet another clause rife with hidden dangers, attempting to replace public order legislation that is operating perfectly well. The Public Order Act was careful to delineate and differentiate the conditions that could be imposed on static demonstrations, as opposed to a march or a moving protest, and that was sensible. That reflected the relative ease by which a static demonstration can be policed.
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but I am afraid I disagree with it. In Scottish jurisprudence, Scotland has an advantage over England in that it has a well-expressed and commonly used offence of nuisance. Would she support the use of this legislation in controlling nuisance emanating from a protest?
So many of us have already answered that on so many occasions. There already exists legislation and the powers for the police to control demonstrations that are not peaceful and out of control, but we are not talking about that. The proposed legislation allows the police to make decisions according to very spurious guidance. The removal of the distinction regarding statics demonstration could hand the police unfettered discretion to impose further conditions on static protests, such as the words and slogans that can be used on placards. That is ridiculous. Sometimes they are the best bits! I really wish I had the time to read out some of my favourite words and slogans that I have seen recently, but I do not think the Government would be too pleased about that.
Finally, I want to touch on Lords amendment 87, on one-person protests. The amendment removes the ability of the police to impose conditions on a one-person protest. That was rejected in the last round of ping-pong and the Lords have rightly asked for it to be reconsidered. I have twice now heard the Minister talk in derisory terms about the House of Lords because some of them are hereditary and none of them are elected. The SNP is opposed to the House of Lords on that basis, but his party is not and it puts people in there all the time. If that is the system he supports, he cannot really complain when they do the job they are asked to do. Are we really going to see a law passed today that will allow the might of the state to bear down on a single, individual protester? It is ridiculous, disproportionate and nothing short of bullying. And be careful anyone who even stops to chat to a protester, because they could be snared by the clause, too. How many times have we all stopped to chat to the wonderful array of protesters outside this place, whether we agree with them or not? Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, doing so could soon see you committing a criminal offence.
We are not impressed with the Government’s amendments to lay reports before the House with regard to changes to the Public Order Act. They are lip service posing as concessions. They are better than nothing, but they are not much better.
I understand that time is short, so I will finish with this: we support the Lords in their amendments and fundamentally disagree with the undemocratic way the Government are throwing their weight around. If the Government are intent on dissuading protest, they are intent on silencing voices. From the huffing and puffing coming from the Minister today it is clear he is no fan of democracy, so I am sure he will not mind if I tell him the Bill is undemocratic, unworkable and unfair.
A noise annoys. That was a common reproof from my mother in my early days, and indeed to her grandchildren today. I think we all recognise, in the course of the debates we have had in this House, that there are occasions when noise is a part of the democratic process that helps the atmosphere and the challenge, and there are times when it becomes extremely disruptive to the democratic process and begins to get in the way. I rise to support the Minister and the Government on that point. I would like to set out briefly the particular reasons why I take that position.
Like the Minister and a number of colleagues across the House, I have spent a lot of time in local government. I am very aware that one of the most common complaints to local authorities is about disruption caused by noise. This element of the Bill deals with a very specific subset of noise where it is caused by protest, and I agree with what the Minister and the Government have said. It probably depends where in the country someone is and what their experience has been. Certainly for local authorities in places such as my area—I speak with experience of a local authority where Heathrow has occasioned many protests over the years—where relatively low levels of noise carry on 24 hours a day, sometimes for days on end, or where extremely loud noises are generated by the kind of portable amplification technology that has become available even to lone protestors, such things can cause enormous disruption.
That disruption is not just to residents who live in those places—I appreciate that for central London Members of Parliament it is certainly a very big factor—but to businesses. I have many constituents who either work or have business interests in central London. Hoteliers may struggle to sell their hotel rooms in a location where there is constant disruption caused by noisy protest, which means that people cannot sleep and the normal business of an office is disrupted.
In my view, given the development of tactics used by some protests that aim specifically to make persistent noisy protests that do not cross the thresholds set out in existing legislation, it is right that we update the law. We have heard a lot that existing powers are available, in particular to local authorities, to address concerns about noise. I have heard that argument made at the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we have heard it in a number of debates on a lot of different aspects of the Bill.
However, it seems clear to me that there are occasions when the role of this House is not simply to respond to what the police are asking for, but to recognise when constituents, businesses and residents have concerns and find that the powers available, for example to local authorities, are not sufficient to remedy the problems they are experiencing. It is then the duty of the House to consider how we increase the penalties and powers available, so that those problems can be properly addressed. For example, as the Bill contains provisions to deal with trespass that crosses a criminal threshold and powers to increase sentencing, in my view it is right that it also increases the powers of the police to deal with persistent and noisy protests.
For people experiencing disruption to their sleep, disruption to their family life and disruption to their business—disruption to normal lawful activity that these types of protest can cause—waiting for the processes available to a local authority is simply insufficient. By law, councils have to go through various processes to gather evidence, which takes a long time. It can be enormously difficult to identify the cause in a way that meets the legal test, whereas the police have powers to act, when an offence is being committed, to deal with those things and ensure that residents and businesses are no longer impacted inappropriately. For those reasons, although it is right that the Government have listened to what has been said in the other place, I think it is right that we push ahead with this.
The powers will be required for a relatively narrow subset of occasions. In my view, however, the disruption that is caused to businesses, my constituents’ business activities and interests in central London, and many other people around the country—in places such as Heathrow, where persistent, long-running protests can cause this kind of disruption—demonstrates that there is a need for an improvement in the powers. I wholly support the Minister in defending them at the Dispatch Box.
We truly are in a remarkable situation of political crisis for the Government, who seem determined to pursue an assault on the rule of law, democracy, the devolution settlement and human rights. In the week that the Government intend to prorogue the House, multiple Bills are coming before us, following repeated Government defeats in the Lords. The Government are seeking to pursue this assault on democracy just a few days after the Prime Minister was found to have broken the law.
Much of this legislation was not part of the Tory Government’s election manifesto. The Government cannot therefore claim, in pursuing this legislation, that it commands the support of the electorate. That is certainly the case regarding today’s amendments. The mass of public opinion is better demonstrated by the joint coalition of non-governmental organisations opposing the Bill, which stretches from Amnesty International to 38 Degrees, End Violence Against Women and many, many more. The Lords have reflected that civil society concern. I welcome their decision to insist on their amendments to clauses 55 and 61.
My noble Friend Lord Coaker, the former Member of this House for Gedling, spoke plainly when the other place last considered the Bill. As he highlighted, the Government proposals make a bad Bill even worse by lowering the threshold from establishing policing powers in relation to
“serious unease, alarm or distress”
to simply “alarm” or “distress”, making shutdown of protest even more likely. He highlighted that the Government’s fact sheet guidance for the clauses on “too noisy” protests make it clear that this is unworkable and, in reality, makes protest unpoliceable.
If the Government cannot clarify whether a protest would meet the noise threshold under this legislation because of double-glazing, they do not know what they are doing. Therefore, amid the confusion, we can only conclude that the Government are simply creating powers that can be exploited to shut down noisy protest and scrutiny of the Executive.
In referring to the earlier comments about the devolved settlement, I wish to share with the Minister—if he is not already aware of this—the fact that the Welsh Government have withheld legislative consent from the provisions of the Bill that come within their competence, including clauses that relate to the right to protest and noise nuisance. I have the legislative consent memorandum with me today, if he is interested in seeing it. The Welsh Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, stated that the wish was to
“send a united message to the UK Government that this eradication of the fundamental right to have our voices heard cannot and will not be tolerated.”
The Government should and must respect the devolution settlement. The Welsh Government have withheld legislative consent from 17 Bills so far. This is absolutely unacceptable.
Colleagues on the Government side have said that the police want this legislation, but police constables in Wales have expressed significant reservations about the Bill in recent evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee. Carl Foulkes of North Wales Police said that police officers could choose not to enforce part of the Bill. Jeremy Vaughan of South Wales Police insisted that
“protest…by its very nature, needs to be disruptive”.
He insisted that “most” in the police would be “vociferous and protective” of the public’s right to protest.
No, I will not.
As with the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the Elections Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill, which we will discuss later this week, the Government are in chaos, thrashing around to restore order. The Government must accept the Lords amendments, although we would be in a far better position if they dropped the Bill completely.
It was through protest that many of our fundamental rights were won, including the right to vote. Noise is an essential part of protest. What is the point of a demonstration if no one can hear its message? What is it if not a show of strength of feeling? Thousands of people gathered together will inevitably be loud. Make no mistake: the Bill is an assault on our right to protest and our ability to hold the powerful to account. What is to stop a corporation that is being protested against calling the police and claiming that the noise is causing significant disruption in order to shut down the demonstration?
The powers also give huge discretion to police officers. That will make the law on protests completely unpredictable. People will attend protests not knowing whether the noise that they are making is illegal and whether they will go home that evening and have dinner with their family or be thrown in the back of a police van. I have no faith that the police would show restraint with these new powers when other powers have been abused time and again.
In recent weeks Members across the House will have seen the heroic actions of anti-war protesters in Russia and Ukraine. If MPs truly support their right to protest and their ability to make noise, they should vote against these powers. Many Conservative Members also consider themselves great champions of freedom of speech, quick to condemn so-called cancel culture. If they truly believe in freedom of expression, they should vote against the powers.
I would also bet that the majority of Members in this Chamber will at some point have taken part in a protest that could have fallen foul of a noise trigger—thank goodness the Chamber is not subject to these anti-noise laws, because otherwise I expect that would be happening every Wednesday. I urge every Member here to think about those protests, the causes they were championing and the people they were with. If they feel that those protests were legitimate and that they should not have been arrested for making some noise, I urge them to extend the same right to others and to vote down these powers.
Let me deal with the closing point from the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) about Prime Minister’s Question Time. She will recall that the Speaker spends quite a lot of his time semi-threatening Members of the House, saying that they should keep quiet so that the voices and rights of Members on both sides of the House can be respected. Control is exercised, as we all make our views known.
As we close this debate, I want to focus broadly on where we agree. We all agree that, in an ancient democracy such as ours, protest is intrinsic to, and a cornerstone of, our rights. The Government are resolute in defending the rights of freedom of speech and of assembly. We should all be able to take to the streets to express our views on the issues of the day. In doing so, it is inevitable that some will be offended, inconvenienced or put out, and we should all accept that as part of the debate.
However, I think we have all accepted, on both sides of the House, that even in a protest situation, controls can and should be mandated and that there is not an unqualified right. As both Opposition Front Benchers—the hon. Members for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin)—have accepted, in Scotland and Wales there is a legal basis for controlling all forms of protest, including noise. All that we are trying to do is give the police the power to do so in challenging and exceptional situations in England as well.
When one person is exercising a right that infringes on the rights of others, whether it involves the use of hate speech, running on to motorways, endangering lives or generating such a cacophony of noise that it causes alarm or distress, the law must be able to step in—as it does, perhaps for a tenant or resident in Croydon. I would be interested in the view of the hon. Member for Croydon Central on this: if the noise that the resident complained about from the neighbours was Bob Dylan protest songs all day and all night in furtherance of a protest in their home, should that just be allowed? [Interruption.] Well, exactly. The point is that we have to be able to qualify these rights and we have to give the police control in exceptional circumstances.
The time has come to say unequivocally to the House of Lords that enough is enough. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, this elected House has made its views on the measures crystal clear four times. It is time for the other place to acknowledge that, accept the amendments that the Government have put forward in the spirit of accommodation and let the Bill pass.
That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 73, insists on its Amendment 73C to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement to that Amendment, insists on its Amendment 74A to Lords Amendment 74, disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment 74B to that Amendment in lieu, disagrees with the Lords in their consequential Amendments 74C, 74D, 74E, 74F and 74G, insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 87, insists on its Amendments 87A, 87B, 87C, 87D, 87E, 87F and 87H to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement to that Amendment but proposes Amendment (a) in lieu of Lords Amendment 73 and additional Amendment (b) to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 87.
Imposing conditions on public assemblies
Motion made, and Question put,
That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 80, insists on its Amendments 80A, 80B, 80C, 80D, 80E, 80F and 80H to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with that Amendment, disagrees with the Lords in their Amendment 80J instead of the words left out by that Amendment but proposes additional Amendment (a) to the words restored to the Bill by its disagreement with the Lords in their Amendment 80.—(Kit Malthouse.)