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Protest Measures

Volume 745: debated on Thursday 8 February 2024

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall make a statement on new Government measures to tackle unacceptable behaviour at protests.

In the aftermath of the horrific attacks on 7 October, many people took to the streets to make their views heard. Many did so peacefully and respectfully. I had the great privilege of marching alongside many people, including some in this House, against antisemitism on the streets of both Manchester and London. Sadly, those protests do not tell the whole story.

Over the past few months, we have all seen disturbing and distressing examples of hateful abuse, of serious damage, and of law-abiding citizens being intimidated and prevented from going about their daily life. The right to protest is fundamental to our democracy, but when we see people hurling racist abuse, desecrating national memorials of great significance to our country, or taking flares to marches to cause disruption and fear, the only reasonable response is outrage and disgust. Tolerating these actions would be radicalising in itself. This Government will not stand by and allow a small minority to incite hatred and commit crimes, undermining our proud tradition of peaceful protest.

Today, the Government have announced a package of measures to put a stop to this criminality for good. Protesters have for too long been able to claim in law that protest is a “reasonable excuse” for criminal behaviour. Blocking roads, preventing ambulances from getting through and stopping people from getting to work or visiting loved ones are breathtakingly selfish acts. The British public certainly do not see an acceptable justification for that level of disruption to their life. That is why we are removing that defence for relevant crimes. Protesters will no longer be able to cite the right to protest as a reasonable excuse to get away with disruptive offences, such as blocking roads.

Through the package that we are announcing today, we will crack down on those who climb on war memorials. In recent months, we have seen cases where individuals have broken away from large protests and scaled national monuments. War memorials belong to all of us. They are the altars of our national grief, and it is clearly not acceptable to disrespect them in that way; it is an assault on the memory of so many who gave their life for our freedom and to defend our nation. Attacking our national memorials goes beyond the legitimate exercise of free speech. We must not give those who commit criminal acts at protests the ability to get away with it by simply hiding their identity.

Once the legislation comes into force, the police will have new powers to arrest protesters at certain protests who wear face coverings to conceal their identity. Those who shout racist abuse and extremist rhetoric will no longer be able to hide from justice. We are also protecting the public by putting an end to people bringing flares on marches. Flares have been used during large-scale protests, and have been fired at police officers, posing significant risk of injury. A new offence will ban the possession of flares, fireworks and any other pyrotechnics at protests. Anyone who flouts the new rules will face serious consequences, including up to three months in jail and a £1,000 fine for those who climb on war memorials.

The changes that we have announced today build on the legislation that we introduced last year to help the police tackle disruption from protests. We criminalised interfering with key national infrastructure through section 7 of the Public Order Act 2023. Since we passed the Act last year, the Metropolitan police have made more than 600 arrests to minimise the disruption caused by Just Stop Oil. On Tuesday, the Home Secretary met policing leaders to thank them for their work, and to encourage the use of all existing powers at their disposal, as well as these new measures, to maintain order at protests. I am very grateful to frontline officers across the country for their efforts and successes in keeping the British people safe during an immensely challenging period. I know that policing these events on a regular basis is both complex and demanding. It takes officers away from crucial work preventing crime and protecting vulnerable people in our communities.

As I have made clear, freedom of expression is vital to our democracy, and this House champions it every day. People must be able to speak without fear, and have their right to peaceful protest protected, but those freedoms and rights are not absolute, for very good reason. There is no freedom to commit violence or intimidation, or to harass others. This country has laws against vocally supporting terror organisations for a very good reason, and last month, the Government proscribed Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist organisation. That group actively celebrated the 7 October terrorist attacks in Israel that led to the rape and murder of many, many people. It is an organisation that has poisoned minds for far too long.

We must, and we will, continue to stand with communities who feel threatened, and ensure their safety wherever they live and work. The Government are sticking to the plan to give police the powers that they need to crack down on crime and keep our streets safe. We will never tolerate hateful, dangerous or intimidating behaviour. We will always put the decent, law-abiding majority first. We will do what is right and fair. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Minister for his statement, and for advance sight of it. The Labour party absolutely respects the fundamental freedom to make legitimate, peaceful protest, but when that freedom is abused to intimidate, harass and harm others, safeguards must be put in place to protect the public. It is essential that the police be able to maintain public order while safeguarding the right to legitimate, peaceful protest. We will therefore scrutinise the details of the proposals to ensure that any new measures are applied appropriately and proportionately.

I will respond to the measures that the Minister has outlined. First, there are the new powers for the police to arrest protesters using face coverings to conceal their identity. While we understand the genuine concern about protesters committing public order offences while wearing face coverings, we are also concerned that there might be, at times, legitimate reasons why some protesters would want to wear face coverings. Let me give an example. When dissidents protest outside foreign embassies—the Minister will know which ones I have in mind—they may well want to conceal their identity to protect their family back home. The UK is, and should always be, a safe haven for dissidents opposing oppressive regimes. Can the Minister provide more detail about how that new power will be applied appropriately?

Secondly, the Opposition welcome a ban on flares and fireworks, which have been used to fuel public disorder and intimidate police officers in recent months. However, the policing of large protests could pose a challenge to enforcing the ban effectively, so I would be grateful if the Minister outlined what guidance will be issued to police forces on enforcing that at large protests with thousands of people in attendance.

Thirdly, on measures to protect the sanctity of war memorials, I know that the Minister will agree—as will, I am sure, every right hon. and hon. Member in the House—that they are extremely important places. They are places to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of our country, and they must always be respected. During protest activity last year, a very small minority of protesters desecrated the sanctity of war memorials, which understandably sparked outrage right around the country.

Protest activity also raised the issue of what is defined as hateful extremism. Despite promises, the Government have not so far been forthcoming with their definition of hateful extremism, which would help the police forces to police protests better. Can the Minister say when that will be brought forward, and outline when the Government will bring forward an updated counter-extremism strategy? The current one is eight years out of date.

The right to peacefully protest is a fundamental freedom in our country. It must not be abused, but it must not be curbed unnecessarily, either. The Opposition will scrutinise these measures further to ensure that they strike the right balance between safeguarding the right to protest and the important duty to safeguard the public.

I thank my hon. Friend—and he is my hon. Friend—for his support and comments. He is quite right that protecting peaceful protest and the right of free citizens to express their views on our streets is essential to the Government’s mission, and it is one of our priorities. The points that he raises are fair; in some cases, I will have to write to him with more detail, but I will cover some of the areas that I think matter greatly.

On face coverings, my hon. Friend raises important questions about when there might be a legitimate reason for somebody to cover their face. The guidelines and the legislation that we are setting out will cover that, because police officers will have discretion to give an order requiring a face covering to be removed. Those commanding the policing of protests will therefore have discretion over when they ask for that instruction to be carried out.

Secondly, on pyrotechnics, the instruction is quite clear: the measure relates to those participating in the protest. If, particularly around Diwali or Guy Fawkes’s day—not a day that I think anybody in this House would ever celebrate—people who have bought fireworks happen to pass a protest, they will not be caught by the offence. It refers to participation in the protest.

On my hon. Friend’s point about war memorials, he and I know far too many names that have been etched on to those stones. We also know that protests on war memorials can tear open extremely painful wounds that have long been closed. That is why I think the British people, quite rightly, saw the protests on war memorials as so offensive. That is why it is right that the Government act against the small minority desecrating such an important place in our hearts.

On my hon. Friend’s question about counter-extremism, the work being done by Robin Simcox is hugely important, and we are doing an awful lot to tighten up various elements of our counter-extremism policy. Indeed, I hope very much that I will be leaving the Chamber very shortly to have a meeting on that subject. The reality is, however, that it is a very complex subject; the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is currently working on a definition of extremism alongside the Attorney General. There is an awful lot that we must do to ensure that groups that pose the danger of extremism are addressed in other ways. That is where cross-Government working has been so important in ensuring that groups are transparent in what they are doing, in who is funding them and in where they are targeting their attention.

It is an honour to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who has just put a question to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Minister for Security.

Some demonstrations are perfectly acceptable. For example, in my early years as an MP, in order to get a relief road, I escorted mothers and their prams down a major road. We went at three and a half miles an hour, which was faster than the traffic would have gone had we not been there on a demo. It was a Friday evening and people were trying to leave London. We got the relief road.

I also led a march from Speakers’ Corner to Trafalgar Square for the Cambridge Two—two social workers who were wrongly convicted and jailed for helping the homeless.

That is different from the kind of disaster that happens when there are crowd surges, especially if they are created by explosions, be they from firecrackers or other things. I was present at Óscar Romero’s funeral, when 14 people died around me from crushing because explosives or fireworks went off.

I was present at the Heysel stadium in 1985 when 39 Italians were crushed to death. Being able to control demonstrations, which should be held by agreement and understanding with the authorities, is vital for them to be safe.

On a more minor scale, there was a flash protest outside my constituency office yesterday by good-natured people who care about the people in Gaza. Had there been one young worker in that place when suddenly a flashmob appeared around them, it would have been discomfiting. I am sure that that would not be caught by these measures, and nor should it be, but I say to those doing such protests: “Think of others.”

I ask my right hon. Friend to remember a last point about disruption. When there was one of the Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, in which people were allowed to sit around in the streets here—for far too long in my view—I said to one person who had flown in from Vancouver to join the protest that flying halfway across a continent and an ocean to help Extinction Rebellion was odd. I said, “What about the ambulances?” They said, “We’ll let them through.” I replied, “The ambulances are stuck 2 miles away. You can’t let them through. You must let people go about their ordinary business to save lives and for the prosperity of the country.”

I back the Government’s measures, and I hope my right hon. Friend knows that he will have support from across the House and the country for what he has proposed.

First, I thank the Father of the House for his support for these important measures, and indeed for his entirely correct observation that protest is not only necessary but important across the country. Every day, many protests happen politely, courteously and in ways that make their point without causing the kind of societal harms that, sadly, some cause. His longevity in this place, and indeed outside it, is a blessing to the House. He remembers the funeral of the late St Óscar Romero, whose extraordinary work was an inspiration to millions around the world. My hon. Friend reminds us not only that crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is not an expression of freedom of speech, but that, in this context, making an explosion in a crowded area can lead to human tragedy beyond expectation. The co-operation between protesters and the police is incredibly important for the protection of the public.

We in the SNP oppose these measures to clamp down on people’s right to protest, just as we opposed the Public Order Act 2023 and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. On issues such as the Women Against State Pension Inequality campaign, Iraq, and Israel and Gaza, people from Scotland travel to London, to Westminster, to make their voices heard. People feel helpless in the wake of the Gaza situation, which is unfolding 24/7 on our social media feeds. They donate what they can during a cost of living crisis, and they boycott and protest. How does Westminster respond? It responds by cutting cost of living support, banning public bodies from investing ethically, and clamping down on the right to protest through measures that will impact certain people in society, particularly those living with disabilities.

Human rights lawyer Baroness Shami Chakrabarti has called out today’s announcement as “more culture war nonsense”. She highlighted that individuals may have reasons other than criminality for covering their faces:

“Should rape victims or refugees peacefully protesting really be punished for covering their faces to protect their identities?”

Is this not just another example of the Government pandering to their far-right wing, rather than protecting the legitimate right to protest? This Government are punishing the majority for a tiny minority’s actions, further fuelling their culture war. As for the detail the Minister outlined, a £1,000 fine is significant and unaffordable to people across these isles, but it is nothing to a Prime Minister who is willing to bet that exact amount on people’s lives.

I can honestly say that I am sorry, but not entirely surprised, that the SNP is choosing to make divisive politics out of what has been a moment of national unity. At many of these protests, we have seen extremely dignified individuals raising a point, whether about Gaza or antisemitism. We have heard courageous voices speaking out on all sides of these debates—individuals who have made their voices heard extremely clearly and in a dignified way—but sadly, some extremists have chosen this as the moment to spread hatred and fear and to stoke nationalism or division. I realise that that is something that the hon. Lady and I take different positions on, as after all, she represents a nationalist wing in our country. It is a great shame that she is choosing this moment to spread that hatred. I do wish that the Scottish nationalists would—[Interruption.] You are a nationalist party; therefore, you are Scottish nationalists.

As the Scottish nationalists who are represented in Parliament today have chosen to make a point out of this issue, I will just say that many people have protested across the whole of the United Kingdom in many dignified ways. We are seeking to make sure that those across our country who quite rightly wish to exercise their right to protest can do so in a safe and dignified way.

This is an important set of measures, and I welcome everything that my right hon. Friend has announced. Without seeking to interfere with the operational independence of the police, there should be a presumption of instant and immediate application of these new measures where offences occur. Too often in the protests we have seen since 7 October vile antisemitic posters have been displayed and banners have been carried unchallenged, only for the police—particularly the Metropolitan police—to put out appeals later asking, “Do you know this person?” That emboldens those who have these foul views to carry on, and it sends a much deeper and disturbing message, particularly to Jewish communities across the country, that the police are just letting those offences go by.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is exactly why the Home Secretary has already been speaking with police chiefs in the United Kingdom about the powers that will be provided. The police chiefs themselves have asked for the powers. He is also absolutely right that the level of antisemitism we have seen on our streets is simply vile and completely unacceptable, and it is also true that some of the symbols that are being carried and some of the flags that are being displayed are themselves radicalising, so action against them is so important. It is quite noticeable how many of the symbols that people claim should be culturally normalised in the UK are absolutely not tolerated in Muslim countries across the world, for the very clear reason that they do not speak for Muslim people—either in the UK or around the world—but are trying to speak for a narrow Islamist fringe that is utterly hateful and has no place in our society.

I am sure the Minister knows that the Home Affairs Select Committee has been carrying out an inquiry into the policing of protests after the horrific attacks of 7 October. I join both Front Benchers, the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) in thanking the police for the work they have done, keeping people safe on demonstrations and also upholding the law.

We on the Home Affairs Committee have taken evidence from the police, and although people should of course have the right to protest, we were very concerned about the effect that the number of protests is having on the number of rest days that are being cancelled for police officers in the Met, for example. More than 4,000 rest days have been cancelled, and the cost to the Met of policing those protests up to the end of December has been £18.9 million.

Will the Minister explain how these new laws will be supported with any additional resourcing that the police need? What more can be done to support the wellbeing of officers who are either deployed or abstracted to ensure that these protests can go ahead? In the light of Home Secretary’s comments this week about neighbourhood policing and how important that is, can the Minister reassure the House that resources will not be taken away from neighbourhood policing to deal with the policing of protests?

I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady’s work on the policing of protests. Her Committee has already had some important evidence sessions, which I have listened to in part, not in whole—forgive me. We will no doubt be seeing the work she pulls together at the end of that inquiry, and I shall read it with great interest.

It is worth saying that the pressure on policing across the United Kingdom from these protests has been significant. We recognise that, and we have been looking to support police forces, where appropriate, in whatever way is appropriate. It is certainly true that many police forces have been able to manage only because of the uplift in police numbers they have seen in recent years. Sadly, London, as the right hon. Lady knows, has not managed to use that uplift, which is a great shame. Frankly, I am sure that that is something the people of London will consider in the polls in May. Sadly, in Scotland as well, police numbers have fallen, whereas in the rest of the United Kingdom they have by and large risen. These are areas in which I know she will encourage people to make decisions according to how they have been governed, not just policed.

Since the atrocities on 7 October, the regular hate marches that have taken place in London have forced Jewish Londoners to remove their kippahs, remove their Star of David necklaces and, in some cases, even vacate their homes because they are scared—and they are certainly scared to travel to central London when one of these hate marches is taking place. Only 16% of British Jews believe that the police treat antisemitism as equivalent to other forms of hate crime, and two thirds of British Jews believe that the police have double standards on these crimes. When these measures are introduced, will my right hon. Friend make sure that they are actually targeted at the people expressing hatred towards British Jews, and that those people are arrested and taken to court to answer for the charges that are made?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right that the level of antisemitism we have seen has been utterly unacceptable and the fear that has been spread, sadly, among the Jewish community in the United Kingdom has been utterly vile. It is simply intolerable to have parts of our community feeling unsafe to walk, shop or do whatever they choose on the streets of our capital. It is completely wrong.

The powers in this instruction or ruling will be for the police to deploy as operationally appropriate. However, I am sure that police officers and police chiefs around the United Kingdom will have heard my hon. Friend’s point and will have recognised it. I should point out that, since the 7 October protests began, more than 600 arrests have been made in relation to those protests. The police take this extremely seriously, and about 30 of those arrests have been related to TACT—Terrorism Act 2000—offences. That should, I hope, reassure all communities across this country that this Government and these police officers take these offences extremely seriously, and they will be using all the powers at their disposal to protect everyone in the United Kingdom.

I am someone who knows the politics and lifestyle of Northern Ireland and who lived through the troubles, and we protested on many occasions, but the one thing we never did was wear a mask. I therefore very much welcome the legislation coming forward today. The right to protest is an important right in a democratic society and country, but I firmly believe that things should be done decently and in order, which means people having the courage of their convictions and having their face uncovered. People wearing a mask at a protest, whether they be pro-Hamas protesters or hunt saboteurs, are breaking the law, and I would be very pleased to see them jailed and fined for the activity of wearing a mask. Will the Minister outline how soon changes can be put in place, and whether discussions are ongoing with the Northern Ireland Assembly—it is back on its feet again, and Ministers are in place—to ensure that the legislation initiated here can apply across all of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I greatly welcome the hon. Member’s comments, but he will know that, perhaps not so often in Strangford, but some people did wear balaclavas in the protests that I saw in Northern Ireland.

I am sure the hon. Member was not one of them; there is absolutely no suggestion that he could ever be one of them. I think that would surprise quite literally everyone in this House. I am grateful for his support. This measure will clearly need to be worked on, and we have already begun conversations with the Northern Ireland Office, but areas of work will be required across the United Kingdom. Police chiefs are already aware of this and have been asking for these powers, and that is why they are coming into place.

The Minister’s statement will be welcome to the vast majority of decent, law-abiding citizens up and down the country, particularly in respect of the protection of war memorials. Although the proposed three months’ imprisonment or £1,000 fine might be suitable for some who are caught up in demonstrations, three months seems incredibly lenient for those who we can probably describe as “professional protesters”. Of course the final decision rests with the courts, but could a heavier period of imprisonment be available to them?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Sadly, as is quite frequently the case, on the more serious occasions it would not be just one offence that was brought. I think this level of punishment represents, rightly, the offence that such actions cause, and the penalty is, I think, appropriate to that. It is of course possible that other charges will be brought alongside that.

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I support the reference to protecting war memorials. As the son of someone who served in the second world war and as someone who grew up knowing people who lost comrades in the war, those memorials are often the only place where those people are commemorated, because they have no grave of their own, and such memorials should be protected in the way the Minister suggests. None the less, the detail of the proposals will require a great deal of scrutiny, so could he say a little more about where we will get that opportunity? The Criminal Justice Bill is now on Report. Are the measures an amendment to that? Will they be statutory instruments? When will we get the opportunity to scrutinise the Government’s proposals?

There will be amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill, which can be scrutinised on Report. I understand the hon. Member’s comments. These are limited and minor amendments, as he knows. They are measures that the police have been asking for, and they enjoy the support of the House for exactly the reason he gave.

It is expected—and even reasonable—that those who lose the democratic debate in this place will take their protest on to the streets. However, we have seen a recent disturbing trend that the tactics of a minority now undermine and jeopardise the tradition of effective peaceful protest that we enjoy in this democracy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the measures the Government have taken, and the measures he proposes today, are a reasonable response to such tactics, and that the tactics of the minority that have been employed, and that these measures address, are distorting and abusing the hard-won freedoms of this country to gather, to speak, and to protest peacefully?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point and if I may, I will build on it in combination with an earlier point. There are many people who served our country in various different ways over two world wars and in conflicts since then, whose memorials are either lost and known only unto God or are many thousands of miles away from their families. Families who have come to share our lives in the United Kingdom may have left behind them the graves of family members who served in those conflicts. I am thinking in particular of the 140,000 or so Muslim servicemen who served and lost their lives in the last two wars, of the many Jewish ex-servicemen who march as well, and of many others from around the world—from Africa, South America and Asia—who served in the pursuit of liberty and the defence of freedom in our country. This is their home now; those memorials remember their relatives and loved ones, and it is absolutely right that, for all communities in this country, we defend those moments of national memorial and the altars to liberty that they represent.

These measures may impact on those of my constituents who wish to protest outside this place or elsewhere over the border. The Minister says that enforcement actions will be taken by police officers at their discretion. How will the Government ensure that these measures will be applied uniformly, proportionately and appropriately across all of England’s police forces?

These are police powers, so the enforcement or application of them is operationally independent and down to the discretion of officers and chief constables as appropriate. That is how policing traditionally works. We do not have a national police force through which we can order police officers to arrest or not arrest individuals. We allow individual police officers to apply the law according to the guidelines that chief constables set out, and that is exactly what will happen in this circumstance.