Committee (1st Day) (Continued)
My Lords, I must inform the Committee that if Amendment 12 is agreed, I will not be able to call Amendment 13 by reason of pre-emption.
12: Clause 1, page 2, line 2, leave out “to imprisonment for a term not exceeding the maximum term for summary offences,”
Member's explanatory statement
This amendment, with others in the name of Baroness Chakrabarti, reduces the maximum sentence for the proposed new offence of “locking on” to a fine.
My Lords, I now get the opportunity to congratulate and welcome the Minister —the noble Lord, Lord Murray—to this Committee. I have had the opportunity to welcome him in other ways before, but it is important to be engaged in detailed scrutiny of the Bill for the first time.
This group is about sentencing. Notwithstanding everything that I have said so far—and no doubt will say again, and make the Minister’s ears bleed with my position on the Bill as a whole and specific offences—it is also important to engage with the specific issues of appropriate and proportionate sentencing, how the sentencing framework and different offences in that framework fit together, and whether we in this country should be incarcerating more and more people, including for what may well be peaceful dissent. It is very difficult to separate the issue of sentencing from the other formulation of the offence. When I was young, I was a lawyer in the Minister’s department, and one of the things that we were responsible for at that time in the Home Office was looking at the overall sentencing framework. That may now belong in the Ministry of Justice, but none the less the point was that whenever a new offence was proposed by any government department, it needed to pass some gatekeepers in a little unit in the Home Office who wanted to be clear about the formulation of the offence—mens rea, actus reus, et cetera—but also about the sentence, because in government people look for levers for change and everyone has a new big idea about a new offence.
In particular, in this group, with my first and some other amendments, including those of other noble Lords, I am really probing whether the new proposed offence of locking on—the Minister’s colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, who is about to arrive in his place, was discussing that earlier—could even include people who, in a disruptive way, link arms. The noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, made the argument that sometimes linking arms in big enough groups would be just as disruptive as gluing your hands to the road. Are we really suggesting incarceration for up to 51 weeks for an offence that could be perpetrated by people singing “Kumbaya” and linking arms? It is a probe, but it is important that there should be some probes about the sentences for these offences, and not just their intention and formulation. I think that it is very important that we consider how many people we are incarcerating in this country, the trajectory that we are on with imprisonment in this country, and whether we have a criminal statute book—including a sentencing statute book—that is proportionate and coherent to meet the needs of a very troubled and polarised society at the moment. With that, I beg to move.
I look around in vain for anyone else who wants to speak. I agree with the principles that the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has just spoken about. Amendment 13, in my name, is based on a recommendation from the Joint Committee on Human Rights. In its report on the Bill, the committee points out that the offence of locking on under Clause 1 is punishable with—as she just said—
“up to 51 weeks in prison.”
The committee states that:
“This sanction is significantly harsher than the maximum penalties that, until recently, applied to existing ‘protest-related’ non-violent offences such as obstructing the highway (level 3 fine) or aggravated trespass (3 months imprisonment).”
The committee notes that there is likely to be a low hurdle for prosecution—again, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, just said. The amendment therefore questions whether the length of potential imprisonment —51 weeks—is proportionate to the offence that is committed. Amendment 13 suggests that this should be reduced to a three-month maximum sentence.
The remaining amendments in my name in this group relate to the level of fine that can be issued to a person who commits an offence under Clauses 1 to 7. They are similar to amendments that I tabled to the corresponding clauses of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—now an Act—when it was previously debated in this House. However, given the nature of the debate at that stage—in particular, in Committee, we started discussing those clauses at 11.45 pm—I believe that there is merit in discussing this issue again in this Committee.
Under Clauses 1 to 7, a person convicted of an offence may be liable to “a fine”. However, the Bill does not specify what the maximum level of such a fine should be. For each of these new offences, our amendments ask the simple question: is an unlimited fine proportionate for such an offence? In particular, is it proportionate that a person convicted of the offence of being equipped for locking on, for example, should be subjected to an unlimited fine? The Minister may argue that the level of fine suggested in our amendments is too low. At this point, they are simply probing amendments designed to make the principled point that an unlimited fine may be disproportionate for a number of the offences contained in the Bill. Finally, it would also be of benefit to the Committee if the Minister could set out how they intend fines to be applied consistently for these offences, if there is no upper limit as to the fine that can be imposed.
My Lords, I will be extremely brief. I want to reiterate the final two points that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, made. I speak as a sitting magistrate in London. I occasionally have to deal with unlimited fines, but it is far more straightforward as a magistrate, when you have a level set and an example of what the maximum fine might be for whatever offence one is dealing with at the time. For most offences that we deal with, levels are indeed set; we are given the parameters, if you like, of what would be appropriate. I was going to make the same point as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick: if one wants some form of consistency across the country for these types of offences, it would be useful to have some level of guidance, perhaps setting a level of fine that may be appropriate.
The other point I want to make, which is slightly outside the scope of these amendments, is about the power of the court to set compensation. I have been in a case dealing with relatively minor offences, but the level of potential compensation was absolutely astronomical when we were talking about disrupting train services and things such as that. The level of compensation is a judicial decision but, certainly in my experience, the level of compensation can potentially eclipse the maximum level of any fine the court may give. I do not know whether the Minister is able to say something more about appropriate levels of fines—and appropriate levels of compensation.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords for that short debate, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, for her warm welcome to this Committee. It has been a fascinating exercise to conduct my first Committee stage.
The general intention of this group of amendments is to reduce the maximum fines and the maximum sentences listed in Clauses 1 to 8. The maximum fines and sentences attached to these offences reflect, in the view of the Government, the serious harm and disruption that can be caused by these actions. It may be helpful if I set out just one example of that harm for the Committee. During the targeted and reckless activity by Just Stop Oil in August 2022, protesters dug two tunnels in an attempt to disrupt access to an oil terminal in Essex. This particularly dangerous protest tactic not only disrupted the operation of the terminal but had a knock-on impact on many others. First, it led to full and partial road closures impacting the public, local and private businesses and the council. Secondly, it resulted in ambulances and fire and rescue services being on standby due to the risk of collapse in the tunnel, thereby impacting on availability of those emergency services. Thirdly, it consumed a huge amount of police resources in responding to the operation, impacting on the police as well as the public, as officers had to be diverted from other duties.
Given this example and countless others, the maximum sentences and fines set out in the Bill are not only proportionate to the harm and disruption caused but necessary. It is worth saying that these are maximum sentences and it is plainly not the case that every person convicted under these offences will be given these sentences and penalties. Indeed, it is right to say that the maximum penalties are used only in the most egregious cases. The courts will consider the appropriate penalty in each case and, in response to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, they will be considered on a case-by-case basis. For these fundamental reasons, I therefore respectfully disagree with these amendments and ask that Amendment 12 be withdrawn.
Will the Minister address the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, and I raised about how consistency in the levels of fines being imposed, particularly by lay magistrates’ Benches, will be achieved when there is absolutely no guidance in the legislation on the level of fine that should be imposed?
It is, of course, frequently the case in legislation that there is no guidance on the face of the Bill as to the likely sentences that are imposed. It is very common for there to be sentencing guidelines formulated in the usual way by the judiciary. No doubt that is what will happen in relation to these offences. As I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, will agree, these are the guidelines to which prosecutors routinely refer the court before the court passes sentence.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this all-too-sparse and short, but very important, debate about maximum sentences for new offences that are incredibly controversial. To address the Minister’s response directly, I am concerned that a briefing pattern is developing in the course of this Committee, where the Minister is given an example of something that protesters did that caused a lot of disruption and harm and so on, but we have yet to really understand why existing criminal law is not capable of addressing that. What is not being offered to the Committee—and perhaps not being advised to Ministers—is where the need is, given the scale of the public order statute book as it is. Within that, specific to this group, we are not being given a picture of where these offences sit in the hierarchy of criminal offences and criminal sentences.
Instead, we are being given a story about something outrageous that some protesters did and told that this is why the whole Bill is justified. We really need to get into a bit more specificity when we are playing with the criminal statute book and potentially sending people to prison or bankrupting them and so on. That is no disrespect to the Minister, his noble friend, his colleagues, or even his advisers. What is more traditional—certainly in this place—is that when offences are offered, and sentences to go with them, we are given a picture of where they sit within the current ecosystem of the criminal law; then we can really drill down into both the formulation of the offence and the sentence. People who disagree with me and, perhaps, welcome the offences, can nonetheless improve them and make sure that they are proportionate in their formulation and sentencing.
That has not happened in this debate, and it really must happen for us to do our duty as a Committee. That really must start to happen during the passage of this Bill, and it certainly will have to happen on Report. Concerns about incarceration, bankruptcy and maximum sentences, as well as fundamental concerns about the formulation of the offences themselves and even prior concerns about the need for them, are going to keep coming, group after group, in this Committee, and they will come again as we go down the road of consideration. I hope, therefore, that Ministers will take that in good part. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Amendments 13 to 17 not moved.
Debate on whether Clause 1 should stand part of the Bill.
I apologise in advance to the Ministers for making their ears bleed. A lot of what I have just said is relevant to this group as well. In previous hours in this Committee, noble Lord after noble Lord from around this Committee—from the Benches opposite, the Cross Benches, lawyers, lay people, people concerned with the balance between peaceful dissent and other rights and freedoms for the rest of the community—has been really concerned about these new offences and the justification for them. There was a real consensus that it is for the Government of the day, and those who propose new restrictions of whatever kind on liberty, to make the case. Particularly when we are talking about coercive police powers at a time when there has been a bit of a crisis of trust in the police, which is not what we want, it is really important that the justification for new offences, new police powers and so on be made before we sign these blank cheques. It is no disrespect to the police. Every day that I come into this place, I am grateful to our wonderful police, who stand out there and protect us all as legislators. I am so grateful to them. Of course, it crosses my mind that I am criticising expansive police powers and so on, but I still feel that is my duty.
I will not take up too much time, but the case for these new offences has not been made by the Government. I tried to make my point in response to the debate on the previous group. We need a statement from Ministers about the existing public order statute book, what these existing offences and powers do and do not do, and what the gaps are thought to be, so that noble Lords in this Committee, including the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, who knows a little about the criminal law—he and I have debated it over many years; sometimes we have agreed and sometimes we have disagreed—can bring their minds to this schedule, which hopefully the Government will provide, and ask, “Is there really a gap?”
That has not been done to date, despite the fact that these measures are largely defrosted and reheated from a previous Bill and have been through the elected House. That forensic case, that examination of the existing statute book and where the gaps are, has not been made. I do not vote on people’s liberties to protest, whether I agree or disagree with them, unless I see the case being made. That is why I have taken the step of opposing so many of the clauses—and I apologise if that seems rude in any way.
Make no mistake: I would be doing this if it was my party in government or whoever’s party in government. Sometimes, when it comes to civil liberties, whoever you vote for, the Government get in. As legislators we have duties to be a little more careful and forensic before adding to the very expansive public order statute book, with people concerned for their basic protection—yes, from each other, but also from abuses of power. With that, I do not have to say anything more.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, and in the widest sense I agree with her—but I come at it from a rather different angle. I am concerned about the integrity of the legal process.
I do not want to repeat what I said earlier. The Minister heard me referring to a very recent statute that came into force in August, I think from memory, which in my view covers all the conduct we are considering here. One has to consider the effect on the legal process of having different provisions, with very different consequences, which are not alternatives to one another; they have to be charged separately. It is not like wounding with intent under Section 18 of the Offences against the Person Act, where Section 20, unlawful wounding, is always an available alternative. These are quite separate offences, in totally separate Acts of Parliament, separated by a little time—though oddly, in this case, if the Bill is enacted, both introduced in the same year by the same Government.
We have to think about the way the process operates. The biggest Crown Court in London has a backlog, partly because of Covid, of nearly 4,000 cases, and we should consider the case management that is placed on the judges there. I have a particular interest in that Crown Court, which I place on the record. My interest in that court leads me to the view that the judges, the prosecutors and probably the defenders there are unlikely to be aware of the alternatives. However, as I suggested earlier, in another Crown Court another charge might be brought under the other Act of Parliament, and the judges there would know about the offences with the lower imprisonment maximum but would not know about the other statute. We will end up with a crowded calendar, with the Court of Appeal eventually having to say, “Why do we have two Acts of Parliament that deal with the same conduct but have totally different consequences?” I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who is an experienced, busy and highly regarded lay magistrate, has similar experience of backlogs in the courts in which he sits in London, and the same is true in all the cities around the UK.
I ask Ministers to do a reasoned piece for us before Report that explains why we need what looks like a completely otiose piece of legislation. We need to be persuaded. Ministers know that they will run into difficulties in this House if they do not absolutely justify this and persuade us on Report that it is needed. There will be votes on Report, and there is a real possibility that the Government will lose if the explanation is not very persuasive.
At the moment, if there were a vote tonight, I would vote that Clause 1 should not stand part of the Bill. I am sure there will not be such a vote, but we need that level of persuasion.
My Lords, I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, and completely agree with him that the Government have not made the case for any of the provisions in the Bill.
I agree with many of the points that other noble Lords have already made in this debate on all sides of the House. The Government should take note of the strength of feeling, particularly among the influential Members of the Cross Benches, who are opposing the provisions in the Bill and are likely to persuade their colleagues to vote with them against it on Report if we do not have sufficient clarity and answers to the proper questions that many Members of the House have put to the Ministers but to which they have not received answers today.
I will not repeat what I have already said, particularly in relation to the first group. I am grateful to Liberty for its briefing on the Bill. Based on that briefing, I say that case law confirms that we have a right to choose how we protest, and the diversity of protest tactics throughout history demonstrates the deeply interconnected nature of free expression, creativity and dissent. The offence of locking on under Clause 1 not only defies those principles but criminalises an innumerable list of activities—not only what we would typically understand as lock-on protest, where people lock themselves to one another via a lock-on device or chain themselves to Parliament, but any activities involving people attaching themselves to other people or to an object or land, or attaching objects to other objects and land.
The Government claim that the wording of this offence is sufficiently precise to be foreseeable and that the provisions are in accordance with the law. As noble Lords will have noted from discussions on previous groups, I disagree. I am concerned that the offence under Clause 1 risks disproportionately interfering with individuals’ rights under Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, said on a previous group, the broad and vague nature of “attach”, which is not defined in the Bill, means that this offence could catch people engaged in activities such as linking arms with one another, or locking their wheelchairs to traffic lights. The recurring themes throughout our debates today have been the risk of disproportionality and the risk of uncertainty.
As I have stated before, this proposal is not supported by the police. When consulted on a similar proposal by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, police respondents said:
“most interviewees [junior police officers] did not wish to criminalise protest actions through the creation of a specific offence concerning locking-on.”
Even the police are against it.
Turning to the new offence of being equipped for locking on, I reiterate my concerns that the vague and potentially unlimited list of activities covered by this offence are exacerbated by the ambiguity of the drafting of Clause 2. I note that the object in the offence of locking on does not have to be related to protest at all. It must simply be established that a person intended it to be used in a certain way. Nor does the object have to be used by the person who had it in their possession. The offence refers to
“the commission by any person of an offence”.
“in the course of or in connection with”
casts an extremely wide net as to what activities might be criminalised under the offence. So wide is the net cast by this clause that effectively any person walking around with a bike lock, a packet of glue, a roll of tape or any number of other everyday objects could be at risk of being found to have committed this offence. As we have heard, the possibilities are endless. It is also significant that, unlike the substantive offence of locking on, there is no reasonable excuse defence in the wording of this offence, which means that individuals will find it even more difficult to challenge.
The Just Stop Oil movement has called off its protests because too many of its members are behind bars under existing legislation—particularly the favourite of the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, Section 79 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. If current legislation has effectively put a stop to the disruptive Just Stop Oil protests, why on earth do we need this Bill?
My Lords, as we now have both Ministers on the Front Bench, I will repeat the point I made earlier about explanations being made in the Chamber. I will add a sentence to what I said before about explanations being given in writing, by letters to individual Members of the House, generally copied to other interested Members: they kind of float though and one loses a grip on how much has been answered. Explanations that are part of the justification for a piece of legislation are not easily available to those who need to know them. We have a parliamentary website with a webpage for each piece of legislation. That is where people will go to see what the debate has been on particular amendments and how amendments have changed as a Bill has progressed. That is where they should be able to see the answers that Ministers were not able to give at the time when a matter was raised. Either through Hansard or some other mechanism, these answers should be lodged on the public record, and they have to be given in the Chamber in order to progress. This is immensely important, and I am making the point here because it is on the point of principle that other noble Lords have spoken about on this group.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti has allowed us to have a very important short debate. Again, I was interested in the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Paddick and Lord Carlile. The whole point, which I repeat as it is really important, is that the constitutional position of the House of Lords is to review and improve legislation, and sometimes to say to the House of Commons—which, as the elected body, in the end has the constitutional right to have its way—that we think, in this instance, they may have got it wrong. That is a perfectly reasonable thing for this House to do.
All the way through the first day of this Committee, the Government have been asked to justify the Bill. Why is it necessary? What evidence do the Government have to show that this legislation is required? As I said, there is no difference between the vast majority of us in this House in deploring the tactics of Just Stop Oil, and believing that it went far too far in the pursuit of its agenda and beliefs. That is not the point; the point is how we deal with protests in this country.
Many of us are asking: why was existing legislation not used as quickly as it might have been? Why was existing legislation shown to be inadequate? As the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has just reminded us—I reminded the Minister of this earlier on—on the Radio 4 “Today” programme last week, a Just Stop Oil protest organiser said that one of the reasons it called off its protests was because of the number of arrests that had been made. It was the number of its members who, as organisers, would have been out on the M25 or wherever but were in prison or on remand. That was not done with the Public Order Bill; it was done with existing legislation. I think it was last week when the Minister told me that, in the month of October, 677 arrests had been made of Just Stop Oil protestors under existing legislation.
It is not good enough for the Government simply to say, “We think that this needs to be done”. What is the evidence and who is demanding this? The Minister has been reminded time and time again during debate that the police themselves have not asked for it. Regarding Clause 5 on being equipped for tunnelling, the National Police Chiefs’ Council said in its evidence:
“There is current legislation, such as that contained in the Criminal Damage Act 1971, that creates offences of damaging property and having article to damage property. With the associated powers of search these allow the Police to find articles or equipment intended to cause damage.”
That is what the police are telling the Government with specific reference to tunnelling. Yet the Government turn round and say, “We need a new offence because the police do not have enough power to do the things we say they need to do.” The police have turned that around and said that they have. They cannot both be right. Is the evidence that the police have given about tunnelling wrong?
The police raised another concern, on which it would be interesting to hear the Minister’s response. They have another significant concern
“that any specific offence relating to tunnelling would apply to private land. This again could place a significant responsibility on policing.”
They have asked why the Government decided to apply it to private as well as public land; that was a specific request.
The demand from noble Lord after noble Lord has been: can the Government point to how the existing legislation has or has not been used, and where are the specific gaps in legislation that meant the Government have been unable to deal with the protests that we have seen and which the Bill we are debating seeks to fill? As yet, we have had no answer.
In regard to the stand part debate on Clause 1, which deals with locking on and being equipped to do so, locking on is not a new phenomenon. I pointed out to the Minister last week or the week before that there was guidance on police action with respect to locking on between 2008 and 2010. It had pictures of people being locked on to various fences, buildings or whatever.
It looks to me as though the Government have panicked in the face of what is happening. They think, “We have to be seen to be doing something; we can’t have a situation where we seem powerless”. In fact, what is needed is for the Government to get a grip, sit down and talk to the police and magistrates about how to resolve this situation in a way that is consistent with the democratic values of our country but does not allow a reckless minority to overstep the mark and put the majority through unnecessary disruption.
The Government have failed time and again in this debate—we hope they will not on our second day next week or on Report—to say what they mean by a whole series of definitions. That cannot be right. The Government cannot abrogate their responsibility to define what serious disruption means or to talk about the whole range of other points in the Bill where they “may” do this or that. They must have legislation tight enough to allow the courts to interpret the law on the basis of the intention of the Parliament of this country. At the moment, the Public Order Bill fails that test.
It is not good legislation, even by the Government’s standards. Even if you think the Public Order Bill is a fantastic piece of new legislation that will solve the problems we face, it is not tight enough in definition or objective. That is unacceptable. On Report, a number of amendments will be made—I think they will be passed—and the Bill will, quite rightly, be sent back to the House of Commons to ask Members to think again. Of course, the House of Commons has a constitutional right to pass its Bill, but we have a constitutional right to tell it when it is wrong and to try to put right some of the inadequacies in the Bill as it stands.
My Lords, once again, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate this evening. It has been a very lively and thoughtful discussion generally. I look forward—I think—to continuing to discuss these important issues next week. I first reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, that I do not think she is rude. I may not agree, but I think the position she is coming from is highly principled. I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, that I do not think we have failed when it comes to definitions. We have committed to take that matter away and it is ongoing work.
The amendments in this final group take issue with the some of the offences listed in Clauses 1 to 8. Clause 1 is a key part of the Government’s plan to protect the public from the dangerous and disruptive protest tactic of locking on. Recent protests have seen selfish individuals seek to cause maximum disruption by locking themselves to roads, buildings, objects and other people. This has seen traffic disrupted, public transport delayed and the transport of fuel from terminals grind to a halt—to name just a few examples. Such tactics cause misery to the public, with people unable to access their place of work or their schools, or to attend vital hospital appointments.
I turn next to Clause 2, which is inextricably linked to Clause 1. During fast-moving protest situations, the police must be able to take necessary proactive action to prevent lock-ons occurring. Along with the associated stop and search powers, which the Committee will scrutinise later, this new offence will allow the police to prevent lock-ons before they occur and deter others from considering doing so.
Lastly, Clause 5, along with Clauses 3 and 4, is designed to make clear that the protest tactic of building tunnels to disrupt legitimate activity will not be tolerated. I am afraid there is a degree of repetition here, but projects such as HS2 have been targeted on multiple occasions by tunnels which have contributed to an enormous cost of £146 million to the project. Aside from the cost, these tactics are enormously reckless, putting not just protesters themselves at risk but those called upon to remove them and repair the damage inflicted.
There is one further amendment in this group: Amendment 69, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, which seeks to remove the delegated power for the Secretary of State to amend, add or remove the list of infrastructure in the legal definition of “key national infrastructure”. Throughout the debate, we have heard about ever-evolving protest tactics, targets and technology. We therefore see it as entirely right that Clause 7 is accompanied by a delegated power that will allow us to respond effectively to emerging threats. But I reassure the House that the power is subject to the draft affirmative procedure, thereby facilitating substantive parliamentary scrutiny.
Before concluding tonight’s debate, I will respond to speeches made by many noble Lords, but specifically the noble Lords, Lord Paddick, Lord Coaker and Lord Carlile of Berriew, and the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, about the necessity of the powers taken in the Bill. I have spoken about the three key general differences between the Bill and existing public order offences and legislation. First, it is about sentencing lengths; secondly, it is about offences that take place on private land; and, thirdly, it is about introducing more pre-emptive powers, providing the police with the ability to stop serious disruption before it happens.
It would be appropriate to acknowledge at this point that some of the commentary from the police is a little contradictory. Chief Constable Chris Noble, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on protests, said:
“There have been some very novel—without giving them any credit—and highly disruptive tactics; that is reflected on the contents page of the Bill. If we look across the breadth of protest organisations and groups, we see that they are very aware of some of the legal gaps, inadequacies and shortcomings; that is very clear from their engagement with police, as well as their tactics.”—[Official Report, Commons, Public Order Bill Committee, 9/6/22; col. 5.]
Of course we work with the police, and we will obviously continue to do so.
I will try to address some of the key existing offences that have been mentioned and talk about how the Bill differs and builds on these important offences. I turn first to Sections 12, 14 and 14ZA of the Public Order Act 1986, as amended by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which allows the police to place necessary and proportionate conditions on public assemblies and processions to prevent certain harms occurring—namely, serious disruption to the life of the community. These powers are for the safe management of large protests where many people assemble or march. They do not provide the police with the means to tackle non-violent direct action of the sort that Just Stop Oil engages in.
I turn now to public nuisance and obstruction of the highway offences. We are pleased to have put the public nuisance offence on to a statutory footing, and noble Lords are quite right that it can be used to deal with some of the highly disruptive protests that we have seen recently. As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, indicated, both these and other criminal offences are currently being used to arrest and charge Just Stop Oil protesters.
But we have to remember that there are offences that can cause serious disruption but do not meet the threshold for the public nuisance offence, which is extremely high. At the moment, such protesters manage to find loopholes to get acquitted or are subject to low penalties. These new offences are therefore essential to give the police the powers that they need to deal with these offenders. Although many Just Stop Oil protesters have been arrested for public nuisance and obstruction of the highway, these offences do not necessarily apply to tactics such as those that have targeted HS2 Ltd. Therefore, new criminal offences covering tunnelling and locking on are necessary.
I turn to the offence of aggravated trespass, which criminalises intentionally obstructing, disrupting or intimidating others carrying out lawful activities on private land. The maximum penalty is three months’ imprisonment or a £2,500 fine, or both. This broad offence captures many activities that trespassers, protesters or others may engage in. The maximum penalty is not proportionate to the seriousness of some of the tactics used by protesters, which can put lives at risk. This is a broad offence that covers many non-protest behaviours, and it would not be appropriate to increase the maximum sentence for it. Therefore, new criminal offences that apply to private land are needed: locking-on, tunnelling and infrastructure-related offences.
I turn to stop and search. Section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 allows a constable to search individuals whom they reasonably believe are carrying something that could be used to commit specific criminal offences, including criminal damage. Furthermore, the police can search individuals after having arrested them. For example, after arresting Just Stop Oil protesters for conspiracy to commit public nuisance, the police searched their car and seized items suspected to be used in the course of the offence.
Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, queried the necessity of the measures given that HS2—which has experienced significant protest action at huge cost, as we have discussed many times—was able to secure a nationwide injunction. We agree that injunctions can be helpful for preventing the types of serious disruption we have seen, which is why we have introduced our own measure which provides a specific mechanism for a Secretary of State to seek an injunction against protest activity where it is in the public interest to do so. However, this is only one piece of the puzzle and we have seen from the M25 protests that injunctions do not necessarily stop people breaking the law.
I have tried to set out how the measures in the Bill will bolster the police powers to respond more effectively to disruptive and dangerous protests, to protect our key national infrastructure and major transport works from interference, and to better balance the rights of protesters with the right of the general public to go about their lives free from serious disruption and harm. For those reasons, I respectfully ask noble Lords not to press their amendments.
I am grateful to all noble Lords for sticking it out and will try to be brief, given the hour. I am also particularly grateful to the Minister for reminding me that I did not speak to my Amendment 69, which, as he rightly said, would remove the ability to change the criminal offence of interfering with national infrastructure by adding further infrastructure. I stand by my concern that this kind of thing should not be done by way of secondary legislation, because it has such a profound effect on the rights and freedoms of people in this country to dissent peacefully. It would be very easy to abuse that power and it is not appropriate for secondary legislation. We will no doubt return to issues of powers of that kind at a later stage.
Once more, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, for pointing out what the courts are having to grapple with: a burgeoning statute book with more and more offences, which police forces must deal with too. This menu of potential powers and offences just gets bigger by the year. The idea that, every time there is an innovative or novel protest, something must be done and there will be a new offering of legislation is not a coherent way to operate the rule of law in a constitutional democracy. Lots of dangers will come from this.
I take the point about the police service not speaking as one on any of these issues, and maybe it should not. I was particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, for pointing out, as a former police officer, that there is quite a strength of police opinion and scepticism about the powers in the Bill. I was also grateful to him for reminding me that the offence of going equipped for locking on is, in a way, even worse than the offence of locking on. Locking on is incredibly broad, as I think the Minister accepted in some of his earlier responses. Yes, linking arms is sometimes terribly disruptive too, but going equipped for locking on is a proper thought crime and one of the reasons I am particularly concerned about that offence. It is a thought crime that is supportive of a crime that is, in itself, incredibly broad and will, theoretically, capture some activities that some people think are just natural to humans and innocent.
I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for addressing a very important process point. I totally understand the need for Ministers to write to noble Lords later, particularly in answer to the Questions we have each day. However, writing later should not be a central tactic of defending and promoting a Bill that has been some time in gestation. I was grateful to the Minister and his colleagues for coming up with a little more about the existing statute book in the latter part of this evening, but that will require a lot more examination. I know that noble Lords in Committee will be reading Hansard very carefully tomorrow and there will be more to discuss about that.
Ultimately, there are some protesters who, rightly or wrongly, care so much about the climate catastrophe, race equality, Brexit or whichever other issue that they are prepared to go to prison. There are some in that category for whom there is no new offence that will prevent their actions. So be it; that is life.
What I am concerned about, with the ever expanding public order statute book, are the people who are not in that category and who will get caught up in this kind of thing, as happened last week to the journalist who was detained for, in total, about seven hours, with five in a police cell, just for reporting on the protests. When you keep adding to police powers, adding to the public order statute book and catching more and more innocent activity, more injustice will follow. It will not be about catching the people who we all agree are going too far sometimes—and who are prepared to go too far for their cause; that is their conscience. There will be more and more innocent bystanders—journalists, people from racial minorities—who get caught up in this very broad blank cheque that noble Lords and Ministers are proposing to hand to the police. The police are from us; they are a part of our community and are imperfect as we are. It is not fair to hand this blank cheque to them and, when it goes wrong, to blame them. We have that on our conscience if we pass these powers.
This is not a piece of the puzzle. We will never totally stamp out with a draftsman’s pen some bad behaviour in the name of peaceful dissent. We never will; we just have to take a balanced approach. I am not convinced that this Bill is that. For the moment, however, I will give everyone a collective sigh of relief at 9.30 pm and sit down.
Clause 1 agreed.
Clause 2: Offence of being equipped for locking on
Amendments 18 to 22 not moved.
Clause 2 agreed.
Amendment 23 not moved.
Clause 3: Offence of causing serious disruption by tunnelling
Amendments 24 to 33 not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
Clause 4: Offence of causing serious disruption by being present in a tunnel
Amendments 34 to 47 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Offence of being equipped for tunnelling etc
Amendments 48 to 50 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6: Obstruction etc of major transport works
Amendments 51 to 58 not moved.
Clause 6 agreed.
Clause 7: Interference with use or operation of key national infrastructure
Amendments 59 to 69 not moved.
Clause 7 agreed.
Clause 8: Key national infrastructure
Amendments 70 to 79 not moved.
Clause 8 agreed.