[Relevant documents: Letter from Kit Malthouse MP, Minister for Crime, Policing and Probation to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, relating to proposed Government amendments to Part 3 of the Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, dated 20 December 2021, HC 91 2021-22; Letter to Baroness Williams of Trafford, from the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, relating to protest amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, dated 29 November 2021, HC 91 2021-22.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
From day one, this Government have put the safety and the interests of the law-abiding majority first. We have put 13,500 more police on the streets, and we are on track to reach nearly 20,000 new police officers by March next year.
Will the Home Secretary give way—already?
I think I will make some progress, if that is okay.
This Conservative Government understand that if we are to cut crime, level up the country and make sure that people feel safe in their homes, on public transport and on the street, we need to back our police officers by giving them the powers and the tools they need to fight crime and protect the public. That was one of the main purposes of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which Opposition Members voted against. It also requires proper investment, which is why we are funding the police to the tune of almost £17 billion this year. We are helping the police to tackle violence against women and girls through major investment in safer streets measures—closed circuit television and more street lighting—and initiatives across the country. Earlier this month, I announced that I am strengthening stop-and-search powers, because stop and search is vital to get knives and weapons off our streets and save lives. Each weapon removed from our streets is a potential life saved. More than 50,000 weapons have been seized since 2019 already. I have also authorised special constables to carry and use Tasers.
The police service is not just an institution, but a collection of professional and dedicated people. They are extremely brave, as are their families. The introduction of the police covenant ensures that we will do right by officers and their loved ones, who do so much to support them.
Recently, we have seen a rise in criminal, disruptive and self-defeating tactics from a supremely selfish minority. Their actions divert police resources away from the communities where they are needed most to prevent serious violence and neighbourhood crime. We are seeing parts of the country grind to a halt. Transport networks have been stopped, printing presses blocked and fuel supplies disrupted. People have been unable to get to work and go about their lives free from harassment. Shamefully, they have even been prevented from getting to hospital. This is reprehensible behaviour and I will not tolerate it.
I am particularly interested in seeing whether this Bill will target people such as Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam. I was reading about him recently. He said that he would block an ambulance carrying a dying patient in order to make his political point. Will the Home Secretary ensure that people who would go to those extremes will be properly targeted by that legislation and thrown in jail if they carry out such actions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We should not tolerate behaviour that prevents people from going about their day-to-day business and stops them getting to hospital and living their lives.
We brought forward measures to address some of these matters in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. While the Bill was enacted last month, the unelected other place blocked several measures, egged on by Opposition Members. We should not be surprised: Labour is weak on crime and weak on the causes of crime. It seems to care only about the rights of criminals.
Since January 2019, more than 10,000 foreign national offenders have been removed from the United Kingdom. In the past month alone, flights have gone to Albania, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and Jamaica. It was actually a Labour Government who oversaw the UK Borders Act 2007, which requires a deportation order to be made when a foreign national has been convicted of an offence in the UK and sentenced to 12 months or more, unless an exception applies. However, Labour Members, including members of the shadow Cabinet, now demand that we stop the removal of dangerous foreign criminals. They refused to support the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which makes it easier to remove people with no right to be here, including foreign national offenders.
Many dangerous criminals, including paedophiles, murderers and rapists, are still in this country because of Labour Members. It is no surprise that Labour thinks mobs should be allowed to run riot, but I will not stand by and let antisocial individuals participate in criminal damage and disruptive activity that stops people living their lives and causes chaos and misery. The Public Order Bill will empower the police to take more proactive action to protect the public’s right to go about their lives in peace.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way, and I hope she gives way to my Front-Bench colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), in due course.
I have been listening carefully to the Home Secretary. In the context of this cost of living emergency, the Government are threatening anti-trade union legislation and pursuing voter suppression through voter ID, and draconian anti-protest laws are now being brought in. Will the Home Secretary come clean and admit that this Government know that their economic policies will be increasingly unpopular, so they want to remove everyone’s right to resist and fight back, whether through voting, industrial action or peaceful protest?
Order. The hon. Gentleman indicated to me that he would like to speak in the debate, and that he would like to speak not at the end of the debate. He has just made half of his speech, which puts me in rather a difficult position, and I hope everyone else will remember that. Interventions are good for debate, but they must be short.
Let me put the hon. Gentleman’s remarks into context. First and foremost, the right to protest is part of the freedom and democracy that we all cherish in our country, and no one should interfere with that right at all. But I suggest to all hon. Members on the Opposition Benches—some of them write to me frequently to complain about the removal of criminals, foreign national offenders and so forth—that the types of protest specific to the Bill are those where a significant amount of disruption has been caused. He speaks about economic policies, the cost of living and costs to taxpayers. The protests around High Speed 2 have led to an estimated cost of £122 million. Policing Extinction Rebellion protests between April and October 2019 cost the public purse £37 million. The “Just Stop Oil” protests—as Essex Members of Parliament, Madam Deputy Speaker, we will appreciate this, along with our constituents—left Essex police alone with costs of £4.6 million. That is resource from the frontline that is used elsewhere. That resource could be used to protect our communities. That is why these measures are so important.
We all passionately believe in causes. The hon. Gentleman and others on both sides of the House speak with passion on a range of causes—we in this House are advocates and representatives of the people—but we do not make policy as a country through mob rule, or disruption in the way in which we have seen. No democracy can do that. No democracy needs to do that. The protesters involved in the examples that I presented have better, alternative routes to make their voices heard, and they know that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Again, as a country and as a House, we are confronted with challenges around livelihoods, wellbeing and cost of living right now. These protesters are not doing a great deal to support individuals to get to work and to go out and support their families. We must be very conscious about all that.
I thank the Home Secretary for giving way. In the Trident retail park in my constituency, a young woman has just been beaten senseless. Her jaw has been broken in four places. The Home Secretary spoke about mob rule. A bunch—a minority—of young people believe that they are given free rein. There is a lack of neighbourhood and community policing. Cuts have consequences. Twenty-two thousand police were cut over 12 years and that has serious consequences for people’s lives. What is the Home Secretary going to do about that? That is a real noise in communities.
The hon. Gentleman highlights an absolutely appalling case of serious violence against his constituent —an appalling level of violence. No, we should not tolerate that at all. But with all respect to him, he represents a party that has voted against the Government’s work on police, crime, sentencing and courts as well as the resources that we put into policing. He asked what we are doing about that. Our unequivocal support and backing of the police is absolutely based on that, along with ensuring that criminal sentencing and prosecutions go up, working with the Ministry of Justice and, alongside that, ensuring that we provide the resources to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. With respect, the Labour party has repeatedly voted against that.
I prefer the cheery version of the Home Secretary, if I am honest. In my constituency, we have a high level of domestic abuse—it is higher than in any neighbouring constituency—and the local police want to do something about it, working with all the other agencies, but one of the problems is that, because of shift patterns, often, the police officer who starts dealing with a case is not the one available when the victim of the domestic abuse has to get back in touch. How can we restructure the police so that we really tackle the big issues that affect places such as the Rhondda?
First, let me thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If I may, I am going to offer him the chance to come and have a conversation with me about local policing in his area. There are a couple of points I want to make here first. He asks a useful question about structuring policing. A lot of work is taking place right now on domestic abuse and domestic violence. We want consistency across all police forces on how victims are treated, how to address the whole issue around perpetrators, the support that goes directly to the frontline and raising the bar. He is very welcome to come and have further conversations about that but, in the context of the Bill, if the police were not having to use the amount of resourcing that these protesters are consuming, there would be more policing in the community and more support for his and all our constituents. That is something we would all welcome.
Five years ago, in the run-up to the 2017 general election, an organised group of people forced their way on to my property, where my family were living. We had just had a baby and we were forced out for three days under police protection while the group stayed on top of our roof with loudhailers. Unfortunately, the police were not able to move them on because at that time trespass was just a civil matter. Although we have strengthened the law since then, what is in the Bill that could help people who may find themselves in, if not exactly that situation, a similar situation, which is very distressing and harassing for people on their own private property?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He highlights the appalling nature of what we see. That is not peaceful protest at all, but threatening and intimidating. He will know only too well, as someone in public life, the implications of that. He asks directly about the Bill. Serious disruption prevention orders will help hugely with that, which is why the Bill is so significant. Protesters have routes to have their voices heard, and with that better routes and avenues to change policy, and they know that.
A free society does not tolerate interference in our democratic free press, and in the printing or distribution of our newspapers. As we know, we have also seen that in the last few years. Nobody civilised would dream of stopping someone getting to work or children going to school, let alone blocking ambulances. I am afraid we have seen all those examples all too frequently. So we will not be deterred from backing the police and standing up for the law-abiding majority, and that is what this Public Order Bill does.
First, the Bill introduces a new offence for locking on and going equipped to lock on, criminalising the protest tactic of people intentionally causing pandemonium by locking themselves on to busy roads, a building or scaffolding. Locking on can be an extremely dangerous and disruptive tactic. Protesters locking on from great heights place at risk not only themselves but police removal teams. I spent a great deal of time with specialist, highly trained and equipped police removal teams. The tactics they are experiencing are heavily dangerous and, as we touched on, drain a significant amount of police time and resources.
On the offence of locking on, the Bill states:
“It is a defence for a person charged…to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for the act mentioned”.
If their excuse is that they were trying to stop the destruction of a historic building or to protect a site of special scientific interest from destruction, would that be reasonable? Would that be a defence of the purported crime of locking on?
The right hon. Gentleman naturally raises the type of questions that will also be brought up in the Bill Committee. To use a recent example, which he may be familiar with, during the High Speed 2 work, specific sites and all sorts of significant places were targeted under the guise of environmental concerns. The Bill has to, and should, take such considerations into account in terms of police commitments, the level of violence and the serious disruption that some of these tactics also bring.
Secondly, we are strengthening the security of our transport networks, oil terminals and printing presses by creating new criminal offences of obstructing major transport works and interfering with key national infrastructure.
Yes, and my hon. Friend highlights just some of the tactics that are used. I have seen the sheer manpower and excessive resource used by our specialist policing teams to literally de-glue protesters. It takes hours and hours and comes with a significant cost and use of resources. That is just one example, along with the example of locking on.
We cannot be passive when individuals target our infrastructure and major infrastructure works and projects. I mentioned HS2; HS2 Ltd estimates that ongoing protester action has already cost it more than £122 million. The recent action by Just Stop Oil against oil terminals and fuel stations, including forecourts, have shown further that the police need additional powers to deal with and combat that.
Thirdly, we are providing the police with the power to stop and search people for equipment used for certain public order offences, so that they can prevent the disruption from happening in the first place. I am sure the House will be interested to hear that during the last year—in fact, in just over a year—the police have found the equivalent of training camps, where these tactics and groups come together and where they hoard and harvest equipment. The police now have the powers to disrupt that type of activity in the first place.
The police have indicated that these powers will help them practically to prevent the disruption that offences such as locking on can cause, while the suspicion-less stop-and-search powers will help the police to respond quickly in a fast-paced protest.
I am really concerned that the Bill will allow police officers to stop and search protesters without suspicion. Does the Secretary of State really think that it is fair and right that innocent people should be—or are allowed to be—stopped and searched when there is no suspicion? Does she also think that that is the best use of police time and resources?
To put this into context, I remind the House that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has argued that stop-and-search powers would be an effective tool for the police in this case. Stop and search is a critical tool in policing and, as I highlighted, is absolutely crucial when it comes to saving lives and preventing the loss of life.
I am a little concerned about the point raised by the right hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie), because many, if not most, of these protesters feel that their cause is the most important thing in the world—in fact, some of them think that they are saving the world. If, therefore, they can give excuses of that sort by way of a reasonable explanation of what they are doing, is not the legislation leaving a loophole? In particular, I have in mind some previous cases where anti-nuclear protesters broke into military bases and damaged military equipment, and certain courts felt that they should be acquitted because their motives were to try to prevent nuclear war, even if, in fact, it has the opposite effect.
Outcomes will be for the court to decide, but it is worth noting the numbers of arrests at recent protests: more than 4,000 with Extinction Rebellion, more than 1,000 with Insulate Britain and more than 800 with Just Stop Oil. I have already touched on the cost of policing, but there is also an associated level of criminality and criminal damage, which is why those cases have gone further.
The fourth measure that we are introducing is a new preventive court order. The serious disruption prevention order will target protesters who are determined to inflict disruption repeatedly on the public and cause serious criminal damage, which is one of the most recent disruptive features that we have been seeing. I have to say that there have also been threats to public safety, particularly at oil protests. I have recently visited some of the sites and been in touch with companies whose sites have been targeted. The threats to life and threats to local areas from the tactics being used are very serious.
For a serious disruption prevention order, an individual will have to have been convicted of two or more protest-related offences or instances of behaviour at protests that caused, or could have caused, serious disruption. Courts will have the discretion to impose any requirements and prohibitions that they deem necessary to prevent individuals from inflicting further serious disruption at protests.
Is the Home Secretary aware that there is a direct comparison between the Russian law on assemblies that has been passed by Putin, and the measures that she is proposing? [Interruption.] Conservative Members can chunter, but these measures go further than Vladimir Putin’s laws on assembly. Is the Home Secretary not slightly embarrassed and uncomfortable about that comparison?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, equating the actions of the Russian state to suppress the views of brave Russian citizens who speak out to oppose Putin’s brutal war with our proportionate updating of the long-established legal framework for policing protests is just wrong and misguided. Let me be very clear: these measures are not about clamping down on free speech, but about protecting the public from serious disruption of their daily lives by harmful protests.
My constituents are horrified by disruption that prevents people from getting to hospital or work and children from getting to school, but they are also concerned about the huge economic impact. Can the Home Secretary tell us how much these policing operations have cost? My constituents and I believe that the money could be much better spent on proper policing, rather than on having to police protesters causing disruption.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; her constituents are right to be outraged and concerned, and she is voicing their concerns as their representative in the House. In 2019 alone, the cost to the public purse of the Extinction Rebellion protests was £37 million. The cost of the HS2 protests is estimated at £122 million. In my county of Essex, where I have spent a great deal of time with the amazing teams, the cost has been more than £4.6 million. When I visited the Navigator site, I met police officers from Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall, such is the extent of the resources that have to be brought in to police these protests.
I may be the sole dissenting voice on the Government Benches about some of these provisions. When my right hon. Friend talks about specific examples, particularly those relating to infrastructure, the population can get strongly behind her points. However, several clauses of the Bill are drawn very broadly and there is legitimate concern about how they will be applied. What reassurance can she give me that she seeks a tightly scripted Bill, rather than a general threat to our individual freedoms?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and comments; he is absolutely right. That is the purpose of scrutiny of the Bill. We know from the past two years of protest activity that the police are seeking clarification about certain requests and powers. We are looking at how the courts can work much better to take action, and how to ensure that policing resources are not being cannibalised or used in this way. That is why I think we are right to focus on the core aspects of disruption and the key tenets that need to be addressed, and the Policing Minister has been working on that in particular.
Finally, we are lowering the rank of officer to whom the commissioners of the City of London and Metropolitan Police Forces can delegate powers to prohibit or set conditions on protests. The rank is being lowered from assistant commissioner to commander. That is very significant in London, because of the extent of the activity that we have seen there. It will bring London forces into line with forces across England, Wales and Scotland, whose chief officers can already delegate their powers to the commander-equivalent rank of assistant chief constable.
It is not only criminals who have rights. The public need Parliament to put the law-abiding majority first, and that means backing the Bill, which will enable that law-abiding majority to go about their day-to-day business and live their lives freely.
I beg to move,
That this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Public Order Bill because, notwithstanding the importance of safeguarding vital national infrastructure alongside the right to protest peacefully, the Bill does not include provisions for cooperation between police, public and private authorities to prevent serious disruption to essential services, includes instead measures that replicate existing powers, includes powers that are too widely drawn and which erode historic freedoms of peaceful protest, ignores the need for effective use of existing powers and does not recognise emergency NHS services as vital national infrastructure.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
Do you know what, Madam Deputy Speaker? I actually will. I was deeply disappointed that once again the Home Secretary, sadly, would not take an intervention from me. It was deeply disappointing to note how frit she seemed to be of any of the questions that I tried to raise, which, once again, would have been extremely factual. I will give therefore way to the hon. Gentleman, if he can explain why crime has gone up and prosecutions have gone down since he became Policing Minister.
When Labour Front Benchers called for “an immediate nationwide ban” on Just Stop Oil, did they have the support of their own Back Benchers? If not, is that why the right hon. Lady has performed the most enormous reverse ferret in the amendment that she has put before the House?
I think that there is a strong case for using injunctions to deal with the kind of disruption that we saw from Just Stop Oil, but that is not dealt with at all in the Bill, which is part of the problem with it. It does not address a great many of the problems about which the Home Secretary is supposedly concerned; instead, it will cause alternative huge and serious problems. Most significantly, it fails to deal with some of the very serious issues about which the Home Secretary should be most concerned at this moment.
This is the first of the Government’s Queen’s Speech Bills of the Session. This is the Bill to which they have chosen to give pride of place, and what does it contain? There is no action to deal with the cost of living, although inflation is hitting its highest level for decades and millions of people are going without food to get by; nor is there any action to deal with the crisis facing victims of crime. There is no victims Bill, even though 1.3 million victims of crime who have lost confidence in the criminal justice system dropped out last year, and even though crime is rising and prosecutions are falling.
Instead, what we have are rehashed measures from last year’s Bill. We have a second round of measures on public order, even though the Government had plenty of time to work out what they wanted to do in last year’s Bill; even though the Home Secretary claimed that that Bill would solve all these problems—she said then that it would
“tackle dangerous and disruptive protests”;
even though the Government have not even implemented the measures from last year’s Bill, or assessed them to see what impact they are having before coming back for more, as any sensible Government would do; even though, for seven years running, the Home Secretary and her party have been promising a victims Bill; and even though, over those seven years, support for victims has become staggeringly worse. The number of victims dropping out because they have lost confidence has doubled since that victims Bill was first promised. That is more victims being let down and more criminals being let off.
The right hon. Lady has made an assertion that the Bill does nothing to help victims or to reduce crime, but does she accept that the prevention of disruptive protests will save a lot of money in the policing budget that can be redirected into preventing crime and helping victims?
In addition to what the right hon. Lady has just said, does she agree that the terrible statistics on rape convictions are exactly the reason that rape victims do not come forward, and that the Government should have done a lot more on this?
The rape prosecution rate is one of the most shocking figures of all. For only 1.3% of reported rapes to be going to prosecution is totally shameful. The Government had the opportunity to do something about this. Right now in this House, we could have been debating proposals to provide more support for rape victims and to bring in stronger measures to ensure that police forces took action and had specialist rape investigation units in every force, not just in some, yet the Government have chosen not to do that.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that protests are noisy, and that in this Chamber we are also noisy when we are protesting or disagreeing during a debate? When the Prime Minister enters the Chamber, Government Members cheer as though they were at a football match—
Order. This should be an intervention, not a speech. The hon. Lady should not be reading an intervention. Interventions should be so short that Members do not have to read them. If she has something brief that she wants to say to the shadow Home Secretary, she may do so.
I will in due course.
The Home Secretary said to us this afternoon:
“From day one, this Government have put the safety and the interests of the law-abiding majority first.”
She claimed that she was prosecuting more criminals, but the opposite is the case. Since she came to office in 2019, crime has gone up by 18% and prosecutions have gone down by 18%, so I have to ask her what planet she is living on. Just because she says things stridently, that does not make them true. When she wonders about being on the side of criminals, maybe she should remember that it is a Conservative Government, and a Conservative Home Secretary, who are literally letting more criminals off—literally. There are hundreds of thousands’ fewer prosecutions every single year than there were under the Labour Government. Prosecutions, cautions and community penalties are going down, even now when crime is going up, and that genuinely means that rapists, abusers, serious offenders, thieves and thugs are all less likely to be prosecuted than they were seven years ago. There is just a one in 20 chance of someone being prosecuted on this Home Secretary’s watch.
The Home Secretary said too that she would not “stand by” while antisocial behaviour caused misery for others, but she is. There are 7,000 fewer neighbourhood police than there were six years ago, and the police are failing to send officers to more than half of all reported antisocial behaviour offences. People and communities across the country are expressing serious concerns about antisocial behaviour being ignored time and again by this Home Secretary.
I cannot see what these general points about the record of individual Ministers have to do with the substance of the Bill. What does have to do with the substance of the Bill is the difference between the right to protest peacefully within the rules and the right to insist on repeatedly bellowing a message—on and on and on—irrespective of the fact that other people have heard it and now want to exercise their right to go about their normal life. If I had insisted on intervening on the right hon. Lady when she was not allowing me to do so, that would be the parallel with the sort of abuse these measures are designed to stamp out. I obey the rules, and so should protesters.
I was going to come on to exactly that, because Insulate Britain’s motorway protests were hugely irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous. They put lives at risk, which is why the Department for Transport was absolutely right to put an injunction in place and why the police were right to take prosecution action. Nobody has a right to put other people’s lives at risk with dangerous protests.
What is the Home Secretary offering today? She offers a Bill that targets peaceful protesters and passers-by but fails to safeguard key infrastructure and does nothing to tackle violence against women, nothing to support victims of crime and nothing to increase prosecution rates or to cut crime. This Bill fails on all counts. It will not make our national infrastructure more resilient, and it will not make it easier to prevent serious disruption by a minority of protesters. Instead, it will target peaceful protesters and passers-by who are not disrupting anything or anyone at all.
There should be shared principles throughout the House on this issue. All of us, whatever our party and whatever our political views, should believe that, in a democracy, people need the freedom to speak out against authority and to make their views heard. Yes, that includes bellowing if they feel so strongly about an issue.
We have historic freedoms and rights to speak out, to gather and to protest against the things that Governments or organisations, public or private, do that we disagree with. That goes for protesters with whom we strongly disagree as well as for protesters whose views and values we support, because that is what democracy is all about. But we should also share the view that no one has the right, no matter what they may think they are protesting about, to threaten, to harass or to intimidate others. No one has the right to protest in ways that are dangerous or risk the safety or the lives of others. Nor should they be able to cause serious disruption to essential services and vital infrastructure on which all of us in society depend.
That is why Labour has long defended the rights to speak out, to protest, to be heard and to argue for change, and it is why we called for greater protection for women and staff from intimidatory protests outside abortion clinics. It is why we called for greater protection from harassment and threats outside schools and vaccine clinics after the threatening antivax protests. It is why we made common-sense proposals to give local authorities the powers to act which the Government initially voted against. It is why we condemned the highly irresponsible protests on motorways because, whatever we think about the cause pursued by Insulate Britain or any other organisation, no one should put lives at risk like that, which is why we supported stronger sentences for those wilfully obstructing major roads. It is also why we criticised those involved in Just Stop Oil for causing serious damage and trying to disrupt supplies to petrol stations, which could have stopped people getting to work or pushed up prices in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Those protests were not just against the law, but counterproductive; at a time when they should have been trying to persuade people, they alienated people instead. That is why we called for national action to ensure that speedy injunctions were in place to prevent serious disruption.
I was following the right hon. Lady’s argument until this last piece, where she outlined a series of cases—political issues—that the Labour party is against. I am just wondering why and how she differentiates that from the proposals in the Bill, which seem to provide the basis for her to make those moves directly.
That is exactly the point that I am about to make, because the Bill does not address any of those points. All those cases are areas where there are existing offences, but there are and have been problems with enforcement. The Bill does not tackle that issue or solve the problem. Instead, in a whole series of areas, it makes the problem worse.
My right hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but if I have got it right, this Bill will criminalise those who are protesting against major transport infrastructure projects, so I want to stand up for the right of one of my colleagues —in fact, my neighbouring MP: the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who has committed himself to lying down in front of the bulldozer if there is an expansion of Heathrow airport and a third runway. I would not want to see him locked up—well, not for this anyway.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point: people across the country want to be able to protest against big new projects that are planned for their area, such as major transport projects, or plans to turn a woodland into a car park or to close a library. That is why it is important to ensure that we have our historic freedoms to protest and people’s voices can be heard, and that we have the right to be protected from intimidation and harassment and we fulfil our responsibilities to keep essential services running. There should be a shared understanding across the House that there are rights to be balanced and important principles that should be respected on both sides of the House—for example, the principle that respects the historic freedom to protest, but also ensures that our essential services keep running.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving me a second bite of the cherry. I fear I have to confess that I am possibly the only Member here today who was actually arrested once—for taking part in a counter-demonstration 40 years ago, when we played the national anthem in public against a group of protesters against the Falklands taskforce, which was embarking to the south Atlantic.
The point that I am trying to get over to the right hon. Lady with the use of the words “bellowing” or indeed “incessant bellowing” is this: when the huge pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear demonstrations took place, everybody stopped and allowed each other to have their protest; and then the protest was over, and that was that. The idea that the same people could go on protesting day after day after day without being interfered with by the police, either for obstruction or causing a public nuisance, is ridiculous. What will she do to defend the right of other people to go about their normal lives once the protest has been made but the protesters will not stop?
There are two different issues: there are issues in respect of the kinds of protests that might cause serious disruption to the vital public infrastructure that we all depend on, but there may also be protests that, to be honest, might be a bit annoying but do not actually disrupt anybody at all. In a democracy, we should recognise that even though the right hon. Gentleman and I may think that the world should move on, if people have strong views, they should be able to express them.
There should be a shared understanding across the House—
Will the right hon. Lady give way before she moves on?
A retrospective clause might affect not only the right hon. Gentleman but the Prime Minister —not that the Prime Minister has much of a record of taking seriously offences that he has committed or their consequences.
The problem with the Bill is that not only does it not respect the principles in respect of defending historic freedoms to protest, but nor does it contain sensible measures to safeguard national infrastructure. The Bill does not recognise the powers that the police and courts already have and the need to ensure that they can be used effectively; nor does it address some of the key changes currently faced by the police and authorities. The Bill does not include an effective strategy to avoid disruption to essential services, and there is clear evidence that some of its measures just will not work. At the same time, the Bill does not safeguard historic freedoms to protest—quite the opposite: it undermines those freedoms and targets peaceful protesters and passers-by instead.
Let me look at the proposals in more detail. The police and courts already have a range of powers that they can use in the minority of cases that involve serious disruption or criminal activity. They include powers in respect of wilful obstruction of a highway; criminal damage; aggrieved trespass; public nuisance; breach of the peace; breach of conditions on processions and static protests; harassment; threatening, abusive and disorderly behaviour; trespassory assemblies; preventing others going about their lawful business; and injunctions.
If someone blocks the road outside an oil refinery, they are already covered by the offence of wilful obstruction of a highway. If someone vandalises tankers, they are already committing criminal damage, which is an offence. Indeed, that is why more than 100 people have so far been charged by Kent police and Essex police as a result of Insulate Britain offences, and why the independent report on protests by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services recognised that there were different views, even among police officers, about whether more powers were needed.
I have heard from police officers—including the chief constables and former chief constables of forces that have dealt with protests over many years—both about problems that the Bill does not deal with at all and about their concerns about the Bill’s extension of the powers that they already have, which they say are sufficient. One officer told the inspectorate that
“the powers are sufficient; it is the ability to implement them that is the challenge due to lack of resources”.
There are challenges for the police if they deal with people who are determined to break the law repeatedly and are not deterred by the fact there are offences, but police also referred to concerns that sometimes even when offences had been committed there was no enforcement by the Crown Prosecution Service or the courts because of
“substantial backlogs in court”
“so much time passing since the alleged offence that the CPS deemed prosecution to be no longer in the public interest”.
The Bill addresses none of those issues. The inspectorate also raised concerns about lack of training, guidance and co-ordination among forces and authorities—issues that we raised in Parliament when we discussed this issue last year but that the Government dismissed.
We have heard from officers who have said that the most effective measures that they use in the face of potentially serious disruption and problems are injunctions, but the problem is the delays involved in public and private authorities getting injunctions in place. The advantage of injunctions is that they can be targeted at the problem. They often come with much swifter enforcement processes than individual offences, with the courts taking them seriously and escalating penalties. Not only can they act as a deterrent but, crucially, they include judicial oversight, which ensures that powers are not misused. Yet we have heard from police officers frustrated by the slow response from private and public authorities that have the ability to seek such injunctions, but instead leave the responsibility to tackle disruption to the police rather than taking greater responsibility themselves. Police chiefs, too, have been frustrated by the fragmented institutional response; there are so many different private contractors and organisations involved that no one takes responsibility.
If the Government were serious about the resilience of our vital infrastructure, they would have much more effective partnerships in place to make sure that companies act and co-operate, and that everyone understood their shared responsibilities. They would make sure that they understood the right to peaceful protest and the responsibility to safeguard essential infrastructure, and could get injunctions in place fast. They would be working to get the capacity, training and guidance in place that the police and the authorities need.
Instead of all of that—instead of those common-sense approaches—the Government have chosen to widen hugely powers on stop and search and on banning orders, which will affect both peaceful protesters and passers-by. Stop and search powers are hugely important as a way of preventing crime, but they can also be very intrusive and humiliating powers, which, if used in the wrong way, can be counterproductive and undermine legitimacy and trust in policing. Rightly, they are designed to be used to prevent the most serious crime—knife crime and drug dealing—and the police themselves have recognised serious concerns about disproportionality and about those who are black being much more likely to be stopped and searched than those who are white. Those powers should be used sensibly and not as a political football.
The police already have the power to stop and search someone who they believe has equipment that could be used for criminal damage, but the Government want to widen that to cover anything linked to a public order offence, including public nuisance and serious annoyance. We should ask the Government what that includes. They believe that noisy protests are a public nuisance, but does that include stopping and searching for a boombox or even for a tambourine? We concede that tambourines can be annoying, but could that be covered by the stop and search powers? That would allow the police to stop and search people not because they suspect them of being involved in a protest but simply because they are passing by an area where a protest is likely to be held.
What would that mean? Let us imagine that police expect an angry protest in a town centre by local residents who are furious that their local library is about to close. Those local residents’ singing and shouting would undoubtedly be a serious annoyance to those who are studying or using the library and reading quietly. Under the Government’s new rules, they could easily be covered by public order offences. In response, a local police inspector could designate the town centre a section 60 area and stop and search not only peaceful protesters but passers-by.
Let us think, too, about what that means for Parliament Square, where there are protests all the time and sometimes, people go too far and commit public order offences and the police rightly have to step in. But the offences that can be used to justify a section 60 stop and search order in this Bill are really broad and now include noisy protests that cause public nuisance and serious annoyance. I have an office that overlooks Parliament Square and I can say that there is definitely noise, loud music and serious annoyance every Wednesday before and after Prime Minister’s questions. With gritted teeth, I defend their right to be seriously annoying but the Government do not, so, again, under this Bill, a police inspector could designate Parliament Square every Wednesday and stop and search MPs, our staff and civil servants on their way to work, and also tourists and passers-by. Does the Home Secretary really think that we should all be stopped and searched every time the Prime Minister comes to Parliament? It sounds totally ludicrous, but that is what this Bill does.
The Government also want to be able to apply serious disruption prevention orders to people who have never been convicted of a crime. They want to be able to restrict where someone goes, who they meet and how they use the internet, even if they contributed only in some broad way to people causing disruption to two or more people. Again, the Government are extending powers that we would normally make available just for serious violence and terrorism to peaceful protest. Police officers themselves have said that this is,
“a severe restriction on a person’s rights to protest and in reality, is unworkable”.
[Interruption.] The Minister for Crime and Policing says that they have not, but that is what it says in the inspectorate’s report.
The inspectorate also said, that it agreed with the view shared by many senior police officers. It said that
“however many safeguards might be put in place, a banning order would completely remove an individual’s right to attend a protest. It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk”.
The inspectorate’s report also said:
“This proposal essentially takes away a person’s right to protest and…we believe it unlikely the measure would work as hoped.”
The Policing Minister is right: that is the view not of a police officer, but of the Home Office, which was submitted to the inspectorate.
There is an alternative approach for the Government: to work sensibly with the police, local authorities and those who run public and private infrastructure; to support the right to peaceful protest; to work together to safeguard essential infrastructure; to review the measures that they have just introduced before coming back for more; to work on training, guidance and resources that public order teams need; to work on streamlined plans for injunctions that could protect the smooth running of essential infrastructure if needed; to work in partnership with essential services such as the NHS and not just with oil and gas supplies; to accept that protests that this Government find seriously annoying are a vital part of our democracy; and, ultimately, to drop this Bill.
The Government should use this time to bring in a victims’ Bill that could increase the rape prosecution rate; that could provide more support for victims of crime; and that could take more action to get dangerous criminals behind bars or more community penalties to prevent repeat offending by first-time offenders. Instead of wasting time stopping and searching people outside a library protest, they should do something to tackle the serious antisocial behaviour and rising crime across the country; do the job of a Home Secretary instead of grandstanding and making headlines; and do the proper, practical work of keeping our communities safe.
I hope that we will manage this afternoon’s debate without a formal time limit, but that will depend on everyone taking less than eight minutes. I am sure that that can be achieved. It will be a much better flowing debate if we do not have a time limit, so I trust Members not to abuse the privilege of having the Floor.
As is seen week after week, my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster tends to be the epicentre of political protest in this country. That is hardly surprising, as it is home to the Government, to Parliament and to the UK’s financial heart in the City of London.
I am sure that many hon. and right hon. Members can imagine that the effective management of protests, particularly the most disruptive, is of interest to my constituents. They have first-hand experience of having to negotiate their daily lives with the rights of others to protest.
In the hundreds of letters and emails that I have received from constituents highlighting the disruption that they have suffered during the days and weeks of organised protests, not one has called for the right to protest to be curbed. When it comes to public order, it is especially important to ask ourselves why the measures outlined in this Bill are proper and necessary. What has been made clear to me by both the Metropolitan police and the City of London police is that existing legislation has not kept pace with the evolving tactics of modern-day protesters.
Specifically, the lack of a lock-on offence makes it almost impossible for the police to balance lawful protest and basic civil rights. Provisions in this Bill will change that. Clauses 1 and 2 will allow police pre-emptively to stop highly disruptive, and in some cases dangerous, lock-ons. Clause 1 is of particular importance, as it will make locking on an offence where such an act,
“causes, or is capable of causing, serious disruption”.
That is absolutely right. We have seen individuals glue themselves to vehicles or use lock-on devices on the public highway.
Last August, those tactics were used on Tower Bridge by protestors who brought parts of Central London to a standstill for hours. Protestors have encased their arms in tubes filled with concrete and locked themselves to makeshift structures at huge heights. We have even seen reports of protesters inserting nails and blades into those pipes in an effort to make removing them more difficult and dangerous for our police officers.
We cannot overlook the very real concerns of thousands of ordinary people who are disrupted by demonstrations that go well beyond what is necessary. I utterly disagree with the suggestion that just because we agree with a cause, the disruptive activity is right. It is not. Protest tactics using lock-on devices are not just inconvenient for many, but can have real-life consequences—emergency vehicles unable to attend 999 calls, missed hospital appointments or someone unable to get to a dying loved one to say goodbye.
It also frustrates me and many of my constituents that police officers involved in policing those protests are taken away from policing their neighbourhoods and concentrating on their local policing priorities. It is not just Westminster and City of London police officers being taken away from their daily duties. During a number of major days-long protests, I have seen officers from the home counties and Bedfordshire policing central London. I have even come across police vans in Covent Garden with the word “Heddlu” on them, which is Welsh for police.
Removing lock-on devices safely requires specialist policing teams to be deployed in what can be high-risk environments, which takes time and significant resources. Just one protest group, Extinction Rebellion, had a total of 54 days of protest between 2019 and 2021, costing some £1.2 million a day. I therefore welcome clause 2, which would allow officers to act on reasonable suspicion that satisfies visual and intelligence-based qualifications to prevent the use of highly dangerous lock-ons.
Since the publication of the Bill, I have listened to the argument that the offence is not necessary, and that the offences of wilful obstruction of the highway and aggravated trespass cover these actions. To an extent, that is true. However, they are only applicable after assembly of the structure, by which point we will have seen a chain of events that will ultimately lead to serious impositions on the surrounding area, businesses and local people.
The sticking point in the Lords on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 was provisions specifically relating to noise or limiting freedom of expression. I recognise that, and I accept that, for this kind of legislation, we need to reach an agreement that satisfies both this and the other place. However, I stress that clauses 1 and 2 of this Bill are absolutely necessary to rebalance lawful protest and civil rights. After all, in non-violent protests, the duty of the police is to take a balanced and impartial approach towards all those involved in or affected by the protest—an approach that is consistent with both human rights law and domestic legislation. We must ensure that both lawful protest and everyday life can continue without the basic rights being infringed in respect of either. I believe that the Public Order Bill does exactly that.
“A little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”—not my words, but those of a police officer consulted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services on proposals in the Bill. I agree with the sentiment.
People are fleeing war in Ukraine and multiple other countries. The Home Secretary could be focused on sorting out the dangerously long time it is taking to get them to safety. She could be putting her energy into fixing the chaos at the Passport Office. She could be using her power to solve the supply chain issues that are pushing up food prices, which have made things unaffordable for many on these islands. Instead, she is bringing back populist—according to YouGov and Daily Express polls, at least—draconian, anti-human rights policies that were rejected only a matter of weeks ago in the other place. The reason for that is anyone’s guess. Is it to distract from the aforementioned failings of her Department? To raise her profile for when the Prime Minister surely, inevitably, has to stand down? Or just because she can?
Make no mistake: this, to quote Liberty, is
“a staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent”.
It is at odds with people’s right to freedom of thought, belief and religion; freedom of expression; and freedom of assembly and association. For some, it will also lead to a clampdown on their right to respect for private and family life. Those are all rights we enjoy through the Human Rights Act 1998, but I do not expect this Government or many of their Back Benchers to care, because they want to tear that Act up and define the rights that they think we should enjoy.
However, I think that the people out there, who after all elected us, have the right to know that this Government want to control what they think, believe and say. This Bill allows the state to stop and search people who are not suspected of a single wrongdoing. It could lead to someone who has committed no crime having to report to certain places at certain times. I would be interested to hear who they will report to in Scotland, and what consultation has taken place with the Scottish Government on that. The Bill could mean people out there, again having committed no offence, having to wear an electronic tag, and having every single move they make monitored 24/7. That is sinister. The Home Secretary did not like it when the Opposition said this, but it bears striking similarities to what happens in Russia and Belarus. It is all about oppressing and controlling people. It is the stuff of conspiracy theories no more; this is the menacing new reality if you do not agree with the Conservative Government.
Big Brother Watch is concerned that the Bill takes us one step closer to becoming a surveillance state. That may be ideologically in line with this Government’s desire to control the people, but is it necessary? Will it work?
No, I am not giving way. There is widespread acceptance that the answer to both of those questions is no. Again,
“a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”.
It is not just the one police officer who felt that way. Her Majesty’s inspectorate consulted widely on these powers as early as 2020 and they were rejected across the board, not just because they were incompatible with human rights legislation, but because police concluded that they would not be an effective deterrent. So what is the point?
Existing legislation is already heavily weighted in favour of the authorities, and the 2022 Act has made that even more the case. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid), said in 2018 that,
“it is a long-standing tradition that people are free to gather together and to demonstrate their views. This is something to be rightly proud of.”
He was right: it was something to be rightly proud of. Where a crime is committed, the police already have the powers to act so that people feel protected. Where there is a clear need to protect critical infrastructure or transport hubs, the UK already has an array of legislation that allows that to happen, as the former Home Secretary said. The Public Order Act 1986 gives the police powers to place restrictions on protests and, in some cases, prohibit those that threaten to cause serious disruption to public order. There is an array of criminal offences that could apply to protesters, including aggravated trespass or obstruction of a highway.
Despite that, the Government waited until the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill had completed its passage through this House to slip much of what we have before us today into that Bill at the last minute, when it was in the House of Lords—and the Lords roundly rejected it. Instead of accepting the defeat, one week later, the Government regurgitated most of the measures into the Bill before us today. The Home Secretary should accept that these draconian measures have already been rejected by Parliament and respect the democratic process. After all, this Government keep telling Scotland to do likewise, although the issue we intend to revisit—the matter of Scotland’s independence—was last put before the people eight years ago, not just last month.
What we have here is a once-in-a-fortnight opportunity to bring back legislation that has been rejected in this place. The Government expect us to accept the result of the referendum eight years ago, despite having tested the alternative and despite a series of promises being broken subsequent to Scotland voting no. Why is it acceptable for them to repackage measures a week after they were rejected, even though there has been no time to assess the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 for effectiveness, human rights compatibility, or the police’s ability to manage those extensive new powers?
On the matter of Scotland, yes, the Bill and its powers apply to events taking place in here in England and in Wales, but as I said repeatedly throughout proceedings on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, I and every SNP Member will defend the right of the people of Scotland to peacefully protest against decisions made on our behalf by another Government, in another country, who were not elected by the people of Scotland. Crucially, we will defend the right of the people of Scotland to protest where that Government sit—right here, at the seat of power. The people of Scotland have come to London many times in their thousands to protest against the illegal invasion of Iraq, the billions squandered on nuclear weapons stationed without our permission on the west coast of Scotland, and the daylight robbery foisted on the women who, when they reached state pension age, discovered that the age had gone up and they would not be receiving their state pension after all. We can stand in the middle of Glasgow or outside the Scottish Parliament all we like—and we do—but the Scottish Parliament cannot change any of those things, no matter whether they want to or not.
I will defend the right of my constituents to stand outside this place and make their voices heard, and I will defend their right to not be subjected to the outrageous measures proposed here today—measures such as the serious disruption prevention orders, which can be imposed on people whether or not they have committed an offence. It is these orders that allow for reporting and for GPS monitoring. Remember, an individual does not have to have committed an offence to be subject to one of these orders, and anyone who fails to fulfil one of the obligations can be criminalised and subjected to imprisonment for up to 51 weeks. Similar legislation in Belarus allows sentences of up three years, so no doubt the Government will tell us to think ourselves lucky.
There are also the locking-on measures. My constituent Christine lives in Springburn, and she is a campaigner in the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign. She never wanted to be any kind of campaigner, but her state pension was taken from her and she felt compelled to act. If she and other WASPI women come to London to protest, or even just to visit London, and she has glue in her bag because she is a crafter but does not use it, can she be charged? Could she go to jail for 51 weeks? Can the Home Secretary guarantee that she would not? No, she cannot. And how would the glue be found in the first place? It would be found because the Bill also has measures such as suspicionless stop and search. Christine, in her mid-60s and a model citizen, could be stopped and searched regardless of suspicion, just because of where she is and where they think she might go and what she might do—but Christine is not the target, is she?
We already know that stop and search has a disproportionate impact on people who are black; they are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched. But when it comes to suspicionless stop and search, they are 14 times more likely to be stopped and searched. Is it a coincidence that all this legislation to stop people protesting came on the back of an uprising of movements like the Black Lives Matter movement? The important thing about Black Lives Matter is that it was not led by well-meaning white allies like me; it was and is led by campaigners who are black—those whose lives are devastated by those who do not believe that their lives matter as much as the lives of white people.
My partner was the founder of Black Lives Matter Scotland. I have been taken aback by the number of people who, over the past couple of years, have approached him and told him that they never spoke of what they experienced as a black person on these islands until Black Lives Matter. Some of them living in remote areas said that, at times, they thought they might be the only black person in Scotland, but suddenly they found a community who got it, and it transformed their lives and the way they thought about themselves. That is why it is so important to encourage movements like that, but that, along with the nerve of environmental campaigners—trying to save the planet, for goodness’ sake; how dare they—is likely one of the reasons why they annoy this Government so much. If not, what is the excuse for suspicionless stop and search, which the Government know will disproportionately impact black people?
Other than the morality or immorality of this Bill, as with other Bills I have worked on, I am concerned that the terms used are not sufficiently precise. It is all left to be defined by the Secretary of State, which is worrying, given the length of debate on “serious disruption” in the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. There is so much uncertainty about where the threshold for serious disruption lies—legal uncertainty being the opposite of what we should be striving for if we are to respect the rule of law.
The Bill is also excessively broad and the pre-emptive nature of it is disturbing. Have you ever watched a film called “Minority Report”, Madam Deputy Speaker? It had pre-cogs who could see into the future, and people would be arrested before they committed a crime. It sounds ridiculous—[Interruption.] I hear a Conservative Back Bencher say, “Good idea.” It sounds ridiculous and so does he. It sounds far-fetched, but in reality if this Bill passes you could be arrested, Madam Deputy Speaker, you could be charged, and you could end up in prison for something that you might have done.
I have barely touched the surface in these remarks, but I will make one final point, which was raised by Justice. Referring to clause 10, Justice points out that, while the clause creates an offence if a person
“intentionally obstructs a constable in the exercise of the constable’s powers”
of stop and search, with or without suspicion, the Met’s own guidance following the tragic murder of Sarah Everard is that people ask “very searching questions” of the officer, and notes that
“it is entirely reasonable for you to seek further reassurance of that officer’s identity and intentions”.
Anyone who did that at or near a designated protest area, as defined by the police, could end up getting 51 weeks in prison, a fine, or both.
The right to protest is the lifeblood of any democracy. It allows us to hold the powerful to account, which is precisely why they do not want it. It allows us to actively participate and to organise in our communities. History shows us that it is protest that often underpins political, economic and social change. Some of the most fundamental freedoms that we now have were won in spite of Governments. I will end by repeating what I said at the start: this Bill is all about oppressing and controlling the people out there, and they need to know about it. The stuff of conspiracy theories no more; this is the menacing new reality for those who do not agree with the Conservative Government. We should all be very afraid.
This is an important Bill, which I support. During this debate, we have heard a lot from Opposition Members about peaceful protest. I support peaceful protest and peaceful demonstration, but today’s debate suggests to me that there is some confusion about what peaceful protest is and what it is not.
My constituents know what peaceful protest is. As Members of Parliament, we see it every day on Parliament Square—people singing, people heckling us, people making themselves and their opinions known to us as legislators. My constituents also know what peaceful protest is not: it is not people blocking the M25, or roads to hospitals, which I think is particularly egregious. I was horrified years ago watching when ambulances were trying to get through to St Thomas’ Hospital. People from Extinction Rebellion were taking it upon themselves to decide who was worthy to pass the blockade and get urgent medical treatment. We have seen the same thing with the recent M25 protests. Peaceful protest is not stopping people going to work or blocking the distribution of newspapers. It is not blockading fuel at a time of particular pressures around fuel. It is not slashing the tyres of trucks or smashing up petrol stations.
This Bill is not an anti-peaceful protest Bill; it is an anti-criminal behaviour Bill. It is a Bill to tackle the tactics deployed by people with no regard to the consequences of their actions or democratic process and who use criminal damage to try to hold the public to ransom. What really infuriates my constituents is that the people they see deploying these tactics seem to be above the law. They go and lock on and do protesting round and round again, with seemingly no powers to act to stop them. That is why the serious disruption prevention orders are so critical in stopping it. These behaviours are not on and cannot be accepted in any society committed to the rule of law and democracy. This Bill is essential to tackle this criminal behaviour.
I am sure we can all agree that we need to protect our freedoms of speech, of protest and of assembly as a vital part of our democracy. We already have many laws to deal with protest and to protect the public and our major infrastructure. Any extension of those laws needs to be very carefully considered by this place. I am a little surprised, therefore, that the Government have decided to bring forward this legislation from the Home Office first in this new parliamentary Session, when we are still waiting for the regulations from the protest offences in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was the major Home Office Bill in the previous Session.
I was also hoping, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, that the specific recommendations in our recently published report, “Investigation and prosecution of rape”, to improve the experience of victims would be brought forward in legislation through a victims Bill. I was also hoping that our recent report on spiking, which recommended a new offence of spiking, would be in prime place for legislation to be brought forward, but we are where we are today, and this is the Bill before us.
I have several concerns about the Public Order Bill, which I hope Ministers may be able to address. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services considered many of the proposals in the Bill in its report of March 2021, “Getting the balance right? An inspection of how effectively the police deal with protests”. Clearly, looking at the reports of the inspectorate is incredibly helpful in developing evidence-based policy that can stand up to effective scrutiny, and the report has already been quoted widely in the Chamber this afternoon.
The report found that
“most interviewees did not wish to criminalise protest actions through the creation of a specific offence concerning locking-on.”
The report also concluded that it did not support the introduction of protest banning orders. I noted what the Home Secretary said in her opening remarks about wanting to back the police. That is very important, so will the Policing Minister be able to explain when winding up the evidential basis for bringing forward these particular proposals and the basis on which the Home Office has come to a different conclusion from the inspectorate?
I also want to raise issues about the actual terms in the Bill. The term “protest” appears 21 times, the term “protest-related disruption” appears 31 times and the term “serious disruption” appears 118 times. However, none of those terms is defined on the face of the Bill. To ensure that the powers conferred in this Bill are used proportionately, and only when absolutely necessary—and to prevent legal uncertainty—I hope that the Minister will commit to ensuring that the Bill will include definitions of those terms.
On the proposed extension of stop and search powers, in July 2021, the Home Affairs Committee published “The Macpherson Report: Twenty-two years on”, which found that there are still deep-rooted and persistent racial disparities in policing, particularly in the use of stop and search. Our report found that statistics covering the year to 31 March 2020 showed ethnic disproportionality in stop and search is worse now than it was 22 years ago. Black people in 2020-21 were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and that was up from five times more likely in 1998. The disproportionality in “no suspicion” searches is even more stark. In 2019-20, black people were 18 times more likely than white people to be stopped under section 60. With such clear ethnic disproportionality occurring, can the Minister explain how the Home Office will tackle those existing disparities with this plan to extend stop and search?
I note that, in the Bill’s equality impact assessment, the Government state that safeguards exist to mitigate the disproportionate use of stop and search, such as the use of body-worn cameras and extensive data collection on the use of these powers. However, in 2021, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said:
“Too few forces regularly review body-worn video footage”,
“too many forces still do not analyse and monitor enough information and data on stop and search to understand”
how to apply stop and search fairly.
Furthermore, the amendment under clause 7 to the police power to stop and search under section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 will allow the police to take pre-emptive action against those suspected of being about to engage in protest-related offences. What specific safeguards will the Government put in place to ensure that such pre-emptive action will not breach a person’s rights under articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights?
Finally, I want to speak briefly about buffer zones for abortion clinics. The Bill does not legislate for that, but it should. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) has led efforts in this House for some time for change on that matter, and I will continue to support her, including any amendments to this Bill that she tables. In the light of recent events, the Government should also consider buffer zones outside schools and vaccine clinics. But to return to the issue of buffer zones for abortion clinics, for too long, women in England have faced real intimidation and real harassment outside clinics providing abortion care. The Court of Appeal of England and Wales has confirmed that protesters can cause
“significant emotional and psychological damage”.
One woman described her experience visiting an abortion clinic in April this year:
“They came over twice and we said, ‘No thank you.’ She was very pushy, in your face…it has left me anxious as I suffer from poor mental health. When we walked past, she said, ‘Your baby wants to live.’ We had driven for 7 1/2 hours and did not expect this at all.”
Women accessing a legal and essential form of healthcare should not be subject to harassment. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have begun to take steps to implement buffer zones and it is time that England did. I hope that the House will have an opportunity to vote on that in due course.
I will be brief, because I want to make a simple point in support of the new offence of locking on. I am conscious that the debate has in a sense become a sort of proxy for an argument about how seriously we take the threat of the climate crisis, and I do not want to go down that road. I acknowledge that people on the other side are very sincere in this, including Roger Hallam, who is the principal villain of this debate. I know Roger Hallam slightly—I have met and talked to him—and I respect his views. There are people who want to tear down our society and who are essentially revolutionary in their intent, but I do not think that he or the people who work with him are those people. He does have an absolute sense, however, that our civilisation is under threat unless we take radical action to change our economy, and he is entitled to that opinion. The question is how far it is appropriate to go in support of that cause.
The question of climate change and the tactics that we are discussing may be new, but it is an old debate. As we have heard, this place has experienced enormous protests over the years and the streets outside have known crowds of tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people protesting against the Government. The question is about the action that can be taken by those protesters. Historically in this country, we had a clear distinction between what was acceptable and what was not, which was a distinction between what was called moral force and physical force.
Moral force is simply a demonstration of an opinion, as when someone stands up to be counted and shows that they expect legislators to take notice. Physical force goes beyond that, as when someone uses physical power of some form to obstruct what the Government or the law are trying to do, which is the situation that we are in now. When someone locks on or attaches themselves permanently to public infrastructure or the roads, that is not using moral force—it is not simply standing there and being counted—it is inviting the physical intervention of the police. Obviously, it is not rioting or using violence against people, but it is inviting physical intervention and that is why it is unacceptable. It is a new tactic.
Clause 2, “Offence of being equipped for locking on”, says:
“A person commits an offence if they have an object with them…with the intention that it may be used in the course of or in connection with the commission”
of the offence of locking on. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if somebody has a heavy bicycle chain and padlock to secure their motorbike, which can be used in the commission of locking on, they should be made a criminal?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The fact is that going equipped to commit an offence is a criminal offence in itself. We are creating a new offence here and it is necessary to provide that preventive measure as well. The Bill allows the police to take action in a dynamic and fast-flowing situation to search and to prevent the commission of a crime, so I support the measure.
As someone who, for decades, has gone around with a heavy chain and padlock to secure my motorcycle, I have never found myself in a situation where I was carrying that device but did not have my motorcycle with me, so hon. Members should think about that. However, what my hon. Friend is explaining so lucidly has been thought of before. To return to the anti-nuclear protests, there was even a term for it—NVDA, which is non-violent direct action. It is not violent, but it is not really peaceful, because it is deliberately breaking the law. I think that is the distinction that he is correctly trying to draw between that and peaceful legitimate protest.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his intervention. He is absolutely right.
I end with the observation that the protesters we are dealing with, even if they have honourable intent and they are entitled to their opinion—who knows, they might be right about the climate crisis—are not allowed to use our tradition of liberty against us. It is necessary to update the law to criminalise that form of protest.
The Home Secretary opened the debate by boasting that the Government support the police and, above all, support law and order, but the reality is that that is far from the truth. This is a Government who have shown a blatant disregard for the law and who confuse, as in this case, draconian legislation with upholding the law and defending justice. The reality is that they conceive of themselves as lawmakers who are above the law and the rest of us as being subject to their orders.
In case anyone is in doubt about that, I can offer a few examples. It is Government Ministers who were responsible for attempting to prorogue Parliament in breach of the law. It is Government Ministers who have introduced a disgraceful refugee policy that is almost certainly in breach of international law on the rights of refugees. At the same time, Ministers are embarked on a course that seems to lead to abrogating an international treaty by ripping up the Northern Ireland protocol. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the 126 fixed penalty notices that have been issued to Downing Street staff and Ministers, including the Prime Minister, for breaking their own lockdown rules. Members will be aware that photographs are circulating online today of the Prime Minister jovially drinking at one of those parties that he denied in this House had happened. The Government have no right to claim to be a Government of law and order.
The Bill is yet another draconian measure from an increasingly authoritarian Government, who presume to lecture the rest of the world on democracy and human rights, yet whose legislation is more authoritarian than many Governments who are widely and often justly castigated. I note in passing that the Bill’s provisions have already been rejected in the other place in its debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Without further time for consultation and without any concessions, the Government have immediately reintroduced the rejected provisions, so it seems that Ministers’ respect for due legislative process is as weak as their commitment to upholding the law.
The Bill contains provisions for serious disruption prevention orders for people with two convictions for public order offences, or even for those who have been convicted of no offence but are deemed to have caused “serious disruption”. That is not just an infringement of civil liberties; that type of legislation is the mark of authoritarian Governments everywhere. The truth is that no citizen should ever be subject to the arbitrary and unsubstantiated curbing of important civil rights by the state.
Many Members will remember the enormous demonstrations against the Iraq war, which were over a million strong; the huge anti-apartheid demos of the 1980s; and the marches in support of the miners. If any Members present took part in any of those demonstrations, they will have seen exceptionally large crowds acting entirely peacefully yet causing disruption by their sheer weight of numbers. When a large section of the population are exercised enough about an issue to go on a march, they will cause huge disruption and, often, a great deal of noise, but that is their right. Any Government who are foolish and short-sighted enough to try to curb demos because they are disruptive are creating an authoritarian regime that people will protest against even more strongly.
On random stop and search, I have campaigned against non-evidence-based stop and search and its predecessor legislation, the sus law, for all my time in public life. I and many others have said that there is a place for targeted, intelligence-led stop and search to prevent or detect a specific crime, but that is not what the Bill proposes. The Bill gives free rein to some of the worst and most discredited policing practices. We should be clear that the overwhelming majority of stop-and-search operations in this country are conducted by the Metropolitan police, but many other forces, some of which have a comparable or even better record of fighting crime, hardly ever use stop and search. The House should be clear that stop and search is almost invariably directed at one section of the community, and that is young black men. According to the Home Office’s own data, six white people from every 1,000 are subject to stop and search, but no fewer than 54 black people from every 1,000 are subject to stop and search, and that figures rises to 157 people if we add people who are designated as “Black Other”.
Those are wholly unacceptable and flagrantly discriminatory facts. They are known to the Ministers sponsoring this Bill, who must also know of the data showing that discrimination rises in cases where the stipulation of “reasonable grounds” is removed. Both Her Majesty’s inspectorate of policing and the College of Policing have criticised the use of random stop and search and argued that it is counterproductive, yet the Government are persisting on this course. There is a clear risk from these authoritative warnings: when sober and serious independent bodies of some standing use the term “counterproductive”, we should all take note, but apparently Ministers choose to ignore it.
Finally, I would like to touch on the Bill’s provision on the prohibition of obstruction of major transport works. The Government claim that many of their measures are aimed at Extinction Rebellion, but legislation has a habit of being adapted to suit the needs of Government, especially proposed legislation as loosely drawn and as draconian as this, so the combination of the Government’s track record and Ministers’ wild rhetoric about a rail strike should ring alarm bells for all trade unionists. This Bill would allow a further serious erosion of fundamental rights—in this case, the particular right to organise in the workplace and the right to strike.
For those and many other reasons, this Bill represents a serious threat to all of our long-held and hard-won rights. Protests—whether the chartists, the suffragettes or the anti-war protests of the 20th century—are part of the history of the political process in this country, and a Government who would seek to limit the right to protest in this way are a Government who do not take seriously this country’s political history and a Government who are seeking to take away people’s rights. This is a Bill that those of us on the Labour Benches will be opposing.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate, and to speak quite early on as well. I was pleased to support the policing Bill and I am pleased to support this Bill as well. It was disappointing that some of the amendments made through that Bill were defeated in the other place. It has made this Bill very timely in strengthening and going further on much of what was good about the previous Bill.
There is a clear distinction and a difference between what I think everybody in this place would want to defend, which is peaceful protest, and what we see demonstrated by a very small minority of people who seem to have very little consideration for the welfare of others and for the general economy. I think that this Bill makes that distinction. I do not see anything in this Bill, just like I did not see anything in the policing Bill, that threatens peaceful protest. That is not on the table today.
What is on the table, though, is a Bill that seeks to strike the balance right between allowing peaceful protest and putting clear limits in place when it comes to the reckless activity that meant I had—and I always remember this—one email from a constituent whose carer could not get to them because of the consequences of the reckless behaviour that we saw in East Anglia. Try telling that person who depends upon that care that the Government should not make this issue a priority. I absolutely think that, if I spoke to that constituent today, they would be pleased that this Bill was being debated today and they would see it as a priority. So I am not going to trivialise the importance of this Bill, as some on the Opposition Benches have done.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the role of the Opposition in opposing this Bill in principle. Whatever concerns one might have about some details, the fundamental point that something needs to be done about the issues that Members on both sides have mentioned is the reason why this Bill is being proposed, which is why it is of such great concern that the Opposition are opposing on first principles.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. We have heard—both today, but also outside of this debate—from senior Opposition Members that they get it, and that actually they do want to put some restrictions in place to stop excessive protests that can have very damaging consequences for people. But we have seen absolutely no evidence that, in practice, they are prepared to do that, and whenever there is an opportunity to vote in favour of what they claim they support, they have opposed it, which I do think is quite damaging.
This points to the wider problem that those in the Labour party have, which is that, on the one hand, they know that actually the majority of people do see this distinction between peaceful protest and the reckless behaviour of a minority, but on the other they want to pander to extremist elements to the left of the political spectrum, and they are caught between those two different pressures. Fortunately, on this side of this House, we feel no such pressure. On this side of the House, we are absolutely clear who we support. We support the 63% of people who, when polled very recently, said that they support the criminalising of locking on—and actually it is not populist to listen to the overwhelming majority who find it deeply frustrating.
In East Anglia, we were among the worst regions impacted, partly because of the oil terminals around Tilbury, the Thames estuary and south Essex. We were incredibly badly affected for days on end by the behaviour of some of these individuals, and on a bank holiday weekend. We obviously have the story of the care giver, but we also have the example of businesses—small businesses—desperately trying to get themselves back on their feet after an incredibly difficult period, being stifled and limited in their ability to do so, again because of the reckless behaviour of a small minority. I myself remember the day—I think it was the Monday that was particularly bad in our area—that it was only at the sixth petrol station I got to that I was able to get petrol. The amount of petrol that the average petrol station held in East Anglia went from I think 45% of capacity to lower than 20%. That is a direct consequence of the protesters’ behaviour.
I welcome the fact that we are introducing these new criminal offences for some of the most reckless behaviour, such as the individuals who go on to the M25 and block hugely strategic roads. That is dangerous to themselves, it is dangerous to drivers and it causes immense disruption, and the targeted action the Government have taken is to prevent that reckless activity. But the point here is that there have been too many occasions where the police have not been as hands-on as they should be. It has caused huge frustration to my constituents when they have seen pictures of reckless protests. Actually, let us be clear: these are not protesters; they are criminals. I am going to stop calling them protesters, because at the point at which they decided to sit down on the M25 and endanger themselves and others, they ceased to be peaceful protesters, so I will unashamedly call them criminals.
When these individuals take that decision, why are we seeing images of police forces that are just, frankly, dilly-dallying—dancing around and doing very little? Why are we seeing that? Why, when the roads to key oil terminals in south Essex are blocked, cannot the police immediately go in there, intervene and move them off, with no pause and no delay whatsoever? So, yes, this Bill is a step in the right direction, and I very much hope that it will create a powerful deterrent to prevent this sort of activity, but I also believe that a firm signal needs to be sent to the police that there have been times when perhaps they have not been as proactive as they could have been in moving some of these individuals on.
I have spoken about the Opposition and what I think of their views on this matter, but some of the comments made by organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International have also been deeply regrettable. Trying to compare the measures in this Bill with measures promoted and implemented by the Putin regime and the regime in Belarus deeply demeans the whole argument, and those organisations do themselves no service whatsoever if they cannot in their own minds make the distinction between peaceful, legitimate protest by individuals in Russia campaigning for democracy, free speech and the ability to live in a world without persecution or fear and the behaviour of individuals who have every democratic channel open to them but who just want to get their own way. These people say, “I’ve used every democratic channel open to me, but I haven’t got exactly what I want, so I am going to disrupt and undermine our economy and divert police resources.” That is not good enough.
I will not. This Bill provides further evidence that this Government and Conservative Members get the difference between peaceful and other protests, and that they understand the anger of my constituents and others who are sick of being in hock to an extreme fringe. We do not have the conflict that exists in the Labour party, and I welcome this Bill.
We should not be fooled: the measures in this Bill are the very same as those the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejected from the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 on the basis that they form a dangerous and blatant power grab that undermines our civil and democratic liberties. The measures include the creation of serious disruption prevention orders that could subject individuals to 24/7 GPS monitoring whether they have been convicted of a crime or not. They include new stop-and-search powers for the police despite a wealth of evidence, as we have heard, that black people are disproportionately targeted. They include a broad, potentially catch-all, new offence of
“being equipped for locking on”,
meaning that someone could face an unlimited fine for as little as carrying a bike lock.
The measures have been described as “draconian”, “authoritarian” and a
“staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent”.
They were rightly rejected from the 2022 Act and, even though the ink is not yet dry, the Government are already trying to reintroduce powers that would not be out of place in some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Is this really the kind of country that this Conservative Government want us to be?
It goes without saying that no one should be blocking ambulances from getting where they need to go, which puts lives at risk and does nothing to build public support for a cause. However, the new laws are not about stopping people blocking roads. If the Government really cared about ambulances being delayed, they would be doing far more to tackle the ambulance crisis that is leaving people waiting hours in an emergency. The new laws are about cracking down on the right to peaceful assembly and protest. The police already have the powers they need, as we see when people are arrested for going beyond what is acceptable for a peaceful protest.
The police are not asking for these new powers; they do not even support them. When consulted, senior police officers said that the orders being proposed by this Government would be a “massive civil liberty infringement”. To make matters worse, this legislation will not even be effective. To quote Liberty,
“the Government cannot legislate people into silence”.
If peaceful protest is effectively banned, the likely consequence of this Bill will simply be to push people to seek more urgent routes to protest. All it will do is undermine confidence in our public institutions and in our police at a time when public trust in the police leadership is already fragile.
Without the right to protest, countless hard-earned freedoms would never have been won. From the decriminalisation of same-sex relationships, to employment rights, to women winning the right to vote, the right to peaceful protest has been a force for change time and again. Protest is not a gift from the state to be given and taken at will. It is a fundamental right, and it is the foundation on which any democracy stands. We Liberal Democrats will always stand up for that right.
I add my support to the efforts of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) to amend the Bill to introduce buffer zones around abortion clinics. It is a clear and tightly targeted measure that would address the harassment of women accessing healthcare. More than 100,000 women in England and Wales every year have abortions at clinics that are targeted by these groups. Since I last supported this measure in July 2021, three more abortion clinics have been targeted for the first time, leaving more women open to abuse and feeling afraid.
I am honestly and genuinely perplexed by the argument about buffer zones. I agree that the harassment of women seeking those services is disgraceful and should not be allowed, but why just them? Why not hospitals in general? Why not places of worship? I understand the sensitivity in that particular situation, but why is it that we object to and are willing to restrict that particular form of protest, but not others?
I support a simple and targeted measure against protests outside clinics that harass women seeking abortion. We can talk about other measures, but it is important to protect women who are already in an extremely vulnerable position from such harassment.
Last week, “Newsnight” ran an alarming story on the difficulty that clinics and local residents face in getting councils to make use of the public spaces protection orders—legislation that Ministers say is the only option. These PSPOs create an unacceptable postcode lottery. Our colleagues in Northern Ireland and Scotland are prioritising finding a solution to this form of persistent and targeted harassment, and we cannot allow women in England and Wales to be left behind.
I will never support a Bill that goes against our fundamental civil rights and those who do so tonight should be ashamed.
In 2019, the people of this country voted for a no-nonsense Government from the Conservative party, which is and always has been the party of law and order—whatever Opposition Members think.
As I have said many a time in this place, people in Dudley North are ordinary folk working hard to make a living, and we all know that that it is increasingly hard to make such a living in the current climate. I cannot understand how the privileged and entitled few think it is acceptable to prevent our carers and nurses from getting to work to care for our sick and elderly. They think it is acceptable to block a fire appliance getting to a serious fire, burning a local business to the ground or, more tragically, preventing people inside the burning building from being saved.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Does he think that ordinary people wanting tough measures against those who commit crime, protest and nuisance is one of the reasons why so many people abandoned the Labour party at the last election, voting Conservative for the first time, and why we have so many Conservative MPs now representing northern and midland communities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is regrettable that we have not been about to do much about police officers who seem to think it quite all right to commit acts of vandalism on statues, whether we like them or not, or to dance in the street with protesters who should not be congregating because they are breaking lockdown rules. The criminal minority who commit these acts disgust me. They have no concept of the real world and no concept of the misery that they bring to those less fortunate than them. A protest is not peaceful if it blocks key roads or interferes with key infrastructure. “Peaceful” means more than a lack of decibels. New, criminal, disruptive and self-defeating tactics carried out by a selfish minority in the name of protest are causing more serious disruption to the British public, with some parts of the country grinding to a halt, and police resources diverted from the local communities where we really need them. The disruption does not stop at simply preventing us from getting from A to B; it is worsening the cost of living crisis. What is more, blocking a road forces our constituents to go miles out of their way in their cars to get around the idiots disrupting them, which not only costs an awful lot more in fuel—money that most do not have to spend—but means more fossil fuels being burned and more pollution in our environment.
We cannot trust the Opposition to stick up for hard-working people—our constituents. The shadow Justice Secretary—the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed)—and the shadow Home Secretary both publicly say that they do not believe that people should be able to cause disruption to citizens going about their daily business, yet they consistently vote against any measures in the House to deal with just that.
My hon. Friend is making some good points in a great speech. He will be aware of a prolific nuisance who wanders around Whitehall with a megaphone, rambling and speaking incoherently, usually on a Wednesday. Last Wednesday, I think, he actually exposed some disturbing parts of his body to the Prime Minister as he was passing on his way to work—disgusting scenes. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Bill should include measures to tackle that sort of nuisance behaviour?
Does my hon. Friend agree that everyone in the House knows that if we want to get things done, we have to knock on doors, deliver leaflets and persuade people to vote for us, and that short-cutting that by disrupting people’s lives is not acceptable? If those people want to get things done, they need to do what all of us do: go out and earn votes and change ideas and minds.
My hon. Friend is quite right. If he was also referring to the individual whom we just described, I challenged that very person to come and stand against me in Dudley North. Let us see if he has the courage to do so—or is he just a big loudmouth and a coward as well?
Dudley people want to be able to go about their business without others impinging on their ordinary lives. The Bill brings together a set of common-sense approaches. It is about that no-nonsense common sense that ordinary people want this Conservative Government to deliver. I very much thank both the Home Secretary and the Minister for Crime and Policing, who is doing his best to ensure that police officers in Dudley will deliver on these measures, using the new police station that I know he is working hard to secure for the people of Dudley North.
It is important that we always have regard to the scope and scale of the legislation that we introduce. I am really fearful about the scope and scale of the Bill, based on my constituency experience. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Dr Mullan) raised the issue of ensuring that we can go through the democratic process. There are times when we have gone through that democratic process and, unfortunately, the elected politicians have let us down.
Let me finish this point, so that I can explain. In my constituency, we have gone through the democratic process—often not to the extent or with the result that I wanted. For example, we have been promised time and again that there would be no further expansion at Heathrow. We were told,
“no third…runway, no ifs, no buts”
by the leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister, but that was reneged on. We have been through public inquiries that have recommended no further expansion, but they have been reneged on. People therefore feel that they should look for an alternative that complements the balloting route. In my constituency, that in many instances has resulted in direct protest.
Is that not just the nature of democracy? Ultimately, in the longer term, we win or lose arguments; we do not win every single one, and we do not lose every single one. The right hon. Gentleman might have more credibility on this issue if he did not have a track record of encouraging direct action against Tory MPs and not letting us go about our daily lives without being disrupted and harassed.
Fair enough. [Interruption.] No, the hon. Gentleman makes a proper point in the debate, no matter how inaccurate or distorted it is, but never mind. Let me explain—[Interruption.] Does the Bill cover activities in the Chamber? Sorry, I cannot help myself.
In all seriousness, let me explain why the scope and scale of the Bill may mean that it criminalises a large number of my constituents, and why they resort to direct action. They are not what we would describe as typical protesters: they are of a whole range of ages, and in fact Heathrow villages consistently voted for the Conservative party. Many people whom we would classify as normal Conservative voters have engaged in direct action. Why? Because they have endured the noise, the air pollution, the respiratory conditions, the cardiac problems as well as—research now tells us—the increase in cancers in our area as a direct result of pollution from the airport.
If Heathrow expansion goes ahead, 4,000 homes will be demolished, according to the last inquiry, so 10,000 of my constituents would lose their home. That is why people feel so strongly. They are angry because we will lose our gurdwara and three schools, and our church will be isolated from the rest of the community. They have been legitimately angry, because they feel that Governments—of, I must say, all political parties that have been in government—have consistently let them down. At one time, the proposal was for the expansion to go through our cemetery, so there was the prospect of people having to disinter loved ones buried in our constituency.
We can understand why my constituents are angry. What did they do? We held public meetings and tried to hold Ministers to account. All that failed, so my constituents resorted to direct action. They blocked roads, they marched, they demonstrated and they sat down in the road. Climate Camp attached itself to the land; under the Bill, that will become an offence. And yes, there was a gluing-on campaign. Actually, one campaigner tried for six months to glue himself to Gordon Brown. It never worked, but there we are. Can Gordon Brown be defined as national infrastructure? My constituents have gone through an training exercise on locking themselves on—not to infrastructure outside their home, but to things inside their home, so as to prevent demolition. That is the strength of feeling there is. Whole families have been motivated to cause disruption by the threat to their community, livelihood, home, church, gurdwara, community centre and local environment, because, unfortunately, politicians have consistently deceived them.
It is difficult to know what is serious disruption, which is grounds for arrest. The demonstrations we have been on caused a large amount of noise; did that cause serious disruption? They have, of course, caused traffic jams. Is it a question of the length of time that people have to wait in a traffic jam? In all the demonstrations that I have been on, there has been no prevention of the passage of emergency vehicles. We need clarity in clauses 3 and 4 on what serious disruption is.
The other issue is: what is the definition of national infrastructure? In my constituency, is it just anything within the Heathrow airport boundary? Is it the roads feeding into the airport? How far downstream from the airport does “national infrastructure” go? Virtually every road in my constituency somehow leads to the airport, so any demonstration in the constituency could be designated an offence under this legislation.
My constituents and I have taken the view that because expansion is such a threat to our community, we are willing to engage in direct action, and if we are prosecuted under existing law, we take it on the chin. We go to court, explain our case and accept the fine or whatever. That is the reality of it. That is the way it works. The Bill, however, takes things to another level. One way we have protested is by blocking the tunnel at Heathrow for an hour. Well, we have never really stayed there that long; we have stayed there for half an hour, done a deal with the police and then dispersed. A number of my constituents were fined for that. We went to court, which gave them the opportunity to express their views about what was going on, and to expose what was happening. In some ways, it gained us maximum publicity. Under the Bill, however, they could be serving a sentence of a year, or could have an unlimited fine.
There is an issue of balance and fairness. There is something about British democracy that we have to uphold here, because we have a long tradition of people like my constituents saying to the state, “This far and no further. You are going beyond the bounds of the mandate on which you were elected.”
Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that sentencing is not just about handing out a punishment? It is about deterring people from committing the offence again. Obstructing the highway attracts a level-3 fine of up to £1,000, but that does not seem to have any impact on the willingness of some protestors to do it time and again. Is there not some justification in using sentencing as a deterrent there?
The problem is—and here I follow the advice of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services—that the measures will not be a deterrent. All they will do is incentivise many more people to come forward, because this will make them angry and it will cause undue suffering. I am just giving a concrete example of what the good people in my constituency are doing. If Members thought a road was going to be built through their local cemetery, and that their relatives would have to be dug up, I doubt any of them would not join the demonstration. A number of Conservative MPs and councillors did join us.
I will finish on the motivation in a minute or two.
On stop and search, in my constituency, we have come to terms with the orders that designate certain wards enabling access on the streets for stop and search on the basis of where there are serious drug problems or where there has been a knife attack and so on. People have come to terms with that. Not everyone is supportive of it, but they have come to terms with it. I do not think they would be able to come to terms with the designation of a whole area in my constituency just because there might be a demonstration at Heathrow. It would mean having to designate the whole of the Heathrow villages area. On the issue of suspicion of carrying materials, you would need a police squad outside every shop in the Heathrow villages, because every one of my constituents in those areas could be seen as suspicious when they go to purchase something.
Can I not this time? The hon. Member will understand.
Let me just say this on the serious disruption prevention orders. The extent by which they curtail freedom is beyond anything we have ever seen before. We are talking about people who are protesting on a whole range of issues. They have not committed a serious violent offence or anything like that. As the HMICFRS has said, it is not compatible with human rights.
In conclusion, this is an incursion into basic human democratic freedoms—an incursion too far. The motivation —I will be frank—is a populist attempt to garner support for a Conservative party that is deeply unpopular at times at the moment. I also think—my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) raised this point—the Government are fearful that demonstrations will mount as we go through the next 12 months because of the impact of the cost of living crisis. I think it is in fear of those demonstrations that they are introducing this legislation. It will do more harm than good and make more people disillusioned with the political process. I say to Conservative Members: be careful what you wish for because this will push more people into more forms of direct action—and forms of direct action that none of us would want to see. We all treasure our democratic rights and that is why I will vote against the Bill tonight.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke warmly welcome this important legislation, because it is doing exactly what they want to see: holding those criminals accountable for their criminality. No one is standing here seriously suggesting that, when the people of Stoke-on-Trent go to Hanley town centre to stand together to protest for the rights of the Kashmiri people—I have attended in person—the police will come in heavy-handed while we stand peacefully and speak through a microphone to constituents and residents from across the area to raise concerns about the human rights abuses happening to the people of Kashmir.
No one is saying that, when certain trade unions want to stand peacefully outside my office in protest, to demonstrate against some cause, I am expecting the police to come in and round those people up. I am not. I welcome them comng outside my office. I am more than happy to hear their cause, and engage with them in conversation and debate. Even if we end up agreeing to disagree, no one in their right mind is saying that the police are going to prevent that action from happening. No one in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke believes for a second that that would be appropriate. If that were the case with this legislation, I would stand up to oppose the Bill. But I am supporting it because it is doing something: tackling criminal behaviour.
People gluing themselves to the M25, where people are traveling at 70 miles an hour—women and children in cars that could easily crash, ending up with loss of life —are apparently willing to sacrifice their own safety and their own lives for a cause. However, they are not even able to stand up for their beliefs and values. The hypocritical nature of those campaigns is what drives people berserk in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.
For example, Liam Norton from Insulate Britain says he “doesn’t care” about insulating homes—his words. He does not even insulate his own home. He has no insulation in the walls and has single pane glass. People simply do not like hypocrites. He even called himself a hypocrite. We are talking about individuals who are running campaigns—some crusty eco-woke warrior wanting to make some sort of point on Twitter, so they can get lots of likes from the far left that make that particular social media platform vile and abusive. Thank God I am not on it; great for my mental health. Then we see their actions. Gail Bradbrook from Extinction Rebellion drives a diesel car and takes an 11,000-mile round trip to Costa Rica, contributing 2.6 tonnes of carbon footprint, which is a quarter of a Brit’s yearly average.
Practice what you preach. Do not stand up and virtue-signal for the sake of it or try to pontificate—as the Labour party regularly does—in order to make a point that will get a few more likes in woke London or on Twitter. Instead, stand up for people of this country who want to see an end to criminal behaviour by those jumping on top of tube trains or blocking lorries, for example, some of which are carrying cooking oil or carrying oil at a time when we have a global fuel crisis. Those are the type of mad things that people are sick of seeing.
My hon. Friend is right that these are largely deranged members of the bourgeoise making working people’s lives difficult, but, actually, the situation is more serious still. In the case of the demonstrations and protests that he describes, the action meant holding up an ambulance on its way to an emergency and stopping a woman getting to the home of her 95-year-old mother who had had a fall. It meant that the people protesting were wholly and completely disregarding the horror and pain that they were causing. That shows the sort of people they are. This is about not hypocrisy, but carelessness and heartlessness.
My right hon. Friend makes a fantastic point. Let us think about the people who were not able to get to their cancer screening appointment; the children who were not able to be in school because of lockdown and who are having their education in the classroom—with their expert classroom teacher—further delayed; the emergency services trying to go about their jobs, having to deal with protesters; and the police from as far away as Scotland coming down to London, meaning that they are not on the streets of the local areas that they should be serving, allowing criminals potentially to run wild there because of some selfish individuals.
The hon. Gentleman keeps going on about criminals, saying “We’ve got to get rid of these criminals” and “We’ve got to do something about these criminals.” He is characterising an awful lot of people as criminals. If they are already criminals, that means that they have committed a crime and have already been charged and found guilty—or he thinks that they should have been, so why have they not been? Incidentally, the Bill creates an awful lot of civil offences. Those are not criminal either, so why and on what basis is he calling such people criminals?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She says that I talk about criminals. She referred earlier to the Black Lives Matter protest, and I have absolutely no issue with having that important debate about racial inequality in society and looking at what more can be done. However, when a particular individual went up on the Cenotaph and tried to set alight the Union flag, as though it was somehow making some sort of demonstration—this is a memorial to our glorious dead who made the ultimate sacrifice and gave their tomorrow for our today—that was criminal behaviour. That is why that needs to be called out and why I introduced the Desecration of War Memorials Bill, which was accepted by the Government and became part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. I did so despite the sniping from the Labour party, which claimed that I was more interested in protecting statues—it was not statues; it was war memorials to the glorious dead and war graves so that every village, every town and every city of our country remembers those who made those important sacrifices. I am someone who lost a friend when he was serving his nation in Afghanistan. That is why I felt so incensed by those disgusting, vile scenes that I saw up on the Cenotaph.
That is why any Opposition Member who does not understand why this Bill is important is seriously out of touch with the people of this country. It is the silent majority, time and again. The problem is that the Labour party is obsessed with Twitter being somehow the mouthpiece of Britain, or with any other woke, virtue-signalling thing such as Channel 4 that Labour seems to believe must be right on every single issue. That is the problem with the Labour party and why it was so overwhelmingly rejected by the people of Stoke-on-Trent—in Stoke-on-Trent North, Stoke-on-Trent Central and Stoke-on-Trent South, for the first time.
If Labour Members want any more proof, they should look at the May local elections in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Labour was touted to take control of that council in every single national poll and every single national newspaper. The Labour party was openly briefing that it would win that council. The Labour leader of the group at that time openly said at the count that that was their No. 1 target council, and that Labour had thrown all the extra money and resources at it. What happened? The Conservatives took that council with seven gains. They took it from no overall control to being Conservative-led for the first time in that council’s history, while Labour went backwards. If that is not a wake-up signal, I do not know what is.
It is very pleasing to see that my hon. Friend has finally come off the fence in support of this very important Bill. With the Opposition—especially the Labour party—continually voting against the measures that this Government are introducing to protect the people of this country, does he think that it may be a good idea for those Labour MPs to come to Stoke-on-Trent North, Ashfield, Dudley or Ipswich and speak to some real people in real places?
I could not agree more. I think we do need to organise a trip round the red wall so that Labour Members can actually understand why the Labour party lost those seats. [Interruption.] I hear the sniggering from Opposition Members when I mention Stoke-on-Trent. The only Stoke that the Labour party is aware of is Stoke Newington. They have not gone any further north than that in the last number of years, which is why, again, we have a Conservative-led Stoke-on-Trent City Council, a Conservative-run Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and a Conservative-run Staffordshire County Council. Under Tony Blair, a man who actually used to win Labour elections, it used to have six of the 12 MPs for the local area. Labour ran the county council at one stage, had control of Stoke city council and ran Newcastle borough council. Those are the facts.
I do not even want to thank the hon. Member for giving way to me, because frankly, his speech is becoming quite insulting. He is talking to Members of Parliament who were elected by the people—in my case, by the people of Battersea—to represent them. I am really grateful that, finally, the people of Wandsworth decided to vote for Labour and kick the Tories out after 44 years of rule to elect a Labour council. We know what the people of London need and we do not need to take lessons from the hon. Member.
Well, Croydon spoke quite loudly, if I remember correctly, by deciding to elect a Conservative Mayor and upping the amount of councillors in Croydon. We had places like Bromley holding on, and Old Bexley and Sidcup, and Harrow going towards the Conservative party. And there is now mass opposition to the mental plan of the Mayor of London, who wants to expand the ultra low emission zone across the whole Greater London area, smashing 135,000 drivers in the pocket with a daily charge and killing small businesses. If this is Labour-run London, God forbid a Labour-run United Kingdom. It would be absolutely terrifying to see what could happen to our community. [Interruption.] It is lovely to see you in the Chair now by the way, Madam Deputy Speaker.
This Bill is so important because it is about making sure that action is taken if someone wants to glue themselves to a train, risk their health and wellbeing, and delay people going to work to earn their money at a time when we are facing a global crisis with inflation, a global crisis with the cost of energy, and a global crisis of food prices, because of events happening in Ukraine, as well as the fact, obviously, that we are coming out of a global lockdown—I know that Labour Members seem to want to pretend that that did not exist. Ultimately, all those things put together mean that, when people are not able to go about their daily lives because of a mindless minority of morons who want to act in an inappropriate way by blocking the road, stopping the trains, stopping oil tankers and smashing up petrol stations, this Bill is necessary.
Finally, I appreciate that the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), is no longer in her place, but I thought that, when she stood at the Dispatch Box today, she gave a very passionate and good speech about why the actions of Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil were unlawful. She made a fantastic point about why action needs to be taken, so the House can imagine why the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are simply baffled that Labour Members will not join us in the Lobby this evening and will instead vote against a Bill that they seem in principle to support. However, because of certain Back Benchers, they just do not want to face that rebellion and stare it down. It is a shame that the Labour party has a long way to go.
It is always an experience to speak after the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis)—what kind of experience, I do not think parliamentary etiquette allows to me to express, but it is an experience none the less.
I would like to comment on some of the engagement tonight from Government Members, because it is quite instructive. It is like a one-sided equation. They want to make this issue about the disruption to individuals and the cost to business, and although that is one side of the equation, there is another side to it: the disruption that the climate crisis is bringing to people around the world already and to this country. One thing that the House may or may not know is that, between 2010 and 2019, it is estimated that 5 million people have already died from the effects of the climate crisis. I understand that Government Members want to talk about an individual in an ambulance, an individual who has been disrupted, but we should think about the global disruption and what is happening around the world. Some 800,000 of those people were in Europe. This is not just happening elsewhere—it is happening here and now.
I am not in denial about the importance of dealing with the climate emergency, but does the hon. Gentleman accept that those who are leading these so-called protests should be leading by example? Saying that they do not care about insulating homes, or insulating their own home, does not send a very good message from the top when they are trying to convince the nation to follow their lead.
That individual has made their comments, but I guess the question we have to ask is who are the criminals. Are the criminals those individuals who are trying to come together collectively to stand up against a Government who are failing them on the climate crisis, or against billion-pound corporations with pockets deep enough to buy influence in Parliament and across politics? Are the criminals those individuals who are trying to use the only apparatus that they have to stand up and speak up for what they feel impassioned about? I would argue that the real criminals are those who are wilfully pushing to extract more oil from our oilfields and who are pushing us off an existential cliff edge. I think that this country and the British people increasingly understand that those are the people who need to be held to account.
Members need not take my word for it; they should listen to that socialist radical, the Secretary-General of the UN. The hon. Gentleman may think that the Secretary-General is woke, but I think he is increasingly important to global politics. He wrote:
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels.”
Cue our own Government attempting to do just that.
Opposition Members know all too well this Government’s track record of attacks on human rights, democracy, the poor, the vulnerable, trade unions, justice and migrants. Undermining our democratic right to protest goes against the very essence of what it means to live in a democracy.
Again, hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. The Joint Committee on Human Rights described proposals set out in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 as “oppressive and wrong”. The Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that measures in it undermine human rights legislation. Former senior police officers described it as “harmful to democracy”. Some 700 legal academics called for it to be dropped. UN special rapporteurs and top human rights officials warned that it threatens our rights. More than 600,000 members of the public signed a petition against it.
What possible motivation could the Government have to push through such an authoritarian and regressive Bill? I think that that is a legitimate question for Opposition Members to ask. The Bill is so regressive and anti-democratic that even Conservative Members are baulking at its sweeping, draconian powers.
Let us take a look at the Bill’s provisions on protests involving critical infrastructure. Like so much of this Government’s agenda, they have been lifted directly from the hard neo-con right in the US. A Bloomberg News exposé from 2019 uncovered extensive lobbying by the oil and gas industry to criminalise protest near extraction sites. We know that the Conservative party has received more than a million pounds from the oil and gas industry in the past few years, so it is legitimate to ask what the Government’s motivations are for the Bill.
Trade union money is the cleanest money in British politics. [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman can quote me: it is the cleanest money, because we declare it and because we are representing the interests of workers, which is why our party was set up. We have no shame; we are proud of where our funding comes from.
As many Opposition Members have seen, much of the money that funds the Conservative party has come from the kleptocrats of Russia, with whom Conservative Members have more in common than with the people of this country.
No, I will make some progress.
The issue of freedom goes to the heart of the Bill. Conservative Members revel in being the so-called party of freedom, but let us interrogate that a little. Some freedoms are zero-sum, but unfortunately many are not. As Isaiah Berlin explained, freedom for the pike means death for the minnow.
Conservative Members often talk about freedom—freedom for people to go about their lives and so on—but we must ask a critical question: freedom for whom and freedom against whom? That is what they do not explain. Freedom from trade unions is freedom for corporations to exploit their workers. Freedom from regulation and red tape, as Conservative Members call it, is freedom for corporations to pollute our rivers and restrict our freedom to swim or fish. Freedom from tax, another Conservative staple, is freedom from the redistribution that is essential for fairness and social mobility.
Now freedom is being mentioned again, and this time it is freedom from protest. That means freedom against the public’s right and ability to hold big business and the Government to account for the climate destruction that they are undertaking. Opposition Members know which side Conservative Members are on. Increasingly, so do the British public. You may wrap this up in the ability of law and order to hold back the unwashed masses, but actually they are the people who are fighting for all our freedoms, for our future and for a world without a climate crisis fuelled by your friends in the big corporations and the oil sector. That is the reality.
Order. Along with a gentle reminder about the word “you”, may I remind hon. Members that it was suggested earlier that about eight minutes per speaker would be appropriate? I also remind the House that we must keep our language temperate.
Now then: I will try to keep my speech brief and, in my usual fashion, I will try not to be controversial.
We have a proud tradition in this country of being able to protest and have our voices heard. We have something else in this country, too: something called democracy, which sometimes Opposition Members forget about. At the last general election, we got an 80-seat majority to get tough on law and order. The Bill will deliver that.
I am one of the people in this Chamber who has stood on a picket line. In 1984, when the miners’ strike was on, I stood on the picket lines for a year with my dad, my uncles and my friends. I saw the good and the bad of protests. The good was that in the most dire circumstances, men could keep their spirits up and protest for something that they believed in. But I also saw the bad: the violence, the horrible scenes, the miners getting injured, the police getting injured, the police horses getting injured, the dogs getting injured. They were awful, awful times and I never want to go back to them; I did not think we would until I saw the horrible scenes on Whitehall when the BLM protests took place just a year or so ago. They were awful, awful scenes that I never want us to go back to, but protest is important in this country.
I have held my own protests over the years—I will tell the House about a couple. I was attacked viciously for both protests by the Labour party and the left in this country. I did a simple protest last year during the football. I refused to watch the England team because of their stance on taking the knee—that was my little protest. It was not a violent protest; I did not go out on the streets, I was not banging drums, I did not get my megaphone out, I did not shout at people. All I did was refuse to watch a few football matches, and what happened? I was attacked by every single Opposition Member and by the mainstream media. In fact, the Daily Mirror voted me the worst man in Britain, an accolade that is so close to my heart and that I am so proud of that I hope I get it this year as well.
Another one-man protest that I did was in Ashfield a few years back—it was when I was a Labour councillor, by the way. We had a problem at a beauty spot in Ashfield where the Travellers kept coming. They kept ruining the site: they would leave rubbish, they would be out thieving at night, and pets were going missing. There were all sorts of shenanigans: threatening people, effing and blinding, playing music, making fires and burning wire—all the typical behaviour that we would associate with a site like that. I asked the council to put some barriers up to stop the Travellers coming back. The council refused, so we tidied the site up—it cost thousands and thousands of pounds—but then the Travellers returned and did exactly the same. There was foul-smelling smoke from the fires—they were burning wire to get the copper out—neighbours were being threatened, and there was excrement everywhere. Eventually the conditions became so bad that the Travellers could not live there anymore, and they moved on again.
I thought, “My goodness, we cannot carry on like this—we have to sort this out.” Again I said to the council, “Put some barriers up”, and again they said no, so I got a JCB and two big boulders from a local demolition site, and I blocked the car park off. Guess what: the Travellers did not come back, because they could not get on to the site, but guess what the local Labour group did. Guess what the Momentum-controlled Labour group did, because of my one-man protest. They issued me with a £100 fine for fly-tipping. That was them agreeing with my protest, or rather not agreeing with it. My common-sense residents, in a red wall area, said, “We will pay that fine for you.” Luckily the fine was rescinded in the end, but that just shows what the Labour party thinks: when one person tries to organise a protest on their own, it issues fines.
What the House has to realise is that we are not voting to stop protests. We are voting to keep members of the public safe. We are voting to keep our roads open. We are voting to allow people to go about their daily business and not be hindered. We are voting to stop criminal damage. What is wrong with that? I just do not understand why anyone would vote against it. I have said this before. We have seen these eco-hooligans, or whatever they are, dancing in the street, off their heads on something, blocking motorways by gluing their ears to them. It is unbelievable, and unlike Opposition Members, the people of this great country of ours have had enough of it. They are sick of seeing it. They are sick of switching the TV on and seeing these idiots stopping our way of life. Anybody would think that we were voting to live in a communist state, but we are not. We just want people to live in a safe country and to go about their business. I wonder if that lot opposite understand how angry the British people are when they see statues being pulled down and buildings being damaged. Do they think it is bleeding clever?
An Opposition Member who is not in the Chamber at the moment spoke about the type of people who demonstrate. I will tell you about the type of people who have been on the demonstrations that we have been seeing, such as members of Insulate Britain and all these eco-warriors. There are three categories. There are the middle-aged hippies, who are probably about my age and probably have a few bob in the bank. They drive their big 4x4s, and they turn up to a protest in their hemp vests with, no doubt, a bowl of the latest eco-friendly muesli in their rucksacks, and they cause absolute mayhem, because they have nothing better to do. Then there are the Socialist Worker types. I used to meet some of them back in the earlier days, and not one of them went to work. That is the irony: they were socialists, but not one of them went to work. Not one of them had a job. They, too, had nothing better to do than go out and cause trouble. Opposition Members are looking at me with glazed expressions on their faces, but that is the socialist workers! I am not even going to start on the students, because they are young and they will grow out of it. They will know better.
We all saw the disgusting scenes in Whitehall during the Black Lives Matter riots just a year or so ago. As a party, we were quick to condemn the violence, and rightly so, but what did Labour do? Did they condemn the violence? No; they sent the troops out. They went out and stood shoulder to shoulder with the rioters, the same rioters who were attacking our police outside Downing Street. It is absolutely disgraceful.
All that we in the Conservative party want to less criminals on the street, less knives on the street and less trouble on the street, so for once, please, will those on the Opposition Benches do four things? Will they back our police, back our people, back our country, and back this Bill?
Given all the crises that we are facing in our country, it speaks volumes that the first Bill of a new Parliament is yet another piece of authoritarian anti-protest legislation. The message from this Government is clear: their top priority is making it harder to protest against the cost of living crisis, rather than helping people through it.
The Government have already introduced some of the most serious and sweeping restrictions on the right to protest with their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and this Bill takes the assault on our rights one step further by reviving many of the failed measures that were rightly thrown out in the other place. Restricting protest, expanding discriminatory stop and search, introducing jail sentences and unlimited fines for demonstrating close to national infrastructure, and introducing new offences of locking on will not help my constituents to pay their bills, or, indeed, address many of the issues about which they will tend to protest.
This is yet another Bill that seeks to stop people making their voices heard, and it disadvantages our poorest and most marginalised communities. Laws are not reasonable or fair if rights are protected only for those who agree with the Government, and curtailed for those who wish to challenge the Government. I agree with the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), who said last week that we were sleepwalking into fascism. This country’s tradition of dissent has paved the way to our rights and freedoms, and those protests are the reason why someone of my class, race and gender has the rights that I have; but this Bill contains measures that would have outlawed the protests that won votes for women and trade unions.
Given the Government’s trajectory, there is no doubt in my mind, at least, that these measures will be used against pickets in industrial disputes. According to the Bill, there will be a defence when it comes to trade disputes, but that defence will not be available to stop the new serious disruption prevention orders applying to individuals who take part in more than one protest within a five-year period, even if they have not been convicted. That obviously targets union officials who regularly attend and organise pickets. The Trade Union Act 2016, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and everything in between, and now this Bill, have all but eradicated what was already a severely restricted right to picket. Our unions are part of the last line of defence against this Government’s attack on working-class people, and I cannot believe that the Government would stoop so low.
It is wrong that the Bill extends stop and search powers and introduces serious disruption orders when existing stop-and-search powers are already a key component of the racially unjust criminal justice system. Marginalised communities are already disproportionately likely to face criminalisation and harassment. Just last month there was a national outcry when it emerged that a black teenager had been strip-searched by police at school, having been falsely accused of possessing cannabis. There has been a string of revelations about the racism and misogyny that still blight UK policing, clearly exemplified by the vile racism and misogyny uncovered at Charing Cross police station and the already record low confidence in policing.
The hon. Lady speaks about stop and search. She will know that during a two-year period up to 2021, 150,000 arrests were made as a direct result of stop and search. She will also know that in 2019, 50,000 knives were found and removed. Those were arrests that prevented crimes, and those were knives that might have been used to take life or at least to injure. Surely the hon. Lady recognises that stop and search is just part of the means by which we can crack down on crime.
I have no issue with evidence-based stop and search. If there is a reason to stop somebody, that is absolutely fine. Unfortunately the police continue, again and again, to stop and search people from certain communities. All that that does is go further down the route of making confidence in policing extremely low, which does not do anything to solve crime.
When it comes to misogyny, I think about the horrifying treatment of those who attended the vigil in my constituency last year to commemorate Sarah Everard and other women who had lost their lives to violence. That made it clear that women opposing violence against women were not safe from male violence, even from those who were tasked with protecting us from it.
The Bill targets, in particular, the activism of groups who have already been mentioned many times: groups such as Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, Kill the Bill and the Black Lives Matter movement. All those groups have used disruption to draw attention to major injustices such as the climate crisis, attacks on our civil liberties and institutional racism. Rather than taking action to address those injustices, the Government want to stop people speaking out about them. We must remember that today’s protests are signposts for tomorrow’s progress.
How does it make sense for the Government to support protests around the world while cracking down on the right to protest here? As Amnesty International has pointed out,
“these authoritarian provisions…are similar to repressive policies in countries the UK regularly criticises—including”
“Russia, Hong Kong, and Belarus”.
The message to the public is very clear: we must put up with it, or shut up. This continuous attempt to criminalise dissent is a threat to everyone who wants to stand up for what they believe in, and to anyone who believes in building a better society. The way in which the Government continue to push this agenda makes it clearer than ever that we must oppose this Bill today, and oppose all further attempts by them to proceed with this authoritarian way of running the country.
This country has allowed and tolerated protests for centuries. I am not convinced that many protests achieve anything much beyond noise, but we are a democracy, and freedom of speech in our media should be matched by the freedom to express those views in—
The hon. Gentleman has said that he is not aware that protest had done anything worthwhile. What about the protests of the Chartists? What about the protests of the suffragettes? What about protests calling for peace? Does he really think that those historic protests achieved nothing?
The right hon. Lady is a long-standing Member of this House, and she is enormously respected by me and by many people here, but I would respectfully point out that that is not what I said. What I said was that I was not convinced that many protests achieved anything much. There are notable examples where protests have achieved a great deal, but I am not convinced that many of the protests that we see each and every day now are achieving anything at all. That was my point.
Freedom of speech in our media should be matched by the freedom to express those views. I agree with the right hon. Lady that protest is important. That was exactly the point I was trying to make. Whether it achieves anything or not is beside the point. The fact that so much of it comes from political perspectives that are opposed to mine is also beside the point. Anyone tempted down that route just needs to look around the world. The scenes of protesters in Russia with blank signs being arrested are a reminder that what we could stand to lose is nothing less than freedom itself. I will always defend legitimate protest by those with whom I disagree. However, there are also illegitimate ways of protesting that go beyond the expression of a view to impositions on the freedom of others, to violations of our laws and to acts that can even pose a risk to people’s lives. Direct action is not a legitimate form of protest. Locking on, which is defined in clause 1 of the Bill, is not a legitimate form of protest. Obstruction of major transport works, which is defined in clause 3, is not a legitimate form of protest.
My hon. Friend seems to be distinguishing between peaceful protest, of which there is a long tradition, as he rightly says, and violent protest. These acts are violent acts. The destruction of property, the attacks on individuals and the real nuisance and life-threatening damage caused when roads are blocked are acts of violence. They are militant and extreme, and they can be distinguished from peaceful, legitimate protest.
There is an inconsistency here that is just breathtaking. The hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) has just described how he stood on a picket line during the miners’ strike. Those picket lines were designed to stop scab workers going into somebody else’s colliery in many instances. That is not indirect action; it is direct action. Is the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) saying that all the people on picket lines should have been arrested? Is that really what he is saying?
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to relive the battles of the 1980s, and if he wants to say that preventing legitimate people from earning a living to provide for their families is illegitimate or wrong, I am quite happy to be on the other side of the debate from him.
I notice that the right hon. Member for Dundee East (Stewart Hosie) described people who went to work during the strike as a “scab”. I’m sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that is disgraceful language. The right hon. Gentleman should take it back. Quite frankly, he should be ashamed of himself.
I agree wholeheartedly with that point.
Let us get back to the substance of this debate. I will be proud and pleased to stand, perhaps at the next general election, on a record of getting this Bill passed. I said during the debate on the Queen’s Speech that the people of Peterborough are hugely supportive of measures taken against those who glue themselves to roads, who disrupt ambulances and who stop hard-working people going about their ordinary business. In that, they are no different from a large majority of people across the country. Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, Just Stop Oil and the rest of these extreme groups—I use that word carefully, because they are extreme—are opposed to the democratic process and against the democratic majority. The only reason that we have heard howls from the Opposition Benches is because those Members disagree with the view of the majority. It is because they sympathise with serious disruption when it suits their own political causes. It is because they apply the rule of law to the Government but fail to apply it to a mob.
We have a duty to protect the public from the irresponsible, selfish and dangerous behaviour of extremists. Serious disruption prevention orders are a sensible and proportionate response. Otherwise, we will continue to see repeat offences by those who place their own opinions above the rights, health and livelihoods of others. Our courts need these powers to uphold the integrity of the law. Our society needs these measures to uphold our civil and civic values. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary should be thanked for by every democratically elected Member of this House for introducing the Bill. In bringing back some of the measures blocked in the other place by the unelected Members of this Parliament, she is doing democracy’s work.
If I may, I want to tell the House a story about Sahanna, a constituent of mine. I have changed her name—[Interruption.] It will be interesting for Opposition Members to listen to this, because my constituent did not want her name mentioned in the House of Commons for fear of being targeted with repercussions. Sahanna is a nurse, and for a while she was living with her sister while she was working at Watford General Hospital. One morning, while she was driving to work, she encountered traffic jams tailing back miles while protesters —public nuisances—blocked the road. They were blocking the M25 at junction 23 for South Mimms. She was monstrously late for work, as were many of her colleagues. As a result, many shifts was seriously undermanned, a clinic was cancelled, and patients suffered—they did not get the NHS treatment that they deserved. What is the justification for this? Opposition Members who somehow support protests such as these need to seriously look at themselves in the mirror. At the very least, they should get on board with this legislation. It will address these irritants and nuisances—I do not want to call them protests; they are not protests—that have serious consequences for hard-working people and for access to public services.
I want to end on one really legitimate point. When I talk about illegitimate protesters, I am not talking about the passionate people in my constituency who protested about certain things that happened to the Windrush generation. I am not talking about those quite nice Extinction Rebellion protesters, local Peterborough people, to whom my office gave tea when they protested outside it. Those people were not blocking the highway or gluing themselves to public infrastructure. They were not locking in or causing serious disruption. That form of protest is what we are all here to defend. We are not here to defend the people who go beyond legitimate protest, but I will always stand up for those who organise legitimate protests even though I disagree with them.
We face a multitude of crises on many fronts. I totally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), who is no longer in her seat. She put it powerfully: the cost of living crisis and the housing crisis what this Government should be dealing with. Perhaps most important of all is the climate justice crisis, but the Conservatives are not interested in taking measures to address those important issues. No, their Government are instead trying to clamp down on people’s right to urge that serious action be taken. Clearly, our age-old democratic right to protest is just too inconvenient. That is what we get when we have a Government informed by the niche interests of right-wing culture warriors who do not understand what being woke actually means.
I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. Her comments are very worrying when we think of the young black men who are disproportionately stopped and searched, and strip searched, for no apparent reason other than the colour of their skin.
Clause 7, on powers to stop and search without suspicion, is a very worrying clause that will enable senior police officers to authorise the police to stop and search anyone within a designated zone for a period of time without any grounds for suspicion. It states that the power will enable the police to look for objects involved in so-called “protest-related offences.” According to the explanatory notes, this will include threatening objects
“such as glue or a padlock”.
Will this also include a pen, paper, a hat, water, a change of clothes, sanitiser and a face mask? As well as being part of the ridiculous fixation on locking-on offences, I believe clause 7 is designed to instil fear among many who may be mistrustful of the police, having had bad interactions with them, or knowing people who have. The measures could have the effect of dampening turnout for all kinds of protests and campaigns, which I am sure the Government would be pleased about.
It has long been known that stop-and-search powers have a disproportionate impact on racialised communities, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) so eloquently said. It is on our communities that the burden of more searches will fall hardest, and it is our communities where people will be put off from making their voice heard.
I remind the House that the ongoing “spy cops” inquiry is looking into the abuse of police powers by undercover police, who spied on particular anti-racist, socialist and anti-war groups. There is also the Stephen Lawrence justice campaign. This should raise alarms in this House. We know the suspicion in which the forces of the state have generally held groups that fight for radical change. It is clear that those groups will be targeted by this action, which will only erode dissenting voices.
One day, everyone will look back on this Government’s clampdown on and prosecution of climate protesters with as much disgust as we look back on past Governments who imprisoned the suffragists fighting for women’s right to vote. Anyone who wishes to be on the right side of history should stand up for democratic rights and values, oppose this authoritarian Home Secretary and vote against this Bill tonight.
I am grateful for the fact that this Bill will protect the rights of everyday men and women across the country who want the freedom to get on with their daily life. Some of the dangerous and irresponsible disorder we have seen on our streets in recent times, and the havoc it has wreaked on innocent people’s lives, should not be described as protest. Some would say it verges on domestic terrorism.
We have seen attempts to stop the distribution of newspapers because hooligans did not agree with the content. We have seen areas of our capital city brought to a standstill at rush hour because lefty activists wanted to glue themselves to a road. The public are aghast that this could happen, and that our police did not have the powers they need to tackle it. The police have been left frustrated. They have been diverted from their work of tackling crime in our communities and making our streets safer, and are instead playing marshals, and are, in fact, putting their life at risk on our highways, stewarding this pandemonium.
Was my hon. Friend as shocked as I was to hear the Home Secretary say that more than £175 million has been spent in just the past couple of years on certain protests? That money should be going to our local communities—either his in Stockton and Cleveland or mine in County Durham—to help us fight the real antisocial behaviour problems that our communities face.
I could not agree more. I am delighted to see 13,000 more police officers on our streets, and I want them to spend their time tackling the issues in Stockton South, rather than policing this jamboree.
Law-abiding citizens have been stunned by these scenes and want to see our police forces empowered to protect the rights of everyday people who are trying to go about their daily lives. Why should someone be able to prevent them from getting to work? Why should someone be able to prevent their children from getting to school? Why should someone be able to prevent their dying relative from getting to hospital in an ambulance?
Sixty-three per cent. of people support the creation of a criminal offence of locking on, and it is clear why. We must protect the freedom of our citizens against a minority who would seek to impede them. Moreover, I can see how genuine protesters would be frustrated. They turn up to a protest to stand up for a noble cause, and then some of these serial protesters turn up en masse like some sort of traveling circus. Full of clowns, these groups hijack protests for a superglue soiree. They bring individual campaigns into disrepute and damage the public support and sympathy that genuine protesters have worked hard to gain.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling case for the Bill. We have heard from the Bill’s critics that the end justifies the means—that because the end is noble, in their judgment, any means, however violent or disruptive, are legitimate. Is that not the argument used by every extremist, indeed every tyrant, throughout history?
My right hon. Friend is entirely right. These actions undermine public support and sympathy for genuine causes, and they create division and misery in the name of genuine causes.
For everyday people right across the country who should have the right to go about their daily life without interference, for those who wish to undertake peaceful and legitimate protests, and for police officers frustrated by having to waste their time when they could be making our communities safer, this is the right way forward. Thanks to this Government, there are now 13,000 more police officers on our streets; I want to see them tackling crime, not distracted and diverted by these jamborees of disruption, division and criminality.
Finally, I disagree with the assumption that police forces will use the powers in this Bill disproportionately and improperly. Of course, there have been horrendous exceptions—cases of misuse of police powers—but we should differentiate these from the brave men and women who sign up as police officers and put themselves in harm’s way to protect us. They should be backed and given the powers that they need to get on with the job.
This is a deeply dangerous Bill, and I am pleased to support the reasoned amendments. The measures in the Bill represent a fresh outright attack on our fundamental rights. Indeed, as others have said, the human rights organisation Liberty has called it a
“staggering escalation of the Government’s clampdown on dissent.”
We are in the grip of multiple crises: a cost of living scandal that is pushing millions of households into fuel and food poverty; a war in Ukraine with disastrous consequences; and the accelerating climate and nature emergencies. What we need at this critical juncture is more democracy, not less—not a ban on our constituents participating in certain protests, not subjecting them to 24-hour GPS monitoring for the crime of disagreeing with the Government, and not barring them from participation in public life.
Today I want to focus on serious disruption prevention orders. I will also touch on stop and search, and the creation of new offences. Serious disruption prevention orders are a form of banning order that might more accurately be called “sinister disproportionate political orders”. They are sinister because the idea that someone can be banned from attending a protest for up to two years simply because they have participated in at least two previous protests within a five-year period is nothing short of Orwellian.
People do not need to have been convicted of a crime to be subject to an order. They just need to have dared to exercise the right to take part in a peaceful protest: dared to have attended rallies against Brexit; dared to have marched against going to war; dared to have held our children’s hands as they went on climate strike. How will the police know whether someone falls into that category? How will they know that someone is engaged in other activities that the Bill deems unlawful, such as buying a bike lock or painting a banner? Thanks to drastically expanded surveillance powers, of course, about which I will say more shortly.
The world was rightly outraged by footage of peaceful protestors in Russia being bundled into police vans and silenced for opposing Putin’s war in Ukraine. Make no mistake, this clampdown on British citizens is cut from the same cloth. I will spell it out: an SDPO would completely remove someone’s right to attend a protest, and therefore must be resisted by any right-thinking person who values our democracy.
Proposals to impose sinister banning orders are nothing new, and have time and again been labelled disproportionate. In response to a previous iteration of such orders, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, and even the Home Office, issued the same warning about their impact on people’s ability to take part in protest. Her Majesty’s inspectorate stated:
“It is difficult to envisage a case where less intrusive measures could not be taken to address the risk that an individual poses, and where a court would therefore accept that it was proportionate to impose a banning order.”
In other words, the provisions in the Bill to restrict citizens are disproportionate to the supposed threats they seek to address.
Moreover, the Bill takes state surveillance to chilling new levels—for example, allowing electronic monitoring of someone subjected to an SDPO, with only the vaguest safeguards applying to any data collected, and the potential for associated negative impacts on individuals’ privacy and the wider community. It bears repeating that this could happen to someone who has committed no crime. As someone who has used parliamentary privilege in this place to open the lid on the immoral and arguably unlawful actions and sanctioning of police spies, this causes me considerable concern. The Home Office argues that such levels of interference are justified by the emergence of groups such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, but existing legislation—for example, the Public Order Act 1986 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997—already grants the powers that reasonable policing of such protests demands.
The Bill is also disproportionate because the new offences could criminalise people for linking arms and having in their possession everyday items such as the bike locks that are simply “capable of causing” so-called “serious disruption”. There is no requirement for any disruption to be actually happening. The provisions just about fall short of policing people’s thoughts and intentions, but the direction of travel is clear and it should terrify us all.
The orders are sinister, disproportionate, and political—political, because the provisions allow far too much scope for police interpretation. On the new broad power for protest-specific stop and search, for example, a suspicion that someone might have knitting needles, a hoodie or even just a marker pen in their bag could be grounds for the police to act, but it does not stop there.
As others have said, evidence-based stop and search—where there is evidence and a good reason—is not in question. What is in question here is stop and search on the basis of a whim. As others have eloquently said, there is a very real danger of antagonising some groups who are already most disadvantaged, and therefore making the situation far worse.
The Government want to give the police powers to stop and search a person or a vehicle in a protest context, even when there are no grounds for suspicion. That will be permissible simply if a police officer believes that an offence—such as wilfully obstructing a highway or intentionally causing a public nuisance—might happen in the area or thinks that some people in the area might be carrying prohibited items; and there we are, back to the marker pens and knitting needles.
Protest is, by its very nature, liable to cause a public nuisance, disruption and noise, and to have specific targets, but real democratic leadership does not seek to ban opposition voices from protesting. Only a cowardly Government, who do not trust or respect their people, would take such a step.
I wanted to ask whether the hon. Lady, notwithstanding her objection to the banning of protest, subscribes to the enthusiasm across the House for the ban of protests near abortion centres or clinics, and supports the creation of buffer zones that ban protests in those circumstances. If that is the case, is she possibly guilty of wanting to ban only protests with which she does not agree?
I disagree with the premise of the Minister’s intervention. I have been proudly at the forefront of moves to say that women seeking their right to healthcare should not be subject to the personal, direct and threatening individual harassment that happens all too frequently outside abortion centres. I would wager that I have been on more demonstrations than anyone on the Government Benches—I have been arrested for them and I have been alongside them, and I have to say in parentheses that the characterisation of protesters by Government Members is wildly short of the mark—but I have seen nothing that is tantamount to the kind of harassment and direct intimidation that I have seen outside abortion centres, which is why the Minister’s comparison is not a reasonable one.
While I am on the subject of who protesters are, let me say that I am fascinated by the division between the protesters we support and those we do not. It seems to me that we support the ones who are silent and probably protesting in their own front rooms, because we do not like protest to be disruptive.
No, I will not.
Protest is, by definition, disruptive. I can promise Government Members that the protesters I have been alongside include grandmothers who have never been on a protest before, nurses, doctors, teachers, care workers and people who collect the refuse. They are our community. I do not buy into the division that the Government are trying to make between a community on the one side and protesters on the other. The protesters are from those communities; they come up from them and are part of them. I say no to the kind of divisiveness that I have been hearing and we have been subjected to over and over again for the past five hours that we have been sat here.
Even if Ministers persist with this draconian and dangerous Bill, I sincerely hope that they will at least recognise the dangerous impact of already existing suspicionless stop and search powers, including their ineffectiveness, and their contribution to racial disproportionality and erosion of trust in the criminal justice system. I hope that the Government will not seek to extend them and therefore perpetuate such outcomes. More than that, though, my hope is that the Bill, which is riven with political ideology—and, frankly, puts the police in an untenable position—can be stopped in its tracks. I cannot find one shred of sense, proportionately or necessity in the Bill, and I hope that colleagues will join me in opposing it at every opportunity.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). She certainly put out the most certain bet that she has been on more protests than most other people in this House and she is honourable for doing so. She said that the contributions to the debate from the Government Benches had promoted divisiveness. I do not agree with her—people have been trying to express their point of view—but, standing alone, perhaps I shall be a sole voice in expressing some reservations about the intent behind some of the measures in the Bill.
I was grateful to hear some of the contributions by the Home Secretary, particularly her willingness to look at the Bill’s focus. I would like to take that up with the Policing Minister, who has been able to explain to me some of the more detailed provisions of previous Bills.
At some points in the debate, it has not been clear whether Members have been focusing on the Bill in the context of protest, climate change or criminal damage. The Bill is at its best when it focuses on those who would use protest as a cover to cause damage or create unreasonable disruption. It starts to lose its way when it strays away from that into an area where all democratic Governments need to be careful, which is how a Government of the day pass legislation that has an effect on protest.
My first concern of principle, then, relates to imprecision, in respect of which I shall mention a couple of clauses. Before I started to speak, I wrote down that I had concerns about why, with the Government having only recently taken a large Bill through Parliament, we had the provisions sort of re-presented today in this Bill. The right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who spoke for the Opposition, had a point about why these measures have come back to the House so soon and whether we have had time to see the impact of the measures passed previously. Again, I can see the rationale for the Bill when it is tight to its intent; when it goes broader than that, I have significant questions.
One reason I am a Conservative is that I believe in freedom of speech—the right of people to express themselves freely. Indeed, as a Government we are emphasising that in a number of other pieces of legislation we are bringing forward. In questions to the Secretary of State for Education earlier, we highlighted the importance of free speech in schools and the need not to have ideological perspectives. We are talking about it in universities, too. As I thought in respect of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government are at risk of being in conflict with their freedom of speech priorities in proposing a Bill that focuses on some of the restrictions on protests.
Another point that came up in respect of the previous Bill and does with this one, too, is the risk that it puts on police officers being seen as political because of their decisions, given the very broad framework that is set out and the fact that it is hard to explain to someone who is being noisy or disruptive why they are being selected rather than others. I do not expect the Policing Minister to address that today, but it would be helpful to learn a bit more about that in my conversations with him.
I think all Members present will recognise my final concern of principle. It is surely true that our politics have become far more divisive over the past decade. Whatever the reasons for that may be—perhaps it is a matter of political decisions or of social media—when people feel very divided on politics it is important that we keep open to them as many avenues as we possibly can for them to express dissent or an opinion or to say where something is wrong. That is an important context for the Policing Minister and the Government to consider as they think about the application of the Bill.
Let me turn to some points about the Bill’s provisions. I talked earlier about it being imprecise and straying from areas in which it is strong—its focus on the use of protest as cover for criminal damage—and unfortunately clauses 1 and 2 are where that level of imprecision starts. They are worded far too openly. Everyone here seems to know what attaching on means. Is that the phrase? I cannot remember exactly what it is.
I thank my hon. Friend. I have no clue what locking on is. I do not know. Some colleagues have made the point. What does one have to attach oneself? I have no idea and there is nothing in the Bill to explain to me what locking on may be. It would be helpful for the Government to produce further provisions on that. It is disappointing that the Government are then extremely precise in clauses 3, 4 and 5 about some of the measures they wish to introduce. Precision is clearly not unavailable to them; it is a matter of choice where they have applied it.
A number of Members have spoken to clause 7, which introduces powers on stop and search. Some people have rightly made the point about the disproportionality of stop and search, which has been an important issue for me in my time in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who is no longer in his place, made his point by saying, “But what about the number of knives and the number of offences that have been caught?” First, that does not answer the question of disproportionality, which is the fundamental reason why many of us have concerns about the use of stop and search. Secondly, that argument is completely inappropriate when stop and search is applied to people going on a protest, because it is about not the other aspects of serious crime or serious drug dealing that we talk about, but people expressing their points of view. I say to the Government, “Please, if you are going to look at the extension of stop and search, think carefully before putting that provision in this legislation.”
The issue is not just the extension of stop and search but many of the extensions in the Bill. I was struck that, if Lord Hain—then Peter Hain—could be convicted of criminal conspiracy for leading direct action events in the 1970s, which he was as part of the anti-apartheid movement, why do we need this panoply of illiberal measures now? The law was more than capable of dealing with many of the same issues 40 or 50 years ago.
The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to his point of view about the broader panoply; my point is specifically about stop and search. I hate the fact that a black man, perhaps with his son, who walks in the streets of London or in my constituency in Bedfordshire is 14 times more likely to be stopped, and very often for no good reason. He may then have to explain to his son or daughter why that has happened. Until we as a population start to find some balance about whether stop and search is useful or not and focus on what it means to the next generation, we will be letting down our young people.
Clause 7(7) is chilling:
“A constable may, in the exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (6), stop any person or vehicle and make any search the constable thinks fit whether or not the constable has any grounds for suspecting that the person or vehicle is carrying a prohibited object.”
That is on the way to a demonstration. We can do better than that.
What is serious disruption? It has been mentioned by many Members. It is a lynchpin in the Bill for many aspects of what may happen, but it is not defined in the Bill. Does the Policing Minister intend to come forward with some more precise language about what constitutes a serious disruption, so that we do not put undue pressure on police officers to work it out for themselves in the heat of the moment when people are going on demonstrations? One Opposition Member—I cannot remember which—said that a large demonstration is very likely to cause serious disruption by dint of being a large demonstration. If there is a protest of hundreds of thousands of people going through a city, there is likely to be serious disruption. If we are not going to define “serious disruption”, we will be at risk of having some of these powers misapplied.
Surely, large protests such as the ones we saw over the Iraq war or the hunting ban, would have engaged with the police at an earlier stage to facilitate a proper, lawful and peaceful protest. What the Government are trying to target are those small, sporadic numbers of people who are causing deliberate harm to specific areas of key infrastructure. Does my hon. Friend understand the difference between those two cases?
I do; that was why I said that the Bill is at its best when it focuses on those things. I am just saying to the Minister that we should have more precise definitions in the Bill.
Clause 14(4) lists the prohibitions that may be imposed on someone subject to a serious disruption prevention order. Let me tell the Minister what this reminds me of. Earlier in my time as Member of Parliament for Bedford, I had a constituent who was under a control order. Control orders were brought in for people who our intelligence services said were terrorists or were at high risk of causing a major terrorist incident. Some of the provisions in clause 14(4) remind me very much of the control order provisions that my constituent was under. I ask the Minister please to look at whether that level of intervention on the activities of an individual, who has merely gone about protesting in a way that, yes, may have caused disruption and, yes, may have been subject to the provisions of this Bill, is truly what we should be seeing in a free society.
Many of the rights that we take for granted today were largely not born of the spontaneous goodwill of some trail-blazing politician. They came about because people stood together, they demanded change, they protested and they made those with power listen. For example, I would not be standing here today as an MP, and many of my constituents would not even have the right to vote, had it not been for the Peterloo protest, also known as the Peterloo massacre due to the horrific atrocities inflicted upon those protesting. That protest movement called for reforms to parliamentary representation. Ultimately, it resulted in the Great Reform Act 1832, which went some way to addressing the injustices in the political system.
We have heard today how women would not have the right to vote had it not been for the suffragettes. They are hailed as heroines now, but back in their day they were demonised and viewed as trouble-making anarchists. They were the so-called “lefties” Conservative Members have been talking about today.
Equal pay legislation was largely born of the actions of brave striking workers at Ford Dagenham and the large scale protests that followed. The establishment of the National Parks and, ultimately, the principle of the right to roam would not have happened without the Kinder Scout trespass. The list is endless, but, sadly, it is clear that such era-changing moments in our history will be a fairy tale that we simply tell our children if this House allows the Public Order Bill as drafted to become law.
Human rights organisation Big Brother Watch says this of the Bill:
“It is without doubt that it includes some of the most undemocratic, anti-protest measures seen in the UK for decades.”
Law reform and human rights organisation JUSTICE considers that the Bill
“would pose a significant threat to the UK’s adherence to its domestic and international human rights obligations.”
Further, Amnesty’s analysis is that many of the provisions that have re-emerged in this Bill after being roundly rejected by the House of Lords in February
“would seriously curtail human rights in this country and damage the UK’s international standing, potentially irreparably.”
On protest banning orders, the vast range of peaceful and innocent conduct that the police would seemingly be able to criminalise is breathtaking. The Bill says that these orders can apply to people without conviction if someone has carried out activities
“or contributed to the carrying out by any other person of activities related to a protest that resulted in, or were likely to result in, serious disruption”
among a range of other scenarios, on two or more occasions. Let me explain that. If a law-abiding person attends two marches, for example, where hundreds of thousands are in attendance and some people completely unrelated to them cause a “serious disruption”, which is undefined and could mean literally anything, could that law-abiding person be subject to a protest banning order? The Bill as drafted certainly seems to suggest that they could.
The offence of locking on is also veiled in ambiguity. As JUSTICE says, it is so vague that it would appear to capture a couple walking arm in arm down a busy street where they may be being reckless as to cause “serious disruption” to another couple walking in the opposite direction. Again, “serious disruption” is undefined and could mean literally anything.
The widening of already extensive stop and search powers also appears wholly disproportionate and hugely damaging to racialised communities. Indeed, clause 7(2) is one troubling example. That allows for the police to search an individual when they have reasonable grounds for finding an object that is
“made or adapted for use in the course of or in connection”
with one of the relevant offences. “Object” is not defined; it could be anything from a mobile phone used to agree meeting points with friends to a leaflet about the event. Those are just three staggeringly pernicious examples from a frightening selection box of draconian and anti-democratic measures in this Bill.
I just thought I would take the opportunity to deal with the “serious disruption” issue. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) also mentioned it. I believe the hon. Lady is a lawyer by training, so she will know that the phrase “serious disruption to the community” has been in use in the law since 1986 and is therefore a well-defined term in the courts, which of course is where the test would be applied under the legislation.
I welcome the Minister’s contribution but, as he well knows, case law differentiates and changes from time to time without adequate explanation in the text of a piece of legislation. That is what causes significant ambiguity here; there is no doubt in my mind that what would be deemed a serious disruption would change over time and could ultimately result, given the other provisions in the Bill, in an inference that serious disruption is of a lesser nature than it currently is in present case law.
To be frank, those provisions have no place in a democratic country with a long, proud history of upholding the fundamental right to lawful and peaceful protest. There has been a lot of talk in this debate about the Bill cutting crime; if that were the case, I think we would all welcome it. However, as the Government well know, the first step to cutting crime would be to properly fund our police services, which have suffered 12 years of dramatic cuts to their funding and resources. This Bill will not cut crime. Indeed, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services said in relation to protest banning orders that they
“would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent.”
There has also been an illusion created that new offences are being brought in to deal with some of the issues that have been referred to. I want to set the record straight on that. We talked earlier about the terrible issue of emergency vehicles being stopped. That should certainly not be happening, but there is already legislation for that; the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 makes it a criminal offence to obstruct an emergency vehicle. Similarly, the Criminal Damage Act 1971 imposes a fine or prison service of up to 10 years for an act of criminal damage. Highway obstruction is also a criminal offence.
To suggest that the Public Order Bill is in some way a panacea for actions that many within our communities would deem irresponsible, unlawful and incorrect is way off the mark. Therefore, I hope that colleagues across this House will recognise before it is too late the chilling effect that the Bill will have on our democracy and vote it down on Second Reading.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey).
The Public Order Bill is the latest in a line of Bills that this Government have decided to introduce, which can only be described as some of the most reactionary and authoritarian legislation in living memory. Instead of bringing forward measures to support people, following a global pandemic that has ripped through our communities, with many now in the dreadful situation of having to choose between heating their homes and eating, and with 40% of households expected to be in fuel poverty, Ministers are using parliamentary time to criminalise our basic right as citizens to protest peacefully—or even noisily and irritatingly.
The Bill follows a raft of recent laws passed at the very end of the last Session that were designed to stifle our liberties. We had the Elections Act 2022, containing measures cynically designed to prevent people from voting. We had the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which gives the Home Secretary powers to strip dual citizens of their British citizenship without notice, and—in contravention of the UK’s international obligations—criminalises many of those seeking asylum, who now risk being shipped off to Rwanda thanks to her cruel and inhumane scheme. We also had the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, banning noisy protests and criminalising Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.
Thanks to the work of those in the other place, the Government’s attempt to pass provisions that, if implemented, would leave the UK in breach of international human rights law was scuppered. It is therefore very concerning that the Government have immediately opted to introduce them again in this Session through this Public Order Bill.
The headline measure banning people from locking on—attaching themselves to other persons or objects—is a dangerous assault on non-violent protest. To begin with, as has been pointed out, the Bill does not even properly define “attach”, so it is unclear what it means. Could linking arms with other protesters count? Could using balloons that need to be tethered to the ground fall under these provisions? On top of that, the Bill does not define what would constitute “reasonable excuse”. Would exercising the fundamental right to protest count?
Would the following example count, which I wish to bring to the Home Secretary’s attention, as set out in an early-day motion from 13 years ago, one of whose main signatories was the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)? It begins:
“That this House commemorates the 100th anniversary on 27 April 2009 of the day that Margery Humes, Theresa Garnet, Sylvia Russell and Bertha Quinn, suffragettes from the Women's Social and Political Union, chained themselves to statues in St. Stephen's Hall to protest for the right of women to vote”,
“pays tribute to those and all other heroic women who fought for the rights of women during a time when society, and Parliament, thought them undeserving of equal rights”.
How can the Home Secretary countenance enacting legislation that would undoubtedly make protests such as that, which took place just a stone’s throw away from this Chamber, carry a maximum penalty of six months in prison, an unlimited fine, or both? What is more, the Bill would make it an offence merely to be in possession of equipment to lock on. A person would not have to lock on to commit a crime; just being equipped to lock on would be an offence punishable with an unlimited fine.
The right to protest was fought for by generations. When Parliament is not acting in the interests of the people, whom it purports to represent, the right to protest is paramount to keep this place in check. Were it not for those suffragettes, the securing of women’s rights would have been much delayed, which might have delayed the progress that enabled the Home Secretary or the former Prime Minister to be in this place. I cannot help but see the terrible irony in the Home Secretary’s introducing legislation that would criminalise the very means by which courageous suffragettes won women the right to take part in the political sphere. If it was right for the suffragettes to take that action, as the former Prime Minister advocated, why is it not right for other protesters holding this place to account?
Legislation passed in 2007 turned trespass in this place into criminal trespass, so what the hon. Gentleman is talking about could not take place because of legislation passed under the last Labour Government. It is already a criminal offence, so the suggestion that the Bill does something different and criminalises something that was not already illegal does not hold water, does it?
The hon. Gentleman understates the significance of that process, which fundamentally changed our constitution and which was deemed to be illegal at the time.
What is so different between, on the one hand, the suffragettes, and on the other, protesters such as the esteemed international climate lawyer Farhana Yamin sticking her hands to the pavement outside the London headquarters of Shell to highlight the fact that the Paris agreement, which she helped to negotiate in 2015, was not delivering; or the Palestine solidarity activists locking on to one another outside the London headquarters of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest arms manufacturer, whose subsidiary IMI Systems may well be responsible for supplying the bullet used to murder Shireen Abu Akleh? Just like the Government in 1909 withholding the right to vote from women, this Government’s failure to tackle the climate change crisis with enough urgency is an outrage that demands outcry. Much has been said of Insulate Britain and the objections to certain of its tactics. Government Members should contemplate why it is necessary for people to take such measures when we see our planet dying. If they want to shut up Insulate Britain, there is something very simple that they could do, and that is to insulate Britain and get on with it. In a healthy democracy, these uproars of objection would not be criminalised, but taken on board by a Government serving in the interests of the people.
The attempt to pass the Bill is a very dark day for democracy, and it is incumbent on us all to oppose it in its entirety. I encourage everyone who can do so to attend the TUC rally in this city, which is titled so aptly: “We demand better”.
Here we go again: illiberal legislation on public order and regulating protest boomeranging back in here after the other place flung it out last time. I do not deny that there can be value in appropriate sentences and tighter enforcement in the face of serious disorder—for example, pitch invasions are increasingly common and unwelcome nowadays—but we have to be proportionate about these things.
In 2019, it did seem a bit bizarre when we saw Extinction Rebellion on top of tube trains, when that is one of the most green forms of transport. It probably did not make any new fans there, and ditto when the A40 in Acton was blocked. We all prize living in a liberal democracy, but if curbs are disproportionate and the exercise is about curtailing everyday freedoms primarily to win favour with the red tops and to play to their party base and the gallery, then we do have a problem.
These things are always a balance, but we have to tread carefully when it comes to limiting protest. Not that long ago, the Government were going softly, softly on stop and search. We even saw the police dancing with protesters, but the Bill goes for the eye-catching and draconian, such as creating the offence of locking on, where someone is potentially subject to 51 weeks in prison and an unlimited fine for intentionally attaching themselves, someone else or an object to another person, to an object or to land in a manner capable of causing “serious disruption”. It is so vague that it could apply to people linking arms. That is not to mention, as has already been said, that the most famous lockers-on in history were the suffragettes. It is just outside here where Viscount Falkland’s foot spur is missing, because in 1909 people locked on to it. That is part of our history and it is never to be replaced.
We have to beware of being heavy-handed and being led by moral panic with these things. The European Court of Human Rights has held that the freedom to take part in peaceful assembly is of such importance that it cannot be restricted in any way, as long as the person concerned does not commit any reprehensible acts. Concerningly, there is such widespread discretion in the Bill that the police have carte blanche. These laws are not dissimilar to what they have in Russia and Belarus.
If we think about the memorable protests of recent years, yes there has been Extinction Rebellion, but there have also been the school strikes. I do not condone bunking off school, but Greta Thunberg and her lot and the UK equivalent did put the lie to the youth being apolitical and apathetic. We have had Black Lives Matter and what happened to Colston, but I would argue that the sea change should have been the heavy-handed policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard. It was a shocking incident, and the policing was disgusting. In the immediate aftermath, we had a little bit of hand-wringing and concern, but the content of the Bill is a huge disappointment.
Unlike with the average road, where there is a minimal risk of disruption or it being blocked when we get in our car, women going about their lawful business every day in this country find that their route is blocked. What I am talking about specifically is women seeking an entirely legal abortion. It could be for any manner of reasons, and it is probably one of the most stressful and distressing moments in someone’s life. There is a one in four chance—this is from the Home Office’s own figures—that the clinic they attend will be subject to protests or vigils from anti-abortion protesters.
I have raised this issue with a number of different Home Office Ministers. I presented a ten-minute rule Bill in 2020 with massive cross-party support—from Members of seven different parties—so I know the will of the House is there. Even the Home Secretary, in answer to my oral question in February, was positively glowing, and I know she sees a lot of merit in it—but here is a Bill to curb protests and there is absolutely nothing on protests outside clinics. At least four more clinics have been affected since my 2020 Bill and, if we add it up, the issue affects 100,000 women a year, yet the Government say that there is not enough impact to warrant intervention. We know that psychological distress and damage is being done to those women and that precious police time is eaten up—Members should ask the police in Ealing.
In Ealing, we are lucky to have a pioneering council that put through a public spaces protection order to end more than 20 years of harassment at the Marie Stopes clinic. The street is now transformed, with no more gruesome foetus dolls or women being told that they are going to hell for a completely legal medical procedure. We are lucky in Ealing, but it should not be about luck. It was an act of last resort by our council, and only two other local authorities have followed—Richmond and Manchester. It is a fundamental part of the rule of law that people get equal protection under the law wherever they are, so why are people covered only in those three places?
BBC Newsnight had a feature on the subject last week. There is a huge file of evidence at the clinic in Bournemouth, but the council does not want to act, or shows no sign of acting. It is enormously onerous for councils that do want to push through the legislation, because of the burden of proof and officer time, so with everything else on their plates, it is not a priority for most of them. We are in a bizarre situation where, pending the outcome of a Supreme Court challenge, women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland could soon have greater universal protections from harassment than those in England and Wales.
At the same time, the Bill criminalises a huge range of peaceful non-disruptive behaviour and goes far and beyond what most people would ever deem necessary by supplementing powers that are already there. I give the Minister advance warning that I will be seeking to amend the Bill to protect women from this most distressing and unpleasant form of protest. Canada, Australia and several states of the US already have such legislation; it is not a crazy idea. We need a national approach. People will still be able to protest if they do not like abortion laws in this country, but the appropriate place to do that would be here, rather than around defenceless women in their hour of need. Every woman should have the same protection as people in Ealing.
No, because other people still want to speak. The so-called hon. Gentleman has eaten up everyone’s time and my hon. Friends will not get in because of him.
Give or take a bit of tinkering with wordings and clauses, this Bill is essentially a regurgitation of the failed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. It replicates all the underlying principles and measures that their lordships previously debated and comprehensively rejected. There is no imagination in it to deal with real problems, so for that reason, I and all Opposition Members will vote against the Bill tonight.
This is the first Bill of the Queen’s Speech and it is stark proof that the Government are out of steam and out of ideas. It is a sad day for democracy, as was best illustrated by some of the contributions that we heard from the Government Benches. Instead of the ambitious reforms that our country needs and deserves at a time when the cost of living is spiralling out of control for many of our constituents, the Government have served up these reheated proposals that contribute little, if anything, to the law. We on Teesside do not have a problem with protests, but we do have a huge problem with the massive increase in violent crime and antisocial behaviour. We also have a big problem with health inequalities and the fact that unemployment in our area remains over 30% higher than the national average. Dissatisfied by her attacks on our historical right to peacefully protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which has yet to come into force, the Home Secretary is trying to have a second bite of the cherry. However, if she thinks it is so important to restrict protests, why has she not introduced any of the statutory instruments to implement the measures in the Act before bringing forward yet another Bill this year? The hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) also questioned that. It is just more evidence that she is more interested in headlines than real practical policies.
We on these Benches believe that the vital infrastructure and services on which we all rely must be protected from serious disruption and that protests must not put others at risk, but the police and courts already have powers to deal with such dangerous and disruptive protests, including the use of injunctions and existing criminal offences such as the obstruction of a highway and criminal damage, among others. It is worth noting that these existing powers have already been used to arrest people and to prosecute cases of obstructing infrastructure and locking on during the Insulate Britain blockade of the M25 and the Just Stop Oil blockade of Kingsbury refinery.
This Bill’s assortment of new offences will do nothing to actually safeguard vital national infrastructure and ensure that it is protected from serious disruption, and we know that the most effective measures for preventing such disruption already exist, and that is with injunctions. We do, however, recognise that there can be a real problem with delays in seeking injunctions, and a lack of preparation, planning and co-ordination between different private and public authorities. So why is the Home Secretary not focusing on this issue, and including provisions for co-operation between the police and public and private authorities to improve resilience and prevent serious disruption? That is what we would do.
We have already heard the Home Secretary blow and bluster at the Dispatch Box after the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was passed, deploying all manner of dodgy statements about the Opposition’s approach to law and order. She could have had our full co-operation with that Bill—there were some very good proposals in it—but she chose to play silly political games by introducing other measures that served to shackle our people and diminish their rights. She knew all too well the game she was playing, but so did the public, who recognise that the Tory Government, rather than getting on with fixing crime, prefer to muck about with the rights to protest.
This new Bill introduces powers that are far too widely drawn and that could criminalise protesters and even passers-by. All of us who work here will have seen many enthusiastic protests outside in Parliament Square. It is what we expect while working in this the seat of democracy. Many of us, more likely those on this side, have enjoyed many a protest. My favourite goes back 50 years to when students were demanding a better deal from Ted Heath’s Government. It was very noisy, but very successful. The morning chant was simple: “Heath out, Heath out!” No one was more surprised than me when the chant changed later to “Heath’s out, Heath’s out!” because that was the day he called the general election.
If Parliament Square were designated as an area for suspicionless stop and search, which the Bill introduces, could Members of Parliament and our staff coming to work on the estate be stopped and searched by police? It seems far-fetched, but that may be a logical conclusion of the measures in the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister shared his thoughts on his staff potentially being caught by these measures as they head into the office. As Justice has said, this Bill will
“criminalise a breathtakingly wide range of peaceful behaviour”.
As well as rapid injunctions to protect infrastructure against serious disruption, we would create a fast-track buffer zone outside schools and vaccine clinics to protect children and those accessing medical care from dangerous anti-vaxxers. What we have opposed and will continue to oppose is the criminalisation of peaceful protesters and passers-by. The Home Secretary has said this Bill is necessary to prevent “mob rule”, but would she call those protesting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine a mob? Is that the term she would use to describe the thousands of women who have gathered together for vigils to demand action on violence against women and girls? It is gatherings such as those on which her Bill will impact, not just potentially dangerous and disruptive ones. Why introduce a new offence of locking on when it is effectively covered by existing offences such as criminal damage, public nuisance and obstructing a road? Why introduce SDPOs when the Home Office’s own response was initially to reject them on the grounds that they would stop individuals exercising their right to protest?
It is time for the Home Secretary to stop playing petty political games, and time for the Government to stop wasting legislative time on the Home Secretary’s hunt for headlines and to bring forward legislation that will actually address the many issues facing our constituents.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and to speak in this Second Reading debate. The provisions in this Bill pose a significant risk to the UK’s adherence to its domestic and international human rights obligations, and the Bill is unlikely to be compliant with the European convention on human rights, particularly article 10 on freedom of expression and article 11 on freedom of assembly and association.
Equivalent measures to the protest-banning orders were previously roundly rejected by the police and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services on the basis that such measures would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent. Many organisations, including Justice, have said that the Bill would give the police carte blanche to target protestors. Similar laws can be found in Russia and Belarus. Is this the country we have become?
That is why I support the amendment in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It is disturbing that the Government have put forward this Bill as their first piece of legislation in the Queen’s Speech, and when the ink is not even dry on their Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. We have not even been able to assess that Act’s impact on people and communities. It beggars belief that the Government have brought forward this Bill during a cost of living emergency, when they should be focusing on tackling the crisis facing so many of our constituents. Moreover, the Bill’s provisions are more egregious than those in the Government’s amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that were flatly and rightly rejected in the other place.
My speech will focus on the Bill’s equality impacts, especially in relation to protest. Before entering this House, I spent most of my life as an advocate and campaigner, and I know from first-hand experience the power that protest can have. My freedoms today are directly linked to the organising and protests that happened on our streets, from the suffragettes who chained themselves to Parliament to secure votes for women, to disabled people who locked their wheelchairs to traffic lights to fight the discriminatory cuts to social security, and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Protesting is one of the most effective ways for people from underserved and under-represented groups to organise and deliver change for our communities. Such people often do not have access to the seats of powers. They face significant barriers to democratic and civic participation. Clamping down on protest will not only have an impact on the types of issues that our communities will be able to voice their concerns about but shut down key avenues of mobilising the public to support and preserve our rights.
I urge Government Members, and the Policing Minister in particular, to watch “Then Barbara Met Alan”, which highlights the fight for civil rights for disabled people and the role that protests played in securing the imperfect Disability Discrimination Act 2005. But for those protests and disabled people protesting and making sacrifices, many of the rights that we fight to maintain today would not have been secured.
This Bill will criminalise protest tactics and drag people into the criminal justice system, and we know that people from our communities will suffer the most. Our communities are already over-policed and targeted by the authorities. I am especially worried about the provision on protest-specific stop-and-search powers. Those powers are a form of structural oppression that will continue to hurt and harm our black, Asian and ethnic minority communities. Their expansion will only entrench racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system and further erode trust in public institutions.
Last week, the Home Secretary announced that she was lifting restrictions placed on police stop-and-search powers in areas where police anticipate violent crimes by easing conditions on the use of section 60 orders under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. The Bill will amend section 1 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to expand the types of offences that allow a police officer to stop and search a person or a vehicle. It will also extend suspicionless stop-and-search powers to the protest context; police officers will be able to stop and search a person or a vehicle without suspicion if they reasonably believe that certain protest-related offences will be committed in that area.
Despite ongoing revelations regarding the misuse and racist application of stop-and-search powers, the Government decided to roll them out further. I therefore hope that when the Minister sums up, he will address disproportionality. I am sorry, but the equality impact assessment is flawed. It does not address the Bill’s disproportionate impact on our black and ethnic minority communities, and on black men in particular. Overwhelming evidence, including the Home Office’s own data, provided to human rights and civil liberty organisations, details the inherent disproportionality in the use of police stop and search. We know from the Independent Office for Police Conduct’s report that, in the year to March 2021, black people were seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people; Asian people were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched.
We know that stop and search powers are ineffective. According to the Home Affairs Committee, between March and May 2020, more than 80% of the 21,950 stop and searches resulted in no further action. That is counterproductive. The decision to ease section 60 and the new powers in the Bill do not consider the trauma that structural oppression causes to our black and ethnic minority communities, and in particular to our black boys.
The Bill will also create the offence of intentional obstruction of a suspicionless, protest-specific stop and search. It might be used to target legal observers, or community-led protest marshals, who play a vital role in protecting the rights of groups by keeping them safe and explaining many complicated and technical laws. They are there in an observer or advisory capacity. The lack of that crucial function will impact many groups, and disabled people and people from ethnic minority backgrounds in particular.
We do not need the Bill. It will not solve the problems that it seeks to address. All it will do is increase the criminalisation of people from our under-represented and under-served communities. The Government are not interested in protecting people or serving those who need them most; they want only to protect themselves, to hold on to power by playing with people’s lives, and to manipulate the public to deflect from their failures. They are doing that at people’s expense. If they cared, they would have brought forward the victims’ Bill and ensured justice for the 1.3 million victims who gave up on the justice system last year. I will stand up for the people and, along with Opposition colleagues, I will vote against the Bill.
The Bill is a draconian piece of legislation that undermines our democracy. It is the sort of Bill I would expect from an extreme and authoritarian Administration anticipating opposition, and perhaps even fearing for their continued existence. As Members across the House have said, the provisions are not necessary. Existing laws are sufficient. The provisions would leave the UK in breach of international human rights law, would clearly restrict fundamental human rights, and severely compromise the UK’s ability to promote open societies and respect for human rights internationally. They have rightly been condemned by Members from across the House today.
No, I will not give way because of time. Causing obstruction at a site of key national infrastructure was something the Prime Minister proposed doing at Heathrow a few years ago, when he threatened to lie down in front of bulldozers. That was, of course, before he became Prime Minister. I wonder what his actions would be now. The offence of locking on, or being equipped for locking on, is far too broadly drafted and far too wide-ranging—purposefully so, I would argue, in order to restrict individuals’ willingness to protest. Those measures must be thrown out.
The “stop and search without suspicion” measures are an over-extension of police powers. Given our knowledge of the racial bias in the application of stop and search, the measures are a green light from the Government to create further racial tensions in policing. Those measures must also be thrown out.
The serious disruption prevention orders risk depriving people of the fundamental human rights of assembly and movement. As commentators and colleagues in the House have said, they are like the protest powers in Russia or Belarus, but even more extreme. They, too, must be thrown out.
I take issue with some of the comments and approaches of Conservative Members. The Conservative Benches are empty now, unfortunately, which I think says a lot about the Conservatives’ position. Their comments have been very selective and subjective, and a lot of the language used has been extremely offensive. The measures in the Bill are extremely broad and far reaching. For example, the protest banning orders are extremely broad in scope and allow the police to put restrictions on processions and assemblies beyond those mentioned in recent debates. They can include religious festivals and activities, community gatherings, football matches, vigils, remembrance ceremonies, and trade union disputes and pickets. These are absolutely terrifying proposals.
The powers in the Bill will be extended to Wales, but have the Welsh Government been consulted? I doubt it, given past experience. This is how the Government normally act towards our devolved, democratically elected Governments. They change the laws affecting Wales, but do not ask Wales its views. The Welsh Government were clearly opposed to the measures on protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. I believe that they will make clear their opposition to this Bill. Furthermore, there is concrete evidence that the Welsh police are not supportive or likely to make use of such powers, given what was said by four constables at a recent session of the Welsh Affairs Committee.