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18 January 2022

House of Lords blocks changes to “draconian” protest legislation

The votes represent a crushing defeat for the government and a fierce repudiation of its tactics. 

By Rachel Cunliffe and Phil Clarke Hill

It is hard to think of a piece of legislation as far-reaching, contentious and rushed through as the government’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The bill covers a vast range of issues relating not just to criminal justice but also civil liberties: from tougher sentences for violent offences to restrictions on protests and civil disobedience. This breadth has enabled the government to distract attention from some of the most controversial aspects of the bill. For example, when it was first debated in the House of Commons on 15 March in the wake of the tragic murder of Sarah Everard, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, argued that those opposing the bill of voting against “crucial measures” to protect victims, while others accused Labour of being “soft on crime”. 

The reality is somewhat more complicated. As the New Statesman reported in September, critics of the bill are concerned it undermines vital democratic and human rights – something Patel has so far refused to acknowledge. 

In addition to making sweeping changes to the way in which property rights are enforced so as to make trespass a criminal offence rather than a civil one, and severely curtailing the traveller community’s way of life, the bill as the government wrote it would essentially remove the right to peaceful protest in the UK. It would give the police the powers to shut down virtually any protest if it were deemed “disruptive” or too “noisy”.

Since it is difficult to imagine a protest so quiet as to not disturb anyone, this would leave it up to the police to decide which protests could go ahead and which were stopped, opening the door both to political influence (one can easily imagine demonstrations for certain causes being allowed to proceed while others are prohibited) and to more abuses of police judgement like the break-up of the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard by the Metropolitan Police.

[See also: Protest and power: is Priti Patel’s police bill a threat to civil liberties?]

Despite staunch opposition on libertarian grounds by Conservative backbenchers to measures like Covid passes and other lockdown restrictions, this bill – which has been described as “draconian” by civil rights campaigners – was waved through by Tories when it was debated in the Commons. Only a handful of Conservative MPs (including Theresa May) spoke out against it.

Emboldened, the government added a series of amendments to the bill in November that would give the police yet more powers to restrict protest: criminalising specific tactics used by environmental campaign groups Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion; allowing police to stop and search anyone at a protest “without suspicion”; and banning individuals with a history of causing disruption at a protest from future demonstrations. Repeated warnings by civil liberties groups and human rights lawyers about the impact of this bill have been ignored or dismissed by the government, as has polling that shows nearly two-thirds of Brits are concerned by plans to criminalise peaceful protest.

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But not everyone is prepared to let the freedom to protest be restricted without a fight. On Monday night (17 January), the government suffered 14 defeats on its bill in the House of Lords, as peers voted again and again to throw out some of the most contentious measures: the noise conditions on demonstrations, the creation of “locking on” as a specific offence, the new stop-and-search powers, and the power to ban individuals from protesting. They also voted to protect Parliament Square as a place of peaceful protest, make misogyny a hate crime, and demand a review into drink-spiking offences.  

The government will have the chance to reverse some of these defeats when the bill returns to the Commons, but it won’t be able to add the rejected amendments back in. And while other aspects of the bill – such as those relating to trespass – remain intact, peers had strong words about the assault on civil liberties. The former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain called it “the biggest threat to the right to dissent and the right to protest in my lifetime”, while the Green peer Jenny Jones called the plans “oppressive”. All in all, the votes on Monday represent a crushing defeat for the government, and a fierce repudiation of its tactics.

The response from the Home Secretary has been to ignore, once again, the warnings of what handing so much power to the police and to politicians could do to the very principle of peaceful protest, and accuse Labour of defending “vandals and thugs” over the “law-abiding majority”. 

That law-abiding majority does not, it would seem, include the government. This week, it has emerged that a party that broke the government’s own Covid rules took place in the Home Office itself – just days after police broke up the Sarah Everard vigil and when Tory MPs voted to give the government more powers. It takes a lot of confidence to pose as the party of the law-abiding while throwing the rule book in the bin when it suits. Perhaps this defeat will prompt a beleaguered government to get its own house in order before seeking extra powers to restrict the freedom and free expression of others.

[See also: Why I blew the whistle on the UK’s policing of protest]

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