Rights to Protest Debate

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Department: Home Office
Monday 26th April 2021

(8 months, 4 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I join the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) in dissociating myself from what I think were, frankly, smears from the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers). There is no misunderstanding about what the Bill will do, and it is quite condescending to suggest otherwise. The vast majority of protesters are entirely peaceful. They represent a cross-section of our constituents, and they know that there is a proud history of peaceful protest in this country that needs to be defended.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and to add to what I said on Second Reading of the Bill—namely that this legislation is dangerous, undemocratic and disproportionate. It is clear that huge numbers of our constituents feel the same: nearly 2,500 Brighton, Pavilion residents signed the petition opposing any restrictions on our right to peaceful protest. I know from my inbox that there is grave concern about giving the police new powers to undermine what are treasured and critical fundamental rights in any democracy. Handing more draconian powers to the police would be troubling at any time. It is especially dangerous when too much of the police response to the outpouring of anger and grief at the murder of Sarah Everard has been characterised by bad judgment, heavy-handedness and tone deafness. Footage of women apparently being wrestled to the ground by male police officers at vigils to protest male violence and to remember a woman killed by a police officer sent shockwaves around the country.

Moreover, this Bill has been tabled at a time when, as a recent police watchdog report makes clear, the police have responded to the demands of the pandemic and the frightening lack of clarity from Ministers about what was and was not a criminal offence by overreaching and with overzealousness. A review from the Crown Prosecution Service suggests that the Coronavirus Act 2020 has been misapplied by the police 232 times since last year; in fact, that is every single time it has been used to charge someone. Throughout the pandemic, heavy-handed police interpretation has not only been sanctioned but has been encouraged by Ministers.

Let us be clear: the Bill is a blatant and biased attack on the long-standing right to protest from a Government that have a track record of dismissing the rule of law, the truth, legal obligations and human rights as disposable inconveniences. As an aside, I remind colleagues that the Government are also seeking to change how judicial review works—further evidence of their ongoing opposition to future accountability and the rule of law. The Bill is about protecting those with power, and presumably with the Prime Minister’s mobile number on speed dial, from being challenged or held to account by the citizens of this country. It will do that through a range of restrictions on the right to freely assemble and to express dissent.

For example, the Bill seeks to extend the practice of handing out harsh sanctions as a disincentive to those considering organising protests to anyone simply taking part, which is insidious. At the same time, Ministers want to increase almost fourfold the length of time organisers could potentially be imprisoned. Those and countless other proposals are chilling. Put simply, everyone in this country risks being criminalised simply for exercising their democratic rights if the Bill becomes law. Friends of the Earth warn of the particular barriers that will be created for those from marginalised communities to having their voices heard, such as people of colour, who already have disproportionately negative experiences of policing and the criminal justice system. The hostile measures contained in part 4 of the Bill and which will clearly be used to target the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community appear nothing short of racist in their intention.

The Bill is about silencing our constituents and communities, metaphorically and indeed literally, with clauses that would allow a protest to be severely restricted by the police in anticipation that it might be too noisy and thereby disrupt those at whom it is aimed. But right now the voices of our constituents, and of campaigners clamouring for the Bill to be scrapped, are echoed far and wide. The opposition is cross-party and it is growing. Critics of aspects of part 3 of the Bill include two former Home Secretaries, Lord Blunkett and the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). A former Greater Manchester police chief constable, a former Durham constabulary chief constable and a former Metropolitan police commander have all warned of the dangers this legislation poses to British democracy and to safe policing by consent in our communities. So will the Government stop and listen?

When I spoke on the Bill on Second Reading, I noted that it would have made Greta Thunberg, sitting alone with a placard, a potential criminal, likewise all the brave and passionate youngsters who know that the future of humanity and our planet depends on peaceful protest, exposing just how inadequate Government action is compared with the scale of the climate and nature emergencies.

As one of the few MPs to be arrested during a peaceful protest and subsequently, after a week’s court case, acquitted of any wrongdoing, I have first-hand experience of the power of non-violent direct action. My protest was against fracking, as part of a movement that has secured an effective moratorium on that technology. Protest works; it changes things. Throughout the long history of this country, people have assembled to express their dissent and have changed the course of that history.

I remember when Members from all parties were falling over themselves to be associated with the Suffragettes on the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Back then, protest was suddenly not a dirty word. Now, when the protests are a little closer to home, whether that is Black Lives Matter or Extinction Rebellion, it seems the right to protest is no longer quite so universally celebrated. Fundamental rights are not like multiple choice; we don’t get to pick the most convenient and carelessly ditch the rest. They are universal and they should be defended in their entirety.

I end by calling on the Minister to tell us the truth and answer this question honestly: are the Government committed to upholding the human rights and civil liberties set out in articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights? He recently affirmed:

“The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental tool of civic expression and will never be curtailed by the Government.”—[Official Report, 7 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 385.]

Yet the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to do exactly that. He and his Government either need to level with the British public about the facts or put this dangerous, undemocratic and disproportionate Bill where it belongs—on the scrap heap.