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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James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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Before the debate begins, I remind the House that any live legal cases connected with recent protests will engage the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be raised. Members are advised to exercise restraint and to try to avoid remarks that may prejudice the legal processes in any way.

Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers (Stockton South) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 579012, relating to right to protest.

I thank the petition creator Samantha Hurst, and all those who signed the petition, for creating this opportunity to debate what I am sure we all consider an important issue. As of 19 April, the petition had received more than 248,000 signatures from across the UK. It has attracted a lot of attention; rightly, there is a lot of concern about anything that could be perceived as interfering with the right to protest.

The petition begins by stating:

“The right to peaceful assembly and protest are fundamental principles of any democracy”.

All Members will wholeheartedly agree with and believe in that. Our history and way of life have been shaped by protests and the right of people across the country to express their opinions. That freedom must be protected at all costs. The right to peaceful protest cannot, however, come at the expense of the rights of others: the rights of thousands of people to get to work; for an ambulance to get to a hospital; for a newspaper to be printed; or for a public transport network to operate. It is regrettable that during this incredibly challenging year, some protesters have adopted disruptive tactics, creating a huge impact on thousands of people trying to go about their daily lives. They have placed huge additional pressures on our incredible emergency service workers and have created a huge drain on public funds.

During the Extinction Rebellion protests in April and October 2019, areas of London were brought to a standstill. The cost of policing those protests was a staggering £37 million. Imagine how that police time could be put to better use, or what we could do in our constituencies with that money. Imagine how that money could have been used to tackle climate change or help to decarbonise our economy. Over the summer of 2020, 172 Metropolitan Police officers were assaulted by a violent minority during a Black Lives Matter protest. That was not a peaceful protest. That is why the Government need to give our frontline police officers the power they need to ensure that does not happen again.

Strengthening the powers of the police to safely manage legitimate protests benefits not only wider society but specifically those who wish to undertake meaningful peaceful protest. When someone’s son, daughter, husband or wife tells them they are off to a protest, they should not be filled with dread that they could be hurt or subject to abuse, or that they might get mixed up in something. For the interests of legitimate protesters, we must look at what is needed to prevent some of the violent and abusive behaviour we have seen at protests in the last year. There are serial protesters out there who choose to go along to legitimate demonstrations, sometimes even fuelled by drink or drugs. They go along to disrupt and to abuse others. They undermine our meaningful protests and can tarnish causes and the reputations of others who wish to promote such causes. It is right that the Government give the police powers to ensure that protests are not hijacked by small minorities who adopt abusive, violent and disruptive tactics.

I understand that concerns about the Bill are possibly based in some ways on misconceptions and misinformation around a few specific points, and I am sure that the Minister will add clarity on those today. There are loony-lefty, wokey-cokey social media accounts out there that would have people believe that the Government were removing any meaningful right to protest. I am sure that those who took the time to look at the detail will be aware that that is not the case. The right to protest remains rightfully protected, and the vast majority of protests and protesters will be entirely unaffected by these measures.

There are suggestions that the measures ban protests that are annoying. That is not the case. The Bill does not introduce a power to ban protests and annoyance is not a concept plucked from thin air. The public nuisance offence looks to capture behaviour that causes the public or a section of the public to suffer serious annoyance. This is consistent with the existing common-law offence of public nuisance and does not connote merely feeling annoyed.

There have also been suggestions that the measures will ban protests outside Parliament and I hope that the Minister will confirm that that will not be the case. Many causes and characters should rightly continue to be represented here, at the heart of our democratic system. However, the powers should and will mean that police officers have the power to prevent elected representatives and those with business being prevented from entering the estate, and rightly so—to prevent access to Parliament is to deny rightful democratic process.

I think the provisions within the Bill are necessary, but we should continue to have robust debates, such as the one that I am sure we are about to see, and discussions about the right to protest. The Government must protect protesters from abusive and violent thugs who seek to hijack their causes. Similarly, the Government must protect the rights of citizens to go about their daily lives, unaffected by the protests of others.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab) [V]
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Thank you, Sir James. It is rather disappointing—

James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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Order. The hon. Lady may know something that I do not, but I regret to say that it is just “Mr Gray”. One day, perhaps—you never know.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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It is long overdue; I find it very hard to believe that it is not already the case. Sorry, Mr Gray.

As I was saying, it is disappointing that the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) has chosen to frame the debate in the way that he has done, with talk of loony lefties and other pejoratives. I do not think that is at all helpful, and I hope that today we can try to have a measured debate about what is a very sensitive—indeed, controversial—topic.

Being a Bristol MP, I thought that it was important to speak in this debate, given that three of the top four constituencies in terms of the number of signatures to this petition are Bristol seats: there were 3,615 signatories from Bristol West, which comes as no surprise, as it usually tops the charts on these occasions; 1,455 signatories from Bristol South; and 1,343 signatories from my own constituency of Bristol East. Bristol North West was a little further down the list with 972 signatories.

In addition, I had lots of emails from constituents about the Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Some of them touched on other elements of the Bill, for example the provisions that would affect Gypsies and Travellers, and those that perhaps would have an impact on ramblers. Others called for stronger protections in the Bill against violence directed towards women and girls, which are notable by their absence. However, the majority of the emails I received were from people who were alarmed and angry about the public order provisions in part 3 of the Bill, which have given rise to the petition that we are debating today.

Bristol has a proud radical tradition. In 1788, we were the first city outside London to set up a committee for the abolition of the slave trade. The first petition that that committee set up received some 800 signatures. Actually, if we think about that time, long before the days of social media, that was no mean feat; I think it more than rivals the number of signatures that the petition we are debating has received in this day and age. It is also noteworthy that that campaign was one of the first political campaigns in which women were allowed to be involved. More recently, in the 1960s the Bristol bus boycott led to the first UK racial equality legislation, spearheaded by one of my predecessors in this seat, Tony Benn. Last summer, we saw the toppling of the statute of Edward Colston, a slave trader, during Black Lives Matter protests in the city. All those protests were significant moments, historically and in a local sense.

There have been many more protests of less significance in the city that have not sparked international debate or led to change—or, at least, not yet. In some cases, such as the school climate strikes, the significance is in being a tiny part of a greater global movement. Young people in particular feel that, just maybe, they can make a difference by making banners, painting their faces, taking to the streets and making their voices heard. That is hugely important for young people. It is too easy to look at what appears to be vast global indifference to the fate of the planet and despair, so I applaud all those who have not given up hope.

Of course, it is easy to celebrate the school climate strikers, and the chances are that this legislation would not be used against them, but that is why clauses 54 to 60 of the Bill are so dangerous, because a subjective element starts to creep in in terms of what is deemed to be acceptable and, in the words of the hon. Member for Stockton South, legitimate protest, and what is deemed to be not acceptable and not legitimate. As I read through those clauses, I could see the appeal in invoking some of the provisions against, for example, the far-right thugs who occasionally attempt to march—in pitiful numbers, it has to be said—in Bristol, but there will be others who see exactly the same opportunities when it comes to Black Lives Matter protesters.

The problem with the Bill is that it gives the police and the courts powers to decide what is acceptable, what is troublesome, what is annoying and what is too noisy. The police have a difficult enough time as it is when it comes to policing protests, and this Bill means that there is huge potential for political interference and for pressure on the police to intervene. As was said on Second Reading, the definition of “nuisance” could apply to almost any protest outside Parliament.

I want to say a little about the recent protests in Bristol. I have made clear my condemnation of the violence, particularly on 21 March, and my concern about some policing tactics on 26 March. I do not want to revisit that here, other than to say that, since then, I have spent the best part of a day with the police at Silver command during one of the more recent protests, observing the decisions that were made on crowd control and so on. There had been a very peaceful, positive protest during the late afternoon, but a group of people stayed on very late and at one point tried to block the motorway by having a sit-down, and they were having a bit of a rave too. In general, I think the police have got it right when it comes to policing these protests, but I appreciate that theirs is not an easy job.

I want to say this to the protesters, and I preface it by saying that I absolutely want people in Bristol to take part in peaceful protest. People have a right to be heard and to get out on the streets and express their views, but as I have said when I have met representatives of various groups that oppose this Bill—and as the Mayor of Bristol has told them too—“Think about what you are trying to achieve. Think about who you need to win over. Think about how you can best do that. If you are protesting against this Bill, educate yourself about the parliamentary process and when the crucial votes will come.”

If people are campaigning for the right to assemble and protest, and trying to stop the introduction of laws that are predicated upon the—in my view, false—assertion that we have a problem in this country with uncontained, out-of-hand, destructive political demonstrations, it is entirely counterproductive to take part in a protest that culminates in people throwing eggs, fireworks and other missiles at the police, torching police vehicles and attempting to trash a police station. It is not acceptable for very many reasons. It is not acceptable in itself, but it is tactically stupid too, and it plays entirely into the hands of the Home Secretary and others who are attempting to stir up division and exploit fear and prejudice. Dare I say it, if people live somewhere with a Tory MP within travelling distance of Bristol, it might be an idea to focus their political activity—their peaceful protest—there, instead of coming to Bristol to join in a much larger protest here, given that the Bristol Labour Mayor and the four Bristol Labour MPs are all committed to opposing the Bill.

It is also worth saying that even policing a peaceful protest costs the city a lot of money and diverts resources away from other police activities. Blocking the streets in the city centre not only causes inconvenience to motorists. My main worry when I went along and observed the operation with Silver command was that I learned that the buses were all on divert through the city centre. When key workers and people in low-paid jobs have to walk home alone through city streets late at night because the buses are on divert and they have to go some distance to get to a bus stop, it comes to a point when those protesting have had their say and it is time to let people resume their normal lives.

While I entirely respect people’s right to protest, I urge them to exercise that right wisely and well. I believe that with concerted action, by joining together, by making the arguments and by peaceful protest using democratic and peaceful means, we can stop part 3 of this Bill becoming law. Let us all try to work together to do that and not play into the Home Secretary’s hands by abusing the rights that we have.