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.

--- Later in debate ---
Matt Vickers Portrait Matt Vickers
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Once again, I thank all the petitioners who have provided us with this opportunity to debate this very important topic. I would also like to thank all the Members who participated for a robust debate, and the Minister for his response and for the Government’s commitment to protect the right to protest.

Given the public interest in this topic and the passion with which everyone has made their argument, it is clear that this is something that we all care deeply about. While we have our disagreements on this issue, I look forward to us being able to have our say on this vital piece of legislation as it continues its progress through Parliament. I hope that we can get the balance right, for those who want to get to work; for ambulances that want to get to hospital; for those who want to print or read a newspaper or use public transport; and, moreover, for those who want to protest safely without their cause being hijacked by those who seek to cause disruption or harm.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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