Sarah Jones (Croydon Central) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) made some slightly misguided remarks about what we are debating today. It is perhaps a bit insulting to his constituents who enjoy the right to protest, and to mine.
On my screen, I am looking at four very powerful women who are in Parliament and have contributed to the debate. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) mentioned the Suffragettes. Dorinda Neligan, who was a headteacher in Croydon and a great Suffragette, got arrested several times in Parliament in 1909 and 1910. I am sure that if she was watching today, she would say, “Well, it’s a jolly good thing that we got the vote and that these powerful women are here today making a case for British democracy,” which is what we are standing up for today—no more and no less than that. I hope the hon. Member for Stockton South will reflect on his comments.
All the speeches that we have heard have made powerful cases. I do not know what is in the water in Bristol, but there are a lot of protests there. There are many active members of the community, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) made a powerful case by saying that the police have pretty much got things right during this difficult past year, but that we have to protect the right to protest. People have to think wisely and well about how they do that and how they win arguments.
The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made a very powerful case when she said that our fundamental rights are not multiple choice. As she says, we cannot pick and choose which ones we like and which we do not. I have not been arrested, and I am not much of a protester, but I absolutely and fundamentally believe that we must protect the right to protest. Every six weeks, I meet a group in my constituency—they are largely women in their 50s, 60s and 70s—who are active campaigners on climate change. The last time I met them, they were absolutely adamant that the changes would be very damaging to them and their rights to make their case, which they want to do powerfully and peacefully, for more action on climate change.
We talked a bit about the petition. A quarter of a million people have signed it, which is a significant number. The Petitions Committee used an online survey to ask petitioners for their views, and 95% of respondents were concerned that proposals to increase police powers would prevent the public from being able to hold the Government to account. Three quarters of the respondents were also concerned that the proposals could result in restrictions being imposed on protests, prevent protests from going ahead and result in people who take part in protests facing criminal charges. Respondents said that peaceful protest is democratic, a human fundamental and a basic right, and they were concerned that increased police powers would limit opportunities for people to express dissent, hold the Government to account and bring about positive change. Respondents were also concerned that the Bill would curtail peaceful, well-managed protests and, in doing so, risk increasing unorganised violent protests.
As hon. Members of different political parties have pointed out, the right to protest is a fundamental freedom—a hard-won democratic tradition that we are deeply proud of.
Throughout our history, as we have heard, protests have led to significant change for the better. The Government’s proposals are risky and unnecessary and will be damaging to the traditions at the heart of our democracy.
The arguments have been well made, but I want to make four broad points. First, the Bill is incredibly broad and vague. It has already been mentioned that the measures target protesters for causing “serious unease” and “serious annoyance”. Such measures would definitely have prevented the great protests of history, and that vague term “serious unease” seems a low threshold for police-imposed conditions. It is hard to imagine our society as one where the police can impose directions on a protest for simply being noisy, but that is what the Bill would do. There is also a penalty in the Bill for someone who breaches a police-imposed condition on a protest when they “ought to know” that the condition existed. If someone attends a protest and the police have placed conditions on the number of people allowed to attend, how will those attending know that they are the 101st person to join, and that they are therefore breaching the conditions? The clause could effectively criminalise people who do not know that they are breaching conditions.
Currently, protest must involve at least two people to engage police powers, but the new measures would allow the police to issue conditions on a one-person protest; so if one person protesting causes another person in the vicinity to suffer
“serious unease, alarm or distress”
or the noise that the protesting person generates may have a
“relevant impact on persons in the vicinity of the protest”
the police are able to impose conditions. Those powers are clearly too broad. Steve Bray’s shouts of “Stop Brexit!” were incredibly irritating for all of us, I suspect, but that does not mean he should not have been able to make his point, or that he was causing any damage or harm by doing what he did.
The point of protests, as has been said, is to capture the attention of people and of the Government. Sometimes—pretty much always—protests are noisy. That is the point of them. Sometimes they are annoying; but they are as fundamental to our democracy as Parliament and the courts are. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), made that point on Second Reading, expressing concern about the proposals, and pointing out the risk of their going against the right to freedom of speech. Sir Peter Fahy, a respected former chief constable of Greater Manchester police said:
“People need to be really worried about this…the right to protest, the right to gather, the right to have a voice is fundamental to our democracy, and particularly British democracy.”
He spoke about the bringing in of legislation
“on the back of the Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations, rushing that legislation through, putting in some really dodgy definitions which the police are supposed to make sense of”,
and said that if one thing had been learned from the coronavirus legislation it was that
“rushed legislation and unclear definitions cause huge confusion for the public and for the police having to enforce it.”
That brings me to my second point. The Bill would put the police in a difficult situation, having to make judgment calls for every protest and no doubt getting the blame because those judgments would be seen as political choices. I support the police. As shadow Policing Minister I think they have done a good job through covid times, in difficult circumstances, with legislation that was brought in at the very last minute, which they had to try to understand. They had to try to police draconian legislation as they had never had to before.
It cannot be right for the police to be attacked or assaulted. We have seen attacks on police and other emergency services increasing in recent years, and more needs to be done about that. At the weekend police officers in the Met were injured as they dispersed crowds during an anti-lockdown protest. Violent protest is never right, but the new powers are so vague that they will force the police to make political decisions about which completely non-violent protests they are under pressure to deem unlawful. That is extremely concerning and will put the police and the public in a difficult position. Why do the Government want to make the police the gatekeepers of public protest?
The public order measures in the Bill risk putting the police in a difficult position more often and creating more disorder and disruption. The Government should not be putting the police in that position. Where the rules are too confusing and too broad, they will only create more flashpoints. It is also worth pointing out that the Government have decided to introduce this contentious legislation restricting the right to protest in the middle of a pandemic, when we have very difficult laws that the police are trying to implement. Why make a decision that potentially puts public health at risk by forcing the public to protest against their freedom to protest being taken away from them in the middle of a pandemic?
My third point, which again has been well rehearsed, is that the changes give dangerous powers to the Home Secretary to make regulations about the meaning of “serious disruption”. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead, made a really important point in her speech on Second Reading. She said:
“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”—[Official Report, 15 March 2021; Vol. 691, c. 78.]
The idea of giving the Home Secretary such a big power to impose their own perspective on what lawfully constitutes annoying or too noisy is deeply alarming.
If there is a peaceful protest outside the Home Office that the Home Secretary does not like, will they criminalise everyone for shouting too loud? If the Minister wanted to protest about a cause that he cared deeply about, would he really want the Home Secretary ultimately to decide whether what he was saying was right or wrong, or whether the protest was too loud? I know that I would not.
Finally, and really importantly, the existing legislation is sufficient to cover the concerns that have been raised. The Public Order Act 1986 and other powers appear on the statute book to police protests. I am not sure why that legislation is not enough. There are probably questions about when and how it is implemented, but the laws are there. They are really clear, and they are plenty strong enough to stop disruptive or violent protests—the kind of protests that the police would need to be able to stop. The police have the power to break up protests that cause harm or serious public disorder, serious damage to property, or serious disruption to the life of the community.
As the Member for Brighton, Pavilion mentioned, Michael Barton, who is the former chief constable of Durham police, compared the measures in the Bill to that of a paramilitary-style police force, and asked whether the Government are
“happy to be linked to the repressive regimes currently flexing their muscles via their police forces”.
That seems like strong words, but there is a delicate balance between the need for the police to keep order and ensure that protests are peaceful, and the legitimate right to protest on the causes that we all care about.
The police officers I speak to do not want to undermine that balance. They want our respect. They want fair pay. They do not want to be assaulted. They want to get on with their jobs. They want to fight crime, but they understand those Peelian principles. The right to express our thoughts collectively through protest is one of the cornerstones of our British tradition. It would be of great concern if the Government passed laws to protect them from any public proclamation of criticism.
The police are the people and the people are the police. The co-operation of the public diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of force. Can the Minister tell us what “serious unease” or “annoyance” is? Can he tell us what too much noise sounds like? Which protests would he have stopped under the new legislation, and can he tell us why the Government are introducing rushed, undefined, broad measures that will inevitably undermine the right to protest? Finally, will he reflect on the words of the former Prime Minister, senior police officers, and a quarter of a million petitioners, who are asking him to think again?