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Right to protest: UK reintroduces controversial policing proposals

Joanne HarrisTuesday 21 June 2022

The UK government used the Queen’s Speech in May to reintroduce a number of measures intended to police disruptive protests, via a new Public Order Bill.

The measures were initially part of the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill. However, earlier this year the House of Lords succeeded in significantly watering down that legislation. The Lords objected particularly to proposals including prison sentences for protestors ‘locking on’ to structures and ‘serious disruption prevention orders’ designed to stop those previously convicted of a protest-related offence from carrying out another.

As these elements had not been debated in the Commons, they were thrown out – although the bulk of the PCSC Act received Royal Assent in late April.

During the Bill’s second reading in the House of Commons, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel said it was necessary legislation to take pressure off the police and reduce rising spending on policing protests.

The Public Order Bill re-introduces the criminal offence of locking on to other people, objects or buildings; introduces a new criminal offence of obstructing major transport works and ‘key national infrastructure’, including airports, railways, printing presses, and oil and gas infrastructure; extends stop-and-search powers for police to search for and seize articles suspected to be used for protest-related offences; and brings back the concept of serious disruption prevention orders.

‘The worrying thing is the fact that it’s gone through, been kicked out and is going through again [which] is probably a sign that they’re determined to push it through,’ says Tom Wainwright, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers and a specialist in protest law. He describes the legislation as ‘draconian’.

A Home Office spokesperson told Global Insight that the Bill will ‘stop significant disruption caused by a small minority of protestors who relentlessly interfere with national infrastructure and cause misery to law-abiding members of the public.’

‘The Bill backs the police to prevent such disruption happening in the first place, instead of being torn away from their communities where they are needed to prevent serious violence and neighbourhood crime,’ added the spokesperson.

The Bill will deter the ordinary punter from going on a protest, not deal with the issues that the government purport to be worried about

Raj Chada
Head of Criminal Defence, Financial Crime and Regulatory, Hodge Jones & Allen

Mark Stephens, Co-Chair of the IBA’s Human Rights Institute, says ‘It’s difficult to see how this Bill is compliant with basic human rights standards.’

He adds that governments need ‘really good, compelling reasons’ to limit the right to protest.

‘Disruption isn’t a reason, because the whole point of protests is to disrupt and to make your point peacefully,’ he says.

Human rights and protest lawyers say the Bill is likely to contravene Articles 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – namely, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association.

The UK government acknowledges that the proposed legislation does cross over with the ECHR, but says the Bill is pursuing ‘various legitimate aims’, including preventing disorder and crime, which are necessary in a democratic society.

The charity Justice, which opposes the Bill in its entirety, said it would give the police ‘carte blanche’ to target protestors, who could find themselves targeted in a similar way to how protesters are targeted by authorities in Russia and Belarus.

The proposals have been made after several years of rising levels of disruptive protests in the UK, particularly by the environmental groups Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Insulate Britain. The latter hit the headlines last year when they blocked motorways and major London streets to highlight the need to insulate Britain’s homes.

Five Insulate Britain protestors were jailed after breaching injunctions intended to stop them from protesting. Meanwhile, hundreds of others are awaiting their day in court.

Raj Chada, Head of Criminal Defence, Financial Crime and Regulatory at Hodge Jones & Allen, says the number of prosecutions for protest-related offences at present is ‘beyond anything I’ve seen in the last 15 years’, with courtrooms being set aside specifically to hear them.

Chada says that should the Bill become law, the number of cases needing to be heard will just rise. He and Wainwright also note that the fact many protestors are already facing charges means the police already have ways of targeting protests – a point echoed by the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper when the Bill was read a second time.

Human rights experts say the proposals will not achieve the aim of ending disruptive protests, either.

‘I don’t think it will stop the committed activist. They conduct actions well aware of what the potential risks may be but believe their action is justified,’ says Chada.

‘What it will stop is those who go to the occasional protest. It will deter the ordinary punter from going on a protest, not deal with the issues that the government purport to be worried about,’ he continues.

Stephens agrees, and says that restricting disruptive but peaceful demonstrations will make committed activists think that the only possible next step would be violent protests.

‘What the government are trying to do is effectively turn protestors into criminals or terrorists,’ he adds. ‘Much of the legislation is based on terrorism law; that’s not a useful template.’

If the Bill becomes law, the challenge of handling its effects will be picked up by the court system. Previous cases have debated the right of disruptive protest – some finding for the protestors, some not.

‘The courts will have to balance a welter of case law that talks about how to deal with protestors with legislation introduced by this government that says you should be tougher,’ Chada says.

At this point, the Bill looks likely to succeed, having passed the second reading stage in late May.

Wainwright says that Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights may be able to force through some changes. But he adds that ‘The problem is with this government is that they don’t listen to the HR committee, they don’t particularly listen to views expressed in protest.’

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