It is a pleasure to follow Mr Carmichael, albeit after rather a long break. I declare my interest as a barrister.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate on Report. During and since my election campaign, and particularly during the recent election campaign for our new police and crime commissioner, I have had the opportunity to speak to many constituents in Derbyshire Dales about law and order generally. I am a firm believer in listening to my constituents: they are hard-working and law-abiding, and I respect what they are telling me. They tell me that they want to feel safe and feel protected in their own homes and in the areas in which they live. There is much to offer them in this excellent Bill.
Two aspects of the Bill particularly interest my constituents. First, they want to see tougher sentences for convicted criminals, and this Bill delivers that. I particularly support two proposals: tougher community sentences doubling the time for which offenders will be subject to overnight curfews, rising from 12 months to two years; and the ending of the automatic early release of dangerous criminals. I am pleased to say that the Bill firmly delivers on what my constituents are requesting—tougher sentences—and I wholeheartedly support it.
Secondly, I receive a lot of correspondence from constituents whose lives are disrupted by unauthorised and illegal encampments that cause alarm and distress to local residents. This Government are the first of many Governments to have the courage to address these long-standing issues. I welcome the provisions that will give the police the power to seize vehicles and arrest or fine trespassers who are intent on residing on private or public land without permission while ensuring that they will not be able to return for 12 months. This is long overdue. I have many constituents who write to me regularly in towns such as Matlock, Bakewell and Ashbourne whose lives have been very badly affected by illegal encampments, and this must stop. It is of course very important to make sure that local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to provide permanent sites for groups such as Travellers so that they can stay within the law and enjoy their traditional life, but illegal encampments must stop.
I commend the huge breadth of provisions in this Bill. I am so pleased that the Government have had the courage to address so many different areas in such a relatively short space of time.
This Bill needlessly criminalises Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. It will turn civil offences into criminal ones and punish littering and inconvenience with prison and homelessness. The Bill does not target a problem; it targets minority and ethnic communities. It is driven by hatred and division and will serve only to fuel hatred and division. Only last month, Lee Anderson demonstrated this by saying:
“The Travellers I am talking about are more likely to be seen leaving your garden shed at 3 o’clock in the morning, probably with your lawnmower and half of your tools.”––[Official Report, Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Public Bill Committee,
Those words racially stereotype Travellers and paint an entire community as criminals. They were racist and repugnant and show the bigotry that this Bill promotes.
On top of this, the draconian powers included in the Bill are being pushed upon police despite their insistence that they do not want or need them. The National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners have said that
“trespass is a civil offence and our view is that it should remain so”, while 93.7% of police bodies support increased site provision as the solution to unauthorised encampments. Both the police and the travelling communities are in agreement on this. I urge the Government to listen and to support new clause 102 and the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby. The Government should be focused on improving society for everyone, yet they have become fixated on attacking an already much persecuted minority at the expense of many and to the benefit of none. In doing so, they are ignoring ready-made solutions. Organisations such as Friends, Families and Travellers have called for increased and improved site provision while highlighting the value of negotiated stopping, because the reality is that if Travellers cannot stop with authorisation, then they must stop without it.
I tabled my amendments because I believe that it is the role of politicians to protect minorities, not persecute them. New clause 51 seeks to address the racism that GRT communities face every day by forcing the Government to review the prevention, investigation and prosecution of crimes against these communities, while new clause 52 would require the Government to provide proper training for the relevant public bodies. Although valuable amendments to this dystopic Bill will undoubtedly fall today, I would like to reassure my constituents that the fight against legislation is not the end—
I wish to address new clauses 55 and 42 and, if time permits, new clause 90. Hon. Members will agree that clarity is crucial when talking about the proper functioning of the House, particularly when we cover immensely sensitive subjects such as abortion and the ending of human life. I want to clarify something that was earlier in dispute, which is whether the decriminalisation of abortion, as sought by new clause 55, also means its deregulation and the loss of all legal safeguards. Changing the law means changing regulations. The central and implacable legal fact of new clause 55 is that repealing the relevant sections of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and relevant offences under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, will immediately undo all the safeguards provided by the Abortion Act 1967.
As my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce so soberly and succinctly stated in the first part of this debate, new clause 55 would sweep away all current legal safeguards and protections, not only for the unborn child, but many that protect women. The 1967 Act would, in effect, be void, leaving England and Wales with one of the most extreme abortion laws in the world.
Let me briefly remind Members what those safeguards involve. They are not obstructions by opponents of abortion; they are crucial and vital protections against clear and present dangers. The safeguards prevent abortion simply on the basis of sex and because the baby will be born a girl, or indeed a boy. They ensure that the freedom of health professionals to conscientiously object is protected, and they prevent abortion right up until birth, even though many premature babies are born and survive and thrive, every week.
Dame Diana Johnson failed to explain how any of those serious threats to our society and culture would remain illegal. Never once has she denied that her new clause would allow abortion up to birth—something many of my constituents have rallied against in recent days, as is true of constituents across the country. I have received more emails and calls about new clause 55 than I have about any other measure since I was elected to the House 11 years ago. The right hon. Lady may argue that abortion will remain regulated by different medical bodies in the country, but those bodies cannot make legislation. They cannot pass laws or send the crucial messages that our current abortion law sends, namely that sex selective abortion is wrong, that conscientious objection is valid, and that abortion without any time limit would be a gross injustice in a humane society. Abortion under the regulation of changeable medical bodies that issue only guidelines and never laws can never be recommended.
I am grateful to contribute to this debate. On Second Reading I highlighted that the Bill, large as it is, contains about five clauses that apply to Northern Ireland, and we are supportive of them. Considering that we just heard from the Health and Social Care Secretary, who outlined our roadmap to freedom, I am disappointed that after Committee, the Bill is not in a better place when it comes to protest. For a party that prides itself on libertarian values and freedom in our country to curtail protests because they are noisy, inconvenient or impact on those around them, shows that the right balance has not yet been struck.
I wish to speak in favour of new clauses 44 to 50, tabled by Dame Diana Johnson. Indeed, I commend her for tabling them. The law has operated successfully in Northern Ireland for four years. Those important provisions were brought forward by my colleague in the other place, Lord Morrow. They are working in Northern Ireland, and I hope that after the conclusion of Report, they are brought forward again. I encourage the Minister to look at those provisions. I understand she is engaging with the right hon. Lady, and I hope we can pick up this conversation again.
I have mentioned to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North that I have considered some ire, having signed her new clauses on human trafficking and sexual exploitation, given the amendment that rests in new clause 55; she knows that I could never support new clause 55. I do see the dichotomy between bringing forward—[Interruption.] I wave back, Madam Deputy Speaker. New clauses 44 to 50 would take away the power from the powerful in support of the most vulnerable, and that is why I struggle with new clause 55: it would do the reverse.
I really shouldn’t, because Madam Deputy Speaker is waving too much at me.
I have given careful consideration to new clause 42. In principle, I am prepared to support the notion of buffer zones, but not as currently drafted. I know that that is not exactly where all my colleagues are, so I do not wish to abuse my position as spokesman, because my colleagues are not comfortable at all. There should be a discussion. I do not think that new clause 42 strikes the balance. If it was moved, I could not support it this evening.
This is such a massive Bill, in that it is going to impact on every facet of life. I fear that the Public Bill Committee has not had the desired effect and that it is not right yet, but we will consider the new clauses and amendments as they are brought forward this evening.
This Bill removes our fundamental right to peaceful protest. How? By putting power in the hands of the police to stop protests—not, as before, on the grounds of causing serious damage or unlawful behaviour, but instead on the grounds that it may cause “serious unease” or “distress” to bystanders. Those found guilty of even risking causing “serious annoyance” or “inconvenience” can get imprisoned for up to 10 years or face unlimited fines. This amounts to the removal of the right to peaceful protest as enshrined in our Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights.
We saw a taste of what that means in practice at the Clapham vigil and the Bristol protests in March. The parliamentary report into Clapham and Bristol, which was published last week and mentioned by Mr Djanogly, found that the Metropolitan police told the Clapham vigil organisers that the vigil was illegal, when it was not, and that they faced thousands of pounds in fines, which they did not. The organisers withdrew and the vigil was disorganised, and then, at 6.30 pm, the police physically intervened to disperse the gathering, thereby increasing the public health risk of covid. In Bristol, yes, proportionate use of force by the police was justified, but batoning and blading protesters with shields on the ground certainly was not.
We have had a glimpse of what poorly drafted law can look like in practice. Instead, we must protect the right to peaceful protest by deleting clauses 55 to 61, which stop it, and introducing my new clause 85: a code that sets out the police’s duty to facilitate the right to peaceful protest, to return them to Robert Peel’s founding principle:
“The police are the public and the public are the police.”
This Bill is before us because people want to protest against climate change, as, by 2025, the 1.5°C Paris limit will be breached. Peaceful protesters—whether suffragettes or economic, social or environmental campaigners—enrich and inform our democracy between elections. This is essential to our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
The Bill is an act of political treason. It is bad at its core. It will be seen in China, Russia and elsewhere as a green light to crush democracy and the right to peaceful protest, with unaccountable police power. The good people in this country should not rest until it is overturned and our rights reinstated, so that democracy can live, breathe and thrive again.
In the time available to me, I would like to speak in support of two amendments and comment on one.
“a review of how registered sex offenders are able to change their name or other aspects of their identity without the knowledge of the police”.
The UK has some of the toughest measures in the world to manage sex offenders, yet the system is being exploited and flouted by thousands of convicted offenders, if the figures are to be believed. More than 16,000 offenders in the last five years have not told the police of their whereabouts under their notification requirements, and it is estimated that around 900 have gone missing altogether. Some of them could possibly have changed their names. The amendment would review how sex offenders are able to change their names or identity, and ensure that the system is amended so that police are always made aware. I hope the Minister will respond to the amendment in her comments.
I will turn to two amendments on the issue of abortion. This debate has made it clear that the current position, and the inconsistency between the situations in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales, is very difficult to explain other than by the fact that in England and Wales, our law is underpinned by an Act of Parliament passed 50 years before women were even allowed to be part of the legislative process. There has been almost no change to the abortion laws in more than 50 years. It may be that the tradition of leaving these issues to Back-Bench Bills no longer works and the Government need to think more creatively.
The Government need to consider how we modernise the set of laws that this place has changed for Northern Ireland but has not had the opportunity to do so in a thoughtful way for England and Wales. The strong feeling on both sides of the House shows that there is an argument for thinking about this further, particularly with the two specific amendments.
I will turn to new clause 42. The Bill already recognises that protests should not stop others going about their daily business. Frankly, new clause 42 does similarly for individuals who want to access abortion advice and services. I hope that the Minister will reflect on the amendment in her summing up.
I do not support new clause 55 by Dame Diana Johnson because of the expansiveness in the way it is drawn. I have deep sympathy, however, and support her in her wish to see abortion decriminalised for women in England and Wales, as has been done in Northern Ireland. We in this House have to take the opportunity to have a thoughtful and thorough debate and to have it in the very near future.
I rise to speak as co-chair of the justice unions parliamentary group. There is an awful lot that I would like to say about this Bill, but unfortunately I have to restrict my comments to amendment 47.
The amendment seeks to correct an anomaly in the legislation brought by Chris Bryant in his Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, whereby the only members of prison staff included in the protected category of emergency workers are prison officers and some healthcare workers, while other prison workers, such as teachers or instructors, are not protected. That is simply unfair and increases the risks for those staff: it effectively paints a target on their backs because prisoners are well aware of the law and know that the penalties for attacking a prison officer are way more severe than those for attacking the teacher who might be standing next to them.
The 2019 “Safe Inside” survey conducted by the Joint Unions in Prisons Alliance showed that all prison staff—not just prison officers, but prison educators and teachers as well—are subjected to shocking levels of violence and are routinely exposed to harmful drugs. More than a quarter of staff reported having been a victim of physical violence in the last 12 months. Of those, 14% said that they had been assaulted more than 10 times in that period.
The youth estate, for example, often houses children who are locked up hundreds of miles from family and support. The resulting strain on mental health is a contributing factor towards violence against staff. Of course, in Wales, as education is devolved, things run differently so the Bill’s impact will be felt differently, which is something my hon. Friend Hywel Williams will raise later.
Here is one horrific example from an educator in a young offender institution:
“I turned to press the radio and as I did so I felt the young offender’s arms around my neck and he put me in a headlock and began to strangle me, I managed to say “Assistance” on the radio, but before I could say my location, he had my arm above my head to stop me calling for help, he dragged me down to the ground, he continued to strangle me with his left arm and he hit me repeatedly in the head with the other. As he was doing so, he said he had mental health issues. It felt like longer but, I think the officers arrived in approximately five minutes after the incident began and physically removed him from me.”
No teacher, educator or instructor should be expected to work in an environment where terrifying assaults like those are not treated with the same severity as those against prison officers. For that reason, I urge all Members to show those brave front-line public servants that we prioritise their safety as emergency workers, too.
There is much in this Bill that I welcome—I have spoken before about driving offences reform—but of course parts of it are controversial. That is what happens with legislation: some people do not agree with parts of it. However, on balance, it is a Bill worth backing, and that is why I did so on Second Reading.
New clause 90 seems entirely logical to me. I have been well lobbied on the subject, and I hope to hear something from the Minister. Being able to do their job without abuse is surely the least that our shop workers can expect.
On protest, we should be careful not to be misled about what is in the Bill and what is not. I actually agree with some of what my right hon. Friend Mr Davis said. The parts of the Bill on protest are not right just yet, and I predict that they will have a challenging time in the other place. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on that. Surely new clause 85, in respect of a code for the policing of protest, is worth a look.
I think that new clause 55, in the name of Dame Diana Johnson, is poorly drafted. I saw a tsunami of contacts this weekend from constituents who are against it. I wish it were going to a vote, if only so that I could vote against it and the House could show its will on the subject.
Finally, I oppose new clauses 51 and 52 in respect of illegal Traveller encampments. My constituents have an illegal encampment on the Cattle Market car park in the centre of Winchester just today, which is inconveniencing their lives. I oppose those two new clauses.
This Bill delivers on our promise to the British people to keep them safe and to crack down on criminals. This Bill backs the police, recognising the unique and enormous sacrifices they and their families make to protect us all. This Bill imposes a legal duty on local councils, the police, health services, schools and prisons to work together to prevent serious violence in their neighbourhoods.
This Bill balances the rights of protestors to demonstrate with the rights of residents to access hospitals, to go to work, to let their children sleep at night. And, despite some of the claims from the Opposition, this Bill includes measures that will help to protect women and girls, but that go further than that and protect the whole of society from some of the most dangerous offenders that are sentenced. This includes managing sex offenders before and after conviction and, importantly, providing clarity on the extraction of data from victims’ phones, in line with the rape review that the Government published only a few weeks ago.
Let me briefly address the Government amendments in this group. In Committee, I undertook to consider further whether the reporting duty in respect of the police covenant should be extended to apply to the British Transport police, the Ministry of Defence police and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. Having reflected further, we agree. We want the wider policing family to be included in the covenant, and amendment 34 does exactly that, covering not only these three forces but the National Crime Agency. They do essential work for us, and we want them and their families to be looked after.
Government amendments 35 to 45 standardise the traffic offences in clauses 4 and 5, and clauses in relation to serious violence reduction orders, for the British Transport police—again, consistency in how we deal with these important matters.
Let me turn to the non-Government amendments. I will not be able to deal with them all, but I will pick out the ones that have been talked about most frequently. First, I thank Ms Harman, my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller and many other Members across the House for raising the issue of sexual harassment, not just in the context of this Bill but in our wider work.
The murders that, sadly, we have heard so much about in this Chamber—the murders of Nicole Smallman, Bibaa Henry, Sarah Everard and PCSO Julia James—have caused millions of women and girls to share their own experiences and fears of walking in our towns and cities. We have also heard girls’ stories about their experiences at school through the social media platform Everyone’s Invited.
We are listening to women and girls. In March, we reopened the survey on violence against women and girls and received more than 180,000 responses in terms of the survey as a whole. Each of those responses is helping to shape our work developing this vital strategy. We therefore recognise the shocking extent of street harassment and the strength of feeling concerning the need for a new offence.
While it is the case that there are already offences available to address sexual harassment behaviour, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham, whom I have met recently to discuss this, can rest assured that we remain open-minded on this issue and are continuing to examine the case for a bespoke offence. As part of the commitment, the new strategy on tackling violence against women and girls will focus on the need to educate and to change cultural attitudes. A new offence can do so much, but we need to go further than that, and that is our intention.
As I announced in Committee, I am pleased that as part of the cross-government work and work across agencies, the College of Policing intends to develop advice for police forces to assist them to use existing offences in the most effective way to address reports of sexual harassment, and the CPS will be updating its guidance to include specific material on sexual harassment.
Moving on, new clauses 26 and 27 have been tabled by Dame Diana Johnson—indeed my hon. Friend Mr Baker has spoken to me about this—and they come out of the very tragic circumstances of the rape and murder of Libby Squire. As a constituency MP near the Humber, I very much join both the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Libby and her family.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me and my constituent Lisa Squire that it is vitally important that non-contact sexual offences are promptly reported so that the provisions can work?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and, indeed, his constituent, Mrs Squire. We need please to get the message out from this Chamber to encourage victims, where non-contact sexual offences are being committed, and where they are able to and where they feel able to, to report those offences to the police, so that these escalating behaviours can create a pattern that the police can review. That is why I have great sympathy with the new clauses that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North has tabled. I am pleased to reassure her that we are very much taking the point on board when it comes to developing the strategy.
In terms of other matters relating to sex offenders, Sarah Champion and my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke have pressed upon me the need for a review of how registered sex offenders can change their name without the police’s knowledge. We have some of the toughest rules in the world for the management of sex offenders, but we recognise those concerns.
We do not want any loopholes that can be exploited by sex offenders to enable offending and to evade detection by the changing of names. Indeed, only last week I met the Master of the Rolls and my counterpart Lord Wolfson in the Ministry of Justice to discuss this critical issue. I am pleased to advise the House that we are conducting a time-limited review of the enrolled and unenrolled processes for changing names to better understand the scale and nature of the issue, whether current processes are being or could be exploited to facilitate further offending and, if so, how that can be addressed.
Colleagues have expressed understandable concern regarding the treatment of key workers, particularly those who keep our shops and supermarkets open and stocked, those who keep our buses and trains running, and key workers such as refuse collectors, park staff, teachers and others who perform a vital duty at any time, but particularly in the very difficult 18 months we have all experienced. We are very conscious that when our constituents are serving the public and delivering key services, they must feel safe doing so. No one should feel unsafe in their workplace. We therefore all feel anguish about some of the stories we have heard in relation to retail and other workers over the past year.
The Lord Chancellor and, indeed, the Government, completely understand the sentiments behind the new clauses tabled by the Leader of the Opposition and my hon. Friend Matt Vickers, and I hope that Members have heard the indication that we gave earlier in the debate. There is a range of existing laws, with significant penalties, that cover assaults and abuse of all public-facing workers. Sentencing guidelines already require the courts to consider as an aggravating factor, meriting an increased sentence, an offence that has been committed against a person serving the public. However, I make it clear that we want to assure my hon. Friend and Members of all parties that we are not complacent about the matter and that we are actively considering tabling an amendment, if appropriate, in the Lords.
Our genuine concerns about the new clauses relate to technical issues with some of the drafting. There is vagueness about the nature of the assault offence. It overlaps with existing offences and there seems to be reference to Scottish provisions, which we believe to be unnecessary. I say to the House in an open-hearted, open-handed way that we are looking at the matter and that we want to work not only with hon. Members with but the retail sector to improve the reporting of those offences and the police response.
I turn now to the public order provisions. There has been much debate about those measures. Some of it has been informed by fact, but some has been informed by misunderstanding. The measures have been developed in consultation with the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Metropolitan police to improve the police’s ability to better manage highly disruptive protests. Such protests have brought parts of London in particular, but also elsewhere, to a standstill. There have been instances of ambulances being obstructed. Protesters have disrupted the distribution of national newspapers and, given that we are discussing freedom of expression and freedom of speech, I hope that colleagues will understand why we are so concerned to ensure that newspapers can be produced.
Protests have prevented hard-working people from getting to work and drawn thousands of police officers away from the local communities they serve.
As the Member for Cities of London and Westminster—Westminster experiences 500 protests every year—I ask my hon. Friend whether she agrees that the human rights of protesters are absolutely important but so are those of local people who live just yards from this place?
That sums up the balancing exercise that the Government are drawing on the advice of the independent police inspectorate. The Bill does not stop the freedom to demonstrate; it balances it with the rights and liberties of others. The existing laws are 35 years old. We want to update them and also implement the recommendations of the independent Law Commission.
It will continue to be the case that the police attach conditions to only a small proportion of protests. To put that in context, in a three-month period earlier this year, the assessment of the National Police Chiefs’ Council was that of more than 2,500 protests, no more than a dozen had conditions attached to them: 12 out of 2,500.
I will not because I genuinely have other matters to address.
In deciding whether to attach conditions, including in respect of the generation of noise, the police will continue, as they do now, to take into consideration protesters’ freedom of speech and assembly.
I move on now to unauthorised encampments. Similarly, there seems to be misunderstanding about what the Bill is attempting to do. It is not an attack on the nomadic lifestyle. Proposed new section 60C(4) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 sets out conditions applicable if
“significant damage… significant disruption” or
“significant distress has been caused or is likely to be caused”.
I have one more minute.
We are trying to tackle harmful behaviour, and Opposition Members need to ask themselves just how much damage, disruption and distress is acceptable for their constituents to bear.
I will quickly deal with the extraction of information. This is an important part of the Bill, because we want to ensure that strong privacy safeguards are in place when dealing with people’s sensitive personal information. This Bill, coupled with the rape review, is an absolutely critical part of that effort.
Mindful that the House will want to vote on these matters, I will conclude. We promised our constituents that we would take measures to make our society safer and to crack down on crime. As my hon. Friend Miss Dines set out, that is the promise we all made to our constituents. We are delivering on promises made to the electorate and standing up for the decent members of society who do not commit the sorts of crimes that we in this Chamber have sadly had to hear about. I therefore have no hesitation in commending the Bill to the House.