I beg to move that this House disagrees with Lords amendment 71.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 74, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 88, and Government amendment (a) thereto.
Lords amendment 73, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 80, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (f) to the words so restored to the Bill.
Lords amendment 81, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 82, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 87, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (f) to the words so restored to the Bill.
Lords amendments 89 and 146, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendment 143, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (c) in lieu.
Lords amendments 75 to 79, 83 to 86, 90 to 93, 118 to 120 and 148.
Lords amendment 71 would introduce a duty of candour for the police workforce. I am sure that hon. Members know that the Government take police integrity and accountability extremely seriously. So much so that, in February 2020, we introduced a statutory duty of co-operation for serving police officers as part of wider integrity reforms.
A failure to co-operate in that way constitutes a breach of the statutory standards of professional behaviour by which all officers must abide and could therefore result in a formal disciplinary sanction. It is our view that the duty to co-operate puts a greater onus on officers than the duty of candour provided for in the Lords amendment, as they could ultimately be dismissed for a breach. In essence, the Lords is proposing a dilution.
Hon. Members will also be aware of the Government’s forthcoming response to the Daniel Morgan independent panel and to Bishop James Jones’ report concerning the bereaved Hillsborough families’ experiences, and we will set out our view on a wider duty of candour for all public authorities. Before the Government respond to those reports, however, it is clearly imperative that the Hillsborough families are given the opportunity to share their views.
None the less, we are closely monitoring the impact of the new legislation on police co-operation with inquiries and investigations. As we consider the case for a wider duty of candour for other public servants and bodies, we will determine whether there are gaps in the existing framework that need to be filled to ensure public confidence. I assure the House that we will set out our conclusions later this year.
Before I turn to the Lords amendments to part 3 of the Bill, I point out to hon. Members that over the last couple of years, with regard to public order, we have all seen that the police have struggled with some of the demonstrations that we have seen on our streets. Last autumn, Insulate Britain’s new tactics put a lot of police officers in danger, caused a significant amount of misery to many thousands of people who simply wanted to get to work or to otherwise go about their daily lives, and were difficult to address. Since, we have seen further examples of wholly unacceptable forms of protest. I am afraid that their lordships may regret the day that they voted down the significant number of measures that we had inserted in the Bill.
The House of Lords did, however, recognise that freedom of speech and assembly are qualified rights under the European convention on human rights, and there are times when it is appropriate to restrict those rights to protect the rights of non-protesters. For that reason, we are sympathetic to Lords amendment 143, which would introduce fast-track public space protection orders. The Government have listened to the concerns raised in the other place about the harm caused by disruptive protests outside schools and vaccination centres. We agree in principle with the amendment, and our amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment 143 will have a similar effect but will ensure that provision for expedited PSPOs works with the grain of the existing legislative framework.
I very much look forward to the tightening of the laws, but I am also conscious that I look for balance. As one who has protested on the streets of Northern Ireland on many occasions—legally—with an important desire to do so, I ask whether the Minister feels that the balance is right in this legislation. In our words, the right to protest should be done in a peaceful manner, not to obstruct anybody.
I do indeed believe that the balance is right, but the hon. Gentleman does not have to take my word for it. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire & rescue services was specifically tasked with looking at the balance of legislation and protest. After some examination, it decided that the balance had swung too far in favour of protest and too much away from the rights of others to go about their daily lives.
My right hon. Friend knows that I have real concerns about the noisy protest legislation. How often does he expect it to be applied and how many past protests have been subject to something like that kind of police discretion?
Obviously, it is hard for me to predict how often these things will be used. I will come on to talk about the noise provision more specifically, but it is worth pointing out that it is not common for conditions to be placed on protest generally. The National Police Chiefs’ Council tells us that in the three months to April ’21, there were 2,500 protests, and conditions were put on them no more than a dozen times. The Metropolitan police has confirmed that in 2019—hon. Members have to remember that in London, a protest takes place pretty much every day, and sometimes several in one day—it put conditions on only 15 times and, in 2020, only six times. Admittedly, 2020 saw a suppressed number of protests because of the pandemic, but this is nevertheless rare, and the police take care in placing such conditions.
I will make a little bit of progress.
On my previous point about the Lords accepting the need for protection outside schools and vaccination centres, we believe it should not just be people working in those two types of facility who are protected from highly disruptive protests. The Government continue to believe it is essential that the police are able in some circumstances to place conditions on protests to prevent noise causing serious harm or impinging on the rights of others. The vast majority of protests in England and Wales will be unaffected by this legislation. The power may be used only in the most exceptional circumstances where police assess the noise from protests to be unjustifiable and damaging to others. I can assure the House that conditions will, by law, be imposed only where necessary and proportionate, with due consideration to all our freedoms of expression and assembly. The police are already legally bound to assess this balance with the powers they currently have.
I will come to the hon. Members in a moment.
I am sure that all hon. Members will recall vividly how proceedings in St Margaret’s church were intruded on by protesters’ noise when we were paying our respects to our colleague Sir David Amess. I am not sure we could call that intrusion damaging; if anything, it made us sing all the loudly and filled the church with an air of defiance as we mourned. However, we have to reflect on the fact that developments in amplification mean that noise can be used as a weapon and can cause significant psychological damage. This is why most local authorities have a noise enforcement team with powers to act. We need to recognise that, in a protest situation, noise could be used to make worship, business or residence impossible in particular premises, and our fellow citizens would expect protection from the police in those circumstances.
To assure the House that there will be an objective standard rather than a subjective one, can the Minister explain either what decibel level there would have to be or for how long such a noise nuisance would have to continue for enforcing the powers to be reasonable and objective?
As the House would expect, we are not prescribing limits in the way the hon. Gentleman is asking for, not least because the varying circumstances with which the police are presented mean that hard and fast rules do not necessary obtain. For example, it could be that one person with an amplifier attempting to drown out—I do not know—pursuit of worship in a particular church, temple or synagogue could be deemed over time to be a nuisance, and therefore be damaging and impinging on the rights of worship of others, whereas a crowd of individuals outside making a similar noise for a shorter time may not. As I have just laid out, I did not regard the noise that intruded on our grief in St Margaret’s as damaging—I would not have thought that that hit the bar—but if someone was outside the hon. Gentleman’s constituency office protesting day in, day out with a large and powerful amplifier, he might quite rightly in those circumstances seek protection from the police or indeed from the local authority. There is a series of these situations that the police are now presented with because of developments in amplification.
Would the Minister acknowledge that our public order laws already make it harder to protest than in practically any other democracy, and that the kind of legislation he is bringing in now, as we have just seen, is completely subjective and puts the police in an impossible position? Laws already exist to deal with the so-called problems that he is raising. This is about throwing red meat to his Back Benchers so that he can try to get a bit more popularity, and it stinks.
I do not know who is throwing the red meat here, but it is certainly not me. Obviously the hon. Lady has a constituency that will lap up her remarks, no doubt released on social media. In truth, the police have been asking for some time for improvements to the elderly public order legislation. We put the measures through consideration by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, which felt they were proportionate and sensible for us to pursue.
The Minister is implying that the police and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services in some way wanted this new noise trigger. Will he accept that I am correct when I say that neither the police, nor Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, requested the noise trigger at all?
The inspectorate obviously would not request that because that is not its job, but we certainly asked it to look at the balance that we are trying to present with what I think are relatively modest improvements to public order legislation. Indeed, from memory of the report, it felt we should go further, which we are unable to do because of the structure of the Bill. That means that on the rare occasion where noise is causing other people’s rights to be impinged on, and where worship or business or residence is impossible, we would seek protection.
I understand that hon. Members are concerned about this issue. There have been all sorts of wild claims about the Government stopping singing in the street and that sort of rubbish, but I ask hon. Members to think of situations where they might seek protection of their own rights from the police, in circumstances where noise is being used as a weapon. Because of developments in amplification over the past 10 or 15 years, amplifiers are smaller, easier to move around, and much louder than they were, and we have seen occasions where they have been used offensively to stop other people going about their business.
I think it would help me, and it might help others in the Chamber, if the Minister would consider putting in place a review, perhaps a year or two years into the use of this power, if the House chooses to grant it.
I am happy to commit to reviewing the offence. I would love to put a time limit on it but, as I said when I outlined the number of times conditions would be met, this measure may be used on only a very small number of occasions. We will have to consider the range of situations in which it is used, and obviously review it as we do with all public order legislation. We take very seriously the fact that protest is a fundamental building block of any liberal democracy, and now more than ever that is writ large. This is an important freedom for us in this country, and I am sure that lots of Members from all side of the House have been on protests of all kinds over the years. We must ensure that legislation moves with the times and reflects changes in technology, and that we give the police the powers they need, albeit in rare and often exceptional circumstances.
The Minister is being generous in accepting interventions. Does he think that, while well intended, the Bill may have the unintended consequence that individuals who think they are within the law in the way they demonstrate, because of the Bill’s subjectivity find themselves unexpectedly criminalised? That for them would be devastating.
No, not necessarily—[Laughter.] No, no. As a former Westminster councillor and London Assembly member for central London, who was subjected to dozens of protests of all sizes, shapes and forms, I would encourage all people who are protesting, wherever they are, to engage with the police first and discuss their own safety and the safety of others. In any democracy it is responsible to ensure that people give forewarning of what they are about to do.
Does the Minister appreciate that many people listening to this debate will be very suspicious of his words? They will see in the proposed regulations and discussions with the police a fundamental desire by him and his Government to shut down, control, and eliminate protest within our society. People have a right to protest, a right to make their voices heard, and a right to dissent. Surely that is fundamental to a democratic society. It is no good praising people in Russia if we close down protest here.
Of course we are not closing down protest. The right hon. Gentleman is right that people have a fundamental right to dissent, to protest and to make their views known in the public sphere as they do in the private sphere, but, as the House of Lords and the European Court of Human Rights have said, the right to protest is not unqualified, and I am afraid that, in the last couple of years, we have seen protestors using tactics that are massively disruptive to other people’s lives. People just wanting to go about their business have been so frustrated that they have been leaping out of their cars and taking things into their own hands. We have seen protestors running on to the fast lane of motorways, causing danger to themselves and motorists, and distracting police officers from stopping people from being stabbed or burgled in all our neighbourhoods. We have a duty to address that, and the role of the House and that of the police is to strike a balance between competing rights. That is what we do, and that is what we are trying to do with these modest measures.
No. I have given way lots of times. There will be many speakers, and I do not want to use up all the time. We have only got until midnight to get through all of this stuff. I will move on from the noise powers, which, as I say, we think will be used only in exceptional circumstances but must be available given changes in amplification.
Lords amendment 80 would prevent the alignment of the police’s ability to place conditions on public assembly with their existing powers to place conditions on public processions. HMICFRS found that a distinction between processions and assemblies was no longer appropriate. In the light of the practical challenges of safely policing protests, there is an unjustifiable inconsistency in the current law. When does a procession become an assembly and vice versa?
Lords amendments 74 to 79 implement a recommendation to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee to the effect that the term “serious disruption” should be defined in the Bill rather than in regulations. I trust that the amendments have allayed the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend Mrs May, who is not in her place, in our previous debates on the matter.
I am afraid that Lords amendments 81 and 82 arise from a misunderstanding of the effect of the provisions in clause 58, which are designed, in the words of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to protect the rights of access to the parliamentary estate for those with business there. The changes to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011, which governs prohibited activities in the vicinity of Parliament, will not prevent protests outside Parliament, nor will they prevent the Greater London Authority from authorising assemblies outside Parliament. Clause 58 will simply enable a police officer to direct an individual to cease or not to begin obstructing the passage of a vehicle into or out of the parliamentary estate. That is extremely important for those who are disabled or otherwise need a vehicle to access the estate, either to work here or to exercise their democratic rights. We expect police officers to use their sound judgements to determine when it is appropriate to make use of the power, and I do not see how it can lead to a prohibition of any kind on protests outside Parliament. Lords amendments 81 and 82 are therefore unnecessary.
Lords amendment 88 is a stripped-out version of the Government’s proposal to increase the maximum penalty for those who obstruct the highway. It would limit the increase in the maximum penalties to the obstruction of the strategic road network. Many major roads lie outside the SRN; indeed, some 98% of all roads in England do not form part of it. Were we to limit the increase in the maximum penalty in that way, protestors could continue to cause extensive and wholly disproportionate disruption to commuters and parents dropping their children off at school without facing sentences proportionate to the harm they have caused. Amendment (a) to Lords amendment 88 will ensure that the full extent of our road network is protected with the increase in maximum penalties.
I thought I was going to get away with it. Yes, go on.
The Minister talks about the cost of demonstrations—those on the road networks in particular—to people’s lives, and he has made statements about the costs of those protests. I tabled a written question asking him what assessment has been made of the cost to the public purse of the prison sentences being given out to Insulate Britain activists. That is a problem, because those sentences are not proportionate to what is happening. Surely there are better ways that are more cost-effective.
At the moment, those incarcerations are at the behest of a judge in a civil matter relating to the injunctions, and there is nothing that the Government can necessarily do about that. However, I point out that deterring people from such action may result in cost savings further down the line for the wider population. I urge Opposition Members, and anybody looking at this issue, to ask themselves whether they believe that protests should not be restrained in any way, shape or form, or that there is a balance to be struck. If they believe, as the ECHR does, and as the House of Lords has accepted in some of its amendments to the Bill, that a balance should be struck, the only question is where.
Our view, which is backed up by evidence from HMI and elsewhere, is that the balance has swung too far away from the general public, who want to go about their lives, recognising the very many important issues that are raised by protest. While they acknowledge those problems, they want to get on with their lives, and they want protection from the state of their right to get to school, to hospital and to work. That is not a right to be taken lightly. One of the most frustrating things about some of these protests has been their self-defeating result. Notwithstanding the cause, important or otherwise, the protestors have turned off millions of their fellow citizens and caused a level of intolerance towards issues such as climate change, which is regrettable. We have a job to balance those rights, and that is what we are attempting to do.
The Minister seeks to take public opinion as a whole, but people have had to take these matters into their own hands because air quality is killing their children, and because of the Government’s inaction on the very simple act of insulating housing. The proportionality is in the wrong place, and he is seeking to take on public opinion where it does not exist. If the Government took the right actions, surely there would be no need for the protests in the first place. People should be allowed to protest proportionately.
We cannot operate a democracy on the basis that, unless the Government agree with everything that someone wants, they will protest. It is a crazy thing to say, I am afraid. Much progress in this country has been brought about by protest, but much more has been brought about by political campaigning and winning elections. Frankly, if someone wants to make a change in the country, as all Opposition Members are proving, that is the way to go about it. I hope that the House will appreciate that we are trying hard to strike a balance between competing rights.
No, I have given away enough; I have to move on. We acknowledge the fundamental importance of the right to protest in this country. We live in a liberal democracy. The right of someone to dissent and to go out on the street and make their views known is critical, but so is my right to get to hospital, to work or to church, and to do so without somebody blasting me out with noise. We have been balancing competing rights for decades, if not centuries, in this country. We are a mature democracy that can cope with that kind of responsibility—have no fear. We are ringed around by independent courts, a bicameral Parliament, all sorts of checks and balances on the power of Government to strike this balance, legislation, and our participation in supranational treaties. There are lots of ways that we protect ourselves and our human rights, but in the end, fundamentally, all democratic Governments have to strike that balance, and that is what we are attempting to do.
Lords amendments 118 to 120 give effect to a commitment made by the Prime Minister following the final of Euro 2020, in response to disgraceful online racist abuse directed at certain England players. The amendments would enable a court to impose a football banning order against persons convicted of online hate offences connected to football. That will prevent such offenders from spreading their criminal, hateful views at football matches, and I very much hope that the measure will also deter others from engaging in similar behaviours that are so harmful to victims and to our national game.
Lords amendments 89 and 146 would repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. The Government are committed to ending rough sleeping, and as a result of our actions we have seen an historic reduction in rough sleeping in recent years. We agree that no one should be criminalised simply for sleeping rough, and that the time has indeed come to repeal the antiquated Vagrancy Act 1824. I know that that sentiment is keenly shared by a number of hon. Members. I pay tribute to the campaign that has been run by my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken, my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick, my hon. Friend Bob Blackman and my predecessor in my constituency of North West Hampshire, Lord Young, in the other place.
However, we must balance our role in providing essential support for the vulnerable with ensuring that we do not weaken the ability of the police to intervene where needed. Therefore, while our amendments in lieu will provide for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed in full in England and Wales, we intend to enact replacement legislation in the coming Session before bringing the repeal of the 1824 Act into force. To allow for that, and ultimately to ensure that the police have the tools they need, we will delay commencement of the repeal for up to 18 months. In the meantime, we will publish a bold new strategy to end rough sleeping. The strategy will set up how we will ensure that rough sleeping is prevented in the first instance and is effectively responded to in the rare cases where it does occur, and that our police have the ability to intervene where needed and keep everybody safe, including the person at issue.
As with the previous group of amendments, it is again the case that the House of Lords has made some helpful improvements to the Bill, but we reject their watering down of the public order provisions in part 3 and their dilution of the existing duty on police officers to co-operate with public inquiries and other investigations.
I want to begin by making a comment in this House on the Government’s procedure in the other place. The Government tried to sideline the Commons from its role in the democratic process by bringing into the Lords substantial but last-minute amendments on protests that would have had a fundamental impact on our rights. The Lords had very little time to scrutinise them and that is generally considered to be very poor form. Instead of chasing headlines and rushing in last-minute sweeping amendments clearly not thought through, they should be focusing on driving up prosecution rates, improving their woeful record on crime and dealing with the problems that really matter to the British people.
Labour voted against the Bill in its entirety on Second Reading and Third Reading because of parts 3 and 4, which represent a power grab that effectively bans peaceful protests and will compound the inequalities experienced by Gypsies and Travellers. I want to pay particular thanks to colleagues in the other place who have stood up for democracy and prevented the draconian provisions on protests that the Government tried to get through at the last minute.
Before I come to the protest amendments, I want briefly to touch on the other amendments in this grouping. First, we are grateful that the Government have listened to reason on so many of our amendments. I want to mention two in this grouping in particular. I pay tribute to the hard work of Lord Bassam in pressuring the Government to extend football banning orders to online racist abuse in Lords amendments 148, 118, 119 and 120. Racists who abuse football players do not deserve to be anywhere near a game of football. The amendments send a strong message that disgraceful racist behaviour has no place in the world of football, online or in person.
We are also glad that Lords amendment 89, which will repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, has been accepted by the Government and that they have finally decided to act. No one should be criminalised simply for sleeping rough. But I hope the Minister can provide some reassurance to the House that this crucial change will not be kicked into the long grass and that the new legislation will be brought in at the earliest opportunity.
I want to touch on Lords amendment 71. The Government are refusing to introduce a duty of candour on police officers at this stage to co-operate with inquiries. The Minister claimed that the existing schedule on standards of professional behaviour is sufficient, but we do not believe that it is. It states that police officers must act with honesty and integrity, which of course they should, but the amendment passed in the Lords goes significantly further to ensure that where the police are required to provide information to inquiries or other such proceedings, they must have regard to the pleadings allegations terms of reference and parameters of the relevant proceedings, but not be limited by them, in particular where they hold information that might change the ambit of the proceedings inquiry or investigation. That is a really important distinction. The Lords amendment goes significantly further than the statutory duty of co-operation.
In June 2021, the Daniel Morgan independent panel, which took eight years to report, recommended the creation of a statutory duty of candour to be owed by all law enforcement agencies to those whom they serve. It is time for decisions to be made and for actions to be taken to restore public confidence in the police service.
Part 4 of the Bill represents an attack on the Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, even though the police have made it clear that they neither want nor need these powers. The Government have rejected our calls to remove part 4, and that is one of the major reasons why we voted against the Bill in its entirety. Although Lords amendments 91 to 93 are very small technical amendments, they confirm the principles around the powers of seizure of property that we Opposition Members believe are unfair.
The problem that many Government Members seem to articulate whenever we debate this issue is actually one of antisocial behaviour. The solution to antisocial behaviour, wherever it comes, is tougher antisocial behaviour action. Under this Government, we saw 1.7 million incidents in the year to September 2021 and nothing has been done. Marginalising an entire minority is not the answer to antisocial behaviour. We need to distinguish between the two and not criminalise a minority.
I turn to the Lords amendments on protest. Over the past five days, thousands of people have been arrested and detained at anti-war protests across Russia. We would all defend their right to protest and yet here we are, in the mother of all democracies, debating an amendment to a Bill that would criminalise singing at a peaceful protest in this country. Britain has a long-standing and important democratic freedom to gather and to speak or to protest. The Minister quoted an HMICFRS report, but he misunderstood its conclusions. The report said that we need a
“modest reset of the scales” because police forces are usually good at planning protests but the “balance may tip”. The report’s recommendations were not legislative; they were to update and improve guidance to senior police officers, to improve the way in which the police assess the impact of protests, to improve police intelligence and to improve debrief processes, all of which are very sensible.
The Government asked the HMICFRS to look at some legislative options, which it did, and it gave some qualified support to some of them, but at no point was noise any part of that conversation. I have spoken to many senior police officers and at no point have any of them asked for any changes to the law on noise. The Bill goes way beyond the right balance between the right to protest and the right for others, which we agree with, to go about their daily lives.
Does my hon. Friend concur that those who protested in Peterloo were probably a little bit noisy, as were those who protested for women’s suffrage and those who protested against the poll tax? Indeed, she mentioned the international situation in Russia. This is about freedom and democracy. I am sure that she would concur with that.
Protests occur so that people can be heard, and if people need to be heard, they need to make a noise. I was particularly struck over the weekend not only by the masses who have stood up against an authoritarian state, but by the actions that the police have had to take against those people. If we are to criminalise people for exercising their rights, is that not just going down the same path?
My hon. Friend is right: this is about getting the right balance. We believe that the measures in part 3 of the Bill already threaten that careful balance by putting too much power into the hands of the Home Secretary, undermining rights, and hindering, rather than helping, the police to do their job. Labour’s Lords amendment 73 therefore focuses on the imposition of conditions related to noise on public processions. It would omit subsections (2) and (3) from clause 55, which broadens the circumstances in which conditions can be imposed by a senior police officer based on the noise generated by the people taking part and the impact that that has on the people in the area. Essentially, part 3 provides a trigger for imposing conditions on public assemblies, public processions and one-person protests if a protest is too noisy. The Opposition want those provisions removed from the Bill.
We also support Lords amendment 80, which was tabled by Lord Paddick and removes clause 56 from the Bill altogether, and we urge hon. Members to vote for Lords amendment 81 to ensure that permission can be granted for major protests in Parliament Square despite new rules on obstructing vehicle access.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the level of nuisance caused by any noise or vocalisation at a protest may be a matter not just of decibels, but of content? Because somebody might perceive one kind of content to be more of a nuisance than another, the level of nuisance, in and of itself, is subjective.
That is an important point. The way the police interpret the laws we give them will always be subjective to some degree. We have to be very careful to define in law exactly what we mean, because the police implement the laws we give them and their job needs to be as clear as possible.
If we consider what the future will hold if the House follows the route that the Government suggest, there are two options: either the police will be left constantly at odds with those who wish to protest, or we will be left with legislation on the statute book that the police do not want and will never use. In either instance, what is the point?
That is a very valid point. On the noise issue, I cannot see that the police will find a way to use the legislation. It would be a waste of legislation: it would not be implemented.
The Government motion to disagree and amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 80 would restore the original wording of clause 56 and add a vague definition of “serious disruption” that would apply to the noise provisions in the Bill. The Opposition do not believe that it is adequate; it could apply to singing in the street outside a place of worship or a transport facility. It does not work, and we do not support it. Additionally, although the provision would be in the Bill, the amendments in lieu would allow the Home Secretary to change it at any point, so it is slightly pointless.
On public spaces protection orders, the Opposition believe that rather than introducing sweeping powers that could catch people protesting against the closure of their local library or singing songs in the street, the Government should focus on genuine problems such as those considered in the clauses that Labour introduced to stop intimidatory protests outside schools or vaccine clinics. That is why we tabled a targeted amendment, Lords amendment 143, so that schools, local councils and the NHS could fast-track local buffer zones to prevent intimidatory anti-vax protests outside schools and vaccine clinics. We won that vote in the Lords and are pleased that, after a period of inaction, the Government have accepted Labour’s proposals to crack down on those dangerous protests and give schoolchildren and NHS staff the protection that they need.
We also supported giving the courts the ability to increase sentences if protesters put lives at risk by blocking motorways. Labour’s Lords amendment 88 limits the Government’s original amendment so that it applies only to motorways and A-roads rather than to any highway, which could include a path. It is not proportionate to apply a maximum six-month sentence to the blocking of a grass verge or a public footpath. We need a common-sense and balanced approach instead. The Government should look at the HMICFRS report and focus on improving training, guidance, co-ordination and resources to manage public order policing as the inspectorate has recommended, rather than new powers that either are too wide-ranging or replicate powers that the police already have.
The point of protest is to capture attention. Protests are noisy and sometimes annoying—I find them annoying; we all find it annoying to have to listen to some of the ongoing singing that we hear in this place—but they are fundamental to our democracy. If the public order provisions on noise in the Bill had been in place earlier, they would have stopped the suffragettes who marched for the right to vote, the children shouting loudly for action on climate change, or the Whitehall protesters against the Russian invasion. That is why Labour will keep pushing to limit the harmful provisions in this Bill.
There are elements of the Bill that we welcome, and it has been improved thanks to the hard work of Labour colleagues and, indeed, colleagues in all parts of the House. However, the Government have included disproportionate and draconian provisions that risk undermining our human rights and dividing communities. Mrs May is not present, but if she were, she might say that there is a fine line between being “popular” and being “populist”. We on these Benches want to see the Government stop chasing headlines and get back to the core duties of the Home Office: to keep people safe, bring criminals to justice, and uphold the rights and responsibilities of the rule of law.
I want to speak in particular about the issue of noisy protest, but I should begin by saying that, as the Minister outlined very well, there is a great deal of good in the Bill, covering many different areas.
There are facts on which I think everyone in the House would agree from the off. No one can doubt that in recent years the capacity for effective protest has been dramatically enhanced by technology, and enhanced a second time through the use of social media. No one can doubt, I think, that there are irresponsible and aggressive individuals and organisations who seek to inflict the maximum interruption and difficulty on the lives of others in the causes that they promote. And no one can doubt that the public have a right to go about their business without undue impediment. I do not think that any Member would contest those points.
I thank the Minister for engaging with me on this issue and for his clarifications this evening, both on the number of protests that this measure would be likely to affect and on the possibility of a review over a suitable but, I hope, not too long period, but—in my view at least—the measure should not be on the statute book. No serious case has been made that noise is a genuine problem. The Minister has conceded, and one understands why, that the measure is not likely to be used except in the tiniest minority of cases. We therefore have to ask whether the justification for it is adequate and proportionate. The offence is still vague and poorly defined, which is never a good thing in law. The police, as has been conceded, already have significant legal powers in relation to protests, and I regret to say that, worse, in some quarters they are the subject of a degree of public mistrust, which may be increased by our adding to their discretionary powers. Furthermore, I suspect that the measure will be extremely difficult for the courts to handle and adjudicate, even it proves to be compliant with article 11 of the Human Rights Act. All those are conservative—with a small and a large “c”—concerns that people might have about the operation of the rule of law in this country.
When people in Kyiv are dying for their beliefs and for the rights of freedom of speech and of association, the timing is unfortunate. I understand the motivations, and I understand that this has been lightly and sparingly applied, but an increase in discretion to qualify rights of protest that have been fundamental to our society and democratic traditions for hundreds of years is, I think, highly regrettable.
Let me begin by speaking about Lords amendments 73 to 89, which broadly cover the provisions in part 3, on public order. Part 3 does not technically extend to Scotland, but we are still very keen to lend our voice of complete opposition. As I mentioned on Second Reading, we support amendments that seek to mitigate the worst elements of part 3 because they will have an impact on everyone in these islands. We all have the right to speak up and hold power to account, including anyone travelling from Scotland to protest here, at the seat of power. While decisions are made on behalf of the people of Scotland by this place—and we hope that that may not be the case for much longer—the people of Scotland must retain the right to protest outside it.
In the past, I have made the journey from Scotland to this place to protest against many things, including the Iraq war, and I genuinely look forward every week to seeing who will be outside and what they will be bringing to the demonstration, whether I agree with what they are demonstrating about or not. Who can forget the wonderful WASPI women and the numerous noisy protests they held in the streets around Parliament? Rosie Dickson from WASPI Glasgow has told me how concerned she is that Scottish women born in the 1950s who have been unfairly denied their pensions by a Westminster Government now face
“having their human right to protest against it removed”.
They are being unfairly denied their right to their pensions, and now unfairly denied their right to object to that.
We support Lords amendments 73, 80 to 82 and 87, which I will speak to. I have concerns about Lords amendment 88, although on balance it is probably better than what was there before. Lords amendment 73 would remove subsections (2) and (3) from clause 55, which, unamended, would allow the police to impose conditions on a protest if they had a reasonable belief that the noise generated by the participants in the protest may result in
“serious disruption to the activities of an organisation which are carried on in the vicinity of the procession”,
or may have a significant and
“relevant impact on persons in the vicinity”.
The attention these noise restrictions have received from the wider public and the media is telling. Everybody knows that protests are noisy—that is how people get their point across. The louder they shout, the more we listen. Every day we are witnessing people protesting against the atrocities in Ukraine. Why on earth would we usher in legislation to curtail that?
The hon. Lady will have heard the noisy protests in this Chamber every Wednesday between 12 and 12.30. We are okay, because we are protected by parliamentary privilege, but surely if Conservative Members want to end noisy protests, they should be prepared to practise what they preach.
Some of us do try to keep that under control. We try our very best amid a lack of co-operation.
I was trying to find a way to work that into what I was saying, so I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.
We know that without demos and protests, a lot of things would not change. The Minister said that things changed through political campaigning and getting elected, but actually things change because people in local communities rise up and tell us what they want us to do. That is how democracy should function.
My hon. Friend is making some very good points on the importance of protests. One of the most significant protests in my constituency of late was when the people of Kenmure Street came together to try to stop their neighbours being removed from their homes by the Home Office. Does she agree that the Government should be trying to protect that kind of protest—the community involved and standing up for what is right for their neighbours—not trying to remove it?
I absolutely do, because if people feel empowered by being part of that democracy, other than getting to vote every four years, that can only be a good thing.
The notion that the police can intervene on any kind of noise threshold—as we have heard, we do not know what the threshold is—puts the fundamental right to protest at risk. This Bill will create a situation where people who are simply trying to have their voices heard will be dragged into the criminal justice system. We are going to need extremely large prisons by the time this Government have finished with all this legislation. The reduced knowledge threshold, where a person ought to have known that restrictions were in force, is an Orwellian nightmare. A protester will have to second-guess how the authorities will judge their behaviour.
The language used in clause 55 is vague at best: “serious unease”, “alarm” and “distress”. A protest may seem more alarming or distressing to one police officer than to another. This hands far too much discretion to the police, and there is a point when too much discretion becomes a burden. That was echoed by former police chiefs and senior officers, who have warned against the political pressure that this Bill will place on frontline officers. If the police do not think these powers are necessary, why do the Government? As we have heard from a number of speakers, the powers already exist for them to deal sufficiently with a protest that could result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community. I just do not think the Government have made a good enough argument that the powers are insufficient. For those reasons, we support Lords amendment 73.
We also support Lords amendment 80, which would remove the police’s ability to impose greater conditions on static demonstrations. The Public Order Act 1986 was careful to delineate and differentiate the conditions that can be imposed on static demonstrations and those that can be imposed on a march or moving protest, which is sensible as it reflects the relative ease with which a static demonstration can be policed. Clause 56, which the amendment seeks to remove, will see the distinction removed.
In the words of Big Brother Watch, clause 56 could potentially hand the police
“unfettered discretion to impose any condition they see fit including, for example, restrictions on the words or slogans that can be expressed on placards.”
That is a democratic outrage. This is an attempt by the Government to level the distinction between static and moving protests. As they tend to do, they are levelling down, not levelling up. For that reason, we support Lords amendment 80.
We also lend support to Lords amendment 87, which removes the police’s ability to impose conditions on a one-person protest. What a situation. The might of the Government and their legislative power is bearing down on single protesters, which is ridiculous and disproportionate in equal measure. Worryingly, it has the potential to snare anyone who even stops to engage with that protester as committing a criminal offence. As I said, we are going to need much larger prisons.
Lords amendment 88 would narrow the scope of the offence of wilful obstruction of the highway to include only highways that are part of the strategic road network. We are caught in a trap where, on the one hand, I am glad to see this offence is restricted to the strategic road network but, on the other hand, I am alarmed to see the associated sentence increased from a fine to 51 weeks’ imprisonment—much larger prisons. This amendment is targeted at some very specific protesters whom we have all witnessed taking their protests to the streets and roads, but I feel this severe penalty has the potential to create a chilling effect—I have used that term all too often in the past six months during our consideration of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill and the Nationality and Borders Bill, although, from what I am hearing from the other place tonight, there is now not much left of the latter.
Turning to Government amendments 90 to 93, I am disappointed that the only amendments to part 4, on unauthorised encampments, appear to be technical clarifying amendments that do nothing to row back on the measures expanding the criminalisation of trespass and the accompanying police powers. Again, this is an area where existing powers are available to the police. This is more to do with targeting a minority than targeting trespass.
We know this Bill will disproportionately interfere with the right of respect for the private and family life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller groups. The new seizure powers in respect of vehicles—vehicles often being the home of Gypsies and Travellers, in particular—are very likely to mean that people will end up facing homelessness. I can only hope that, in mitigation, the Government will focus on providing further support and funding to local authorities across these islands for authorised sites and implementing a national sites strategy. They might want to speak to the Scottish Government about some of their work on this. The Court of Appeal has set out that this community has an enshrined freedom to move from one place to another, and that the state has a positive obligation to protect Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’ traditional way of life.
What are the Government so afraid of? From the man outside Parliament today adorned in plastic bottles to make a point about the overuse of plastics, to the many who finally found their voice in the last two years through the Black Lives Matter movement, and who are using that voice to make a very simple point that black lives matter every bit as much as white lives. From our Ukrainian brothers and sisters here on these islands who feel so helpless right now and who need to come together to protest against what is happening in their country, to people who simply wish to save the planet. What are the Government so afraid of? Well, I thank and applaud those protesters. This Government want to stop and criminalise them.
I will be brief and speak to two issues: first, in praise and thanks; and secondly, by way of caution.
Almost 200 years ago, as the cities were filling with the dispossessed at the end of the Napoleonic wars, our forebears in this place came together and passed a piece of legislation that today seems anachronistic and wrong. As a result of the votes later tonight, we will consign that legislation to history. Our understanding of rough sleeping and homelessness has transformed unrecognisably over the course of those two centuries. Today, we see it as a crisis of housing, of health, of social justice and of the criminal justice system. We do not see it as a criminal offence for someone to find themselves sleeping rough on the streets, and we should not live in a country where it is a criminal offence.
I am grateful to the Minister for his remarks earlier. He has been exceptionally helpful to me, to my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) and for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) and to others across the House who have taken this issue seriously. I urge him to make sure that this legislation is repealed as swiftly as possible, as there is no good argument for further delay. When I was Secretary of State I heard it argued that there may be some powers in the Vagrancy Act that need to be retained and modernised, but I have not seen any convincing arguments to back that up, so whatever review or consultation takes place, I hope that it is done quickly. I suspect that it will conclude that no further powers are required. I hope then that this part of the Bill will be commenced as quickly as possible, because we as a House will have done a good thing, and our society will have moved forward.
By way of caution, I will just speak briefly to the point about noisy protest. To me, the right to protest is fundamental to a free society. None of us enjoys being the subject of protests. In my time as a Minister, I was the subject of protests. They can be awkward and difficult and they can be noisy—the protests outside the Russian embassy were noisy this weekend—but we do have to exercise great caution when we start to limit those freedoms.
In the past week or two, I have been thinking about Canada, another great liberal society, and the way in which the protests in Ottawa were handled, or rather mishandled, by the Canadian Government. Even in a society that we might respect, admire and see ourselves akin to, Governments, police forces and law authorities can make mistakes. I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman, but wonder whether the Government are going too far in this respect. I accept his comments that this measure is very unlikely to be used often; it may never be used at all. For that reason, I wonder whether it is the right step to put it onto the statute book. I will not be voting against the Government and opposing the measure tonight, but I do hope that the Minister or his successors will carry forward their commitment to review this in the years ahead, because I suspect that this measure is a step too far and that we are pushing up against the limits of what we as a free society should be doing, particularly in the context of what we see around the world, where we want to be a shining light for liberty and freedom.
I shall have to reduce the time limit to three minutes if there is a chance for most people to make a short contribution.
I rise to speak in favour of Lords amendments 73 and 80.
Like many of my hon. Friends, I marched and protested in opposition to the Iraq war. They were some of the largest and most important protests that we have ever seen. Anyone who attended or saw them would agree they were big, they were noisy and, by their very nature, they caused some disruption. None the less, it was absolutely right that the people were allowed to protest against one of the biggest injustices of our time, even if it was in direct opposition to the policy of the Government. Let us be clear: if protests of this kind, or protests such as those against the poll tax, were to take place today under the measures in the Bill, there would be a real fear that they could be stopped by this Government.
As has been reiterated time and again in this Chamber, the right to peaceful protest, however disruptive it may be to Ministers and Members of Parliament, is one of the fundamental tenets of our democracy. Yet the restrictions that the Government want to impose in the Bill would allow the police to render protests inert, amounting to what is an effective ban. Of course, we have yet to be given any clarity about why the Government are giving themselves such draconian powers, especially when the Government and the police already have ample powers to prevent protests that threaten public order and to take action against those protests they deem disruptive.
It could not be clearer that the powers that the Government want to hand themselves are an extreme overreach, which should leave us all worried about their ability to stifle popular protests against their policies. The reality is that these measures are nothing more than a petty vengeance against protesters by Ministers who are too thin-skinned to accept any criticism. Frankly, they are measures that put the protection of ministerial egos and business interests before the protection of human rights, as part of an intentional journey towards the creation of a Big Brother state that stifles protest and dissent.
Let there be no doubt: this is an extraordinary ideological attack on our civil liberties, with draconian laws, from the undermining of our trade unions to the taking away of our British citizenship without notice, all passed by this Government to curb our freedoms and restrict our rights. That is why this Government must be challenged on every occasion to stop the further erosion of our civil liberties.
In the time given, I wish to speak on Government amendments (a) and (b) to the Bill in lieu of Lords amendments 189 and 146. Of course, I am speaking about the amendment to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which brings us a massive step closer to ending rough sleeping and would drastically change how we view and help those on the streets.
For almost 200 years, the criminalisation of the homeless has shamed our country, but at long last the Vagrancy Act’s days are numbered. I thank the Minister for his constructive discussions with me, and my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick for being beside me, both when he was on the Front Bench and now on the Back Benches, fighting for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act.
I know there has been some concern in our discussions about the Vagrancy Act’s disappearing and our inability to deal with aggressive begging. I want to make the point that there are powers in place today in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 which are now used by the police in the majority of cases against aggressive begging. It should be no surprise, therefore, that arrests and prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act have plummeted since 2014. From the conversations I have had with the Met and the City of London Police, I believe alternative powers to deal with aggressive begging are already available.
I am a pragmatist, so I accept the Government’s position of seeking a thorough and comprehensive review, but I ask the Minister to ensure that that is done quickly and concisely; up to 18 months is a very long time, so I ask him to please bring it forward. I hope that during the review he and the Home Secretary might consider revising the specific guidance on aggressive begging under the 2014 Act. I would welcome his response on that.
Finally, in my constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster we have the largest number of rough sleepers in the United Kingdom. I hope that the repeal of the Vagrancy Act will send a clear message to those sleeping on the street, tonight and every night that we will help and support them to turn their lives around and we will no longer criminalise them.
I am really proud to represent Sheffield Hallam for so many reasons, but one that is particularly relevant to today’s debate is the city’s long and proud tradition of protest. In the 1800s, Sheffield’s Chartists took part in mass demonstrations, holding nightly meetings in Sheffield’s Paradise Square to protest against the then royal ban on open-air meetings. Sheffield played a pivotal role in the struggle for women’s suffrage, and our city’s suffragettes took to the streets time and again to fight for the right to vote. My point is that protests have formed the world around us. They are the reason that I stand here today. They have made our world a better place. Protest is often the start of change. Yes, it is often loud and often messy, because people have been ignored for too long and we need to listen.
Without protests, our country would be unrecognisable. Women would not have won the vote. There would be no NHS. Parliament would be less democratic. The right to protest is a person’s right to shape the world around them—to stand up for what they believe is right and to oppose what they believe is wrong. It is a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy. As such, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a flagrant attack on the core principles of that democracy. When this Bill was first proposed, we rightly saw people come together and spread out into the streets because what was being proposed was utterly draconian. I am proud to have worked with the Bishop of Sheffield and many others to talk about how this will impact on Sheffield’s history but also our future.
Having heard what has happened in the other place, I am glad that several amendments have been proposed that would mitigate the worst impacts of the Bill—particularly amendment 73 removing the ability of the police to impose noise-based restrictions on public processions, amendment 80 on giving police the power to impose greater conditions on static demonstrations, and amendment 87 removing their ability to impose conditions on one-person protests. The idea that one person cannot protest or should not be allowed to express themselves is completely at odds with what our democracy should stand for.
We live in a climate and ecological emergency where the future is not only for our country but for the whole planet, and it will be determined by the actions that are taken over the next few years. It is absolutely right that people should be able to hold us to account by raising their voices on our inaction. We have seen a brilliant wave of young people standing up for our environment—for a liveable planet for future generations. We should hold on to those thoughts as we protect protest.
I rise to consider Lords amendments 89 and 146 and the Government’s amendments in lieu. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick and my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken on their speeches on this subject. I declare my interest as the co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on ending homelessness.
There are two aspects to the Vagrancy Act. The first, of course, is being homeless. I have always taken the view that someone should be assisted and not arrested if they have nowhere to live. That is one of the reasons it is desperately important that we end the Vagrancy Act as fast as we possibly can. One of the considerations is that when we go and speak to people who are homeless, rough sleeping on the street, they will say that they fear authority—they fear the police. They should not fear the police; the police should be able to assist in trying to direct them to charities or other bodies that can help them to find a secure place to live instead of their being threatened with either being moved on or literally being arrested. That is one of the most important reasons why we want this off the statute book as fast as possible.
The other aspect is begging. Antisocial behaviour, begging under false pretence of need, forcing others to beg and trespassing are all outlawed under our much more modern legal actions. The police have the powers to deal with this without using the Vagrancy Act, but they will use it because it is a catch-all. In 2014, 2,219 people were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act, but in 2019 this dropped to 742, demonstrating that we do not need it any more and we must get rid of it.
During the pandemic, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark led the way on ensuring that everyone was taken off the streets, for which I commend him and the whole Department. However, the rough sleeper count is now back to 4,500—half what it was in 2019 but still far too high.
I am glad that the Government have given way, finally, on abolishing the Vagrancy Act, but I am worried, because we cannot afford to wait 18 months. We will then reach the 200th anniversary of that Act being brought in, which was way before any of us were thought of, let alone born. The reality is, Minister, that you are considering the introduction of a new Bill that will delay things yet further. Can you give us—
Much of what the Liberal Democrats have issue with in the Bill has been covered by my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael in previous consideration. We are making a dangerous and draconian move today. We are told that it will be small steps, and I hope that is true, but in the light of what is happening in Ukraine, it is not a good look.
I will focus today on a chink of light in the Bill—a piece of positivity to take home with us tonight—which is the Vagrancy Act and Government amendment 146. I am delighted, genuinely, that the Government have tabled the amendment. It is four years and 21 days since I asked the then Prime Minister, Mrs May, a question about the Vagrancy Act. I laid the first repeal Bill on that day, and there have been three since then and countless homelessness Ministers—we have lost count. I know that the Government want to claim credit for all these things like they were all their idea, and that is fine, but I end with a genuine thank you to all those Members on the Government Benches and the Opposition Benches, because this has been a cross-party proposal from the moment it was conceived.
Above all, I give credit to the students who brought me this idea in the first place. I have had many emails from them in the past couple of days saying they were in their third year at university, they had been kicked out of the clubs and they had talked to the homeless people on the streets of Oxford. They had asked them what scared them, and the homeless people told them about the Vagrancy Act. That started a petition, and that is how this began. It was the citizen creating change—that is democracy. It is extraordinary for them to start a petition and for it to end here, and I genuinely thank the Government for listening to their voices.
I echo the words and sentiments of Bob Blackman and others when they say there is no need to delay and that lawyers have looked at this. There are parts of the country where the police do not use the Vagrancy Act at all. We have tried and tested ways of dealing with this issue. We have already got the legislation. Every day that Act continues is another day that a homeless person is sleeping rough on our streets, scared that one single person—this Act is old, so no witness is needed—can come up to them and prosecute them under this Dickensian, outdated law. We do not need it one day more; this is a better country than that. We should not be saying to homeless people, “You are a criminal.” Instead, we should be acting with compassion and care, and I hope that is what we have started today.
Like many colleagues, I welcome enormously the steps that the Government are taking in respect of the Vagrancy Act. I will say no more about that and seek to concentrate on two of the most important aspects of the Bill for my constituents. They are two of the most important aspects where we need to be steadfast in not accepting some of the amendments that would weaken some of those key provisions.
The first is a point that has been aired a great deal in a lot of public correspondence: noise nuisance. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 set the legal framework and definitions that local authority noise teams need to use when seeking to address the disturbance being caused to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s home or property and the peaceful enjoyment and ability of people to go about their duties in their place of work. The Minister, like me, is an emanation of local government, so he will be aware of the frustrations that so many people express time and again, when they are unable to gain that peaceful enjoyment. The powers are weak, and the ability to ensure that action is taken to address disturbance is found to fall short. Many of my constituents will welcome the fact that the Government are taking steps not just to make protests, which sit outside the definitions of that Act, actionable under law and by the police, but to address the persistent disruption that can be created by noises that are not exceptionally loud, but designed to make it difficult for people to go about their duties or to enjoy their home or place of work in peace. Given the age of that legislation, the Bill takes a reasonable step.
The Bill mentions that the Minister is of the view that nothing is incompatible with the rights under the European convention. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Human Rights—I know that other members are present in the Chamber—which has taken evidence on a point that Sarah Jones highlighted. I simply say how much I welcome the unamended powers in part 4 of the Bill, which seek to strengthen the position in respect of unauthorised encampments.
Again, as an emanation of local government, I am aware that my local authority and my neighbouring local authority spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of council tax payers’ money every year to clean up the consequences of unauthorised encampments in public parks and places that are normally enjoyed by our constituents going about their business, but who are prevented from enjoying those spaces by their unauthorised and unlawful use. The strengthening of those powers will make a material difference to our ability to maintain our constituents’ quality of life. For those reasons, I strongly support the Government in taking forward those powers unamended.
When people complain to me about the noise at Prime Minister’s questions, I always tell them that they can tune into any of the two-hour hearings of the Select Committees that I sit on and listen to some calm forensic questioning, but they do not, because shouting—the impassioned barrage of noise—is a fundamental of PMQs and of democracy. Democracy is noisy. Democracy is irritating, but that is democracy.
It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that I have attended a good number of protests and never once—never once—have I attended a protest without the intention to disrupt or to make a noise. Quite frankly, what would be the point? When our constituents feel that they cannot be heard through other means, they stand outside and they shout. Even if they are fox hunting supporters or Brexiteers, I smile when I walk past them as they are performing that basic level of democracy—from the agora to Parliament Square. The idea that we would criminalise those people is frankly disgusting.
My hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Does he see the irony that as we watch Putin’s tanks roll into Ukraine and protesters having their peaceful protests broken up by the police, we in this place are debating a Bill that would take away the right to protest?
I do. The expansion of police powers is highly disproportionate. In the words of a former police chief and senior officers who have written to the Government, it will place an “onerous burden” on and apply “greater political pressure” to frontline police. Ultimately, it will be up to the police to determine whether the low threshold has been met.
Ruth Walshe, a volunteer from Green and Black Cross, detailed her experiences of the police during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. She heard the police say to her:
“‘who does that b**** think she is’, ‘can’t we lock them and put them in a cell’, ‘what do those f****** want’”.
Reports of that type of behaviour are corroborated by the Charing Cross report, which found that officers present at those protests had made horrific homophobic, sexist and racist remarks. There are very many good police officers, but collectively, there is a problem in the police. Rather than trying to deal with those systemic problems, the Government are saying, “Make racist, sexist or homophobic abuses and you get more powers to control woman, people of colour and queer people.” It is outrageous.
I also rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 87, which would remove clause 61, which should really be called the “Get Steve Bray” clause. I have found Steve bloody irritating at times, but creating an unprecedented and disproportionate law to go after a man who interrupts the Minister’s Sky News interviews is quite frankly pathetic. Some hon. Members may remember Brian Haw, the peace campaigner who lived opposite. It was wrong then for the Labour Government to try to get rid of him from Parliament Square and it was right that Conservative Members stood up for him to stop the law being changed. They should be doing it now.
I will end with this observation. The Government did not like the Black Lives Matter protests when tens of thousands of young people went on to the streets for racial equality, they were embarrassed by the anti-Trump demonstrations during his state visit and they despised the 1 million people who marched to try to stop Brexit, so we are here with a Bill that tries to make the snowflakes opposite feel better. That, frankly, is what they are: the Secretary of State is a snowflake, and the Minister’s Back Benchers are snowflakes. They cannot cope with a bit of robust debate. They cry into their port in the evening when people say things they do not like or they are too noisy. Rather than debate them back or viscerally argue back, what they do is shut them down and make them illegal. It is nasty, it is wrong and it should go.
I will be brief, as I realise that time is pressing.
My father, sadly, passed away in September last year. Some years earlier, on his way home from work, he was involved in road traffic accident that left him almost dead and crippled, lying in a field. He never walked again. He was crippled by a hit-and-run driver, but because he received treatment in hospital very quickly, he survived, and because protesters were not blocking the road to the hospital he attended, he survived. My father went on to see marriages, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My parents enjoyed years of marriage and had their 63rd wedding anniversary. I strongly believe that if protesters had blocked that road to the hospital A&E where I saw my father with his leg just about hanging off—it was absolutely horrific—[Interruption.] Thank you very much. In that case, I would not have had that time with my father, so I will be supporting this Bill tonight in memory of my father.
I rise to support Lords amendments 73, 80 and 87, and to remind the House that they are very much in line with the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, when we looked at part 3 of the Bill and reached the conclusion that the restrictions on non-violent protest in the Bill were inconsistent with our rights.
Given the short amount of time, I am going to focus on the noise trigger, because I think that that is the most egregious part of this. A restriction on the right to protest that targets noise strikes at the very heart of why people gather together to protest—to have their voices heard about an issue that is important to them and which they want other people to treat with importance. We noted in the Committee that the larger and better supported a demonstration is, the louder it is likely to be, so restrictions on noise could disproportionately impact on the demonstrations that have the greatest public backing.
Much of the written and oral evidence we received emphasised the centrality of noise to effective protest. For example, Liberty and Big Brother Watch highlighted:
“Protests, by their very nature, are noisy. Noise is also a crucial means of expressing collective solidarity or grief and, quite literally, making voices heard by those in power.”
This was echoed in oral evidence by Zehrah Hasan, the director of Black Protest Legal Support, who said:
“Creating noise at a protest is quite literally a part of people making their voices heard.”
Another witness told us that
“this new trigger, which is noise, is an absolute affront to the right to protest. This noise trigger should not exist for the purposes of imposing any conditions on assemblies and processions. It is essentially an existential threat to the right to protest.”
That is just a flavour of the evidence we heard.
The Minister has referred to the European convention on human rights, but that is intended to provide rights that are “practical and effective”, not “theoretical and illusory”. If the police have discretion to shut down protests because they are noisy, the right to protest will become theoretical and illusory in England and Wales. Thankfully, these laws are not going to apply in Scotland, but as my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin said, many Scots come to London to protest and they will be affected by these laws. I emphasise that, because it was made clear to the Joint Committee on Human Rights that neither the police, nor Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, requested this noise trigger. They may have requested other changes, but they did not request that. As even Conservative Members have said, this measure is a fundamental threat to the right of freedom of speech and assembly in this country, and as the JCHR said in our report, it should not be in the Bill and it should go.
I rise to speak to the amendments about noise, including Lords amendment 73 on processions, Lords amendment 80 on assemblies, and Lords amendment 87 on one-person protests. I am pleased that the Stop Brexit man, Mr Steve Bray, has come up, because I completely agree: he is profoundly annoying. He is very persistent, and he seems to have singled me out personally on a great many occasions—[Interruption.] I can’t think why. No indeed, I am grateful to Members for raising that. I cannot imagine why. The thing about Steve Bray is that he has become a great British institution. He is an oddball, he is a novelty, he is entertaining and, yes, he is annoying. Indeed, he could often be quietened down just by being offered an interview, and I would recommend that course of action to anyone.
The crucial point about Mr Bray is that he did not make one blind bit of difference to the course of events in this country—an entire waste of money for whoever has been paying for him to be there. Indeed, on his birthday one year he ran into me and my right hon. Friend Mr Francois, and posed for a beautiful selfie so that together we could, cheekily, enjoy his birthday. He is a great British institution, entirely pointless, and willing to celebrate with his opponents on his birthday. I do not think we should accept any amendments in order to target hard cases, because hard cases make for bad law.
I also wish to mention an article written jointly by me and the former right hon. Member for Beaconsfield, Dominic Grieve QC. In the aftermath of the protests over the Sarah Everard vigil, he and I wrote an article contextualising this Bill. I had then, and I have now, considerable concerns about what we are doing on protest, but I decided to hold my nose and vote with the Government. I have often said to people that I cannot be fighting on every front; nor should I be since I was elected as a Conservative. However, one person alone has persuaded me that I should agree with their lordships on the Bill. That person is the ostensibly Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, Mr Trudeau, and his treatment, ostensibly from a left liberal perspective, of protesters with whom he disagreed.
I note that Sarah Jones condemned anti-vax protesters, and yes, they may well have a dangerous point of view. I have been pro-vaccine throughout this crisis, but we cannot condemn protesters because we happen to disagree with them politically. Goodness knows, right now I am the victim of a defamatory campaign in my constituency by people who evidently have not bothered to trouble themselves to look at my views.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification. Like her, I would like people to have the freedom to get vaccinated, and I have said that throughout the crisis.
With apologies to my right hon. Friend the Minister—and he is a friend—I agree with my right hon. Friend Jesse Norman and others. I commend to my right hon. Friend Robert Jenrick just flirting with it—just get in that rebel Lobby with us. Let us say to the Government that actually this is going too far on noise. It is time to say, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle vividly demonstrated, that yes protests are inherently noisy and annoying. If noise is ever used as a weapon, I am sure other instruments of law could be used.
As the dogs of war are unleashed in Ukraine, and women and men are dying defending their independence and freedom, it is timely to reflect on our own freedoms as citizens. We are debating one of the most egregious attempts to stifle our most fundamental rights, with ill thought through reforms without evidence-based justification. I am not alone in that assessment: more than 800,000 petitioners, ex-police chiefs and senior advisers as well as three UN special rapporteurs and Members of the House of Lords from across the political spectrum all have deep-rooted concerns about the Bill and its lasting implications in limiting our freedoms and dividing our communities.
Surely the freedom to protest is one of the most important freedoms. Protest has been the engine of reform throughout Britain’s history from the peasants’ poll tax protest of 1381 to the recent Black Lives Matter movement. The rights to challenge authority, to speak up, to chant and to march are freedoms that are part of who we are; we relinquish them at our peril.
Conservative Members will complain that the Bill does not remove the freedom to protest. Not in so many words, but the right to protest must include the right to be noisy. A quiet, supine protest or a protest denied because the shouting was too loud is no protest at all. The point of protest is to give a collective voice to those who feel that they have not been listened to, particularly for marginalised and oppressed communities who have been told too many times to keep quiet. The Public Order Act 1986 was introduced by the Thatcher Government in the wake of the miners’ strike. Are Ministers really saying that Thatcher did not go far enough and that she was a soft touch on protestors? That is not how I remember it. I beseech the Home Secretary and Ministers to think again, even at this late stage.
The hon. Member is giving a good speech. Does he agree that the Bill is part of a wider pattern that makes it even more dangerous? When we consider it alongside voter suppression measures, attacks on the Electoral Commission and judicial review, the extension of the Official Secrets Act and threats to the Human Rights Act, it is part of an attack on the very heart of our democracy.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. As she says, the damage from the many things being combined by the Government will have a devastating impact on our democracy.
The measures proposed by the Government to tackle crime are also deeply worrying. They are failing to tackle the roots of crime and antisocial behaviour, and yet I am hardly surprised. Their record is of taking more than 20,000 police officers off our streets and ceding ground to criminals, and even now they have not made up for the numbers of police, civilian staff and police community and support officers that they cut. When people do not see police in their communities, as has been the case in my constituency, they feel less safe and secure, and crime goes up. In actual fact it is up 14%, according to the Office for National Statistics—not to mention the huge reduction in convictions for rape and domestic abuse. Why are the Government, through the Bill, making such an appalling attack against the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities even though the police do not want the extra powers?
There is chaos in the criminal justice system with a backlog of years for cases. Victims and witnesses are simply giving up and criminals are laughing up their sleeves. The Government’s response is to close courts, with 300 closed since 2010. They simply do not get it. We must defend the right to protest, to picket and to make a racket when we feel that we are not being listened to.
I rise to speak to the amendments on noise and protest. Frankly, I should not have to. At the beginning of the Bill process, I was discussing the Bill with a friend of mine who said, “This is a ridiculous thing to put in the Bill.” I said, “Don’t worry—the Government will accept amendments in Committee.” They did not. Then I said, “Don’t worry—if they do not do it in Committee, they will surely accept their lordships’ amendments.” I have certainly yet to see the Government make enough concessions on that. That has led me to worry.
I worry that at a time when Conservatives should be promoting freedom of speech, we have created a weapon for our opponents to say that we oppose it. We should not be doing that. I worry that Government Members give the impression that we think that demonstrations are okay as long as they are nicely decorous, barely audible and easy to miss, and we forget that anger and frustration are natural human emotions that find their expression in a democratic society through the ability to protest and, yes, make a noise. I worry that, while Opposition Members have talked about the concern regarding large protests, the measures will actually have more effect on more marginal issues and smaller groups. I think back to the 1980s and the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which was protesting to provide AIDS treatment to people. There was never a noisier, more active, disruptive group than ACT UP in my memory. They were representing a group that was marginalised, so they could only make a noise to make their voice heard. I worry that the Bill will have an undue impact on marginal groups.
I worry that, at a time when we need clarity so much in the way in which the law affects people’s lives, the Bill is so vague that people will say, “Why are we ‘noisy’ and not them?” How on earth does that help us to create a calmer discourse between those who have different opinions? I worry that we are asking the police to make too many judgments at a time when the police themselves want clarity, and not to be put into the mix. I love the fact that the British police do not care what people are protesting about, so why are we creating something where, in the moment, they have to make a judgment? I worry ultimately that, at a time when in our society we need trust between people with profoundly different opinions, the provisions in the Bill do nothing at all to help in that regard.
Recent days have indeed underlined the importance of peaceful protest and freedom of expression. Only this weekend I helped to organise, alongside my hon. Friend Hywel Williams, a rally for solidarity in Caernarfon for the people of Ukraine against the illegal invasion of their country. We joined, of course, a wave of demonstrations that have been sweeping across Europe. Meanwhile, the whole world is witnessing the bravery of protestors in Russia, who are defying Putin’s authoritarian regime to take to the streets against the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of Russians have been arrested, some simply for holding up anti-war signs—a clear violation of people’s right to peacefully protest. Yet what do we find ourselves discussing here?
While the UK Government are quick to denounce the authoritarianism of Putin’s Russia, they are set on implementing part 3 of the Bill, which is a direct threat to people’s right to protest in Wales—a right that is integral to the history of Wales as a nation. From protests against the enclosure of land in Gwynedd in the 1810s, the Chartist uprising in Newport in the 1830s, the Rebecca riots by tenant farmers against the payment of tolls in the 1840s, language rights—the very essence of noise—protests in the 1960s, and the miners’ strikes in the 1980s, to recent protests on racial injustice and the cost-of-living crisis, it is clear that the act of protest is woven through the past and present of Wales.
I welcome the changes to part 3 in the other place to remove the limits on our protest rights, such as Lords amendment 30, which removes new restrictions from public assemblies, but the Government have made it clear that they have no intention whatsoever of listening to the overwhelming cross-party opposition on these issues. Not content with clamping down on our right to protest, the UK Government have launched a new attack on Welsh Gypsies, Romas and Travellers through part 4 of the Bill. Despite already being marginalised by society, it will criminalise their way of life and allow for the confiscation of their homes. Importantly, it will directly undermine existing devolved Welsh legislation.
The criminalisation of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller adults will have a knock-on effect for their children, who are at greater risk of being taken into care, directly undermining the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011, which places a duty on Welsh Ministers to have due regard for the rights of children as set out under the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. Criminalisation contravenes part 3 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, which places a legal obligation on local authorities in Wales to both assess and provide for residential and transit provision for Gypsies and Travellers. Our Senedd rightly refused to grant consent for the changes to part 4. It would therefore be wrong to apply it in Wales. That is just one example of the creeping effect of this place on devolved legislation. We must stand firm against it; otherwise, our Senedd in Wales will be being ignored.
I will always defend the right to protest. Members could say that it is part of the glue that binds us together, which I will come on to a little later. Recently, Unite the union decided to picket a jobs fair that I organised in Worksop, which I thought was quite a bizarre thing to protest against. It was well attended by people from outside the constituency. We had people from Broxtowe Labour and Socialist Worker, and people bussed in from Nottingham and Chesterfield, but nevertheless I defend their right to do that, not least because it helps to support my pledge to increase footfall in Worksop town centre. While it was unpleasant for some of the more vulnerable job seekers, it did not put people off. Hundreds attended and many secured jobs there and then.
What I will certainly not defend is mindless hooliganism, breaching the rights of others, putting livelihoods at risk and indeed putting lives at risk. Some of the worst episodes I have witnessed involved so-called protesters gluing themselves to trains and buses. Aside from the mindless damage caused by those protesters—be they from groups such as Extinction Rebellion or others—we witnessed first-hand these people preventing ambulances getting to hospitals, which happened right here on Westminster Bridge. We also saw them blocking motorways such as the M25 and preventing people from getting to work. And this coming at a time when people were desperate to protect their livelihoods in the face of the huge challenges of the covid-19 pandemic. Our children have been prevented from getting to school at a time when their education has already been affected by disruption on numerous occasions. I asked those people, “How are you helping to protect the environment when you are stopping people from using public transport?”
I have sadly succumbed to the parliamentary stone since entering this place. I have been told many times that I look nothing like my official photograph on the website or my roller banner and a little more worse for wear. Yet as bad as it is getting, I still do not quite feel the need to glue my face to the floor as an Insulate Britain protester decided would be a good idea, although I gather that was to disrupt traffic rather than for aesthetic reasons.
It is not just about roads. We have also seen disruption around schools and vaccination centres, but it would be a mistake to limit legislation to those areas. We must make sure we protect our critical national infrastructure and we need to make sure that happens all over the country and in constituencies like mine. Whether it is dealing with harmful acts by legislating to stop them being reprobates in Retford, hoodlums in Harworth or—I am going to stop with the alliteration before I get back to Worksop—the Bill will make action that is tough but fair a reality. That is why we should not accept amendments that water down this excellent Bill.
I want to refer to two parts of the Bill: on protests and on Travelling communities.
I was one of the organisers of the huge 2003 demonstration against the war in Iraq. It was obvious that whatever restrictions the police or the Government wanted to put on that demonstration, they could not because the numbers—1 million in Hyde Park and hundreds of thousands more in the streets—were so huge. That demonstration was historic for its size and effect. What we have before us now is far too much discretion being given to the police to decide whether a demonstration should go ahead or not, or whether it is appropriately noisy or not. I do not think that many police even want that discretion. The Minister was very vague on when there would be any review of the legislation, should it go through tonight. He conceded that it should be reviewed, but did not say when that would happen.
If a demonstration is to mean anything, it must be effective, it must be loud and it must cause some degree of disruption. What I see coming ahead is the police trying to arrest samba bands and taking away PA equipment and so on. That will send a message all around the world that this country is closing down on demonstrations at the very time we are saying we support demonstrations in other parts of the world. Every single one of the rights we have was won by people being brave enough to protest. The Chartists and many others put themselves at enormous risk to get a message across and bring about a change in society. Protest is an essential part of a decent, free and democratic society. We should not be voting for restrictions and we should not be giving the police the powers to prevent protests in our society. That is a very bad move.
The other side of the Bill that I will refer to in the little time that I have left is the attitude towards Travelling communities. They are abused and discriminated against all over this continent of Europe, and they are treated abominably. They get a very bad press and are treated like pariahs by much of the media, yet we claim to support the European convention on human rights and, through our Human Rights Act 1998, we claim to support the right to lead that nomadic life, the right to be Travellers and the right to access appropriate sites.
What we are doing is bowing down before some unpleasant anti-Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community pressures to restrict that right. We should not be doing it, because if we restrict that right and go against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, we go after many, many other communities as well. In my view, it is discrimination, pure and simple, against an historic tradition of the right to roam in our society.
Ever since I entered this place, not one Bill has occupied as much space in my inbox as this one, and I am sure that many Government Members have been similarly inundated with messages from their constituents. Many of my constituents are horrified, disturbed and frankly suspicious of this Government’s attempt to severely suppress the right to protest. Some of those who are getting in contact with me have never attended a protest, but like me, they are absolutely committed to preserving and protecting our fundamental rights. These constituents are currently watching the autocratic President Putin on their TV screens arresting hundreds of his own people for peacefully protesting and demonstrating against his country’s barbaric assault on Ukraine.
The Conservative party of the 21st century has shed all illusions of being a party that is committed to conserving, protecting and defending our liberal democracy and, indeed, of being a party that is committed to the liberalism that I had assumed was a key tenet of its ideology. Thankfully, the other place has rejected a string of proposals that would have given the police in England and Wales increased powers, including the power to stop and search anyone at a protest without suspicion. Even many Conservative peers did not support the Government’s proposals.
Sadly, however, the likes of clause 55 still exist in the Bill. Make no mistake, the noise clause is a crack-down on dissent. It provides more tools in the establishment’s armoury. It is authoritarian and draconian. The clause effectively ends the right to protest as we know it and provides yet another example of this virtue-signalling Government—
I am sorry; I will not, because the hon. Member has just come in, and lots of Opposition Members wish to speak and have been here since the start of the debate.
The clause is yet another example of this Government giving extra powers to the police that they have neither asked for nor do they need. I have long given up appealing to Government Members to do the right thing. Rather, it is best that we just tell them that they are doing the wrong thing, and they will be doing the wrong thing if the Bill passes. Hundreds of solidarity protesters gathered on Downing Street at the weekend to express support and solidarity to Ukraine and her people. Those sentiments have been expressed right across the House. The protesters were noisy, and they were loud. Are this Government telling me and everyone else in the Chamber today that they would shut them up next time? What a sorry state of affairs.
I wish to speak in support of Lords amendments 73 and 80, which would remove the ability of the police to impose noise-based restrictions on processions and greater conditions on static demonstrations. Peaceful protest is a legitimate and integral part of our unwritten constitution and for the Government to interfere with those rights and to try to impose restrictions and unnecessary conditions that affect and violate basic human rights is nothing less than appalling.
If Lords amendments 73 and 80 are not accepted, there are great concerns that police officers will be placed in the unenviable position of having to adjudicate between different stakeholders on the basis of broad and ambiguous criteria about whether to allow a “noisy” or “disruptive” protest to take place or continue. Far from enabling the police to maintain public order, these provisions will place an onerous burden on police officers in the exercise of their professional discretion, subjecting the police to even greater political pressure.
The police already have sufficient powers under the Public Order Act 1986. The additional powers in clauses 55 and 56 of the Bill are neither necessary nor welcomed by many senior police officers. As a uniformed police inspector in the Metropolitan police, I had extensive experience of dealing with public order and with processions and demonstrations of all sizes, and I can say honestly that none of them needed any further legislation; they could all be effectively dealt with by the current legislation.
There are serious concerns that the police, who serve a vital function in enforcing the law, are being instrumentalised for political purposes. That will erode the trust of the public, seriously damage the relationship between the police and the public, and adversely affect the cherished tradition of policing by consent that is at the heart of policing and our society.
Despite the disparaging remarks made by Lloyd Russell-Moyle, I pay tribute to the police officers out there policing our streets, who are overwhelmingly honest, trustworthy and hardworking. I commend them for putting themselves at risk and in danger to keep us all safe.
I am grateful to all hon. Members who have spoken in what at times has been an impassioned debate. I have to say that it has been quite a rich experience to hear a defence of democracy from an Opposition whom I watched for month after month using every technical device at their disposal to try to overturn the democratic decision that the British people took in the 2016 referendum. Those months, happily, are long behind us, and the British people gave their verdict on that attempt to circumvent democracy in the 2019 general election, from which I am happy to say we all benefited.
Much of tonight’s debate has been about the difficult job for any democratic Government of balancing the rights of competing groups: the rights of people who own land, and of those who use land; the rights of public authorities that have parks, and of the Travelling community; the rights of those who want to go about their business and access hospitals, schools or businesses, and of those who wish to protest. These are difficult balances that democratic Governments have to strike from time to time. The Labour party has had to do it in the past; I well remember it banning any protest within 1 km of Parliament. The first arrest was of a woman reading the names of the Iraq war dead at the Cenotaph, if I remember rightly. That, I will admit, was a step too far.
We believe that the package of measures that we have put forward on protest represents a modest rebalancing.
I am not giving way. It is a modest rebalancing of the rights of the majority of British people who want to go about their business and the rights of those who quite legitimately want to protest. We yield to no man or woman in our desire to protect those inalienable rights of protest and dissent in this country. Our party has been in the position of protesting and dissenting in the past, as have many parties represented in this House. We do not take it for granted; we wish to protect it, and we believe that we are doing so while striking a balance.
On the undertaking that I was asked to give about the Vagrancy Act, let me say that 18 months is a maximum. If we can act faster, we will, but intensive work will obviously be required to get us there.
I believe that the Bill in its entirety represents a solid step forward, both for the safety of the country and for the difficult job of balancing our competing rights in what is now and will always be a liberal democracy.
Lords amendment 71 disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 74.
Lords amendment 74, as amended, agreed to.
Government amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 88.
Lords amendment 88, as amended, agreed to.
More than six hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 73.—(Kit Malthouse.)
Lords amendment 73 disagreed to.