Public Order Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:45 pm on 23 May 2022.

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Photo of Rupa Huq Rupa Huq Labour, Ealing Central and Acton 8:45, 23 May 2022

Here we go again: illiberal legislation on public order and regulating protest boomeranging back in here after the other place flung it out last time. I do not deny that there can be value in appropriate sentences and tighter enforcement in the face of serious disorder—for example, pitch invasions are increasingly common and unwelcome nowadays—but we have to be proportionate about these things.

In 2019, it did seem a bit bizarre when we saw Extinction Rebellion on top of tube trains, when that is one of the most green forms of transport. It probably did not make any new fans there, and ditto when the A40 in Acton was blocked. We all prize living in a liberal democracy, but if curbs are disproportionate and the exercise is about curtailing everyday freedoms primarily to win favour with the red tops and to play to their party base and the gallery, then we do have a problem.

These things are always a balance, but we have to tread carefully when it comes to limiting protest. Not that long ago, the Government were going softly, softly on stop and search. We even saw the police dancing with protesters, but the Bill goes for the eye-catching and draconian, such as creating the offence of locking on, where someone is potentially subject to 51 weeks in prison and an unlimited fine for intentionally attaching themselves, someone else or an object to another person, to an object or to land in a manner capable of causing “serious disruption”. It is so vague that it could apply to people linking arms. That is not to mention, as has already been said, that the most famous lockers-on in history were the suffragettes. It is just outside here where Viscount Falkland’s foot spur is missing, because in 1909 people locked on to it. That is part of our history and it is never to be replaced.

We have to beware of being heavy-handed and being led by moral panic with these things. The European Court of Human Rights has held that the freedom to take part in peaceful assembly is of such importance that it cannot be restricted in any way, as long as the person concerned does not commit any reprehensible acts. Concerningly, there is such widespread discretion in the Bill that the police have carte blanche. These laws are not dissimilar to what they have in Russia and Belarus.

If we think about the memorable protests of recent years, yes there has been Extinction Rebellion, but there have also been the school strikes. I do not condone bunking off school, but Greta Thunberg and her lot and the UK equivalent did put the lie to the youth being apolitical and apathetic. We have had Black Lives Matter and what happened to Colston, but I would argue that the sea change should have been the heavy-handed policing of the vigil for Sarah Everard. It was a shocking incident, and the policing was disgusting. In the immediate aftermath, we had a little bit of hand-wringing and concern, but the content of the Bill is a huge disappointment.

Unlike with the average road, where there is a minimal risk of disruption or it being blocked when we get in our car, women going about their lawful business every day in this country find that their route is blocked. What I am talking about specifically is women seeking an entirely legal abortion. It could be for any manner of reasons, and it is probably one of the most stressful and distressing moments in someone’s life. There is a one in four chance—this is from the Home Office’s own figures—that the clinic they attend will be subject to protests or vigils from anti-abortion protesters.

I have raised this issue with a number of different Home Office Ministers. I presented a ten-minute rule Bill in 2020 with massive cross-party support—from Members of seven different parties—so I know the will of the House is there. Even the Home Secretary, in answer to my oral question in February, was positively glowing, and I know she sees a lot of merit in it—but here is a Bill to curb protests and there is absolutely nothing on protests outside clinics. At least four more clinics have been affected since my 2020 Bill and, if we add it up, the issue affects 100,000 women a year, yet the Government say that there is not enough impact to warrant intervention. We know that psychological distress and damage is being done to those women and that precious police time is eaten up—Members should ask the police in Ealing.

In Ealing, we are lucky to have a pioneering council that put through a public spaces protection order to end more than 20 years of harassment at the Marie Stopes clinic. The street is now transformed, with no more gruesome foetus dolls or women being told that they are going to hell for a completely legal medical procedure. We are lucky in Ealing, but it should not be about luck. It was an act of last resort by our council, and only two other local authorities have followed—Richmond and Manchester. It is a fundamental part of the rule of law that people get equal protection under the law wherever they are, so why are people covered only in those three places?

BBC Newsnight had a feature on the subject last week. There is a huge file of evidence at the clinic in Bournemouth, but the council does not want to act, or shows no sign of acting. It is enormously onerous for councils that do want to push through the legislation, because of the burden of proof and officer time, so with everything else on their plates, it is not a priority for most of them. We are in a bizarre situation where, pending the outcome of a Supreme Court challenge, women seeking abortion in Northern Ireland could soon have greater universal protections from harassment than those in England and Wales.

At the same time, the Bill criminalises a huge range of peaceful non-disruptive behaviour and goes far and beyond what most people would ever deem necessary by supplementing powers that are already there. I give the Minister advance warning that I will be seeking to amend the Bill to protect women from this most distressing and unpleasant form of protest. Canada, Australia and several states of the US already have such legislation; it is not a crazy idea. We need a national approach. People will still be able to protest if they do not like abortion laws in this country, but the appropriate place to do that would be here, rather than around defenceless women in their hour of need. Every woman should have the same protection as people in Ealing.