Public Order Bill – in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 18th October 2022.
“(1) Subsection (4) applies where—
(a) the Secretary of State reasonably believes that one or more persons are carrying out, or are likely to carry out, activities related to a protest, and
(b) the condition in subsection (2) or (3) is met.
(2) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State reasonably believes that the activities are causing, or are likely to cause, serious disruption to—
(a) the use or operation of any key national infrastructure in England and Wales, or
(b) access to any essential goods, or to any essential service, in England and Wales.
(3) The condition in this subsection is that the Secretary of State reasonably believes that the activities are having, or are likely to have, a serious adverse effect on public safety in England and Wales.
(4) Where this subsection applies and the Secretary of State considers that it is expedient in the public interest to do so, the Secretary of State may bring civil proceedings relating to the activities in the name of the Secretary of State.
(5) Before bringing proceedings under subsection (4) in relation to any activities the Secretary of State must consult such persons (if any) as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, having regard to any persons who may also bring civil proceedings in relation to those activities.
(6) The bringing of proceedings by the Secretary of State under subsection (4) in relation to any activities does not affect the ability of any other person to bring civil proceedings in relation to those activities.
(7) The reference in subsection (1)(a) to “activities” does not include a reference to activities carried out or likely to be carried out wholly or mainly in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute.
(8) In this section—
“key national infrastructure” has the same meaning as in section 7 (key national infrastructure);
“trade dispute” has the same meaning as in Part 4 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992, except that section 218 of that Act is to be read as if—
(a) it made provision corresponding to section 244(4) of that Act, and
(b) in subsection (5), the definition of worker included any person falling within paragraph (b) of the definition of worker in section 244(5) of that Act.”
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 8—Injunctions in Secretary of State proceedings: power of arrest and remand.
New clause 1—Guidance on locking on—
“The Secretary of State must by regulations issue guidance to police forces about the protest technique of locking on, which includes—
(a) examples of best practice, and
(b) detailed guidance on addressing new and developing forms of locking on.”
New clause 2—Consolidated protest guidance—
“(1) Within three months of Royal Assent to this Act, the Secretary of State must by regulations issue guidance which consolidates into a single source—
(a) the College of Policing’s authorised professional practice for public order guidance,
(b) the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s operational advice for protest policing, and
(c) the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s protest aide memoire.
(2) The Secretary of State must regularly review the guidance and, if appropriate, must by regulations issue revised consolidated guidance.
(3) The consolidated guidance must include specific updated guidance about the protest technique of locking on.”
New clause 3—National monitoring tool—
“(1) The Secretary of State must develop a consistent national monitoring tool, accessible by all police forces, to monitor the use of or requests for specialist protest officers across England and Wales.
(2) Data collected under this section may be used to evaluate capacity and demand for specialist protest officers across England and Wales.
(3) The monitoring tool must be accessible on a national, regional and local basis.
(4) The monitoring tool must include—
(a) examples of best practice from policing protests across the United Kingdom, and
(b) data on how many trained officers have been required for any protests during the period in which monitoring took place.”
New clause 4—Injunction to prevent serious disruption to effective movement of essential goods or services—
“(1) Upon an application by a person under subsection (4), an injunction may be ordered by a Judge of the High Court against ‘persons unknown’ in order to prevent a serious disruption to the effective movement of any essential goods or any essential services occasioned by a public procession or public assembly.
(2) The “persons unknown” may be—
(a) anonymous persons taking part in a public process or public assembly who are identifiable at the time of the proceedings; and/or
(b) persons not presently taking part in a public procession or public assembly protest but who will in future join such a public procession or public assembly.
(3) The conditions under which such an injunction may be granted are as follows—
(a) there must be a real and imminent risk of a tort being committed which would result in a serious disruption to the effective movement of any essential goods or any essential services;
(b) a method of service must be set out in the order which may reasonably be expected to bring the proceedings to the attention of the “persons unknown”;
(c) the “persons unknown” must be defined in the order by reference to their conduct which is alleged to be unlawful;
(d) the acts prohibited by the order must correspond with the threatened tort;
(e) the order may only prohibit lawful conduct if there is no other proportionate means of protecting the effective movement of essential goods or essential services;
(f) the terms of the order must set out what act(s) the persons potentially affected by the order must not do;
(g) the terms of the order must set out a defined geographical area to which the order relates; and
(h) the terms of the order must set out a temporal period to which the order relates, following which the order will lapse unless a further order is made upon a further application by the applicant.
(4) An applicant for an injunction to prevent serious disruption to effective movement of essential goods or services may be—
(a) a local authority with responsibility for all or part of the geographical area to which the proposed order relates;
(b) a chief constable with responsibility for all or part of the geographical area to which the proposed order relates; or
(c) a person resident in, or carrying on a business within, the geographical area to which the proposed order relates.
(5) A “serious disruption to effective movement of essential goods or services” includes a prolonged disruption to—
(a) the effective movement of the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel;
(b) a system of communication;
(c) access to a place of worship;
(d) access to a transport facility;
(e) access to an educational institution; and
(f) access to a service relating to health.”
New clause 5—Definition of “serious disruption”—
“(1) For the purposes of this Act, ‘serious disruption’ means—
(a) significant delay to the delivery of a time-sensitive product to consumers of that product, or
(b) prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods or any essential service, including, in particular, access to—
(i) the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel,
(ii) a system of communication,
(iii) a place of worship,
(iv) a place of worship,
(v) an educational institution, or
(vi) a service relating to health.
(2) In subsection (1)(a) a ‘time-sensitive product’ means a product whose value or use to its consumers may be significantly reduced by a delay in the supply of the product to them.”
New clause 6—Offences impeding emergency workers—
“(1) This section applies where—
(a) the court is considering for the purposes of sentencing the seriousness of an offence under sections 1 (Offence of locking on) or 3 (Obstruction etc of major transport works) of this Act, and
(b) the commission of the offence had the effect of impeding an emergency worker in exercising their functions, subject to the exception in subsection (2).
(2) The exception is that the emergency worker was exercising their functions in connection with the offence for which the person is being sentenced or in connection with any action which the court considers to be related to that offence.
(3) The court—
(a) must treat the fact mentioned in subsection (1)(b) as an aggravating factor (that is to say, a factor that increases the seriousness of the offence), and
(b) must state in open court that the offence is so aggravated.
(4) In this section, ‘emergency worker’ means—
(a) a constable;
(b) a person (other than a constable) who has the powers of a constable or is otherwise employed for police purposes or is engaged to provide services for police purposes;
(c) a National Crime Agency officer;
(d) a prison officer;
(e) a person (other than a prison officer) employed or engaged to carry out functions in a custodial institution of a corresponding kind to those carried out by a prison officer;
(f) a prisoner custody officer, so far as relating to the exercise of escort functions;
(g) a custody officer, so far as relating to the exercise of escort functions;
(h) a person employed for the purposes of providing, or engaged to provide, fire services or fire and rescue services;
(i) a person employed for the purposes of providing, or engaged to provide, search services or rescue services (or both);
(j) a person employed for the purposes of providing, or engaged to provide—
(i) NHS health services, or
(ii) services in the support of the provision of NHS health services, and whose general activities in doing so involve face to face interaction with individuals receiving the services or with other members of the public.
(5) It is immaterial for the purposes of subsection (4) whether the employment or engagement is paid or unpaid.
(6) In this section—
‘custodial institution’ means any of the following—
(a) a prison;
(b) a young offender institution, secure training centre, secure college or remand centre;
(c) services custody premises, as defined by section 300(7) of the Armed Forces Act 2006; “custody officer” has the meaning given by section 12(3) of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994;
(a) in the case of a prisoner custody officer, means the functions specified in section 80(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991;
(b) in the case of a custody officer, means the functions specified in paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994;
‘NHS health services’ means any kind of health services provided as part of the health service continued under section 1(1) of the National Health Service Act 2006 and under section 1(1) of the National Health Service (Wales) Act 2006;
‘prisoner custody officer’ has the meaning given by section 89(1) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991.”
New clause 9—Publication of data about use of stop and search powers—
“(1) The Secretary of State must publish data about the use of the stop and search powers under sections 9 and 10 within three years of—
(a) if sections 9 and 10 come into force on the same date, the date on which they come into force, or
(b) if sections 9 and 10 come into force on different dates, the later of those two dates.
(2) The data published under this section must include—
(a) the total number of uses of stop and search powers by each police force in England and Wales, including whether the powers were used on suspicion or without suspicion,
(b) disaggregated data by age, disability, ethnicity/race, sex/gender and sexual orientation of the people who have been stopped and searched, and
(c) data relating to the outcomes of the use of stop and search powers.”
New clause 10—Review of the use of stop and search powers—
“(1) The Secretary of State must appoint an independent reviewer to assess and report annually on the use of the stop and search powers under sections 9 and 10.
(2) In carrying out their review, the person appointed under subsection (1) must—
(a) consider the impact of the use of stop and search powers on groups with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, and
(b) consult such civil society organisations as appear to the person appointed under subsection (1) to be relevant.
(3) The person appointed under subsection (1) must ensure that a report on the outcome of the review is sent to the Secretary of State as soon as reasonably practicable after the completion of the review.
(4) On receiving a report under this section, the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament—
(a) a copy of the report, and
(b) the Government’s response to the findings.
(5) The first report under this section must be completed no later than one year after the date provided for under section [publication of data about use of stop and search powers](1).”
New clause 11—Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services—
“(1) A person who is within a buffer zone and who interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services in that buffer zone is guilty of an offence.
(2) A “buffer zone” means an area which is within a boundary which is 150 metres from any part of an abortion clinic or any access point to any building or site that contains an abortion clinic and is—
(a) on or adjacent to a public highway or public right of way,
(b) in an open space to which the public has access,
(c) within the curtilage of an abortion clinic, or
(d) in any location that is visible from a public highway, public right of way, open space to which the public have access, or the curtilage of an abortion clinic.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1), ‘interferes with’ means—
(a) seeks to influence,
(b) persistently, continuously or repeatedly occupies,
(c) impedes or threatens,
(d) intimidates or harasses,
(e) advises or persuades, attempts to advise or persuade, or otherwise expresses opinion,
(f) informs or attempts to inform about abortion services by any means, including, without limitation, graphic, physical, verbal or written means, or
(g) sketches, photographs, records, stores, broadcasts, or transmits images, audio, likenesses or personal data of any person without express consent.
(4) A person guilty of an offence under subsection (1) is liable—
(a) in the first instance—
(i) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months,
(ii) to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or
(iii) to both; and
(b) on further instances—
(i) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, or to a fine, or to both, or
(ii) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to a fine, or to both.
(5) Nothing in this section applies to—
(a) anything done in the course of providing, or facilitating the provision of, abortion services in an abortion clinic,
(b) anything done in the course of providing medical care within a GP practice, hospital or other healthcare facility,
(c) the operation of a camera if its coverage of persons accessing or attempting to access an abortion clinic is incidental and the camera or footage is not used for any of the purposes listed in subsection (3), and
(d) a police officer acting properly in the course of their duties.”
New clause 12—Justice impact assessments for Wales—
“(1) Within six months of the passage of this Act, the Secretary of State must issue a justice impact assessment for any provision of this Act, or any regulations which have been made under this Act, which impact on matters which are devolved to Senedd Cymru.
(2) Within one month of the date on which they are made, the Secretary of State must issue a justice impact assessment for any regulations made under this Act which are not included in the assessment required under subsection (1) which impact on matters which are devolved to Senedd Cymru.
(3) The Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers must jointly prepare and publish guidance on the implementation of the provisions on which justice impact assessments have been issued under subsections (1) and (2).”
New clause 13—Intentional harassment, alarm or distress on account of sex—
“(1) A person (P) commits an offence under this section if—
(a) P commits an offence under section 4A of the Public Order Act 1986 (intentional harassment, alarm or distress), and
(b) P carried out the conduct referred to in section 4A(1) of that Act because of the relevant person’s sex In this subsection ‘the relevant person’ means the person to whom P intended to cause, harassment, alarm or distress.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b) it does not matter whether or not P carried out the conduct referred to in section 4A(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 for the purposes of sexual gratification.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b) it does not matter whether or not P also carried out the conduct referred to in section 4A(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 because of any other factor not mentioned in subsection (1)(b).
(4) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable–
(a) on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding the general limit in a magistrates’ court, to a fine or to both;
(b) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 2 years, to a fine, or to both.
(5) If, on the trial on indictment of a person charged with an offence under subsection (1), the jury find the person not guilty of the offence charged, they may find the person guilty of the basic offence mentioned in that provision.
(6) References in this section to P carrying out conduct because of another person’s (B’s) sex include references to P doing so because of B’s presumed sex.”
New clause 14—Harassment, alarm or distress on account of sex—
“(1) A person (P) commits an offence under this section if—
(a) P commits an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 (harassment, alarm or distress), and
(b) P carried out the conduct referred to in section 5(1) of that Act because of the relevant person’s sex.
In this subsection ‘the relevant person’ means the person to whom P intended to cause, or caused, harassment, alarm or distress.
(2) For the purposes of subsection (1) it does not matter whether or not P carried out the conduct referred to in section 5(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 for the purposes of sexual gratification.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1) it does not matter whether or not P also carried out the conduct referred to in section 5(1) of the Public Order Act 1986 because of any other factor not mentioned in subsection (1).
(4) A person who commits an offence under subsection (1) is liable—
(a) on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale;
(b) on conviction on indictment to imprisonment to a term not exceeding 6 months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
(5) If, on the trial on indictment of a person charged with an offence under subsection (1), the jury find the person not guilty of the offence charged, they may find the person guilty of the basic offence mentioned in that provision.
(6) References in this section to P carrying out conduct because of another person’s (B’s) sex include references to P doing so because of B’s presumed sex.
(7) It is not a defence under this section for P to claim that they could not reasonably have foreseen that their behaviour may constitute an offence.”
New clause 15—Public inquiry into the impact of policing of public order on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people—
“Within six months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, the Secretary of State must set up an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 into the impact of the policing of public order on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people.”
New clause 16—Equality Impact Analyses of provisions of this Act—
“(1) The Secretary of State must review the equality impact of the provisions of this Act.
(2) A report of the review under this section must be laid before Parliament within 12 months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act.
(3) A review under this section must consider the impact of the provisions of this Act on—
(a) households at different levels of income,
(b) people with protected characteristics (within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010),
(c) the Government’s compliance with the public sector equality duty under section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, and
(d) equality in the different nations of the United Kingdom and different regions of England.
(4) A review under this section must include a separate analysis of each section of the Act, and must also consider the cumulative impact of the Act as a whole.”
New clause 17—Public inquiry into the policing of protests—
“Within six months of the date of Royal Assent to this Act, the Secretary of State must set up an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 into the policing of public order and protests, including investigation of the use of—
(c) police horses,
(d) policing powers contained in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and policing powers contained in this Act.”
Amendment 3, page 1, line 4, leave out clause 1.
Amendment 28, clause 1, page 1, line 6, after “they” insert
“, without reasonable excuse, and using a device or substance that impedes detachment”.
This amendment, together with Amendment 30, would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by taking the burden of proving “reasonable excuse” away from the Defendant and make it an element of the offence. It would also narrow the meaning of “attach” to focus on the use of devices or substances that make removing the protester difficult.
Amendment 29, clause 1, page 1, line 10, leave out paragraph (1)(b) and insert
“that act causes, or is likely to cause, serious disruption to the life of the community, and”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by replacing the current threshold of serious disruption with a higher threshold based on serious disruption to the life of the community (defined in Amendment 32).
Amendment 30, clause 1, page 1, line 16, leave out subsection (2).
Amendment 31, clause 1, page 1, line 20, leave out
“the maximum term for summary offences” and insert “three months”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by reducing the maximum penalty for the offence of locking on.
Amendment 32, clause 1, page 2, line 1, leave out subsections (4) and (5) and insert—
“(4) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a), in determining whether a person has a reasonable excuse, particular regard must be had to the importance of the right of peaceful protest in a democracy by virtue of Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
(5) For the purposes of subsection 1(b), “serious disruption to the life of the community” means a prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods or any essential service, including, in particular, access to—
(i) the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel,
(ii) a system of communication,
(iii) a place of worship,
(iv) a transport facility,
(v) an educational institution, or
(vi) a service relating to health.”
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by inserting an express requirement to have particular regard to the right to peaceful protest when considering whether an individual has a “reasonable excuse” for their actions when locking on. It also provides detail on the meaning of serious disruption to the life of the community.
Amendment 4, page 2, line 11, leave out clause 2.
Amendment 33, clause 2, page 2, line 13, leave out
“may be used in the course of or in connection with” and insert “will be used in”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by narrowing the scope of this offence.
Amendment 5, page 2, line 20, leave out clause 3.
Amendment 6, page 3, line 23, leave out clause 4.
Amendment 7, page 4, line 19, leave out clause 5.
Amendment 8, page 4, line 35, leave out clause 6.
Amendment 34, clause 6, page 4, line 36, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
“(1) A person commits an offence if—
(a) the person obstructs the undertaker or a person acting under the authority of the undertaker—
(i) in setting out the lines of any major transport works,
(ii) in constructing or maintaining any major transport works, or
(iii) in taking any steps that are reasonably necessary for the purposes of facilitating the construction or maintenance of any major transport works, or
(b) the person interferes with, moves or removes any apparatus which—
(i) relates to the construction or maintenance of any major transport works, and
(ii) belongs to a person within subsection (5), and
(c) that act causes, or is likely to cause, significant disruption to setting out the lines of, the construction of or the maintenance of the major transport works affected, and
(d) the person intends their act—
(i) to obstruct the undertaker or person acting under the authority of the undertaker as mentioned in paragraph (a) or to interfere with or remove the apparatus as mentioned in paragraph (b), and
(ii) to have a consequence mentioned in paragraph (c) or are reckless as to whether it will have such a consequence.”
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by narrowing the scope of this offence to ensure it criminalises only conduct that would cause or be likely to cause serious disruption to major transport works. It would also introduce a requirement of intention or recklessness.
Amendment 35, page 5, line 9, leave out
“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to prove that” and insert
“A person does not commit an offence under subsection (1) if”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by taking the burden of proving “reasonable excuse” or that the act was part of a trade dispute away from the Defendant and making it an element of the offence.
Amendment 36, page 5, line 14, at end insert—
“(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2)(a), in determining whether a person has a reasonable excuse, particular regard must be had to the importance of the right of peaceful protest by virtue of Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by inserting an explicit requirement to have particular regard to the right to peaceful protest when considering whether an individual has a “reasonable excuse” for their actions.
Amendment 9, page 6, line 42, leave out clause 7.
Amendment 37, clause 7, page 7, line 5, leave out
“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under subsection (1) to prove that” and insert
“A person does not commit an offence under subsection (1) if”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by taking the burden of proving “reasonable excuse” or that the act was part of a trade dispute away from the Defendant and making it an element of the offence.
Amendment 38, page 7, line 10, at end insert—
“(2A) For the purposes of subsection (2)(a), in determining whether a person has a reasonable excuse, particular regard must be had to the importance of the right of peaceful protest by virtue of Article 10 and Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by inserting an explicit requirement to have particular regard to the right to peaceful protest when considering whether an individual has a “reasonable excuse” for their actions.
Amendment 39, page 7, line 18, leave out “to any extent” and insert “to a significant extent”.This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by narrowing the scope of the offence to prevent it sweeping up minor interference.
Amendment 40, page 7, line 22, after “means” insert “an essential element of”.This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights by narrowing the meaning of “key national infrastructure” to exclude inessential elements of infrastructure.
Amendment 51, page 7, line 31, at end insert—
“(j) farms and food production infrastructure.”
Amendment 10, page 8, line 17, leave out clause 8.
Amendment 41, clause 8, page 8, line 24, leave out “or B”.
Amendment 42, page 8, line 27, after “Act)” insert
“, but excludes infrastructure that is not essential for the purposes of transporting goods or passengers by railway”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to narrow the scope of the offence by narrowing the meaning of “rail infrastructure” so as to ensure the offence does not extend to interference with inessential elements.
Amendment 43, page 8, line 39, after “Act)” insert—
“(c) but excludes infrastructure that is not essential for the purposes of transporting goods or passengers by air”.
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to narrow the scope of the offence by narrowing the meaning of “air transport infrastructure” so as to ensure the offence does not extend to interference with inessential elements.
Amendment 44, page 8, line 41, leave out “or in connection with”.
This amendment, together with Amendments 45 to 48, would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to narrow the scope of the offence, and reduce uncertainty, by narrowing what amounts to key national infrastructure.
Amendment 45, page 9, line 5, leave out “or in connection with”.See the explanatory statement for Amendment 44.
Amendment 46, page 9, line 20, leave out “or in connection with”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 44.
Amendment 47, page 9, line 35, leave out “or in connection with”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 44.
Amendment 48, page 10, line 1, , leave out “or in connection with”.
See the explanatory statement for Amendment 44.
Amendment 49, page 10, line 18, leave out
“‘newspaper’ includes a periodical or magazine.”
This amendment would give effect to a recommendation of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to narrow the scope of the offence by narrowing the meaning of “newspaper” so as to prevent it extending to any periodical or magazine.
Amendment 52, page 10, line 18, at end insert–—
“(16) “Farms and food production infrastructure” means—
(a) any infrastructure, used for the commercial growing of crops and horticultural produce or rearing of livestock for human consumption or as an ingredient in items for human consumption; or
(b) any premises on which items for human consumption are processed, produced, or manufactured for commercial purposes; or
(c) any abattoir.”
Amendment 11, page 10, line 20, leave out clause 9.
Amendment 12, page 11, line 1, leave out clause 10.
Amendment 13, page 12, line 29, leave out clause 11.
Amendment 14, page 13, line 9, leave out clause 12.
Amendment 15, page 13, line 33, leave out clause 13.
Amendment 16, page 14, line 6, leave out clause 14.
Amendment 17, page 14, line 15, leave out clause 15.
Amendment 1, page 18, line 7, leave out clause 16.
Amendment 2, page 20, line 15, leave out clause 17.
Amendment 20, page 22, line 11, leave out clause 18.
Amendment 21, page 23, line 12, leave out clause 19.
Amendment 22, page 24, line 12, leave out clause 20.
Amendment 23, page 25, line 20, leave out clause 21.
Amendment 24, page 26, line 9, leave out clause 22.
Amendment 25, page 27, line 1, leave out clause 23.
Amendment 26, page 27, line 8, leave out clause 24.
Amendment 27, page 27, line 26, leave out clause 25.
Amendment 53, page 29, line 33, leave out clause 26.
Amendment 54, page 30, line 28, leave out clause 27.
Amendment 55, page 31, line 8, leave out clause 28.
Amendment 56, page 31, line 23, leave out clause 29.
Amendment 57, page 31, line 30, leave out clause 30.
Amendment 58, page 32, line 10, leave out clause 31.
Government new schedule 1—Injunctions in Secretary of State proceedings: powers to remand.
Government amendment 50.
I thank hon. Members who have joined us for this important debate today and I look forward to the lively discussion that we are bound to have over the course of the afternoon. Although there will inevitably be differences of opinion, which I will come on to, I hope we can all agree on the fundamental point that should be underpinning this discussion—namely, that it is completely unacceptable for a selfish minority to wreak havoc on the lives of people going about their daily business. I would like to open the debate by speaking to the amendments in the Government’s name, and I will respond to other amendments in my closing remarks.
I will also touch on new clause 11, which covers abortion clinic buffer zones. We totally endorse the sentiment behind the new clause, but I look forward to setting out in my summing up why measures in existing legislation combined with the growing use of public space protection orders—PSPOs—can be used and are effective.
I think the hon. Lady will want to hear me out.
We recognise that this is a matter closely associated with issue of abortion, on which people have very strong views across the House. Therefore, as far as we are concerned, there will be a free vote on new clause 11. Members will hear the debate, and I will set out why the current legislation is proportionate and how PSPOs are increasingly being used and are increasingly effective, but this is a matter on which hon. Members will make their own judgment.
Before going further into the debate, it might be helpful if I briefly recap what the Bill does and does not do. This Bill does not criminalise the right to protest, as some hon. Members have said. The right to protest is a fundamental principle of our democracy, and that will never change. Any suggestion that we are intent on interfering with or watering down the right to protest peacefully is simply wrong.
What the Bill does is target acts that cause serious disruption, such as those that wreak havoc on our roads, disrupt thousands of journeys, cost the taxpayer millions and put lives in danger. It does this by giving the police the enhanced powers they need to respond to such disruption and better balance the rights of protesters with the right of the public to go about their daily lives.
I will now speak to Government new clauses 7 and 8, Government new schedule 1 and Government amendment 50. Some of the protest tactics we have seen in recent months have had significant consequences for the public. Protests such as those by Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil have targeted fuel supply chains and created blockades. Indeed, hon. Members will be familiar with recent images of ambulances, fire services and cars carrying babies to hospital being blocked by the selfish actions of protesters in the name of Just Stop Oil. These tactics are not only seriously disruptive but dangerous.
We have heard the Opposition’s calls to ensure that injunctions are in place to prevent serious disruption, including through new clause 4 tabled by Sarah Jones. It is a pleasure to see her in her place, and I look forward to working with her across this Dispatch Box.
We have seen how effective injunctions can be, and we believe we can build on the current position in which only private persons and local authorities can pursue this legal remedy through the courts. That is why the Government tabled new clauses 7 and 8, new schedule 1 and amendment 50 to provide the Secretary of State with a specific mechanism to apply for an injunction where it is in the public interest to do so because the activity causes serious disruption to key national infrastructure, prevents access to essential goods or services, or has a serious adverse impact on the public. This will be accompanied by a power of arrest to support swifter enforcement action. This does not affect the right of local authorities or private landowners to apply for an injunction, but it gives the Secretary of State an additional way to act in the public interest where the potential impact is serious and widespread.
These measures will support better co-ordination between the Government, law enforcement, local authorities and private landowners in responding to serious disruptive behaviour. We know injunctions can play a major role in helping to constrain some of the tactics deployed and, as a result, can limit serious disruption. Although I understand the sentiment behind new clause 4, tabled by the hon. Member for Croydon Central, I do not think it achieves the change she seeks, as the law already enables private persons and local authorities to pursue an injunction where they can evidence harm to their rights or interests in civil law. The police already have a range of powers and avenues to manage protest and to act on criminal or antisocial behaviour.
I therefore encourage the hon. Lady not to press her new clause and to support Government new clauses 7 and 8, new schedule 1 and amendment 50.
I rise to support all the amendments in the name of the Labour Front Bench, and to speak to new clauses 11, 13 and 14.
I put on record my gratitude to the Minister for respecting the convention that issues around abortion are matters of conscience, and new clause 11 is about abortion because, let us be honest, nobody is praying outside the places where people go to have a hip operation. Nobody offers rosary beads or dead foetuses outside the places people go when they have an ankle injury. This is about women accessing a very specific form of healthcare.
This goes to the heart of the Bill. Whatever the Bill’s merits, it is about protest. At the point at which women are accessing an abortion, they have made a decision and they are not opening themselves up for a debate or further discussion. These women are often in a very vulnerable state, and they want to be able to access basic healthcare.
New clause 11 would not stop free speech on abortion, and it would not stop people protesting. I have regularly been subjected to protests, and new clause 11 would do nothing to stop the protests I have experienced from many of the people involved in this subject. New clause 11 simply says that people should not have a right to protest in another person’s face, and very often these protesters are right up in front of people, at a point when they have made a decision.
For all of us who defend free speech, the simple point is that speech is not free if 50% of the conversation feels harassed, if women feel they have made a decision and they wish to move on. New clause 11 is a tightly drawn amendment, and I pay tribute to the hard work of Dr Huq and Members on both sides of the House to make sure we have the right legislation. New clause 11 sets out a clear parameter so that both free speech and the rights of everybody in that conversation can be upheld. It is not about picking one side or the other. There are many other things that the Bill is trying to do, and it would seem egregious to many of us if women were singled out by not having that balance upheld. New clause 11 upholds that balance. People do not have to support abortion to believe that, frankly, there is a time and a place to have that conversation, and it is not when dealing with vulnerable women.
Let me address some of the arguments people make for why this measure is not necessary. The Minister spoke about PSPOs. I am sorry that this is the first time we have had this debate, because I would love to talk to him about my experience of PSPOs. Some suggest this is a minor issue, but it is not. We know from the research that, every year, 100,000 women who try to access abortion services for various reasons, including women who have had miscarriages and therefore need an abortion, are targeted by these protesters. That is half of all women attending these clinics. This is not a minor issue, nor is it a localised one.
The protests we are talking about range from women being given plastic foetuses to women being offered to have people pray over them or for them, being filmed, being shouted at, being called “mum” or “murderer,” and being told to rethink their lifestyle. The point of these protests, as the protesters admit, is not benign. The protesters are not marking the fact that a woman has made a decision; they are trying to change that decision, at a point when a woman has already made that choice.
I pay tribute to Sister Supporter, which has worked with people on the ground to try to protect those women who have made this choice and who now wish to access the service in peace and privacy, without somebody trying to tell them they have to rethink that often very painful, personal decision. Sister Supporter has tried to make the PSPO process work, and we have so few PSPOs in this country because it is an expensive, complicated, long-winded process.
My former colleague in Colchester would say, “PSPOs require proof that women are being harassed before we act. We have to find evidence that people are being harassed. We already have to admit that this intimidation and harassment is taking place.” There is no other part of the law or healthcare where a person has to admit that they are being harassed before there is an intervention.
We recognise that access to healthcare is important. Local authorities have to spend thousands of pounds to get these PSPOs, often repeatedly defending them in the courts. As we see from the numbers, this is a national issue and, therefore, it requires a national solution. Frankly, it requires our local authorities and our local police to support them, and not to say it is acceptable for only Ealing, Bournemouth, Manchester and Twickenham to have gone through this process.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for what she has done to bring us to this position. I am grateful that the Minister has confirmed that this will be a free vote, as it should be.
I support the Public Order Bill because it is about stopping people interfering with the right of others to go about their business. Does the hon. Lady agree that this is at the heart of new clause 11, which is about protecting women who want to go about their lawful business from being harassed? They are emotionally vulnerable, and the decision is hard enough as it is, let alone with what they have to go through outside the clinic. Does she agree that it is a Conservative principle of the Bill to ensure women have the right to go about their lawful business?
I would not deign to comment on or set out Conservative principles, although I have the free speech to do so, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s recognition that this is about balancing rights. This is an omission from the Bill because it is such a specific issue. Let me be clear: PSPOs are not working and new clause 11 is very tightly drawn about abortion clinics themselves. At 28 weeks pregnant. I was subject to sustained campaigns in my town centre. People put up pictures of my head next to dead babies. They told my constituents to stop me and they incited anger and intimidation. This would not be covered by the new clause. That is the free speech debate that we might want to have another day. Perhaps if those protesters had thrown a can of tomato soup at me, the police might not have seen it as a “both sides now” conversation. This is something different. These women have not put themselves up for debate and I understand that. As a public figure, I have put myself up for debate. Obviously, I had not put my unborn child up for debate, which is what those protesters felt that they could do.
This is about when a woman wants to access an abortion. The new clause specifies abortion clinics. It is no more broad than that, because this is a very specific problem. The challenge in this place is that we can dance on the head of a pin having theoretical debates, but it is our constituents who see the reality. They see the people shouting at these women. They see the women who are frightened, scared and vulnerable, who just want to make a decision in peace—who just want to go about their business.
That is why this amendment has such support from across the House, from among the royal colleges, and from among those who work with women and campaigners, particularly organisations such as the British Medical Association and the Fawcett Society. It is also why there have been so many emails pouring into our inbox. A person does not have to be a supporter of abortion to think that, at that point, we probably need to protect that person. A person does need to be a supporter of abortion to think that, if something is stopping women or is designed to deter them at a point when they have made a decision to have an abortion, we need to step in and not leave it to local authorities to find the money to cover the court costs, or even for that to be part of the decision they are making.
I understand that the Minister will talk against this measure. He needs to explain why, when 50 clinics have been targeted, only five have managed to get PSPOs. The current legislation is not satisfactory in dealing with that balance. It leaves it to chance and creates a postcode lottery of the protection that people recognise is required—whether or not they support abortion and whether or not they think about free speech.
I ask the Minister to listen to women. Women in their droves are asking for this protection for their sisters who are making this decision. They should not be shouted at when they are accessing it. Let them make that decision in privacy. If we consider abortion to be a human right, do not ask them to run a gauntlet to get one, which is what is happening now. I hope that colleagues across the House will recognise the thought, care and attention that has gone into this new clause, the widespread support across the House for acting and for not leaving it to local authorities to have to deal with these issues, and the fact that the abortion debate must continue, but that there is a time and a place for it.
Let me turn now to new clauses 13 and 14, which, again, I hope will have cross-party support. They reflect a concern that we need to tackle the experience of women on our streets, and, in particular, the fact that 24,000 women a day experience street harassment in this country. For too long that has become normalised. For too long, we have taught young girls ways to minimise their exposure rather than challenging those people who do it. For too long, we have asked the questions, “Did you have your headphones on?” “Were you wearing a short skirt?” What did you say when that person said that?” We do that rather than recognising this as a form of harassment.
I welcomed the words of the Prime Minister when she said that violence against women and girls does not have to be inevitable. She said:
“Women should be able to walk the streets without fear of harm, and perpetrators must expect to be punished.”
She also said:
“It is the responsibility of all political leaders, including us in Westminster and the Mayor of London, to do more.”
I know that the Mayor of London wants to do more because I have been working with him for many years on the campaign to learn from our police forces who treat misogyny as a form of hate crime and use that to identify the perpetrators of these crimes. I know, too, that there is support across the House for doing that. There is no other crime that happens on such a scale on a daily basis where we have not made progress. I welcome the fact that there is agreement in this place that we need to tackle street harassment. As ever, when it comes to upholding a woman’s rights and freedoms and basic ability to go about her daily business, the challenge today is that it goes on the backburner when something else turns up. It is something that we will get round to eventually. It is something that is terribly complicated, when shouting at statues is not.
I ask the Minister today to commit to joining all of us in saying, “Enough is enough, and we will legislate and legislate promptly.” We should not be at a point in 2022 going into 2023 where thousands of women are still experiencing street harassment. Over their lifetime, seven in 10 women will experience sexual harassment in public. It is clear that those who engage in these behaviours often escalate to further and more serious crimes. Recognising sexual harassment and tackling it, which is what the police forces who are treating misogyny as a form of hate crime have been able to do, offers us valuable lessons about how we can move forward.
I recognise what the Law Commission said, and I recognise that the debate has moved on, but having a standalone offence, which identifies where women are being targeted for street harassment, would help us to gather the data and send that very powerful message that no woman should have to look behind her or carry her keys in her hand just because she wants to go out and buy a pint of milk. That is a daily experience.
My concern about street harassment is that it could be too broad. I am particularly concerned about the rising prevalence of cyber flashing, and I very much urge the Government to pursue their intention to make that a criminal offence through the Online Safety Bill. Does the hon. Lady agree that we are at risk of going too broad and too shallow and not focusing on individual crimes such as cyber flashing?
I agree that cyber flashing is an issue that needs to be addressed, but I caution the hon. Lady to understand the importance of recognising where harassment is targeted at women; it does not have to be sexual to be harassment. There is a risk here that we deny the experience of women from minority communities of the multiple ways in which they are harassed. A couple of years ago, a gentleman was going around my community targeting Muslim women, pulling off their hijabs. That was both Islamophobic and misogynistic—he was not targeting Muslim men. Yet, under our current hate crime framework, we ask the victims to pick a particular box to tick to identify a crime. The evidence from the areas of the country where they are using this approach shows that where we have that understanding of how misogyny motivates crime, we see the victim as a whole and victims themselves have much more confidence to come forward. I recognise the hon. Lady’s concern about being specific in law, but there is a really important issue for all of us not to focus purely on sexual behaviour, but to recognise what is driving these crimes: it is power, entitlement and privilege that some men have—it is mainly men who do this—to target women for crimes.
New clause 13 looks at intentional harassment. New clause 14, which I hope the Minister will address in his comments, looks at foreseeable harassment. That is a really critical issue and why it is so important to get these new clauses accepted to help change the culture. If the harassment is foreseeable, it is recognising that there should be no defence, such as, “I thought she would enjoy being groped by me.” “I thought she would like it if I followed her down the road.” “I thought that she would find it flattering.” In 2022, we should not be breeding a generation of men who think that that is acceptable. I promise the Minister that I will stop campaigning on these issues when I go to a wedding and the bride gets up and says, “He tried to get me in the back of a van. I thought that it was the most fantastic thing ever and I immediately had to get to know this man.” That does not happen, but that is often an everyday experience for many women in this country—to be followed, to be targeted and to be hassled.
Finding ways to recognise that in law and not give someone the defence of saying, “I don’t know why she was upset by what I said” is what new clause 14 does. The Minister may tell me that he has better ideas. I know Greg Clark has an important Bill coming up. What all of us are looking for is a commitment to act promptly and not to leave this for another five or 10 years—the Law Commission review dates back to the heady days of 2016—and also to not give people a defence that women themselves are being difficult by wanting simply to go about their freedoms and not be hassled.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot intervene because he was not here at the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech. He can intervene later, but he cannot intervene halfway through a speech when he was not here at the beginning of it. I appreciate that the hon. Lady is proposing amendments that everybody wants to hear about, but she has held the Floor for 15 minutes. We have three hours for this debate and I have more than 20 people who wish to speak, so I have to appeal for brevity. I would rather not put on a time limit, because that curtails debate. I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate the position of everybody else in the Chamber who also has to have an opportunity to speak.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I promise I was just about to wind up. I hope the Minister will address the issue in new clause 14 about foreseeable harassment and that perhaps over the course of the debate he will rethink his opposition to new clause 11. I know many of us across the House would welcome that.
It is a pleasure to follow Stella Creasy.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for having indicated from the Dispatch Box that this is to be a free vote; that is an important principle when considering new clause 11 specifically. I must gently say to him that I am a little disappointed that I have to speak to the issue without hearing his arguments on why the new clause is not necessary, although of course I will be here for the winding-up speeches to listen to his arguments then.
I will speak briefly on the hon. Lady’s new clauses 13 and 14 on street harassment. That is an important issue. We have seen work on violence against women and girls, started by my right hon. Friend Mrs May. I am blessed to have sitting next to me my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, who is bringing me up to speed on some of the more recent work done in the Home Office by her successor, my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, and now by my hon. Friend Mims Davies. That is quite a list of female Members of this House who have sought over many years to get legislation on to the statute book so that we can tackle public sexual harassment effectively.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Greg Clark, who is still doing great work in this area, and I look forward to his private Member’s Bill. However, we had the recommendations from the Law Commission many months ago, we have had a Home Office consultation, and it feels to me that we are making very slow progress. Meanwhile, thousands of young women, particularly those in school uniform, are still subject to public sexual harassment—and indeed other types of harassment, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out.
There is great work going on in police forces up and down the country, including in my own county of Hampshire, which is no surprise given that we have a great female chief constable who has been leading on this issue and a female police and crime commissioner, Donna Jones, who has spoken extensively up and down the country and is the lead police and crime commissioner on violence against women and girls. However, the reality is that progress has been too slow.
On new clause 11, abortion is an important and emotive issue, and I do not in any way undermine the profoundly held beliefs people have on it, but the new clause, as the hon. Lady has pointed out, is about a woman’s right to access healthcare. It is a decision that they will have made in some instances many weeks before they ever attend a clinic.
I will speak of the experience we have had relatively locally to my constituency. Just a few weeks ago, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council successfully introduced a buffer zone in six streets surrounding the British Pregnancy Advice Service clinic in Bournemouth. That has come at significant expense to local authority taxpayers. I welcome its contribution to the patchwork of protections that we see in five areas of the country, but it is a patchwork; five areas have successfully brought in public space protection orders, but there are 50 clinics where they might be of benefit.
Enormous work has been done by colleagues on both sides of the House to bring forward protections for women—but protections from what? Specifically, in the consultation in Bournemouth, which was completed by more than 2,000 people, 75% of whom showed that they supported a buffer zone, it was protection from intimidation, protection from being followed and protection from being filmed. I think we would all in this House want to see people who are accessing healthcare being protected in those ways.
Service providers have consistently sought to use the laws that I know my hon. Friend the Minister will point out are already available and are suggested by the Home Office, but even where individual groups have been dealt with through the courts, other individuals have come forward and the protests outside the clinics have simply not stopped. Annually, about 100,000 women are targeted in that way—abused and harassed while they are just trying to access healthcare that is perfectly legal.
I apologise for not having been here earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker; I was dealing with other parliamentary business. I have a clinic on Station Road in my constituency where, after a lot of hard work, residents secured a public space protection order on
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need national legislation; we do not want a piecemeal approach or to push the problem to a different area or from one clinic where a public space protection order has been put in place to a clinic where protest may still be legal. It is imperative that we have a coherent national approach and that we protect women from that sort of harassment.
I hope the Minister will confirm what further action the Home Office will take in the event that this new clause falls today. I hope it will be successful; I hope this House can come together and recognise the benefit that the new clause will provide, and that we can make some progress on the issue.
I will speak briefly about the finances. I referred to the cost to a local authority and Steve McCabe indicated that in his constituency it will have been expensive for the council to bring a PSPO forward. Too often, councils face legal challenges from campaign groups with very deep pockets, which are potentially not even funded from this country.
I vividly remember going to a sixth form college just outside my constituency at the start of the summer and talking to the female students there, girls aged between 16 and 18. They talked to me specifically about abortion, because they were scared that they would see their right to access healthcare being eroded. They asked whether I thought the overturning of Roe v. Wade would travel across the Atlantic and impact us here.
At the time I said, “No, I don’t”, but since then I have watched the deep pockets of largely American-funded campaigns opposing our local councils when they seek to bring legal orders to protect women from harassment. How can I now look at those teenagers and say, “Of course the overturning of Roe v. Wade won’t come here. Of course the American influence will not impact your right to access healthcare in this country”? It is about time that this country and this Government were prepared to step up where the United States has stepped back. That is why I will be supporting new clause 11, tabled by the hon. Member for Walthamstow. It is imperative that we send a message to women—I was going to say young women, but it is actually to all women in this country—that we are on their side.
I rise to speak to the amendments in my name and the name of Florence Eshalomi, which arise from the legislative scrutiny of the Bill by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. They are amendments 28 to 31, 33, 34 to 36, 37 to 40 and 41 to 49, and also amendments 12 to 15, which appear first in the name of my hon. Friend Anne McLaughlin, and 1 and 2.
I remind hon. Members that the Joint Committee is a cross-party Committee with half its members from the House of Commons and half from the House of Lords, and we undertake scrutiny of the human rights implications of all Bills. I speak here in my capacity as the Chair of the Committee rather than in my personal capacity. I have great sympathy for new clause 11—similar measures are being taken in the Scottish jurisdiction—but, as my Committee did not have the chance to consider it, I will not be speaking about that new clause.
The Public Order Bill contains further significant changes to the law on public order in England and Wales, following on from those introduced in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. It is obvious from my accent that I am a Scottish MP. Despite the fact that this law only applies in England and Wales, it is of interest to a lot of Scots, because they come to London to protest—I see the Minister laughing, but it is the truth, and many of us have been doing it for years, since before we were elected to this House.
I welcome that. I am a firm believer that we are stronger together and a firm believer in the Union. I always welcome hearing the views of Scots people in London, and indeed of English people who wish to protest in Edinburgh.
I suspect the Minister will still hear our views after we become independent, so I would not get too upset about that.
During the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Joint Committee looked very carefully at a large volume of responses and heard from two panels of witnesses about the issue of the public order provisions. The Minister has said the stated intention of the Bill is to strengthen police powers to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive protest, but we think the measures go beyond that, to the extent that we believe they pose an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest. That was the conclusion of the Committee’s report dated
I wanted to reflect on the point that it is not just about our constituents in Scotland being concerned about the provisions in the Bill. One of the fundamental parts of policing in the UK is mutual aid, so there will be considerations for Police Scotland in relation to the Bill, if it is passed, when we have police officers from Scotland attending protests in other parts of the UK.
That is a very good point and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making it.
It is a matter of regret that when the Government responded to our cross-party report they said:
“Any chilling effect on the right to protest, damage to the UK’s reputation, or encouragement of other nations seeking to crack down on peaceful protest is more likely to arise from the misleading commentary on the PCSC Act and this Bill” than anything else. No, Minister. That is not the case. The Committee’s conclusions are not misleading commentary. They are the conclusions of a cross-party Committee of this House, informed by evidence from many different sources and advice from our own legal experts on the European convention on human rights, to which, thank God, the UK is still a signatory and which is still enforceable under the Human Rights Act 1998, which seems, thankfully, safe for the time being.
Before I turn to the amendments, I want to quickly make the point that the criminal law and the powers of the police already allow for action to be taken against violent protest and disruptive non-violent protest. That is addressed in detail in paragraph 18 of our report, where we list all the existing provisions under the criminal law of England and Wales that cover the situations about which the Minister says he is concerned. So not only do we think that the Bill is an attack on the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, but we believe that it is unnecessary and simply replicating existing law.
Our first tranche of amendments deal with the new offences set out in clauses 1 and 2—the proposed offences of “locking on” and
“being equipped to lock on”.
The purpose of those amendments is to try to water down what we consider to be far too stringent positions. We are particularly concerned about the reversal of the burden proof, putting it on the accused. The purpose of our amendments is to reverse that and put that burden on the prosecution, as is consistent with the presumption of innocence and therefore with article 6 of the ECHR. So amendments 28 to 33 would narrow the scope of clauses 1 and 2 and improve safeguards against violation of convention rights.
We believe that the offence of obstructing major transport works in clause 6 is so widely drafted that it could easily criminalise the peaceful exercise of rights under articles 10 and 11, so our amendments 34 to 36 would narrow its scope, including by introducing a requirement of intent and removing the unnecessary reversal of the burden of proof.
We think the proposed offence of interfering with “key national infrastructure” is too widely drawn and thus risks criminalising, without justification, behaviour that would fall within the provisions of articles 10 and 11 of the ECHR. Amendments 37 to 49 would narrow its scope and remove the unnecessary reversal of the burden of proof.
The proposal to extend stop-and-search powers to cover searches for articles connected with protest-related offences risks exposing peaceful protesters and other members of the public to intrusive encounters with the police without sufficient justification. We would like the utilisation of these new powers to be carefully monitored. In that respect, I note with approval the terms of new clauses 9 and 10 in the name of Marsha De Cordova.
The most concerning part of the Bill is the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. That is a highly exceptional power and will inevitably give rise to the risk of arbitrary or discriminatory use. Such powers have previously been authorised only in respect of serious violence and terrorism. The Committee believes their introduction in response to problems caused by disruptive protest would be disproportionate and inconsistent with the right to engage in peaceful protest. That is why we tabled amendments 12 to 15, which are supported by other hon. Members present and have quite a significant measure of cross-party support beyond the Joint Committee.
We would like to see the serious disruption prevention orders taken out of the Bill completely, along with the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. We believe that they would also result in interference with the legitimate peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of speech and the right to freedom of assembly. We therefore support amendments 1 and 2.
Finally, we have heard a lot from the current Government about the importance of freedom of speech. The Bill is about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Sometimes when people exercise their right of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, it can be a bit annoying to the rest of us and a bit disruptive. Sometimes I have become involved in demonstrations, not as a demonstrator but as somebody trying to get somewhere, and I have found them annoying and disruptive, but to quote Salman Rushdie:
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
I am grateful to have the opportunity to support new clause 11, which was tabled by Dr Huq. She has got into a bit of a scrape because she said something silly, but those of us who know her know that she is an extremely committed parliamentarian and very public spirited, and I hope that order will be restored in that department as soon as possible.
I also congratulate Stella Creasy on new clause 11 and I thank my right hon. Friend Caroline Nokes for supporting it. I note that SNP Members support the new clause, although I am not sure whether they will vote on it—they might decide that it is an English measure—but it is interesting that similar measures are being considered in Scotland.
I am grateful to the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, my hon. Friend Jeremy Quin, who kindly saw me at short notice yesterday about this matter. The Government may well oppose this new clause. I hope they do not, but I know they are seized of the issue and are giving it consideration. I will listen very carefully to what he has to say about it later.
“Clinic harassment” is the term used to describe the presence outside abortion clinics of groups who seek to dissuade and deter women from accessing healthcare that is their right under our law. Many people would call them protests, but mere protest is not the purpose of the activity and the groups who organise them do not call them protests. It is not about politics or campaigning; it is about stopping individual women from accessing their legal rights. New clause 11 would simply introduce a statutory buffer zone around any location where abortion services or advice are provided, making it illegal to carry out such activities as those eloquently described by the hon. Member for Walthamstow.
We are told that the scale of the problem is small and does not require a national response. That is false. Every year, around 100,000 women are treated by a clinic targeted by these groups. In the last three weeks alone, at least 15 clinics across the country have had people outside, including clinics based in hospitals, GP surgeries and in residential areas. That has impacted hundreds of women’s care and psychological wellbeing.
We are also told that the police and councils already have powers to restrict harmful protests. If that is true, why are they still happening? The fact is that abortion providers have proactively tried to use all the laws suggested by the Home Office to stem the problem, but even where individual protesters and groups have been dealt with by the courts and local authorities, the presence outside clinics has not stopped.
Let us be absolutely clear: we are not debating the principle of whether these so-called protests should be banned; they already are banned in certain places, and the principle of that has been supported by the House. We are just asking whether the existing statutory arrangements—the public spaces protection orders—used by councils to introduce buffer zones around individual clinics are effective. Only five out of 50 targeted clinics are protected.
There are three issues relating to PSPOs: they create a random patchwork of protections, which is inadequate; they are expensive to introduce and very difficult to uphold in the courts; and crucially, they can be introduced only with evidence that harassment is taking place. I made this point to my hon. Friend the Minister last night, and it is a painful thing for him to have to accept, but it is the Government’s policy that women should be harassed outside abortion clinics before a PSPO can be issued. Can the House think of any other policy that requires women to be harassed before the Government or the local authority do something that is perfectly justified? That is an immoral basis for PSPOs.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, as indeed he did yesterday evening. I was concerned and looked into the matter. The antisocial behaviour statutory guidance states that a PSPO can be made by a council if it is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the activity or behaviour carried out, or likely to be carried out, in a public space has had, or is likely to have, a detrimental impact. I hope that gives him some reassurance that if activity is anticipated and people are concerned that it may take place, there is a means whereby a PSPO may be taken out. He might not consider that a perfect scenario, but where an activity is foreseeable, action can be taken in advance.
I say rather wryly to my hon. Friend, “Good try.” But it is not really adequate, is it? All our local authorities are under huge spending pressure and do not want to spend money on drafting orders and so on, so what local authority will be preoccupied with this problem unless there is a problem? The strength of the case for implementing a PSPO is supported by evidence of likelihood, which will only be evident if the activity has already happened. I am afraid that my hon. Friend the Minister has not really addressed the point, although I commend him for making a good attempt.
We are also told that these groups are only quietly praying and that there is no harassment involved. Well, the hon. Member for Walthamstow told us about what happens, and sometimes people attend in very large numbers.
My final comment on this may answer points that my hon. Friend the Minister will make later. I have been involved for years in discussions with the Home Office, and here I also thank my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins for the assiduous attention she gave us as she wrestled with this problem, which I know has vexed her. Although she never persuaded the Government to accept a previous amendment, the sincerity of her engagement with us was wonderful, and I am grateful. So finally, we are also told that our amendment contravenes protesters’ human rights. Well, I note that the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Joanna Cherry, does not think that is the case—albeit that the Committee has not actually considered this amendment.
We have to recognise that rights have to be balanced, and the exercise of one person’s rights are very often to another person’s detriment. We have to strike a balance, and my argument is that new clause 11 strikes the right balance. The amendment would not stop people sharing their opinions about the vexed issue of abortion. It balances the rights of people who oppose abortion with the rights of women to access healthcare confidentially and free from harassment and intimidation. It does not ban protest; it simply moves it down the road to preserve the space immediately outside the clinic for women seeking care, and for nurses and doctors providing that care. In Committee, when asked about this directly by the Minister, rights groups did not oppose new clause 11. Canada, Australia, Spain, Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland all have comparable laws in place or are in the process of introducing them.
I need not detain the House any longer. If the House does not support this amendment tonight, the argument will carry on until an acceptable means of protecting women exercising their legal rights is found. I am grateful to the Government for allowing a free vote on the matter, which is right and proper in the circumstances.
It is a privilege to follow Sir Bernard Jenkin. I rise to support a range of amendments—amendments 1, 2, 11 and 12, new clauses 9, 11 and 13 to 16, and most of those that stand in the names of Joanna Cherry and Anne McLaughlin. I commend my hon. Friend Stella Creasy for her continuing campaign on this issue, and Caroline Nokes for the eloquence with which she spoke on it.
I believe that we should consider carefully the implications of any piece of legislation for our constituents. We must ask ourselves who will be affected, and how? I will discuss specifically how the Bill will have a dramatic effect on my constituents. In my constituency there has been a 40-year campaign against Heathrow expansion, particularly against the third runway. According to the airport itself, 4,000 homes will be either demolished or rendered unliveable as a result of air and noise pollution. Ten thousand people will lose their homes. There is a history of peaceful protest against this by my constituents. Their protests have involved demonstrating noisily, linking arms, marching, sitting down to block the roads into Heathrow and blocking the tunnel into Heathrow. They have involved camping in the local field with Climate Camp, and yes, they have involved training in locking on, to ensure that if someone’s home is threatened with demolition, they can lock themselves to the home.
Yes, the existing law has been used against my constituents, and people have taken it on the chin. The existing law has proved to be effective in many ways in ensuring that people understand the law and know when they cross the limit of the law. I remind the House that there are also specific laws relating to airports.
This campaign demonstrated to me how the democratic process, both inside and outside Parliament, works effectively, because it was successful. It persuaded the Conservative party to change its policy, and the party’s then leader, Mr Cameron, to say:
“No ifs, no buts, no third runway.”
We were disappointed when he later caveated that, saying that the commitment would last for only one Parliament. Nevertheless, it demonstrated that peaceful demonstration in support of the campaign actually did change Government policy, and I believe that it reinforced people’s appreciation of our democratic system.
The threat of a third runway has not gone away. The new discussions taking place on various Benches mean that people are now planning a new wave of protests to protect their homes. In fact, it has gone beyond a nimby campaign, because it is now also about tackling the climate change emergency that is happening now.
I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman’s commitment and his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, but does he acknowledge that the reason the campaign has succeeded is the intelligent and appropriate use of the legal process, through a series of injunctions and challenges brought by the London Borough of Hillingdon, rather than the protests around Heathrow airport itself?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman to a certain extent. I congratulate Hillingdon Council, which has worked on a cross-party basis, and commend it for the work it has done with other local authorities of all political parties. I do not think, however, that the legal process was sufficient. What changed the minds of politicians— of David Cameron and the Conservative party—was the mobilisation of mass demonstrations and mass public support. I had been campaigning on the issue for 30 years before we saw that shift in policy.
Through those campaigns, the residents are simply trying to protect their homes, their communities and their way of life, but as a result of the specifics of this legislation, they could be criminalised. In fact, this legislation could have been specifically designed to prevent campaigning in my constituency against the third runway. Our campaign is a protest associated with national infrastructure and is specific to airports, both of which are identified in the legislation. It involves protests that are aimed at “serious disruption”, because we block roads that enter the airport, and virtually all the roads around the villages in my constituency go there. We have also blocked the tunnel at Heathrow and we have been involved in locking on, arms linking and the occupation of land and property.
I see in the legislation that there is a defence of “reasonable excuse”, so is protecting one’s home and one’s community a reasonable excuse under this legislation? Now, under this legislation, for seeking to protect their homes and to persuade Governments and political parties to change their policy, my constituents will face arrest, unlimited fines, imprisonment for up to 51 weeks, tagging, restrictions on their ability to attend other forms of protest, surveillance and stop and search without suspicion.
Elements of the legislation degenerate into farce, because anyone in my constituency wandering off to the Harmondsworth allotments with a spade could be arrested for carrying. When we legislate, there are foreseen and, sometimes, unforeseen consequences. The foreseen consequences here are dangerous. The good, responsible and concerned citizens who are exercising in my constituency their time-honoured rights of expression, assembly and protest are likely to be criminalised by the legislation if it goes through. Will it intimidate them? Yes, it will. Will it deter them? No, it will not.
That is why I am supporting these amendments. The legislation flies in the face of the democratic rights and processes that we have held dear and that have proved successful in holding Governments to account and restraining the power of the state. That is why I believe it is critical for these amendments to be made. Failing that, the Bill should be opposed.
I rise to oppose new clause 11 on the basis of its grave implications—indeed, threats—to freedom of thought, conscience, speech, belief and assembly. Let us be clear: new clause 11 flies directly in the face of those freedoms. It has far wider implications than on abortion alone; it potentially criminalises even those who simply stand peaceably near abortion clinics, and who do so mainly on the basis of their faith-based beliefs. I believe that the clause contravenes human rights. Notably, for example, article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;
this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
The broad wording of new clause 11 is open to such wide interpretation, particularly the words “seeks to influence”, that it could well catch virtually any activity. The proposed criminalisation of influencing is imprecise, unclear and unpredictable in its effect and potential impact, which contravenes the basic principle of certainty of the rule of law. Certainty is vital so that citizens can tailor their behaviour and remain within the law’s boundaries. Could a social worker advising a confused teenager going to an abortion clinic be seen as influencing within the meaning of this clause and therefore be at risk of criminal liability? This new clause fails the test of certainty and should be rejected for that reason alone.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and I am listening carefully to what she is saying, which I know reflects beliefs of great sincerity. Does that mean, however, that she is against the existing law that allows local authorities to ban those same activities around abortion clinics, for example, on a selective basis? It seems to me that the House has already accepted that principle. If she cannot accept that principle, we really are on a different page.
I have spoken against that principle on a number of occasions in this place and I will come on to explain why.
The wording of new clause 11 could even catch those who are quietly praying, but when did it become against the law in this country to pray? Unfortunately, five councils have now defined protest as including the word “prayer”. During court proceedings, that has even been confirmed to include silent prayer. That is a grave development that we in this House, more than anyone, must stand against. Staggeringly, it would effectively mean criminalising the affairs going on within the privacy of an individual’s mind. Yet freedom of thought is an absolute, unqualified right. As the Minister for the Americas and the Overseas Territories said earlier today in response to the urgent question, peaceful protest is a “fundamental part” of UK society.
Whatever our individual views on abortion, we must stand against new clause 11. Otherwise, we risk opening the door to discrimination even more widely. Why not have buffer zones around political conferences? A young Hongkonger told me yesterday that when she attended the recent Conservative party conference, she was “scared” of accessing the conference centre because of the aggressive behaviour of political opponents around it, yet there is no suggestion of having buffer zones there, and nor should there be. As MPs, we would be aghast if we risked a fine and imprisonment simply for handing out a campaign leaflet containing our political views on the street and seeking to influence others at election time. No: new clause 11 is specifically targeted at those with faith-based views and we should be equally aghast at it.
Of course, harassment or intimidation around abortion clinics—or anywhere—has to be addressed, although in more than a quarter of a century of people quietly gathering around abortion clinics, there have been relatively few, if any, reports of that and there are already several pieces of legislation that could tackle it if needed. The Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Public Order Act 1986, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was passed only this year, all provide sufficient powers to tackle harassment and intimidation. This addresses the point of my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin: rather than creating new and unnecessary laws, the police’s and our efforts should be on ensuring that they and the prosecution use the powers that they already have.
This new clause goes further and potentially criminalises peaceable gatherings. Indeed, looking at the wording of the new clause, it is perfectly possible to see an argument being made that just one person standing alone quietly near a clinic could be guilty of the criminal offence proposed in it. Widely or poorly drafted legislation, as here, can have serious unintended consequences, as we have seen in recent years. During the pandemic, Rosa Lalor, a 76-year-old grandmother, was arrested, prosecuted and charged for nothing less than praying and walking outside an abortion centre. It took over a year before Merseyside police force dropped the charges, noting that her actions were completely within the law. For her, however, the punishment was the process, despite being completely innocent of any wrongdoing.
Too often, in recent years, the mere expression of unpopular viewpoints has been interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, as automatically being abusive or harassing under the Public Order Act 1986, due to the broad discretionary powers the police have. We must stand against this. We have seen numerous examples of street preachers and others arrested for nothing more than peacefully expressing traditional views in public. When arrested and prosecuted, it is very rare for this to lead to conviction, but by the time they are vindicated the damage is done to the individual subjected to a prolonged criminal process, to the public’s confidence in policing and, indeed, to freedom of speech. Such miscarriages of justice have an abiding chilling effect, leading many—indeed, many thousands of people—across our country today to self-censor deeply-held views, which is a problem far more widespread than is currently recognised and that will no doubt be exacerbated by new clause 11.
I am just about to conclude.
One of the main reasons freedom of speech and thought are treasured and rightly protected in law is so that they can be used precisely for the purposes of influence. The free and frank exchange of viewpoints is the lifeblood of a genuinely democratic society. Rather than seeking to erode this most precious principle, we should be seeking instead to strengthen the law, to put it beyond doubt that freedom of speech—and, indeed, of belief—when peaceably expressed should never be a criminal offence. We must stand against this here today. Our cherished freedoms of thought, conscience, belief, speech and assembly have been hard fought for, and our democracy depends on their robust protection.
It is a pleasure to follow Fiona Bruce, although I respectfully disagree with her position on this, and I will come to that shortly. I also welcome the Minister to his post.
I do not think anybody in this House was not deeply irritated by the sight of an ambulance having to turn around and go a different route because of protesters glued to the road, and I do not think there are many people in this House, when they saw protesters throwing soup at a van Gogh painting, who did not at least question whether that action had helped or hindered the cause of climate change. We all passionately believe in the right to protest, do we not? But we all understand that our fundamental freedoms are always balanced with the need to ensure business can carry on in its usual way.
That is why I thank the police for their response to the protesters who blocked the ambulance. They arrested 26 people for wilful obstruction of a highway and removed people glued to the road. Wilful obstruction is an offence that can carry a prison sentence. I also thank the police for the way in which they dealt with the incident in the National Gallery. Two people have been charged with criminal damage, which is an offence that can carry prison sentence.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you may ask yourself why, if the police were quick to respond, quick to arrest and quick to charge, we are debating a Public Order Bill to create a raft of new powers to tackle protest, after we have only just finished debating another Bill—the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022—which has introduced another raft of new provisions against protest.
Is the hon. Lady therefore fully satisfied that the powers that exist are fully complete and fully perfect in all respects? Is she satisfied that police officers will be taken from her constituency to police central London to guard the public from protests? Should we not be taking stronger action?
I thank the Minister for his intervention, and I will shortly come on to speak about the powers that already exist and what I think we need to do to make sure that we have the best system we can have.
I think the reason we are here debating this legislation is that we are not currently governed by grown-ups who understand the serious and delicate balance between policing and protest. We are governed by people who seek to win through division, by pitting one group against another and by wilfully threatening the delicate balance of policing by consent that marks out our form of policing from French, Spanish or Italian paramilitary-style police forces.
On a wider point briefly, if I may, where I wonder are the Government’s priorities when it comes to policing and crime more generally? Why is the Home Secretary doing nothing on the appallingly low charge rates for rape and sexual offences? Why is the Home Secretary doing nothing about the worrying levels of violent crime? What about the thousands of criminals going unpunished, or the victims withdrawing from the investigation process because they do not believe they will see justice? The people’s priorities are not this Government’s priorities, and that is the sad truth.
This careful balance between the right to protest, to speak or to gather and the rights of others to go about their daily business is complicated. It is paramount that we protect vital public infrastructure, our national life and community from serious disruption, but it is also vital that we ensure the right to freedom of speech and the right to protest. We believe that this Bill gets that balance wrong.
Many of the provisions in this Bill in effect replicate laws already in place that the police can and do already use. It is already an offence to obstruct a highway—an offence that can lead to a prison sentence. There is already an offence of criminal damage or conspiracy to cause criminal damage, which can also lead to a prison sentence. Public nuisance is an offence, and that can lead to a prison sentence. Aggravated trespass is an offence, which can also lead to a prison sentence. In 2021, 293 charges were brought against 117 Insulate Britain activists for public nuisance, criminal damage and wilful obstruction of the highway, and many protesters at oil terminals have been charged with aggravated trespass in the last year.
If we look further back into history, we find examples of peaceful lock-on protests and of the police making good use of the powers available to them when they needed to. At Greenham Common peace camp, for example, the police did intervene when they needed to, and they arrested and charged people. We could ask the Prime Minister, because she was there. Only last week, the Home Secretary, before tweeting that the police needed extra powers on protest, congratulated the police on making over 300 arrests. The flaw in the argument is gaping.
If new clause 11 is agreed to, will the Labour party vote against Third Reading?
I will come to new clause 11 shortly, and express my support and our support for that new clause. We have supported it many times in many different forms through many different debates.
The Labour party, last April, called for greater injunction powers following the disruption by Just Stop Oil, when millions of people could not access fuel. We argued that the raft of existing powers could be used more effectively. We suggested injunctions because they are more likely to prevent further disruption to, say, an oil terminal than more offences to criminalise conduct after it has taken place, with all the added costs and logistics of removal. Injunctions are more straightforward for the police, they have more safeguards as they are granted by a court, and they are future-proof when protesters change tactics.
Police officers have told us that some of the most effective measures they use in the face of potential serious disruption are injunctions. The National Police Chiefs’ Council protests lead, Chris Noble, said that
“they can be very useful in terms of what we are trying to control and how we are trying to shape…behaviour.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
In Kingsbury with Just Stop Oil and on the M25 with insulate Britain, people were arrested, removed and charged for breaching injunctions.
We introduced a new clause in Committee to bring what is known as the Canada Goose case into law. The Canada Goose case allowed injunctions to be taken out against persons unknown. This means that when groups of protesters form outside, the applicant does not have to know all their names or the names of people who may come in the future. Sadly, in Committee, the Government voted against our injunctions new clause. They said it would not create meaningful change.
The Government have since had a change of heart, however—another U-turn from the Government—but our suggestions for injunctions are still not being supported; they have introduced their own in new clauses 7 and 8. We believe these new clauses are flawed in several ways. First, there are some drafting problems, and lawyers we have spoken to are unclear on what the legal basis of an injunction would be. Secondly, we have concerns about placing the responsibility and power in the hands of the Home Secretary. Thirdly, we have concerns about where the burden of cost will fall; at a very difficult economic time, the Government can through this Bill shift financial responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, and that needs to be looked at.
In Committee, we heard evidence from HS2, who were in the process of applying for a route-wide injunction to protect their sites from serious disruption. This has now been granted by the High Court. The documents detailing the High Court decision show that the judge granted it partly on the basis that it satisfied the requirements of the Canada Goose case, the guidelines set by the Court of Appeal. Our new clause 4 puts on to the statue books the Canada Goose case law principles. Surely the Minister does not oppose principles set by the Court of Appeal; why does he not look again at Labour’s sensible amendment to tackle serious disruption?
Our new clause 5 seeks to make a simple but important change. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 contains a definition of serious disruption—after we called on the Government to define it as they had not done so originally. That definition includes “noise generated by people”. We want that definition removed, so that when the police are deciding what constitutes serious disruption, they cannot do this on noise alone. We have all debated this many times in the House and I will not repeat the arguments we have made. Instead, I will quote the current Foreign Office Minister, Jesse Norman, who said in a letter to the previous Prime Minister:
“No genuinely Conservative government should have supported the recent ban on noisy protest—least of all when basic human freedoms are facing the threat of extinction in Ukraine.”
We agree with him and tonight the Government have the chance to do so too and to right that wrong. Surely, the Prime Minister, fixated supposedly on freedom, would want to defend the right to chant and sing at a protest, just like she did as a child against the party she now leads.
Since we now have a new Home Secretary, perhaps these words from Mrs May are worth her also bearing in mind:
“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”—[Official Report,
That has never been more the case than now.
This Bill gives the police wide-ranging powers to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest: for example, shoppers passing a protest against a library closure, tourists walking through Parliament Square, or civil servants walking to their desks in the Cabinet Office. But these far-reaching powers to stop and search without suspicion go too far. We know the police will not feel comfortable using them—we have spoken to several who have said the same—and in an area of policing already prone to disproportionality, they represent a disproportionate way of preventing what is in the vast majority of cases a minor public order offence at most.
In the same way, a serious disruption prevention order, also introduced in this Bill, treats a peaceful protestor, who in some instances will have committed no crime, as if they were a terrorist. Is that what the Home Secretary really thinks? Does she really want her Government to be responsible for treating peaceful, if admittedly annoying, protestors like serious criminals? The SDPO is draconian, preventing people from going to places and seeing people when they have not even committed a crime. And we must remember that to be eligible for an SDPO, serious disruption does not even need to have occurred; as the Bill states, I could be given an SDPO if I helped someone else do something which was
“likely to result in, serious disruption to two or more individuals”.
The phrase “likely to result in” amounts in real world terms to absolutely nothing, and just two people being required to experience, or being likely to experience but not actually experiencing, serious disruption is too low a bar.
On new clause 11, everyone has a right to access healthcare without fear of intimidation. The same principles applied when we had debates in this place about buffer zones—public space protection orders—outside vaccine centres when there were protests against people having their vaccine. Access to healthcare is a fundamental right and we must safeguard it. Many Members have been making this argument for many years in many different ways. The shadow Home Secretary has been calling for it since 2014. I have only been in Parliament since 2017 and we debated it in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and we do it again now. The Minister has the opportunity to do some good here; I think there is agreement on that on both sides of the House.
We all agree that the disruption we have seen from the small groups of hard-line protesters is unacceptable, whether blocking ambulances or stopping people getting to work for long periods of time, but our job as legislators is to come up with proposals that will actually help. It is our jobs to be grown-ups. This Government have created a piece of legislation that is disproportionate and threatens our unique model of policing by consent. In the evidence sessions, Sir Peter Fahy, a very well-respected former chief constable, spoke to us about the British style of policing. He said that we do not live in France or any other country with a paramilitary aspect to their policing and that
“in our policing system…policing is by consent… There would need to be a huge shift in the public mood and I think British policing is not really set up and does not have the mentality to use the degree of force that you see in other countries.
People do not realise that we are pretty unique...that is the British style”.––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
The Government would do well to listen to Sir Peter’s warnings. They are undermining that style of policing and upsetting that careful balance between the police and the people, and the fine line between being popular and populist. We are not the French. At a time when the economy is crashing and inflation is soaring, Ministers are choosing to spend precious parliamentary time trying to create political and cultural dividing lines, to chase headlines instead of actually finding sensible and workable solutions. The Government should rethink this flawed legislation.
Over the past few days I have been accused of being tired, emotional, erratic, and, just to put the record straight, I am all of those things and more. I want to be clear: unlike some Members in this Chamber, I have no time for those people who block roads, throw soup, and make a general nuisance of themselves. They are agents against their own interests, as they repel normal ordinary people. Having said that, serious disruption prevention orders are not the answer. They leave me absolutely cold; in fact I would go so far as to say that they are absolutely appalling because there are plenty of existing laws that can be utilised to deal with people who specialise in making other people’s lives miserable.
I know there is a convention here that we do not read lists, but I hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I will be allowed to read a very short list just to set out the laws that already exist and have been covered by colleagues: obstructing a police officer, Police Act 1996; obstructing a highway, Highways Act 1980; obstruction of an engine, Malicious Damage Act 1861—we all remember that one —endangering road users, Road Traffic Act 1988; aggravated trespass, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994; criminal damage, Criminal Damage Act 1971; and public nuisance, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. There are also other laws. There is the Public Order Act 1986 that allows police officers to ban or place conditions on protest.
So the Government’s attraction to SDPOs demonstrates our own impotence as legislators and the impotence of the police as law enforcers to get to grips with the laws already in place and to enforce them. This is what we do now in politics: we have these machismo laws where something must be done, so we go out and do it, and that makes a good headline in The Daily Telegraph and The Times, but we do it and then very little happens, or if it does happen it is way over the top.
My hon. Friend rightly compliments the police for routinely arresting and charging those who are responsible for wrongdoing. Does he agree that it is not an acceptable circumstance where 460 individuals have been arrested a total of 910 times for Just Stop Oil protests and that there is a difficult point of cumulation that we must accept?
I thank the Minister for his intervention, because I am now warming to my task to nail a stake through the heart of this nonsense that we are debating. [Interruption.] It is absolute nonsense, Minister. For the benefit of Hansard, that is what the Minister said from a sedentary position. I would just say this. There is the idea that in this country we will ankle-tag someone who has not been convicted in a court of law. Those Chinese in their embassy will be watching that closely at the moment—they might actually be applying for some of this stuff once we have passed it in this place, as I suspect that we will.
Now I am getting tired and emotional. I say this to the Minister. During the covid lockdowns, when we banned protest, I warned that we would get to this point and that once the Government and politicians were emboldened by placing restrictions on a right and turning it into a freedom, they would not stop.
The hon. Gentleman is making a fantastic speech that is being admired on both sides of the House. I wonder if he might be concerned that somebody could say that warnings on Radio 4 that the Conservative party might end up smaller than the SNP after the next election would be conducive to public disorder. Does he fear in any way being prosecuted himself as a result of that?
The Conservative party is the architect of its own misfortune, and we must deal with that and respond to it, so I will not be tempted down that track by the hon. Gentleman. All I will say is that this is as unconservative as our Budget a few weeks ago. This is not what the Conservative party does. We believe in proportionate laws, like we used to believe in sound money. I will therefore be joining hon. Members from across the House in voting against this piece of legislation.
As I said a moment ago, I warned, over a pint of milk—the metaphor that I used—that our right to protest was being eroded. Now, we are crying over spilt milk.
I rise to speak to the new clauses tabled in my name and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) and for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), Joanna Cherry and Anne McLaughlin as well as all those amendments that stand against this fundamentally flawed Bill.
One of my motivations for my new clauses was the fatal police shooting in my constituency of Chris Kaba, an unarmed black man, which sent shockwaves through a traumatised community. I offer my condolences to the Kaba family, his friends and his community. I will not say more for risk of sub judice, especially since an inquest is ongoing and the Independent office for Police Conduct is conducting a homicide investigation and considering whether race was a factor in his shooting. I am sure that everybody across the whole House will agree that a just society is one in which your race does not determine whether or not you are over-policed as a citizen and under-policed as a victim. But with a Government who seem hellbent on ramping up policing powers and presiding over worsening inequalities, it is clear that there will be an uphill struggle to realise that vision.
The Bill contains a significant expansion of police powers, including measures that the Government already attempted to put into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Those measures were opposed in the other place, so I do not understand why they are trying to bring them back. That is one reason why new clause 15 states that there must be a public inquiry into the policing of black, Asian and minority ethnic people. New clause 16 would require an equality impact assessment of the Bill. Yet again, we are having to ask that the Government respect that equality is the law and do not propose legislation that clearly infringes on the rights of minoritised groups.
We hear figures from Wales that eight out of every 1,000 white people are stopped and searched. When we compare that with a rate of 56 per 1,000 black people, we see that there is something appalling in the state of stop and search across the United Kingdom—this legislation relates to England and Wales—and that there is something particular in Wales for which we need a Wales-specific justice impact assessment to understand and get to the root of why the figures are so extreme.
The right hon. Member is absolutely right. That is why I support new clauses 9 and 10 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea on the use of stop-and-search powers. In them, she attempts to consult civil society organisations and consider the impact on groups with protected characteristics, as has been mentioned. That should clearly be done by the Government each and every single time they propose legislation, but they do not do it at all.
In this Black History Month, when we talk about some of the civil rights struggles of black people in this country, it is particularly offensive that, instead of reacting to them by bringing about change, the Government are attempting to provide police with even more unaccountable powers. Those are the same police who currently have extremely low trust and confidence among black communities, not least following the recent case of Ian Taylor, who died in police custody in the borough in which my constituency sits, the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving police officer, also in my constituency, the disproportionate levels of stop and search, and the treatment of Child Q and other children who have been strip-searched, as well as extensive evidence of institutionalised racism and misogyny in the police.
Just this week, Baroness Casey’s report found that many claims of sexual misconduct, misogyny, racism and homophobia were badly mishandled. These are
“patterns of unacceptable discrimination that clearly amount to systemic bias”,
and they cannot continue. Those are not my words but those of the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Mark Rowley.
We know that our criminal justice system continues to be held back by institutional racism—well, at least Opposition Members know that. We have heard about institutional racism in the policing of black communities in every single review—from Macpherson to Lammy—except the Government’s recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, which claimed that it did not exist at all.
Not only is the Bill a missed opportunity to remedy all of that profound injustice; it will only exacerbate the racial bias and the discrimination that continues to persist. That is part of the reason why I will speak in favour of a range of civil liberties amendments that seek to ensure human rights for all our citizens. I turn to new clause 11, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow. I am a person of faith, and I believe that our human rights should be universal, but when a person exercising their rights begins to infringe on somebody else’s rights, that is the point at which we know that that right is wrong. We legislate on these things in this House again and again. The idea that we could use the right to free speech to infringe on someone else’s right to get healthcare is absolutely wrong, so I am pleased to support that new clause.
The Bill continues to follow a pattern from a Government who voice support for protests all around the world but want to crack down on the right to speak up here at home. Protest is an important part of a democratic country because it is one of the driving factors that allows individuals to exercise their rights to free speech and speak up against an unfair and unjust Government—like this Government—and their laws. That is why I tabled new clause 17, which sets out that there must be a public inquiry into the policing of protest, which would address: the use of force; kettling; the deployment of horses; and the new policing powers contained in the Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. I have also signed a range of amendments and new clauses that would seek to protect our civil liberties and trade union rights, including addressing those recommendations from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and those supported by Liberty, Amnesty and others.
I draw colleagues’ attention to amendment 36, tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, about the burden of proving “reasonable excuse” or that an act was part of a trade dispute away from the defendant and making it an element of the offence. The Government are not even attempting to sugar-coat the aim of that measure, which is trade unions. I see trade unions as our last line of defence against the relentless and accelerating attack that we see on the living standards of the working-class. The Government know that their economic policies are unpopular and cause suffering, so they want to remove everybody’s right to resist and fight back.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. She is making a very powerful speech in support of her amendments. I was with her at the demonstration outside New Scotland Yard following the death of Chris Kaba. It was an emotional and passionate occasion. Everyone there was looking for justice and looking for knowledge and an inquiry. Does she support more pressure on the Home Office to hurry it up, so that we can get some closure on that terrible loss of life and the pain that goes with it? The beautiful way in which his cousin spoke at that demonstration will stay with me for ever.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. Far too often, families like the Kaba family have to spend months, even years, seeking answers and justice for their loved ones. I hope that in the years to come, the Independent Office for Police Conduct quickly begins to look at measures to speed up the investigations that give family members answers about why they have died. We have to remember that around the time Chris Kaba died, not to mention him too much, he was one of two men who had been killed following contact with police, and one of over 1,000 who have died in police custody or following contact with police since 1990. Since that time, only one police officer has ever been prosecuted. That absolutely needs to change.
In conclusion, the Public Order Bill is a continuation of the Government’s assault on the right to protest, further criminalising people who call for the change we need and ramping up police powers to restrict demonstrations. It could also have a very negative impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. It is authoritarian and disadvantages the poorest and most marginalised communities. Unless it is fundamentally amended, I believe it must be opposed.
I am surprised we are debating this again. It was only in 2018 when the Home Office concluded there was no need to introduce so-called buffer zones. I am referring here to new clause 11. Buffer zones are disproportionate in the restrictions they impose on freedom of expression, and unnecessary in that there remains a lack of evidence that they are needed. The Government have recently affirmed this position, and rightly so given that existing laws enable the police and local authorities to deal with protests that are harmful. Before we rush to create new laws, it is only right that the Government expect the police and local authorities to use their current powers appropriately and where necessary.
The 2018 review showed that
“it would not be proportionate to introduce a blanket ban” as the evidence found that protests occurred at less than 10% of abortion clinics. That is a very small number. Of course—we emphasise this point—any kind of harassment is absolutely wrong. It should be dealt with by the law and can be dealt with by existing laws. We have heard much in the debate about how we should turn to existing laws, rather than create new ones. Any remedy must be proportionate to the problem. The review—not my review, but an objective Government review—concluded that most of the activities during these protests were passive in nature. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, in a very powerful speech, described just how passive they can be. They can be standing there and praying silently, not even holding up a banner of any nature or saying anything. It could include praying or handing out leaflets. The review found that disruptive or aggressive behaviour was the exception, not the norm. Crucially, it also confirmed that the police have the necessary powers already to take action and protect the public when protests become harmful or disruptive. A blanket ban of the kind proposed in new clause 11 would be disproportionate in the face of those facts. The law must be proportionate.
To be clear, the people this amendment targets are peaceful protestors, often elderly grandmothers, frankly, who are entirely peaceful. They politely pray and hand out leaflets. The contrast could not be greater between those protestors and those of the likes of Just Stop Oil, who glue themselves to roads and create human blockades that are disruptive and obstructionist. If any so-called protesters at abortion clinics did anything like that, they would be immediately arrested. While the police have the powers to take action so that ordinary people can go about their daily lives, they will not stop Just Stop Oil protests.
Are we in this House really going to criminalise people who are peacefully trying to raise awareness about support available? This is the point.
No, I have been told not to speak for long and I want to get on with it.
We are talking about people who are just trying to raise awareness about the support available. This is a crucial point. They want to raise awareness about the support available to women facing difficult pregnancies with nowhere else to turn to. We are going to criminalise these grandmothers, but so many of the Just Stop Oil people walk free.
Therefore, this is not primarily a debate about abortion. We all have our views on that. This is a debate and an amendment about public order. A thorough review of this subject, including the public order aspect, found that buffer zones would be an excessive response to protests or vigils outside abortion clinics. There is no need to change the law with the new clause.
I support the Bill, but if new clause 11 is included in it, I could no longer support it. Many pro-life MPs will be in the position I am in. The Government will be putting us in a very difficult position. I would be interested to know—I did not get an answer to this—what the Labour party will do if new clause 11 is included. Presumably, it would rather more favour aspects of the Bill. What will be the attitude of the Minister? Is he in favour of new clause 11? If he wants to speak against it, is he going to not support his own Bill? We will see. I look forward to his comments.
I hope we can get on with the aims of better supporting the police to protect the rights of people to go about their daily business in the face of the likes of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, and to focus their resources on keeping the public safe.
Lastly, I want to make it clear that this is about raising awareness. The last comment must go to Alina Dulgheriu, a vulnerable mother who fronts a campaign called “Be Here For Me”. She recently recalled:
“The day I made my way to the abortion facility was the darkest day my heart has ever known. All I needed was help until I gave birth. A lady and a leaflet. That’s all it took. Right there at the steps of abortion centre. From all that darkness, at last I felt hope, I felt for the first time that my child was wanted, not only by me, but also by complete strangers. For the first time, I felt that I was not walking alone on the day I was meant to end the life within me—my child. I cannot express the joy and how fulfilled I felt as a woman, as a mother, to be given the chance to have my child. A just and caring society doesn’t criminalise people for offering help to vulnerable mothers.”
It is pleasure to follow Sir Edward Leigh, although I do not agree with much of what he said. We must remember in this place that we do not know the reasons why women present themselves at abortion clinics. I have been campaigning and advocating for women who have experienced miscarriage, and I want the House to know that that is a primary reason why someone may present at an abortion clinic. For someone to be presented with a picture of a foetus when they consider themselves to be a mother is beyond the line, so I support buffer zones.
This may be the intervention that another Member was about to make. The protests around buffer zones affect about 10% of clinics, but it is estimated that they affect up to 50% of women, because they tend to target the larger clinics. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that that is put on the record?
I thank the right hon. Lady for that intervention, and I absolutely agree. We know that women sometimes have to travel very far to get access to this sort of healthcare, so of course this will impact more women at certain clinics.
Before getting into the subject of the Bill, I wish to highlight the economic context in which this is being played out, because it is directly related to why the Bill is being proposed in the first place. For more than a decade, the austerity agenda has led to stagnating wages and declining conditions at work, and it has weakened the fundamentals of our economy. Researchers at the University of Glasgow recently found that the Government’s scorched earth economic policy contributed to 330,000 excess deaths between 2010 and 2019. After the massive transfer of incomes, resources and wealth from the poorest to the richest in our society, we were left in no condition to weather a pandemic and the subsequent soaring cost of living.
In September’s financial statement, although it has been massively U-turned on, the Government succeeded in turning the cost of living crisis into a run on the pound. Now it is as though we have turned the clock back to 2010, with the new Chancellor telling us that he will have to make eye-watering decisions about spending. The cycle continues: we are facing austerity all over again. The services our communities rely on will be hit hard.
The problems at the core of the stagnation and crises are underinvestment, profiteering and the chasms of inequality and divide in our society. But rather than fixing those, Government Front Benchers seem intent on making them worse, which is exactly why they need this Bill. If wages keep being cut and the services that people rely on are dismantled, they will express their opposition to that through protests, strikes and direct action.
The recent spy cops Act, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and now this Bill are all about reducing the rights of people to come together to give a collective voice to their dissent—and that is without mentioning the attacks on the right to organise in our workplaces and to take industrial action to defend pay and conditions. Like any paranoid authoritarian measure to curb dissent, some of the proposals in the Bill are completely ridiculous. I have a staff member who rides a bike to work and carries a bike lock. Is she “equipped to lock-on”? How will police gauge whether she intends to use it to commit an offence? Some of the wording in the Bill is so loose it could apply to everything and anything. What does “locking-on” actually mean? Could linking arms be locking-on? What does it mean to cause “serious disruption”?
I am concerned that the real reason for the loose wording is to create a chilling effect on any kind of dissent at all. That is reflected in the serious disruption prevention orders. The right to protest is a human right. The idea of banning individuals from attending a demonstration regardless of whether they have committed a crime is draconian. Just think about who that would have applied to in our history. Think of Millicent Fawcett, whose statue stands in that square outside, looking up at this building. Would I be standing here today if women such as her had not had the right to protest? The Government do not seem particularly keen on elections right now. Perhaps the Home Secretary would be dishing out these SDPOs to the Chartists or the Pankhursts, or other uppity troublemakers.
I think this Bill is rotten to the core, but I will be supporting all the amendments that seek to curb its excesses and to prevent it from cracking down on our right to voice opposition. I will be opposing the proposals to extend stop-and-search powers—powers that have already done so much damage to communities, as my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy mentioned. We do not need this legislation. What we need is a Government who address the real causes of peoples’ concerns: the cost of living crisis, the climate crisis and the lack of trust in our democratic institutions. The draconian proposals we are debating today are about equipping this Government to do the exact opposite.
I wish to start by expressing my strong support for the provisions that the Bill brings forward. In my life before Parliament, as a local councillor and as a magistrate, I had cause to engage with many of the issues the Bill seeks to address. It seems to me that on the whole it is a sensible and proportionate way of bringing forward new police powers and new laws to ensure that our constituents lives’ are not unduly and unfairly disrupted.
In particular, I wish to place on the record my thanks to constituents, such as the late Roy Parsons, who over the years have contributed a huge amount to law and order in the community. Their efforts have helped to illuminate my thinking as a Member of Parliament about how some of these challenges need to be addressed.
My constituency is very much a place of commuters, with people travelling to work by road, rail and bus. I am conscious that especially for those who are part of the lifeblood of the economy of our capital the disruption that has been caused to their lives by protests that seek to test existing laws to the very limits is considerable. There is a cost to people’s businesses and people’s jobs, and it creates a great deal of nuisance for those seeking to attend hospital appointments and, in some cases, to respond to emergencies. It is therefore absolutely right that the Government listen to the voice of the law-abiding people who are part of the lifeblood of our capital city and seek to address the changing tactics that we have seen from protesters over the years.
I was struck by the comments of my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker, who was absolutely right to refer to the plethora—the patchwork—of existing laws. The challenge I have heard about—not least from those responsible for leading policing in the capital and in my local area—is that there is often not the required specific power available as protest groups seek to change and update their tactics. I listened to John McDonnell, and I am sure that he recalls the moves by a particular organisation to sell single square feet of space in a field adjacent to Heathrow airport, with a view to using the due process of law to frustrate the legal processes that were being gone through at the time in the context of Heathrow expansion. Although I agree entirely with the purpose, it is absolutely right that that should have been frustrated. We have seen those tactics beginning to create disruption in what should be a legal and democratic decision-making process, so introducing proposals that update the law in the light of those changes, in my view, is absolutely spot on.
Let me address new clause 11, which I intend to support in the House today. My experience has been of issues relating to the existing legislation, particularly the ability of local authorities to obtain public space protection orders or to use other provisions that are out there. It is extremely costly and often very complex and fraught with legal difficulty to follow those processes. That is why, following occasions in the House when we debate creating provisions that we expect to be used, for example, by local authorities, they are often little used in practice. We need to ensure, if we are taking seriously the issue of an unacceptable degree of harassment, that we put in place provisions that will deal with that properly and effectively.
I am very sympathetic to many of the points that have been made on the pro-life side of the argument, but I take the view that, whatever we think about the detail of the abortion debate, it is absolutely right that we ensure that all our citizens are properly protected from the harassment that may take place. There are some issues with the drafting of what has been proposed, in that we want to ensure that appropriate, lawful interventions that are helpful to people can take place. I will support the new clause, however, and I hope that the Government will perhaps in due course consider the weight of opinion that appears to be being expressed in the House and ensure that that finds its ultimate expression in a way that works to provide appropriate, lawful and proportionate protection to women in that context.
Following on from my hon. Friend’s argument, for which I have some sympathy, does he agree that perhaps there should be a buffer zone around this place? Many of us in this place are often—on a daily basis—harassed by people out there.
My hon. Friend knows of what he speaks. There are many Members who have been subject to the very strong expression of political opinions, but what differentiates this point is that we are talking about people who go to undertake a legal, lawful medical procedure. They go to access a form of healthcare that the laws of this land, established by this Parliament, determine that they should be able to access. Although it is absolutely right that people should be able to engage in peaceful protest to make points to those of us who are engaged in the democratic process of the land—sometimes including noisy, disruptive protests—that should clearly never cross the line that existing laws establish, which would cover such things as assault and appropriate protection. However, it is absolutely clear, in my view, that we need to ensure that those who are accessing healthcare can do so without having that lawful access unduly interfered with.
Let me finish by referring to the amendments and points that have been raised on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I am a member of that Committee, which spent time looking at not just this Bill, but a wide range of legislation, setting that against expectations that might be found in relation to the UK’s membership of the European convention on human rights. There is always debate in the legal profession about how provisions apply, but the points that have been raised seem legitimate. I hope that in his reply the Minister will address how due process and the right to lawful protest will be appropriately balanced under the Bill.
My view as a Back-Bench Member in the governing party, having considered the Government’s arguments, is that they are proportionate and balanced. However, it is clear that many people are asking questions and want them answered. It would be helpful if some of the legal thinking behind the drafting were illuminated, particularly with respect to balancing the need to prevent undue disruption to people’s normal working and private lives with the rights of others to enjoy free speech and lawful protest.
I rise to speak in support of several amendments, including new clauses 1 to 5, tabled by the official Opposition, and new clauses 9 to 14. I agree that there should be a free vote on new clause 11, to which I am sympathetic and which I will support. The speeches on it so far have been very powerful. I also wish to speak to new clauses 15 to 17—Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who is no longer in her place, spoke powerfully about them—and to the amendments tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on behalf of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, by Anne McLaughlin on behalf of the SNP, and by Sir Charles Walker.
I speak on behalf of my constituents who are concerned about what the Bill means for the right to protest. It might be argued that the Bill will not affect them directly, but like the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, I have constituents who will travel to England and Wales to protest. As I highlighted in my intervention about mutual aid policing arrangements, the Bill is likely to mean additional training requirements for Scottish officers deployed elsewhere, as at last year’s G7 meeting.
We have heard from many Members of this House with a legal background and training, but I believe I am the only former police officer in this debate; I do not see the other two hon. Members who I know were police officers. I am also the wife and daughter of former police officers—indeed, my husband was a senior public order commander—and I am the stepmother of serving police officers. I have policed demonstrations. It might have been some time ago, but I speak with some knowledge and direct experience.
Laws should be necessary, but as we heard in our Bill Committee evidence, the police already have the power to respond to protests; I am grateful to the hon. Member for Broxbourne for raising that point. Ideally, laws should not break our already stretched systems—that was an area of focus for me in Committee—but this law risks our police’s very ability to tackle day-to-day crime, which the Home Secretary says is a priority for the Government.
Regardless of rank, length of service or extent of training, the first officer to attend any incident—protest or otherwise—is the officer in charge until they are relieved of that duty. I say that not to denigrate, but to illustrate. That officer will have to determine whether there is a risk of serious disruption and, if so, whether an offence under the Bill or any other law is being committed. I am concerned that there is a risk of inconsistent application of the criminal law and a breach of the rule of law. I therefore support the official Opposition’s new clauses 1 to 5, which would ensure that the Bill’s provisions are applied appropriately.
It is not just me. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s evidence to the Bill Committee suggested similar concerns, which would be at least partially addressed by some of the amendments, particularly those tabled by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I remain concerned that the police, particularly those in junior roles, may end up ill-equipped to make the judgment calls that the Bill requires.
Let us be clear: the police do not need this Bill to respond when protests cross the line. Where there is criminal damage or trespass, they already have the power to respond. However, if the Bill is passed with no amendments but the Government’s, all protest will effectively be frozen for fear of being caught by the legislation. Importantly, the Bill is also likely—I refer to the comments that the shadow Minister, Sarah Jones, made about policing in France and elsewhere—to freeze the police’s relationships with a wide range of activist groups, which involve constant dialogue to balance the facilitation of protests with the rights of others to go about their daily business. That dialogue happens all the time in all our communities and is something to be celebrated.
I deeply respect the hon. Lady’s policing experience and that of her family, but she has implied that the Bill will allow the freezing of protests and an inability to protest, which is not the case. I think that, as a former police officer, she would recognise serious disruption. We are absolutely clear about this: a protest constitutes something that is really interfering with people’s way of life, preventing them from getting to work and engaging in their normal business.
What I am trying to say is that the existing legislation already deals with those circumstances, and that, given that some of the Bill’s provisions mean that people need not even have done anything to be subject to them, there is a fear that it will prevent them from doing anything at all. I believe that the fact that our police service is grounded in policing by consent—unlike those in other countries whose police forces have evolved from more militaristic origins—is something to be celebrated.
If the police do not need the powers, if all that the Bill does is make it harder for legitimate protest to take place and if it restricts the right of citizens, I would argue that we do not need it at all. We should reflect on the fact that the Minister, in his opening remarks, claimed that the existing legislation was a reason for rejecting new clause 11.
Let me now raise another point, which I have touched on already. It is not about protecting the democratic rights of our citizens, but in many ways it is just as important, because it concerns the real impact on the capacity of the police service. In Committee I tabled a number of amendments, and although I have not tabled them again on Report, this is a key consideration.
When we pass poor legislation, we sometimes see the results in our constituency surgeries, but when it comes to legislation such as this, we will not be dealing with the outcomes directly. I believe that if the Government are confident that the Bill, in its current form, will do what it is intended to do, they should be comfortable with receiving reports from the College of Policing and from police forces about the capability and capacity of those forces to deliver the legislation—and that is before we even think about the huge backlogs in the criminal justice system. It will take some time for people to come before the courts in the context of this Bill.
The proposed new powers will require additional officer training. Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, gave evidence to the Bill Committee. The simple fact is this:
“If there are not enough police officers trained to properly respond to protests and apply these new laws, that means that more people must be trained—training that costs thousands of pounds and means that officers are potentially in classrooms, not out on the street.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
Chris Noble, the chief constable of Staffordshire Police, estimated that, under the current legislation, it takes an officer two or three weeks per year to keep up with necessary additional public order skills. The offences specified in the Bill will require significantly more training at the outset, at the least, and will mean even more days of actual policing lost at significant cost, with simply abstracts from core policing duties. Once the officers are trained, it is likely that deployment to protests will increase as a result of the Bill’s restrictions. Simply put, people cannot be in two places at once, and resources are limited. According to evidence given to the Committee, the arrest of a protester usually involves six officers. We will run out of police officers before we run out of protesters.
I know where I would rather the police were. I would rather see an officer making sure that the streets were safe for women and girls walking home at night, going after gangs and those working across county lines, stopping the scammers who target our elderly and vulnerable, working on counter-terrorism, and preventing organised crime. I ask colleagues to reflect on what they and their constituents really want when faced with the reality of these choices, which were made even more stark by the Chancellor when he stood at the Dispatch Box yesterday.
Policing by consent is one of the greatest attributes of our country, and it is something that I am passionate about. The Bill undermines that. Although we will support amendments that curb its worst excesses, I will continue to argue that the decision in the other place to remove these clauses when they were part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 was correct. I cannot support the Bill in its current form.
I rise to speak in favour of new clause 11.
In a perfect world, no woman or girl would be raped; no foetus would have life-shortening, agonising conditions or endanger the life of the mother; and every baby born would be yearned for and cherished. But we do not live in a perfect world, and that is why Parliament has settled laws for the regulation of the provision of abortion services. This is what new clause 11 concerns. It is not about the form of those laws, or their details; it is about the provision of those services in day-to-day life.
I had the responsibility for looking after abortion clinic buffer zones from 2017 until I was promoted from the Home Office last year. It was, as my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin says, an issue with which I grappled, because there is a real balancing skill involved in weighing up not only the concerns of those women seeking medical services and those who support them, but the sincerely held beliefs of those who do not agree with abortion. My right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, who is no longer in his place, has set out some of the history of this, and I was an active part of it, so I really am trying to help the Minister when I try to explain some of the shifting of that balancing operation.
In 2017 Amber Rudd was Home Secretary, and in response to concerns voiced by parliamentarians she commissioned a review into demonstrations and protests outside abortion clinics. We announced the results of that review in, I think, 2018, when my right hon. Friend Sajid Javid was Home Secretary. At that point I stood at the Dispatch Box and I signed letters to say that we had looked at the number of clinics and weighed up the power of PSPOs. At that point, from memory, one council—maybe two—had applied for a PSPO, and we felt that the balance was in favour of PSPOs being using on a targeted basis for those clinics affected.
The review continued—I genuinely kept this under constant review—thanks to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex and my right hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), among many others on this side, as well as the hon. Members for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). It is a pleasure to see the hon. Member for Walthamstow in her place today. Indeed, only last summer we looked at this again in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. At that point, although the number of clinics affected by demonstrations had increased since the initial review, we felt that in the interest of balancing both sets of interests, PSPOs were the right way to go.
Today, however, five councils have applied for these orders, and happily the imposition of those orders has been upheld by the Court of Appeal as being lawful. We have heard in the course of this debate the concern that the five PSPOs cover five clinics out of some 50 that have been the subject of protests and demonstrations. My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke made the important point that this is not just about the number of clinics; it is about the number of women who go to the clinics for these services. I think I am right in remembering that she cited the statistic that around half of women who seek these services had attended clinics where there had been protests and demonstrations.
So I find myself in the position of agreeing with new clause 11, not because I like banning things or because I am against the legitimate and sincerely held beliefs of those who cannot support the provision of abortion services, but because I come back to the point about the provision of services to women who need them and the circumstances in which they find themselves as they walk that long and lonely path to the doors of the clinic, hospital or surgery providing those services. I know from speaking to women who have been through these protests that they have made a difficult decision. There may be many factors surrounding the decision, involving their home lives, the circumstances in which the pregnancy came about and the concerns for what might happen if their friends, families or the wider society found out that they had had these operations. These are fundamental healthcare services that we provide, rightly and lawfully, in the 21st century. We must surely enable women to access these services as and when they need them so that they get the right help and advice.
I conclude by thanking the Government. I have travelled some of this journey in policy development, so I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire has taken these issues into very close consideration. I greatly appreciate that the business managers have decided to allow Conservative colleagues to vote in accordance with our conscience, which is important, so I thank them sincerely.
As I say, my colleagues and I do not take this decision lightly, but we have to reflect the reality that women face as they go through these services, and just how discomfiting even the most peaceful demonstrations can be. I very much hope that Conservative colleagues will bear these concerns in mind as they freely cast their vote tonight to stand, I hope, in accordance with the law in the careful and caring provision of these services.
I advise the House that I will be calling Anne McLaughlin to start the wind-ups no later than 4.12 pm, but she can be called earlier. The debate on Report must finish at 4.37 pm.
Frankly, there is so much wrong with the Bill that it is difficult to know where to start. It basically needs a line striking through the vast majority of it, and I am therefore pleased to support the amendments tabled by the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) seeking to do exactly that.
Peaceful protest is a fundamental right protected in international law, and this Bill is just the latest in a concerted attack on our rights by this dangerous and populist Government. It is a draconian rehash of measures resoundingly voted down just months ago. As I have said previously in this House, the Government are pursuing policies and legislation that are deeply dangerous in the threat they pose to our fundamental and universally acknowledged human rights. People who vote in favour of this Bill tonight need to be fully aware and honest about what they are endorsing and what is occurring on our watch.
Defending the right to peaceful protest matters, especially to me, because it is one of the time-honoured ways in which people from all walks of life have sought to protect our natural world, and it is particularly critical right now. Olivia Blake spoke eloquently about the wider context of austerity and economic suffering that so many of our constituents are facing. I want to widen that context and talk about the attack, frankly, that Ministers are unleashing on policies to protect nature, from issuing new oil and gas licences and lifting the moratorium on fracking to scrapping 570 laws that make up the bedrock of environmental regulation in the UK, covering water quality, wildlife havens, clean air and much else.
Ministers may hide behind endless repetitions of their promise to halt the decline of nature by 2030, but their actions are taking us in precisely the opposite direction. Those who oppose this direction of travel must have the right to take action themselves, and they must have the right to protest. Rather than plunging more and more people into the criminal justice system, the Home Office could be doing all manner of much more useful things, including properly supporting and resourcing community policing.
We should not be giving the Government the ability to create new public order offences as and when they choose, yet that is precisely the combined effect of new clauses 7 and 8. As colleagues will know, injunctions may usually be applied for only by affected parties. New clause 7, however, allows the Secretary of State to apply for a so-called precautionary injunction against people who might go on a protest or who might carry out protest-related activities. This might occur if there is reasonable belief that particular activities are likely to cause serious disruption to key national infrastructure or access to essential goods and services.
In all honesty, it is worth wondering whether Welsh language rights would exist at all today if measures proposed by the Government had existed in 1963 when Cymdeithas yr Iaith protesters closed Trefechan bridge—Pont Trefechan—in Aberystwyth. Their act of peaceful civil disobedience led to no arrests, but was broadcast across Wales. Indeed, the King’s Welsh language tutor, Tedi Millward, was among the protesters. Does the hon. Member agree that, almost 60 years later, the Secretary of State and the Welsh Government should be considering the specific impact on Wales of these justice changes and how that in turn could have had a very bad result in terms of the Welsh language had it been enacted 60 years ago?
I thank the right hon. Member for her powerful contribution with which I entirely agree.
I was just explaining about the combined effect of new clauses 7 and 8. New clause 7, crucially, allows the Government to propose that the Secretary of State be allowed themselves to apply for an injunction despite not being affected or being a party in the normal sense. Added to that is the effect of new clause 8, which gives the Secretary of State another new power, namely to apply to the court to attach a power of arrest and of remand to injunctions granted under new clause 7.
Let us imagine what that could look like in practice. Let us suppose that the Government set their sights on a group of countryside ramblers planning a walk headed in the direction of a nature reserve that is home to a protected species and about to be dug up by investment zone bulldozers. The Secretary of State might decide that there is a risk that the ramblers will link hands to try to close down a major bridge that is required for vehicle access to the nature reserve. The Government might then apply for an injunction to stop the walk and for the power to arrest anyone who breaches that injunction and goes rambling in the countryside—regardless of their intentions. If successful, a new public order offence will have effectively been created on the basis of potential disruption of key national infrastructure, and the ramblers concerned will be at risk of being fined or even imprisoned. I do not think that it is an over-exaggeration to call such powers Orwellian. They are anti-freedom, anti-human rights and anti-democratic.
My hon. Friend is making an absolutely excellent speech. The right to roam would not have happened without the mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the 1930s. We owe our liberties to those who took risks by demonstrating in the first place. Every Member of this House has benefited from those liberties that came about as a result of the risks that others took.
Do I agree? Yes, I do. The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. As someone who took part in some recreations of that trespass on Kinder Scout earlier this year, I could not agree with him more about the importance of people taking that action.
It is also important to note that while existing and expansive civil injunctions are being used with growing and alarming frequency to clamp down on direct action tactics, with a wider, chilling effect on the right to protest, the majority of civil injunctions do not give the police powers of arrest. I have repeatedly warned that the Government’s approach overall amounts to a dangerous politicising of policing, and these two new clauses are cut from exactly the same cloth. Moreover, a seemingly ideological determination to stop people standing up for what they believe in is woven through every clause of this Bill.
In my remaining time, I want to speak specifically against serious disruption prevention orders and in favour of the amendments to remove them. On Second Reading, I set out my objection to these new civil orders and said that they might more accurately be called “sinister disproportionate political orders”. Nothing I have heard since then has persuaded me otherwise.
The Government want to be able to impose such orders on individuals who have participated in at least two protests within a five-year period, whether or not they have actually been convicted of any crime. That is a massive expansion of police powers. Furthermore, the range of activities that could result in someone being given an SDPO is extremely broad. It includes actions that would not themselves be criminal but for the creation of the new, widely-drawn offences in the Bill. The threshold is so low as to be laughable, were the consequences not so grave. The conditions for imposing an SDPO include activities related to a protest that might—might—cause serious disruption to two or more people. The Bill is a massive clampdown on our civil liberties and we have to oppose it.
Finally, I wish to put on record my support for the new clauses of Bell Ribeiro-Addy, and for new clause 11, which has been much discussed already this afternoon. I also want to say a few last words about new clauses 13 and 14, which I support because they are consistent with so much of the work that has been done over many years to make misogyny a hate crime and to end violence against women and girls. Sexual harassment is still at epidemic proportions. Women are disproportionately subjected to harassment, abuse and intimidation every day. Those offences are still not properly addressed by the police or the criminal justice system.
New clauses 13 and 14 would bring sentencing for harassment offences motivated by the sex of the victim in line with the approach already followed for offences motivated by race or religious identity. Crucially, they do not create any new public order offences or make anything illegal that is not already illegal; rather, they seek to ensure a serious response from the police and the courts. I hope that, in turn, harsher sentencing for those hate crimes would act as a deterrent and encourage women to report sex-based harassment, confident that they will be taken more seriously than at present.
Some 97% of women under the age of 25 have experienced sexual harassment in a public space—a huge number. There is no room for complacency. If we want to tackle hate crime against women, we must support the changes set out in new clauses 13 and 14.
In introducing new clause 11, Stella Creasy is merely picking up the baton from amendments originally sponsored by Dr Huq, who has tried to bring these plans forward three times already since 2020. It will come as no surprise that I rise to speak against the new clause or that our party will vote against it. It is not needed now for the same reasons it was not needed on those occasions.
We already have laws on the statute book to prevent harassment and maintain public order, including laws in place to ensure that women are not harassed or intimidated outside abortion clinics. Therefore, the new clause is simply unnecessary. The law gives the police the powers they need to maintain public order, to intervene if demonstrations cause serious disruption and to tackle threatening or abusive behaviour that may intimidate women.
In the vast majority of cases, there is no evidence that hospitals and abortion clinics are affected by protesters, so a blanket ban is an unnecessary and disproportionate response, especially when the police can protect women through other lawful means. The police already have the tools they need to protect women. There is no evidence of the scale of harassment that the hon. Member for Walthamstow and others in this House have referred to. Therefore, I repeat, the new clause is not necessary. It would risk unintended consequences for freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and it would be bad for women.
Many women have been helped by volunteers outside abortion clinics. Sir Edward Leigh referred to Alina Dulgheriu, who wrote last week about her experience and how a lady helped her outside an abortion clinic. I will not repeat the story, but she explained that her
“beautiful daughter would not be here today” without support from a volunteer handing out a leaflet outside the clinic.
Another mother, who is happy for her testimony to be shared with parliamentarians but does not want her name shared because of fears of retaliation from pro-choice campaigners, explained that she was “under immense pressure” to go through with her abortion, but on her way into the abortion clinic a woman handed her a leaflet and simply said that she was there if she needed her. Her conversation with that woman gave her the support and confidence she needed to keep her baby.
That mother further recounted:
“The potential introduction of buffer zones is a really bad idea because women like me, what would they do then? You know, not every woman that walks into those clinics actually wants to go through with the termination. There’s immense pressure, maybe they don’t have financial means to support themselves or their baby, or they feel like there’s no alternatives. These people offer alternatives.”
She describes her daughter as
“an amazing, perfect little girl” and the love of her life. She shared her testimony because she wants MPs advocating for buffer zones to realise that her daughter would not be alive today if they had had their way. Buffer zones would deprive many other women who do not want to abort their babies but perhaps feel they have no other choice of the same support that these two who have bravely shared their stories received.
Before I conclude, there are a number of other points I want to make. Under this new clause, as drafted, it would be a crime to offer help to those women who ideally would like to continue with the pregnancy but cannot, due to economic circumstances. That is just abhorrent. The new clause would criminalise anyone making such an offer regardless of how they went about it or their views on abortion. How is that pro-choice?
Similarly, the new clause as drafted would criminalise someone who accompanies a woman having an abortion and who says, “Are you sure?” even if the woman seeking the abortion is happy for that to be asked. Even if hon. Members agree with the principle of the new clause, there must be a recognition that it is poorly drafted and criminalises far more than ought to be criminalised. It is not tailored to deal with disruptive pro-life protestors, as perhaps the House has been led to believe by those who have proposed it. I encourage hon. Members across the House to consider what has been said about the new clause going far further than needed; laws are already in place to protect women against any misdemeanours or inappropriate behaviour outside such clinics.
I am so disappointed that we are debating a piece of legislation that should have been resigned to the scrap heap, along with the previous Cabinet’s regressive legislative programme. We are firefighting an economic crisis on an unprecedented scale and valuable Government time in this place is being wasted on draconian legislation that nobody, with the exception of selected Government Members, actually wants. I include in that the people who will be sent out on the streets to try to enforce this nonsense. Representatives from police forces have said time and again, throughout the consultation and Committee stages of the Bill, that this is not required.
The powers already exist to police protests in an effective and proportionate manner, and that is what I will focus on—proportionality. After all, this is a balancing act between the fundamental rights that allow us to protest, for whatever cause and whatever reason, and the rights of those who might be inconvenienced or affected by a protest.
At what stage does the scale tip? Government Members will undoubtedly cite cases where protestors glued themselves to the M25 or threw tomato soup at a priceless artwork, albeit one that was behind protective glass, but at what point does their right to stand up and say, “Wake up! The world is on fire,” become less important than someone’s right to get to work on time or to gaze upon a painting? Sir Edward Leigh said that people standing shouting at people outside abortion clinics were “just raising awareness”. Well, he cannot argue that such protestors are doing anything other than trying to raise awareness.
Throughout the stages of the Bill and repeatedly during the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, it was made clear to the Government that the whole point of a protest is to make a noise and get noticed. I am sure that when Muriel Matters and Helen Fox chained themselves to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery of this place in 1908, shouting,
“We have been behind this insulting grille too long!”,
they intended to be heard. Thanks to protests like that, not only can I now vote, but I can stand here and represent the voices of my constituents—as long as my own voice does not pack up soon.
Let us imagine this Bill had been in place in 1908. Muriel and Helen might have been stopped and searched on the way here, and a chain or lock may have been found on them. Maybe they would be serving 51 weeks in prison, or maybe the chilling effect of knowing this might happen would have stopped them altogether, so maybe women would not have got the vote. Do you see where I am going with this, Mr Deputy Speaker? I am not even delving into the vast number of ways a person could be snared by the Bill.
We have a new Home Secretary, who has taken the wheel and veered further into the realms of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” in a way that brings to mind that iconic lyric from one of my favourite bands, The Who:
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Her scant regard for human rights, the European convention on human rights, and our obligations under international law are well documented, so any lip service to the claim that the Bill is somehow compliant with the ECHR is exactly that.
Like Caroline Lucas, I will take some time to focus on part 2 and serious disruption prevention orders. I much prefer the colloquial name given to these orders by civil liberties groups including Liberty and Big Brother Watch: protest banning orders. That is what they are. I have talked to a lot of people about the Bill, and the conversation usually starts with locking on and tunnelling. They are headline grabbers, and rightly so, but when the discussion moves on to protest banning orders and just how far and wide the net spreads to catch people, jaws visibly drop. People just cannot believe that this could happen to them. I can hardly believe it, and I am a really cynical person.
We are talking about an order placed on a person—it could be you, Mr Deputy Speaker—that can restrict where they go, who they see, what they do and how they use the internet, and could result in them having to wear a GPS tag for an indefinite period. It can be slapped on someone who has not even attended a protest. I am hoping for an intervention from a Member trying to claim that I am oversimplifying this, but I doubt I will get one, because I am not. As others have said, all somebody has to do to be served with a protest banning order is to participate in at least two protests within a five-year period, whether or not they have been convicted of a crime. An order can be placed on a person who has carried out activities or contributed to the carrying out of activities by any other person related to a protest that resulted in, or was likely to result in, serious disruption on two or more occasions. Wow!
This provision could not be broader. It could apply to anyone. Take me for example. What if I let my partner borrow my mobile phone to tweet about a Black Lives Matter protest? Could it be claimed that I am inadvertently contributing to the carrying out of activities by another person related to a protest that is likely to result in serious disruption? What is serious disruption? Members should not bother flicking through the Bill, because the definition is not there. The closest definition we might be able to rely on is in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, under which—rather conveniently—the Home Secretary has discretion to redefine it any time she sees fit to do so.
We had hours of debate on this in Committee. The issue has been and always will be that “serious disruption” is wholly subjective, so it sets an incredibly low threshold for these draconian measures being placed on individuals who are simply exercising their human rights. I agree with the Labour amendment that states we must have a definition of serious disruption, but let me be clear: my position and that or my party is that we must get rid of these provisions all together.
When I get my SDPO, I have to fulfil a host of obligations, and if I do not, I cross the line into criminal behaviour for breach of a civil order, ending with a 51-week stay in prison, a fine, or both. Not that civil after all, it appears. I might not be able to attend future protests. I might be stopped from using the internet in ways that might encourage people to carry out activities that are related to a protest, or that are likely to result in serious disruption—again, there is no definition of the term. I do not even have to have been at a protest to be banned from any future protest—a point not lost on Lord Paddick when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was on Report in the other place.
Why do we find ourselves in the realm of preventive justice? On Second Reading, I referred to the movie “Minority Report”, where precogs could look into the future and predict a crime before it happened. That is a movie; it is not supposed to be a template to base actual laws on. The police have roundly rejected the concept of protest banning orders and have claimed that they
“would neither be compatible with human rights legislation nor create an effective deterrent,” so why are we doing this?
We cannot electronically tag people who have committed no crime and claim that we are respecting their human rights, although shamefully the Government have no qualms about doing that to asylum seekers. A GPS tag’s data can carry the most personal and sensitive information, such as who someone’s GP is, where they shop and who they visit. It is a massive invasion of privacy that marks a new era of state surveillance.
We very much support of amendment 1, which removes SDPOs from the Bill. I thank Sir Charles Walker for his work on the amendment, for his fantastic speech today—I never thought that I would hear myself say that about someone on the Conservative Benches, but it hit the mark—and for his collaborative approach to the amendment, which was in his name and is now in my name. I hope to press it to a vote tonight.
I have spent much of the time available to me discussing SDPOs, but I reiterate the SNP’s complete opposition to the Bill in its entirety, because it is draconian. As my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry said, we need only to look at the JCHR report to find the list of powers that already exist and can be used—the hon. Member for Broxbourne listed them for us.
Our opposition to the Bill in its entirety is made clear by our amendments not to amend the Bill but to remove all but one little clause. That is a radical step, but it attracted much public and cross-party support. I thank the hon. Members who put their name to those amendments. Unfortunately, as SNP spokesperson, I cannot realistically press more than one of my amendments to a vote—if I could, I would press them all to a vote. In particular, in addition to amendment 1, I would press amendment 12, which would remove suspicion-less stop and search. I hope that Labour will move that amendment so that we can vote on it and, clearly, support it.
We support many amendments from other hon. Members, including all those in the name of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West on behalf of the Joint Committee. We also agree with Bell Ribeiro-Addy about the need for a public inquiry into the impact of the policing of public order on black, Asian and minority ethnic people.
I support new clause 11 on buffer zones in the name of Stella Creasy but, in answer to Sir Bernard Jenkin, it will not surprise him or the hon. Lady that we will not vote on it if it is pressed to a vote, because it applies only to England and Wales. The Scottish Government are progressing work on it for Scotland. I agree with everything she said on it and I pay tribute to the work that she and Dr Huq have been doing on it for some time.
In closing, we do not need this Bill—nobody needs this Bill. Our right to protest is fundamental. It is the only tool available to many people—most people—to effect real change. The Bill comes on the back of photographic voter ID, restrictions on judicial review, and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that we are yet to feel the full force of. When will the Government stop? When will they put their hands up and say, “We’ve got this wrong”? They need to realise that, instead of slamming their hand down on people who are protesting because they are desperately worried, they should extend a hand of solidarity to them and fix the problems that people are protesting about in the first place.
Order. I am expecting four Divisions when the Minister resumes his seat.
I hope that we will have fewer, Mr Deputy Speaker, and that hon. Members will be withdrawing their amendments during my remarks.
I start by thanking Anne McLaughlin and all hon. Members who have contributed to this lively debate. I know that all hon. Members treat this debate and these issues with the great seriousness and concern that they deserve. With the leave of the House, I will respond to some of the points made throughout the debate and to some of the key amendments.
I will start with the amendments in the name of my hon. Friend Sir Charles Walker and the hon. Member for Glasgow North East—appropriately—which seek to remove the serious disruption prevention orders from the Bill. My hon. Friend said that he was cold when he turned up today. I think he misheard me from a sedentary position; I merely said that he had certainly warmed up during his speech.
Our experience of some of the recent protests has shown that the police are encountering the same individuals who are determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public. For example, as of July this year, 460 individuals had been arrested a total of 910 times at Just Stop Oil protests, while during Insulate Britain’s campaign, 268 individuals were arrested a total of 977 times. It cannot be right that a small group of individuals can repeatedly commit criminal offences against our roads and railways, to name only a few places, and not face appropriate restrictions.
I have heard arguments from Opposition Members about how serious disruption prevention orders will unfairly infringe on someone’s right to protest. I must state unequivocally that the Government do not agree. As I have said already, peaceful protest is a fundamental part of our democracy, and those who make their voices heard peacefully will not be affected by these changes. Rather, serious disruption prevention orders exist to provide a route to prevent small numbers of individuals who have a track record of deliberately causing serious disruption from using the cover of protest to commit criminal offences or inflict serious disruption on the wider public.
I have lots of Members to cover, but I will of course give way.
The Minister is his usual charming self, but what we are talking about is putting ankle tags on people who have not been convicted of any crime. That just does seem way over the top.
That would be a decision made by a court in very specific circumstances, and I do trust our courts to take appropriate action. They can only do so on the weight of evidence, and they are very used to taking these decisions. After all, there is a tried and tested process whereby injunctions can be sought and obtained to prevent a future harm. I do not think this is as radical as my hon. Friend is suggesting. However, I congratulate him on the points he made, even though I disagree with him, and also my hon. Friend David Simmonds on his contribution to this point of the debate. I would love to prevail on my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne to withdraw his amendment, but I do not think that is going to happen, and I look forward to opposing it.
Turning to Sarah Jones, I spoke earlier in the debate about why we believe that injunctions are useful. We absolutely accept the point being made by the hon. Lady that they are appropriate when used properly, and that is why we have tabled our amendments. I think ours is a more competent and effective way of achieving our shared objectives.
On new clause 5, which seeks to define the meaning of “serious disruption” for the purposes of this Bill, I have to say that no two protests, nor the operational response required, are ever the same. Being too prescriptive risks the ability of the police to respond to fast-evolving protest tactics while also risking the exploitation of loopholes by those intent on causing as much disruption as possible. That is not to say that I dismiss the principle of this amendment. There is a balance to be struck between a definition that is broad and one that is prescriptive, so while I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s amendment, we will reflect further on its intent.
I turn now to perhaps the most vexed issue in today’s debate—namely, new clause 11, proposed by Stella Creasy. New clause 11 seeks to create 150-metre buffer zones outside abortion clinics in which all activity interfering with a person’s right to access abortion services would be prohibited. As the hon. Lady would accept, that is a blunt instrument. It is there to achieve an objective, but within those 150-metre buffer zones there could be houses and churches, and this would be a national decision covering the 150 metres around all clinics.
At the outset of the debate, I made it clear that, from the Government’s perspective, it is a free vote for members of our party. My good friend, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, said that this is a difficult issue to grapple with, and it is indeed difficult. However, I would like to make it clear that it is entirely possible to support totally a woman’s right to an abortion and to view protests outside abortion clinics as abhorrent while still believing that the current legislative framework provides an appropriate response.
I think the Minister should now be persuaded, particularly as one of his predecessors, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, has now made it clear that she supports this amendment. It is time for the Government to say that we have to recognise that the present arrangements are not adequate, and we will be thinking about how to build on the arguments that have been presented in new clause 11. Just to rest on the status quo is not a sufficient response, however the Government vote today.
I sympathise with the sentiment behind new clause 11. I hope we all agree that it is wholly unacceptable for women to feel harassed or intimidated when accessing abortion services. However, bearing in mind the size, scale and frequency of those protests, it is still our view that placing a nationwide blanket ban on protests outside all abortion clinics in England and Wales would be a blunt approach and disproportionate given the existing powers that can and should be used.
I know that the Minister is listening both to the testimony of previous colleagues and the sentiment across the House, but might the answer to this lie in the great institutions of this place, in that we should accept this amendment today and seek to further refine how it could work in the other place? We could today send a message to the other place that we will grapple with the issue and resolve it. The testimony from Victoria Atkins, a former Home Office Minister, powerfully set out that this is a road to travel. The challenge in this place is that without those opportunities for scrutiny and further refinement, the status quo will remain, and what the Minister is hearing from across the House is that the status quo is not acceptable. Might that not be a way forward?
My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle mentioned the reviews that have been done: the review conducted in 2018 went into this in great depth and there has been further work since, and the hon. Lady referred to further work being done in relation to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. That maintained the Government position that the current arrangements are still proportionate. There is legislation; the Public Order Act 1986 and the PSPOs provide those routes, and we continue to believe that is proportionate, but this is ongoing work and we need to continue to ensure that it is still proportionate. I will be reviewing and making certain that I understand fully the pattern of protests and the effectiveness and indeed the cost of PSPOs, and I will certainly make sure that that work is constantly refreshed if the House agrees we should maintain the current legislative environment.
There are existing laws to protect people from harassment and intimidation outside abortion clinics. The police have robust powers to deal with protests that obstruct access to clinics, and cause alarm, harassment or distress, and where protests cause harm, we expect the police and local authorities to work together at the local level to respond in a way that takes into consideration the local facts, issues and circumstances. In addition, local authorities already have powers to implement PSPOs; these can be introduced when a local authority is satisfied that protests are having, or are likely to have, a detrimental effect. We have seen increased use of these in recent weeks, with five local authorities imposing an order outside abortion clinics.
It is a free vote and I will be voting against the amendment. I believe the powers and legislative environment we have are appropriate at the current juncture, and that is the position the Government have taken in the past. It is also the case that we continue to do work on this; I will continue to ensure that we are reviewing the scale of protests, the adequacy of the current legislative framework, and the effectiveness and cost of PSPOs. We need to maintain that work although I will be voting against the amendment this afternoon.
My hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin said that, if the new clause falls, he will not give up. I would have been surprised had he said anything else, and I would be surprised if the hon. Member for Walthamstow gave up if she lost the vote. As I said, we will continue to review and assess this area, but it is important to get it right. There are powerful arguments on both sides of the debate, as enunciated by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, Carla Lockhart and my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, and, on the other side, the hon. Member for Walthamstow, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle and my right hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Harwich and North Essex. I have set out how, through the current legislation and PSPOs, a lot can be done. The House will determine whether it believes that to be insufficient.
I turn to new clauses 13 and 14 tabled, again, by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, who is a passionate campaigner on these issues. In last year’s “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, we confirmed that we are looking carefully at where there may be gaps in existing law and how a specific offence of public sexual harassment could address them. In the light of that work, just before summer recess, we launched a targeted consultation on whether there should be a specific offence of public sexual harassment and, if so, what it should look like. The hon. Lady knows that. The consultation closed in September, and we are grateful to her for sending us her comments. We are working at pace to analyse the responses and to determine the best way forward. I reassure her that, for example, her comments on foreseeability of intent are absolutely part of that consultation. What I cannot do—I am sorry to disappoint her—is give a commitment today on our next steps. That would not be appropriate until we fully analyse the consultation. I look forward to sharing our views with the House as soon as possible.
I turn to the several amendments tabled on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Again, I thank Joanna Cherry and the Committee for the vital work that they do in supporting parliamentary scrutiny, as was referred to by Wendy Chamberlain and my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner. Amendments 28, 30, 35 and 37 aim to move the burden of proof for a reasonable excuse from the defendant to the prosecution for the relevant offences. As we made clear in our formal response to the Committee’s report, whether or not someone has a reasonable excuse for their actions is specific to each incident, and we see it as entirely appropriate that the defendant who committed the offence in the first place and has personal knowledge of those facts is required to prove them. Beyond that, our courts are experts in assessing whether an individual has a reasonable excuse for a multitude of criminal offences. I do not see the value in placing that burden on the prosecution.
Amendments 32, 36 and 38 seek to require the courts to have particular regard to articles 10 and 11 of the European convention on human rights when assessing whether someone has a reasonable excuse for offences. Courts and other public bodies are already obliged to act compatibly with ECHR, and we do not believe that it is necessary to repeat that obligation.
Finally, several amendments seek to narrow the Bill’s scope. I will not address each individual amendment. The Government believe that the scope of the offences is not only appropriate but proportionate to the serious disruption inflicted.
I turn to a couple of other amendments.
I was about to turn to my hon. Friend. She tabled amendments 51 and 52, which would add farms and food production infrastructure to the list of key national infrastructure. That would significantly increase the scope of the Bill. As she is aware, there are some 216,000 farm holdings and 13,560 food and drink manufacturers—it goes on. However, I understand and am sympathetic to the point she made about the importance of food and food manufacture. I will take up with my colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs whether we need to look further at that area in the Bill, and I will share with her the results of that at pace.
I thank my hon. Friend for recognising that the actions of vegan militias over the summer in disrupting milk supply chains were unacceptable. They hurt our farmers and our food security. When he tasks his officials and those of DEFRA to look at that, will he commit to meeting me in December and consider secondary legislation to protect our food producers and our food security?
I am delighted to confirm that I will meet my hon. Friend in December and talk through our view with her, having discussed it. I am sympathetic to how food is an important aspect of our national resilience.
On stop and search, I am grateful to Marsha De Cordova for tabling new clauses 9 and 10, and to Bell Ribeiro-Addy for speaking to them so capably. The Home Office continues to publish extensive data on the use of stop and search to drive transparency. That will continue with the introduction of these new powers. As my predecessor did in Committee, I can assure the hon. Lady that data on the use of these powers will be collected and published. It will be broken down by age, gender and ethnicity and include the outcome of the search, as for existing stop-and-search powers. On the creation of an independent reviewer of the powers, I point the hon. Lady to the existing independent bodies, to which she referred, the IOPC and His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services, which will ensure that proper oversight of the powers is embedded in its inspections.
Before I conclude, I would like to thank all hon. Members for their contributions today. I call on the House to back the Government amendments and to reject any amendments that would make it more difficult to tackle the selfish minority of individuals who are intent on wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary people.
As I said earlier, I am anticipating four Divisions. The first one will, I believe, be on new clause 4. If somebody from the SNP could inform the Chair who their Tellers might be, should they decide to have a vote on their amendment, I would be extremely grateful.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 7 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.