Public Order Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 7th March 2023.
I beg to move amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Lords amendment 5, and amendment (b) thereto.
Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 8, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 9, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 36, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 1, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendment 17, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Lords amendments 20, 21, 23, 27, 28 and 31 to 33, Government motions to disagree, and Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu.
Lords amendments 2 to 4, 10 to 16, 18, 19, 22, 24 to 26, 29, 30, 34, 35 and 37.
If my hon. Friend were to go on Twitter now, he would find a recording of an arresting officer telling a lady that praying silently is already a crime, and we have not even passed this Bill yet. Are we not really in Orwellian territory of thought crime, as he said?
I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, and that is the concern. The part of the Bill I am referring to is Lords amendment 5; put forward in the House of Lords by Baroness Sugg on the matter of “interference” within buffer zones.
I understand that many people will find it highly inappropriate for vocal or difficult protests to be held right outside abortion clinics, and I categorically condemn harassment against women at all points in their life, let alone near an abortion facility. However, that is a world away from the police being able to detain people and question them over what they are doing if they are merely standing there or praying quietly—or worse, if they are praying silently and are then asked by the police, agents of the state, “What are you thinking about?”
I commend the hon. Gentleman for tabling this amendment. Does he agree that the Government could do one thing today: they could indicate clearly that this measure does not apply to people engaged in prayer? Secondly, does he agree that if the Government allow this situation to continue, they are going to turn the police into a laughing stock? People will be mocking them, saying, “What about all the knife crime and all the other problems that you have? And you are arresting people for silently praying.” This provision really does make a fool of the police, does it not?
It does cause reputational damage to the police; the videos that some colleagues have seen are hugely disturbing. It makes it difficult for Ministers to stand up and say, “The police are on your side, they will defend you”, when people see a woman who is on her own and standing perfectly still being harassed by the police. I agree entirely with the comments that the hon. Gentleman has made.
So, “What are you thinking?” is covered by the Bill in its current state and remains there despite the Sugg amendment. Action such as I was describing is entirely unacceptable in a free and open society, and I could have my pick of dystopian novels—one has already been referenced—from which it would not be out of place.
No one, in any part of the House, wants women or anyone else to be harassed while going about their lawful business. However, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that legislation is already in place whereby local councils can apply buffer zones around abortion clinics and other such areas when it is necessary to do so? Three or four local authorities have already introduced buffer zones, so this extra amendment is not necessary, because local authorities already have the powers.
Indeed. The Lords amendment extends something that is already disturbing, as we see in some of the video instances that have taken place. These zones would be the only place in the UK where consensual communication is banned by the state—simply saying that sentence makes this seem such an absurdity. To those who say this would never happen, I say that it has indeed already happened. In December, in Birmingham, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was searched, arrested, interrogated and placed on criminal trial for silently praying within one of these zones, and she has now been arrested again.
There is an important detail missing from what my hon. Friend just said, as I understand that when Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was arrested the clinic was not even open. It just seems that if we continue down this line, we are going to extrapolate on an extrapolation in order to make absolutely sure that anybody can be arrested for anything.
That is exactly right, and I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. Indeed, the question asked then was, “Are you praying?” When that was answered with, “I might be”, the next question was, “What are you praying about?” That was answered with, “I am praying in my head.” It is extraordinary that that leads to someone being arrested in this country in 2023.
Last month, a father and Army veteran was fined in Bournemouth after being grilled by the police about what he was silently praying in his head. This points the way to a world where freedom from offence, or even potential offence, supersedes freedom of speech and religious belief. We have created, therefore, a situation where we can impose criminal penalties for silent thought, and there will be countless ramifications. For example, it would make it increasingly difficult for my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, to advocate for these freedoms abroad. We often have debates in this House where we are all telling the rest of the world what to do and people will turn around and say, “How can you lecture us about religious freedom when there are areas where you cannot even pray in your own country without being arrested and hauled off by the police?”
My hon. Friend is speaking first in the debate, so I would like to give him an opportunity to anticipate an argument, with which I have considerable sympathy, that we are going to hear urged against him. I refer to the fact that we have seen in other countries, particularly the United States, loud and noisy protests outside abortion clinics and they are what has undoubtedly led to this movement for zones. Will he confirm that if his amendment goes through, it will not, in any way, affect the ability of the law to prevent women from being genuinely harassed when they go to abortion clinics?
That is an extremely important part of this amendment—it makes sure that those protections are very much still in place, as indeed they already are under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Censorship is a notoriously slippery slope. It might not be our thoughts that are being criminalised today, but we should be careful not to open the door to that happening tomorrow to other opinions that people might hold about something else.
The Sugg amendments do provide some welcome scope for an improvement to address some of the concerns that I have mentioned, but issues remain, which is why I have tabled my amendments to Lords amendment 5. Amendment (a) would provide much-needed clarity to the broad and vague terminology of “influencing” currently in the Sugg amendment. My amendments would introduce no substantive changes to the revised clause 10 and, whatever individuals’ opinions of it are, they would therefore respect the desire of both Houses to introduce buffer zones. But I also seek to ensure that any law doing that does not impose an unreasonable limit on freedom of speech and thought, as was seen in the recent prosecution against those engaged—I can still hardly believe I am saying this in the House of Commons—in silent prayer.
My amendment (a) would therefore specify and exempt consensual communication, silent prayer, and peaceful presence from criminalisation. My amendment (b) would pause the implementation of censorship zones until the Government carry out a review into what is really going on outside clinics in the UK, not those in the US or other countries. In 2018, this same Government found that such zones would be “disproportionate” and unnecessary, because the vast majority of activity was peaceful and helpful, instances of harassment were rare and existing legislation was perfectly capable of dealing with any instances of criminality. What has changed? Law must be evidence-based, but the evidential basis for the crackdown has been paltry. I hope my elected colleagues will join me in demanding that our laws are fair, just and considered. It is an abdication of good and standard process that this part of the Bill has made it this far in its current state.
Much of what it is claimed the buffer zones will deal with is already dealt with in law, and more effectively, under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022.
Which is precisely why successive Prime Ministers and Health Secretaries, including the current Chancellor of the Exchequer, took the view that there was no need for further action, Indeed, they did not see this as a matter for a free vote, which abortion, as a generality, rightly is. This is about freedom: it is not about the purpose of that freedom or the location of it. It is about the ability to think, speak and pray freely.
It is, and that is an important point. This is not a debate about opinions on abortion. Opinions about abortion are varied and differ hugely throughout the House. The 2022 Act already gives the police the power to
“place any condition on a public assembly (that is necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation)”.
That is far more targeted and proportionate. If Members do not feel those powers are sufficient, that is a conversation about altering public space protection orders, not imposing nationwide buffer zones.
Those who do not accept amendment (a) must be able to justify to both themselves and the public why they do not believe that private prayer is a fundamental human right in the United Kingdom. The Bill must absolutely not outlaw our fundamental human rights and I remain far from convinced that, unamended, it will not.
May I first seek your advice, Mr Deputy Speaker? May I speak to the other amendments on the order paper?
Please speak only to the amendments that are before us today.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker: I just wanted to be clear.
I have some sympathy with the points made by Andrew Lewer, although clearly the ability of people to go about their lawful business at work, including clinicians, administrative assistants and women going to have procedures, must be protected. I am not convinced that his amendment (a) would achieve an absence of harassment, so I will not support it and the House should not do so either.
I have some sympathy with the points the hon. Gentleman made, however, because the whole Bill is an assault on British liberty. That is the central point, and I will illustrate it in several ways later in my speech. This is an extraordinary Bill. It will hand unprecedented, draconian powers to the repressive arms of the British state, but we have been given only three hours to discuss it. The debate on protecting people going for abortions could take three hours in itself, but we are faced with a series of amendments that were debated in the Lords over days. We have been given three hours, and that is outrageous. Why have the Government provided so little time to discuss these matters, some of which go back a thousand years in English history?
Lords amendment 6 deals with stop and search without suspicion. The police will be granted the power to intercept people who are not even suspected of committing a crime. That is an extraordinary power after more than 1,000 years of the struggle by the British people for a state that protects our liberty. Several of those who spoke in the debate in the other place said that the only comparison they could think of was in the laws that were passed against terrorism. Protesting about injustice is not terrorism, and to conflate the two is a mistake. I have not heard the Government make the case for that, and I will be interested to hear what they have to say. The police have said that they do not want these powers, and previous members of the judiciary in the Lords said that they were concerned about how the Bill could be interpreted.
The Bill as it stands will lead to a further breakdown in confidence between the police and other parts of the state on the one hand, and communities on the other. One example is the Sarah Everard case, where police moved in to prevent what was effectively peaceful and justified protest. That led to a major breakdown in confidence in the Met, although that was already in process because it was a serving police officer who had committed the crime. The police used the covid rules that were then in place, the appropriateness of which had been debated in the House.
I am sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman is saying, and I support him in his cause this afternoon, but the arrests in the Sarah Everard case were made because, shamefully, this House had banned the right to protest.
That is the point I was just making, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for repeating it.
The police used the covid rules, which had been passed by the House, possibly regrettably. But under this Bill, the police will need no excuse whatever, because the law will allow them to arrest people even if there is no suspicion of any kind. It is quite extraordinary to see a clause in a Bill brought before this British House of Commons proposing that people can be intercepted by the police on no suspicion whatsoever.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Is it not the case that this Bill removes from the police the right to use something that we expect from them: discretion? It removes the ability to use their discretion and be proportionate. This Bill applies a disproportionate action and forces the police to take that disproportionate action.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is right that the British state claimed historically to be the bastion of our liberty, but today it is proposed that it become an engine of our suppression. An authoritarian state is being created here, and it is not acceptable.
When I said earlier that these rights go back centuries, I was not exaggerating. The right to freedom of association—for people to meet with whoever they choose, on the streets or anywhere else—is part of the very structure of our society. The rights of free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly were built into our constitution for generations and centuries. They will all be fundamentally disrupted by this piece of legislation.
Habeas corpus, the right of individuals not to be intervened on by the state or its apparatuses without good reason, goes back centuries. Protection against arbitrary imprisonment by the state was incorporated in the Habeas Corpus Act 1679. The Bill of Rights 1689 went through this House of Commons, and now the House of Commons is being asked to surrender at least part of the principle of habeas corpus, and on no suspicion whatsoever. I add that point one more time, because it is extraordinary that that is what is being said.
It may be said, “Well, in the light of what’s happening in the country, with the protest movements and so on, we need new powers.” Just a minute, though—will the Minister in responding perhaps tell us why a breach of the King’s peace, or the Riot Act 1714, or other items of legislation which have gone through this House and have protected our liberties over the centuries, might not be appropriately used? A breach of the peace is an act of common law going back before the year 1000, to King Alfred—that is how deep the attachment to liberty is in our country, yet it is about to be broken.
The Justices of the Peace Act 1361, preventing riotous and barbaric behaviour that disturbs the peace of the King, also went through this Parliament. Why is it suddenly necessary now, after more than 1,000 years of our history, to empower the state to operate in these ways? We have many other Acts; the Riot Act was read on the steps of the town hall, I think, in my home city of Leeds, against the gas workers who were on strike in the 19th century. In Featherstone in my constituency, the Riot Act was read and people were killed. All they were doing was striking to protect their wages and incomes. How can it be that there is no legislation in place that might deal with the kind of actions we can envisage taking place? Why is it that suddenly, in this century, we are about to abandon 1,000 years of our history? I will come to an explanation in a moment.
I have spoken to Lords amendment 6, but I will briefly speak to Lords amendment 1 and the attempt to define what the Government mean by “serious disruption”. The amendment is now being replaced by the Home Secretary, who is proposing amendment (a) in lieu. The amendment in lieu is quite astonishing. It suggests that anybody may be arrested if they have taken action that might, in more than a minor degree, affect work or supply of goods and services. Subsection (2)(b) of the Home Secretary’s amendment in lieu refers to the following activities: the supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel, communication, places of worship, transport, education and health. It so happens that those are the areas where there is industrial action—where people are taking action to protect their living standards, a right they have had for more than a century.
Why is the list that has been provided to this House in this amendment proposing those particular areas of action? How can minor disruption to services now be regarded as a criminal offence? This will provoke a breakdown in trust between the police force, the state itself and people taking action. I represent a mining community. I went there just over 27 years ago, and during the strike—[Interruption.] Are you trying to say something, Madam Deputy Speaker?
I was just trying to communicate that at some point we need to be aware that there are quite a few speakers. That is all.
I appreciate your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker; I am about to finish on this point.
The definition that the Lords tried to introduce was not perfect but it was far better than the amendment before us. We have a failing political and economic system, and consent has broken down across wide parts of the country. There are two ways of moving forward: either we try to produce a just and more equal society or we move from consent to repression. That is where this Government are taking us, and it is a seriously bad step. This legislation, and certainly the amendments, ought not to go through.
Order. It will be clear that quite a few hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak in the debate. I would suggest that colleagues keep to about eight minutes to start with. I will not need to put a time limit on if we can think of each other in a comradely fashion—that would be great. I call David Davis.
May I start by commending Jon Trickett? I agree very much with what he had to say, but I say to him that, although the laws and the constitution underpinning these matters are, as he said, up to 1,000 years old, much of the tradition of modern demonstrations goes back to the 1930s, when the behaviour of the police towards demonstrators led to the creation of the National Council for Civil Liberties, for example. I know that because my grandfather led more than one demonstration and was arrested—after being baton-charged by the police—for inciting violence. He was sent to prison for six months—although the judge gave him the option of being bound over for six months and not making irritating speeches, and he said he would rather go to prison, so there we are.
My hon. Friend Andrew Lewer made one of the best speeches I have heard in this House for a very long time on something as fundamental as the right to prayer without intercession by the state. That is an issue that is thousands of years old, and he was absolutely right.
This is problematic. What we are debating is the outcome of an over-heavy-handed Bill—that is where it starts. We were all outraged by the behaviour of some of the demonstrators—disrupting ambulances and Lord knows what else—and the Government reacted to that, but they overreacted, frankly. The Lords have corrected that, and the Government have conceded on a number of important points. They have removed the possibility that a serious disruption prevention order—one of the most restrictive measures we have short of imprisonment—can be imposed on people who have never been convicted.
I say to the Minister that five years after a conviction is a very long time. Most non-violent convictions are spent after one year, so five years is a devil of a long time to allow such restrictions to be put on somebody. The Lords have removed the electronic tagging requirement again. The idea that creating nuisance should lead to someone being tagged is, in my view, a barbaric proposal, and it is gone. An explicit provision that the police cannot use their powers against journalists was carried by about 90 votes in the Lords. That should not even have come up; it is so obvious that that is undermining for us.
The SDPOs are still very restrictive for what are relatively simple offences. They involve bans on using the internet in certain ways, bans on being in certain areas, bans on intended protests, and many other restrictions. They resemble control orders, which—remember—are counter-terrorism measures. That is a crude approach. As I said, five years is too long for the criminal offence to be unspent, so I hope that the Government will look at that again, or, if they do not, that the Lords send it back again.
The organisation Liberty, which, as I said, came into being because of these sorts of problems with demonstrations in the ’30s, has raised concerns about the possibility of political interference, which is really serious. The Secretary of State may issue “guidance about identifying persons” to whom the police should apply an SDPO. In that, we in this House will have no say. That is, again, a critical concern.
The most important thing was raised by the hon. Member for Hemsworth: suspicionless stop and search. Stop and search is an abuse of our freedoms, full stop. Being stopped by a policeman and required to strip off, or to empty one’s pockets and bags, is an abuse that we do not allow in this country. Let me be clear: the vast majority of police are responsible, decent and public-spirited people, but the past year has shown that there are also some other people in there. The Sarah Everard offence has been referred to; Couzens was charged with other offences just recently. That demonstrates the danger of handing over unfettered power to people who might abuse it. That is the simple point, and what the state is doing is handing over that power. What we are looking at here—suspicionless stop and search—has to be restricted or eliminated. If we do not do this, we will be in the same position as some states with which we have no sympathy.
Last, I want to reinforce my point with quotations from His Majesty’s inspectorate of police. Inspectors went round 10 police forces asking for their opinions, and right enough, there was a spectrum, but I want to read out a few sentences from their report. They said:
“At one end of the spectrum, an officer we interviewed described the current legislation”— that is, the existing legislation, not this Bill—
“as providing ‘an arsenal’ of weapons for the police to use, including many appropriate for use in the context of disruptive protests. Consequently, that interviewee”— a police officer—
“and many others saw no need for change. Arguing against the proposal for a new stop and search power (Home Office proposal 5) another officer stated that ‘a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state’.”
That is a policeman speaking. His Majesty’s inspectorate said:
“We agree with this sentiment.”
His Majesty’s inspectorate, with all its knowledge—much greater than that in the civil service and the Home Office—think that the proposal is unnecessary and that to keep it is to veer towards a police state. On that basis alone, I say to the Minister, please think again about getting rid of the amendment.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Davis. Our view remains that, despite the best efforts of the other place, the Bill continues to represent a draconian and utterly unjustified attack on protest rights. It is fair to acknowledge that the Government have given some ground, but it is far from enough, so we will vote against a number of the Government’s motions to disagree.
Let me deal first with no-suspicion stop and search, in clause 11. It is horribly ironic that as part of a Bill which the Home Office claims—unconvincingly—is designed to tackle “dangerous and highly disruptive” tactics, the Home Office itself is turning to one of the most dangerous and highly disruptive police tactics: suspicionless stop and search. It is a tactic that achieves next to nothing, yet causes considerable harm, including shocking racial disparities—a fact which I do not think the Government have properly acknowledged during the course of the Bill’s passage.
The profoundly negative impact of stop and search on individuals and on community faith in the police came across loud and clear to me as a member of the Home Affairs Committee when we heard evidence as part of our “The Macpherson Report: Twenty Years On” inquiry. Nobody with reasonable knowledge of the Macpherson report, numerous subsequent inspection reports, or the Home Affairs Committee report could responsibly think that expanding no-suspicion stop and search is a sensible way to go, or the answer to any of our problems. Our Committee report warned of the dangers of such search powers resulting in injustice and undermining the legitimacy that is fundamental to the model of policing by consent. In doing so, we echoed earlier inspectorate reports and the words of the former Home Secretary, Mrs May, who in 2014 spoke about the huge damage done to the relationship between the police and the public when innocent people are stopped and searched for no good reason.
Similarly, when looking at the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights—we will hear from its Chair, my hon. and learned Friend Joanna Cherry, shortly—objected to these powers. We fully support the Joint Committee’s conclusions on the inherent risk of arbitrary and discriminatory use, and the point that post-exercise accountability is simply not enough. The Committee rightly highlighted that such powers have been used only for really significant and serious offences, such as terrorism or serious violence. Now, the Government want to use them for non-violent activities that are only just now being made criminal offences. The question is: what comes next? It is a very, very slippery slope and a totally inappropriate use of such powers.
The trigger for the powers is also ridiculously low: it could be the possibility that someone somewhere is seriously annoying or inconveniencing somebody else—the public nuisance offence—or that somebody somewhere could lock on to a fence or a gate in a way that is capable of causing more than minor disruption to two people. Suddenly, the whole neighbourhood can be searched in the name of stopping that serious annoyance or the more than minor disruption for two people. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden quoted the police officer who told His Majesty’s inspectorate that
“a little inconvenience is more acceptable than a police state”.
That is absolutely spot-on. In short, it is a totally ludicrous proposal of dubious consistency with human rights law. It is similarly ludicrous and disproportionate that the penalty will put at risk of imprisonment completely innocent people who simply challenge an officer over an asserted use of a blanket power. That is a dangerous road to go down.
Turning to serious disruption prevention orders, we acknowledge again that the Government have come some way in diluting these highly objectional orders made otherwise than on conviction, but we remain of the view that the whole idea of SDPOs is utterly Kafkaesque and threatens an unjustified infringement on the right to protest of huge numbers of people each and every year. We support the critique provided by Lord Anderson in the other place. It is not long since terrorism prevention and investigation measures were reluctantly introduced, which see significant infringements of a person’s liberty without the use of a criminal court to protect the public from a risk of terrorism. Recently, this House gave cautious support for state threat prevention and investigation measures, but the application of similar ideas, not for the purposes of countering terrorism or espionage, but in the field of protest, is utterly disproportionate and unnecessary. The nature of the SDPO is less defined and lacks similar oversight, limitations or protections compared even with TPIMs or STPIMS, and that is extraordinary. The possibility of a prison sentence for a breach is ridiculous, and the trigger for the imposition of an SDPO is many times lower. Again, the question is: where next? It is a slippery slope indeed. The police do not ask for these powers, and the whole notion should be removed from the Bill.
Finally, we support new clause 1, which seeks to clearly define the meaning of serious disruption and put an appropriate threshold on it. That definition is crucial for a number of other offences and powers. The Government amendment in lieu puts in place so low a threshold that we would prefer no definition at all. If this Government want serious harm simply to be “more than minor”, that triggers all sorts of crazy and unacceptable consequences. Crimes could be committed simply because two people or an organisation had to face moderate or even moderate to minor disruption. Frankly, it is such a wishy-washy low bar that the Bill would be better off with no definition at all. Our view remains that this whole Bill is rotten, overblown, unwelcome and a dangerous threat to human rights, perhaps a bit like the Government themselves. It is a dreadful attack on rights, and it is also dreadful that the constitution allows it to happen. Anything that waters it down is welcome, but in reality the whole Bill should go altogether.
I rise in support of Lords amendments 6 and 20 and to urge the Government not to strike them out. I received some excellent briefings, as many hon. and right hon. Members did, from Big Brother Watch and Liberty, supporting the arguments that will be made this afternoon as to why Lords amendments 6 and 20 should be retained, but actually I found an even better briefing in support of those amendments, and it was provided by the Whips Office.
In “Chamber Brief: Public Order Bill”, the Whips make the best argument possible for retaining these two amendments. If I may, I will just quickly read it out. The brief states:
“Lords amendment 6 removes clause 11: power to stop and search without suspicion from the Bill.”
That sounds an outstanding thing to do. It continues:
“This would mean senior police officers would not be able to give an authorisation allowing a constable in uniform to conduct a suspicion-less stop and search of a person or vehicle”.
That sounds excellent. I do not want suspicion-less stop and searches. It sounds extraordinary that anyone in this House would support suspicion-less stop and searches. In fact, I am surprised that the Whips in my party are requesting colleagues to strike out Lords amendment 6 in relation to suspicion-less stop and searches. When I am going about my business, I do not want to be stopped by a police officer and asked about my business. When I say to the police officer, “Why are you stopping me?”, it seems pretty odd that they can say, “I have not really got a reason to stop you, it is just that I can.”
The Whips’ brief, or the Government’s brief passed through the Whips Office, has a wonderful bit of doublespeak at the end of the paragraph. It states:
“Removal of this clause from the Bill reduces the tools available for the police to use when responding to serious disruption and the Government cannot support it”.
The police do not have these tools yet, so how can the amendment reduce the tools available? That does not make any sense at all.
In promoting their position that Lords amendment 20 should be struck out, the Government say:
“Lords amendment 20 removes clause 20: serious disruption prevention orders made otherwise than on conviction entirely from the Bill. This would mean that an order could not be made by a magistrates court on application by a relevant chief officer of police. It is important that the police have the power to seek an order on application, rather than solely at the point of conviction.”
I understand that, when someone is convicted, the police might have a point of view, but to begin placing restrictions on people before they have been convicted of any crime strikes me as somewhat unBritish.
There is some factual confusion about this, and I am grateful for the opportunity to clear that up. In the other place, the Lords made an amendment to clause 19, which said that the orders could be made without a conviction. The Government accept that amendment—we do not seek to overturn it—and we accept that a conviction is required before an SDPO can be made. Clause 20 is rather misleadingly titled, because it implies that an SDPO can be made without a conviction. If Members read the clause, however, they will see, now that we have accepted the amendment to clause 19, that it applies to circumstances in which there has been a conviction and the police wish to apply to the court for an SDPO at a later date, which will still be after a conviction has been made, so we have conceded the point that my hon. Friend is making. It is rather confusing because the title of clause 20 is a bit confusing, but we have conceded that point.
I am relieved to hear that.
The Minister is quite right—that describes exactly what the Government are doing—but he has left out one thing: the conviction is up to five years before. Usually in British law, convictions are spent after a certain period. Non-violent convictions are all spent after one year, but the conviction for causing a nuisance will last five years.
We are so lucky to benefit from my right hon. Friend’s wisdom, which has been built up over a 30-year period, and I thank him for making that important point.
I know that you want Members to make brief contributions, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will conclude. We are at this point, because we criminalised protest during the covid pandemic, and the Chamber did not push back when the Executive did that. We are paying the price. It is all very well being wise after the event. I have always believed that protest was a right, but I was mistaken because rights cannot be taken away from people. Actually, protest is a freedom, and we discovered that during the covid pandemic, when people up and down the country gathered in small town centres and village squares to protest at the restriction on their freedom, perhaps to earn a living as artists and performers. They were often rounded up by the police and arrested. At the time, many of us warned that once this poison was in the country’s bloodstream it would be difficult to get it out. I am deeply disappointed that the Chamber went missing in action for so long. We allowed the Executive, as I say, to get away with appalling abuses of our unwritten constitution, and we are now paying the price for that. I do not think that we should do that, and I will certainly vote against the Government’s attempts to strike out the Lords amendment.
There is lots to consider today. I share the concerns that have been expressed about things like stop and search and locking in. Those things go too far. I want to concentrate on Lords amendment 5, which would introduce an
“Offence of interference with access to or provision of abortion services”, which is a perfectly sensible thing to do. The Lords, particularly the Conservative peer, Baroness Sugg, have done a great job in tackling what are called, rather clunkily in clause 9, buffer zones, and making them into safe access zones. I therefore urge colleagues to support Lords amendment 5 unamended tonight.
Were it not for the actions of anti-choicers, the amendment would not be necessary at all, but something must be done when, every week nationwide, 2,000 women seeking lawful medical treatment find themselves impeded on their way to the clinic door by unwanted individuals. Now, those individuals would not call themselves protesters; they may just be silently holding a sign, lining the pavement with images or holding rosary beads, but given the slogans on those signs, and the ghoulish images of foetuses, and given that the whole intent of all of that is to shame these women, guilt trip them and stop them exercising their bodily rights—
I don’t want to eat up time. There are a lot of people and I’m in the middle of a sentence, so, no, I will not give way right now.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is jumping up and down, thinking, “Red light here,” but if he will allow me to develop my point, I will be happy to debate with him.
Okay, these individuals do not call themselves protesters—they are not those angry young radicals—but the whole point of these actions is to deter, to dissuade and to knock off course those women who have made a very difficult decision, and probably the most agonising decision of their lives. We could therefore call it obstruction.
In 2018 in Ealing, my home patch, I went and saw the evidence logs of our Marie Stopes clinic. It was not just women users of the clinic but women practitioners—medical professionals—describing how they had to run a daily gauntlet just to get to work or to have a completely legal procedure.
Five years ago, our council became the first in the country to introduce a public spaces protection order buffer zone, and protest still occurs every day. I heard the catastrophising of Andrew Lewer, but he should come to Ealing and see that it has just moved a set number of metres down the road so that it is not right in front of the clinic gate and women can get in and have their procedure without people in their face and without any kind of influences.
Within that, I include Sister Supporter, a pressure group known for its members’ pink high-vis jackets. Towards the end of 2018, they were accompanying women into the clinic because people felt afraid to go on their own. It is an upsetting enough experience as it is without all these layers on top.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. The issue of “for or against abortion” is really not what we are debating here today, but I want to know, loud and clear, whether the hon. Member believes that, if a person is engaged in silent prayer, that person should be arrested.
Well, I would say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a time and a place for everything. Regarding prayer, does it have to take place literally outside the gates of the clinic at the moment that these women, in their hour of need, are seeking their treatment? Is it necessary for it to take place at that place at that moment? I would say that, no, it is not.
We had this argument over the vaccination centres, didn’t we? The anti-vax people would try to deter people from getting in the door. Everyone should be able to seek lawful medical treatment—this procedure has been legal in this country since 1967—without interference. That is what I believe. It is public highway issue as well.
As I say, Sister Supporter, our local campaign group, wishes that it did not have to be there—and it does not, now. The problem is that only three other local authorities have followed that PSPO route, because they have enough on their plate without that onerous process and without the threat of a legal challenge. In Ealing, it has been upheld three times—in the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.
The other week, the Prime Minister was challenged at that Dispatch Box—I had a question that week as well—by someone raising a case from Birmingham. He said that, yes, we do accept the freedom of thought, conscience and belief, but that, at the same time, there are freedoms of women to seek legal treatment unimpeded and uninterfered with, and we have to balance the two.
I want to carry on for a minute, actually.
Some of the tactics that such people employ include live-streaming, filming and uploading to Facebook, despite there sometimes being a violent ex-partner in the background. I do not disagree with praying or informing, as I think people call it, but there is a time and a place for everything. That informing should take place at the GP surgery down the line.
The hon. Member for Northampton South said that the police are being made into a laughing stock, but our police in Ealing welcome the measure because it frees them from patrolling two different groups outside the clinic, so they can fight real crime. There is real crime out there.
Anyone should be able to use medical services without navigating an obstacle course of people trying to impose their view of what is right on the process to dissuade and deter. Even the reviled Iranian regime got rid of its morality police, so why do we allow them here?
The hon. Member is making a good and powerful point. Several people have written to me about the Bill with varying views. Does she agree that there is a huge contradiction in people saying, “We have a right to protest in buffer zones,” yet denying women the freedom of choice for themselves? At that point, it is not protesting but bullying and harassment. That is the difference.
I completely agree. These things are always subjective, so someone might say, “I’m just praying. I’ve just got some rosary beads,” but the woman seeking the treatment is traumatised for life. It is often a traumatic experience in the first place.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she share my frustration at the number of men who have stood up in this Chamber and pontificated when they will never have to make that choice? They are telling women that they should put up with being harassed when they are just seeking healthcare. [Interruption.] I have heard a number of men in this Chamber shouting down women, but perhaps they should pipe down and listen to our perspectives, because none of them will ever have to go through it.
Order. It is important that we do not personalise the issue. That goes for everybody in the Chamber.
I completely accept what the hon. Lady just said. As a woman, Madam Deputy Speaker, you know that, if any woman present in the Chamber were walking down a dark alley, they would shudder if someone was there. That feeling is magnified x amount of times for women having that difficult and distressing procedure when people determined to stop them having a termination are in their path. Those people can have their say, but let us move them away from the clinic door.
Buffer zones are not outlandish. They exist in France, Spain, Canada, Australia and some US states. In Ireland, they are legislating on them at the moment. We will be out of step with the rest of the UK, because a Bill is being brought in in Northern Ireland and a private Member’s Bill will become law this year in Scotland.
I apologise to my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer, because His Majesty the King was visiting my constituency today, so I arrived back too late to hear him propose the amendment. It is worth pointing out, however, that both Houses have now voted heavily in favour of the principle of buffer zones. We have to understand the passions behind what is proposed, but it is not really a relevant amendment that advances the argument. In fact, it tries to set the argument back against what both Houses have already decided.
The hon. Gentleman and knight of the realm makes a completely incontestable point. When we last voted on it in this place, we voted in favour by almost 3:1. In the other place, the vote was taken on voices, because the support was overwhelming. Hon. Members should not fall for a wrecking amendment; they should reject it.
This is about not the rights and wrongs of abortion—that question was settled in 1967—but the rights of women to go about their lawful daily business. It is not even a religious issue: the Bishop of Manchester in the other place made a barnstorming speech on the day.
As we said after the tragic killing of Sarah Everard, she was only walking home. Women should be allowed to use our pavements unimpeded. We saw the re-sentencing of her killer yesterday, so it all came back, and sadly, Sabina Nessa and Zara Aleena have been killed since. We cannot stand by, do nothing and say, “This is all okay.” It is obviously not, when 10,000 women a year are affected. Who could argue with safe access? I urge hon. Members to support Lords amendment 5 unamended.
I was elected to this place in a free and fair election, and I come here and say not what I am asked or told to, but what I believe. Similarly, my constituents make representations to me in a free and open way, fearlessly. They sometimes agree with me and they sometimes disagree. Part of the glory of our democracy is that we can exchange views, we can learn from others, and we can disagree openly, fairly and, as I have said, without fear. That would once have been taken as read as a way of describing not just this place and our representative democracy, but the character of a free society in which we are all proud to live.
At least, I could have said that until very recently, but now all is altered. In our universities, women are intimidated simply for saying that sex is a biological fact. Academics are intimidated—sometimes silenced—for championing our history and our heroes. Worst of all—this brings me to the amendment from my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer—we now have people arrested for praying. They are interrogated by the police; asked what they are praying about and what they are thinking. As my hon. Friend said, this is dystopia. It is like a mix of Huxley, Philip Dick and Orwell.
It is unthinkable that we should be living in a society where what people think has become a matter of police interest. But more than that, it is not merely a matter of police inquiry, for the lady concerned was arrested, charged and went to court. Of course, in the end she was acquitted, but that is not the point. The very fact that she could be arrested for what she thought or prayed for is—in a much overused word—chilling.
Surely the point that we have to be careful about is the use of words—which Dr Huq, whom I regard as a personal friend, did use—such as “impede”. Thinking and praying is not impeding. Actually shouting, livestreaming and doing offensive things to people who are going to have a procedure is impeding. If I understand correctly the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer, he is talking only about things that do not impede. I think that is right, and that is the only basis on which I could vote for his amendment.
My right hon. Friend will be pleased—but not surprised, given that he knows me so well—to hear that I entirely agree with him. I would not support loud, aggressive protests outside abortion clinics. They do take place in some other countries, but the evidence that they take place in this country is extremely thin. Indeed, a previous Health Secretary conducted a review to establish that fact. If that was in any way likely or possible, or was made more possible by this amendment, I would not be speaking in support of it, so my right hon. Friend is entirely right. This is about peaceful, silent protests.
In moving this Bill at its inception, the Government rightly said they were doing so because they were against violent disruptive protests. They had in mind people gluing themselves to roads, and stopping ambulances that were rushing to save lives. I support this Bill. I support its objectives because that kind of disruptive and violent protest is incompatible with a free, open and peaceful society. But it is extraordinary that, simultaneously, having said that they were in favour of peaceful protests—the defence being, “We are in favour of an open society, different opinions, the right to put your case by protesting peacefully”—the Government are now failing to support an amendment, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South because the Government refused to table it, to protect people’s right to protest in the very peaceful and indeed silent way that a few weeks ago they were saying they were prepared to defend.
It is not a matter of interpretation, because it seems to me that this amendment would create exactly the kind of conflict and disruption to public peace that it is intended to avoid? If somebody kneels ostentatiously to pray in front of someone on their way to an abortion clinic, what is that intended to do? This amendment says that
“such communication or prayer shall not, without more, be taken to be—
(a) influencing any person’s decision”, but why else would somebody kneel down and pray in front of a woman on her way to an abortion clinic unless it was intended to influence that person’s decision? There is a balance to be struck between the rights of people who pray, like my right hon. Friend and me, and the rights of people trying to avail themselves of a perfectly legal service to which they have a right.
I do not know how often my hon. Friend prays—maybe more often than I do, although my need to do so is probably greater—but he must understand that prayer does two things: it sends a message, one hopes, to the Almighty; and it provides solace for the person praying. So the person praying outside the clinic may well be sending a message, but that message is just as likely to be transcendental as to be intended for any individual in proximity.
The idea that we should interrupt the relationship between an individual and their God seems to me to be pretty monstrous, particularly as amendment (a) states specifically that any activity, communication or prayer shall not influence any person’s decision or, more especially, instruct or impede any person. This is not about interfering with another. Rather, it is about expressing a view to oneself, to the Lord and perhaps to others; but that could surely be said of any prayer at any time. Are we going to arrest people in other public places? Once this is allowed and the police are permitted to apprehend people for what they think and what they are praying about, why not arrest them in other public places? Why does this have to apply only to abortion clinics? Once we open this door, why would the police not arrest people outside mosques or temples, or in any other public space where they are praying to illustrate an opinion—or indeed, as I have said, to express it not horizontally but vertically, to a greater power above us?
This is an extremely important point. I do not think anyone in this House wants to restrict anyone’s right to pray, but we are trying to differentiate here and consider the impact of that action on the women who are going in for a very traumatic experience. Many of them will be grieving and many will have been through a traumatic experience to get them to this point, only to then be presented with someone telling them that what they are doing is wrong, increasing that trauma. Regardless of the intention of the person praying, which I would defend forever, the impact on the women is the problem.
But in a free society the impact we make on others by our sentiments, by what we do, say and, indeed, by what we pray about, is the inevitable consequence of the openness that I would have thought all of us in this place would celebrate. In this case, the amendment states specifically that we should not influence or obstruct, but the more general context in which we are having this debate is a world in which the ability to express a view that others might find offensive or unreasonable is being curbed every single day as our freedom is being eroded, and all the things we hold dear put at risk.
I will not give way again; I see that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, if not yet on your feet, are edging forward in your Chair, and so asking me to bring my remarks to a conclusion.
Freedom is not just about the capacity to hear from others with whom we agree; a free and open society is one in which we hear from those with whom we do not agree. That freedom is at risk. Amendment (a) is most reasonable, and I urge the House to accept it with these final words from the author and statesman John Buchan:
“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilisation from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.”
Today I will vote against barbarism by voting for this amendment. I mission everyone in this Chamber to exercise their conscience and vote for it with me.
I will confine my comments to the amendments that touch on the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair. We did not look at the debate on abortion buffer zones because that was not part of the original Bill, so I will not comment on that. In general terms, some of the points made by Sir John Hayes could be carried across. I could very well ask of him why, if that is what he so clearly believes, he would support a power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion? So it cuts both ways.
However, I will confine my comments to support for Lords amendments 1, 6 to 9, 20, 21, 23, 27, 28, 31, 32 and 33, which can basically be grouped into suspicion and stop and search, serious disruption prevention orders, and the meaning of the phrase “serious disruption”. I will speak to the Joint Committee’s report on our legislative scrutiny of the Bill, which was published on
The right to peaceful protest is a cornerstone of our democracy, which should be championed and protected rather than stifled. The Joint Committee concluded that while the stated intention behind the Bill was to strengthen police powers to tackle dangerous and highly disruptive protest tactics, its measures went well beyond that to the extent that we feel the Bill poses an unacceptable threat to the fundamental right to engage in peaceful protest. We have heard speeches about the historic basis of that right, and of course it is also protected in modern times under article 10 of the European convention on human rights, which deals with freedom of speech, and article 11, which deals with freedom of association.
In our report, we recommended that the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion should be removed from the Bill. Other hon. Members have spoken about that in some detail. Basically, what we said was that the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion inevitably gives rise to a risk of arbitrary or discriminatory use, and that it is disproportionate and inconsistent with the right to engage in peaceful protest. As we heard from other hon. Members, the police themselves said it is counterproductive and I do not understand that it is a power the police actually want as a whole. Lords amendments 6 to 9 take that out of the Bill, and I think that should be supported by this House.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. and learned Lady for giving way. On a point of clarification, clause 11, prior to amendment by the Lords, states that although an individual does not have to be subject to suspicion before an officer can activate this section, the officer has to “reasonably believe” that a number of offences may be committed. So it is not a wholly unconstrained power to search. That reasonable suspicion in clause 11(1) does have to be engaged.
I am not sure the Minister is right about that. I think what he is trying to say is that the police officer could have a highly subjective view prior to stopping, and a highly subjective view is not a reasonable suspicion. We took all these matters into account in our report.
I think what the Minister is trying to point out is that before the 24-hour period where the suspicionless stop and search can come into force, there has to be a reasonable belief that somebody somewhere in the locality may commit one of these wishy-washy offences. If that happens, then everybody in that locality can be subject to suspicionless stop and search. I am afraid that is just not an adequate answer to the fact that everybody in that locality could be subject to suspicionless stop and search. It is nonsensical.
The Minister must know that we are still bound by the European convention on human rights. Clearly, from what the Home Secretary said earlier this afternoon, some Government Members are trying to find a pretext to take us out of the convention, but we are still bound by it just now. The Minister must know that in order to interfere with freedom of assembly or freedom of association, under article 11 the interference has to be lawful, necessary and proportionate. What my hon. Friend just described is not lawful, necessary and proportionate.
The Minister will get to speak at the end. I do not want to take up too much time as I have already spoken for five minutes and I do not want to upset Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister can take the tenor of the comments so far across the House, including from the Government Benches. People are not happy about the power to stop and search without reasonable suspicion. The cross-party Committee of MPs and peers shared that unhappiness.
We also recommended the removal from the Bill of the power to impose serious disruption prevention disorders. We did so on the basis that they are an unnecessary response to disruptive protest given the host of other powers that the police already have, and because they could result in disproportionate interference and outright bans on the exercise of people’s rights under articles 10 and 11. The Lords amendments on this issue go a long way towards meeting our recommendation, principally by removing from the Bill SDPOs that are imposed otherwise than on conviction, and by removing the power to monitor recipients electronically. We support that. We see the Government’s proposed alternative amendments as pretty minor and do not think they will be sufficient to protect article 10 and 11 rights. We would like SDPOs to go completely from the Bill but we think that the Lords amendments make quite a significant difference, and therefore are worthy of common support.
Finally, on the meaning of “serious disruption” in the Bill, the Joint Committee on Human Rights noted a lack of any definition of that term, and how that created uncertainty that risks a breach of the rights of those affected by it. We recommended a definition of serious disruption be added to the Bill, which is not dissimilar to that in Lords amendment 1. It is important that any definition of serious disruption should genuinely confine the powers in the Bill to actions causing serious disruption. Anything else would risk disproportionate interference with the right to protest under articles 10 and 11 of the convention. The Government’s proposed amendment in lieu would insert a definition that is not suited to the term that it defines. It does not define serious disruption and it would reduce the threshold to such an extent that almost any disruption in day-to-day activity could justify police action against peaceful protesters. That would not comply with the convention on human rights. I think I will leave it at that.
I have spoken in favour of this legislation in each of its stages thus far. I would like to continue to express my support for the Bill and the principles behind it, and also place on the record my appreciation for the work that so many colleagues have done. As a relative newbie, it has been a learning experience to hear the expertise that has been brought to bear to ensure that, as this legislation passes through Parliament, it has become more focused and more able to deliver the intended outcomes.
This morning I visited my constituent Mr Bhalla at his home because, for the second time, his car had been stolen from his driveway. He wanted to express his frustration at having been a victim of a serious and very costly crime for the second time. Often, when we debate in the House we focus on a great deal of the detail, but when constituents have been a victim of crime, we feel a great desire to ensure that Parliament takes advantage of every possible measure. My constituent certainly expressed his view robustly to me—he would like to see suspicionless stop and search for anybody on his road, wherever they might happen to live. He would like the strongest possible measures to be taken.
We need to achieve an appropriate balance between protecting the right to exercise free speech and to protest, on the one hand, and preventing unreasonable disruption to our constituents’ lives on the other. I represent an outer London constituency, and one of my reasons for speaking in favour of the Bill at previous stages was the disruption, frustration and difficulties that have been caused for my constituents while they are trying to go about their normal daily lives.
Personally, I have a great deal of sympathy with some protesters, such as those who have been camping out and seeking to disrupt work on HS2, which is causing huge difficulties in my constituency and which many of my constituents continue to oppose. However, I recognise that for the thousands of constituents who travel by car or on public transport and have found that as a result of peaceful but extremely disruptive protests they cannot get to work, attend medical appointments, visit family members or get their children to school, it is clear that the balance needs to be shifted. Their interests, and those of other law-abiding people who are perfectly reasonably exercising their rights and their need to go about their daily business, must be appropriately protected.
It seems to me that greater focus on the definition of serious disruption will make the powers in the Bill more legally effective and enforceable. We have all had experiences of supporting things and then discovering that in the real world they do not work quite as well as we had hoped, so I very much welcome amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 1, which will bring such a focus and will ensure that the powers in the Bill work effectively to remedy the impact of serious disruption that is not reasonable, while maintaining free speech.
I also welcome amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 17 on the protection of journalists. We all value the media’s ability to scrutinise the work of the Government and the various arms of the state, as we did during the covid era when it was difficult for this House to do so. It is enormously helpful that we now have greater clarity.
Let us consider what will happen once the Bill has made its way through this House. I was struck by what my right hon. Friend Mr Davis said about the history of the right to peaceful protest. Most importantly, he pointed out that legislation is all interpreted by the courts.
As a magistrate in north-west London, I recall people being brought in who had been stopped and searched and were found to be in possession of bladed articles. I remember one case of a man who explained to the court that he was a carpet fitter, that the bladed articles were the tools he needed to fit carpets, and that he travelled around on public transport to appointments to fit them at various locations. He provided appropriate evidence to demonstrate it, so the court acquitted him. In other cases involving similar offences, it was clear that the individuals concerned were seeking to do harm to others, perhaps in connection with drug dealing, so the court took a different view. It is always valuable to remember that interpretation and enforcement will be down to juries of our peers, to magistrates or to judges. We have learned to place a great deal of faith in our judicial system’s ability to interpret “reasonableness” in a way that reflects the expectations and aspirations of all our constituents.
Finally, I join several colleagues in expressing my continuing support for Lords amendment 5 on buffer zones. I think it right that the House should agree to it. I have listened carefully to the views of many colleagues, and I understand the need to ensure that those of a religious faith have the freedom to express their views. None the less, access to medical and clinical services should be available to all our constituents without undue disruption. It seems to me that their lordships have done a good job of refining what we mean in the drafting of the Bill. This House would be wise to welcome the amendment; I shall certainly vote in support.
I commend the way in which Andrew Lewer spoke to the amendments; I think that he served the House extremely well.
Let me begin by saying that I am opposed to harassment. I think it intolerable for a woman to feel that she is being harassed, and indeed for a man to feel that he is being harassed. We were given a demonstration of harassment in the Chamber earlier today when a female Member came in, told male Members to “pipe down” because essentially this was none of their business, and then beetled out. That is harassment according to any definition of it, and it is wrong and should be called out as such. This is a good debate, and it is important for us to have it. Debate is what the Chamber is for, and we should not be afraid of combative ideas, but telling Members to pipe down just because they are male is not an argument that should be entertained in this place. So harassment should be called out, and we should not be afraid of doing that.
I object to, for instance, the harassment of women who go into abortion clinics if that is their free choice and they wish to do it. I am not advocating that in any way, but harassment cuts both ways. It is important that those who wish to pray, to express their identity or to make points that are fair in a non-combative way should be encouraged to do so. A Home Office review published in 2018 found that many protesters in the UK—it identified some of the places involved—were simply praying, sometimes displaying banners and sometimes distributing literature. Is the proportionate response to that introducing a law that essentially says, “You cannot pray silently in public”? That seems to be what the Government are saying today.
I will make this point, and then I will give way.
We are all aware of the Bible story about Daniel daring to pray and being put in jail—
I look forward to the Minister joining me in the Lobby this evening.
Whenever we walk into the Palace of Westminster, we walk beneath a massive portrait of Moses by Benjamin West. We walk through St Stephen’s Hall, and what is St Stephen’s Hall? It is a church. We walk over the catacombs under which is another church. We come to this place—to the “mother of Parliaments”—and debate a piece of legislation that essentially says, “If you dare to pray in a certain part of this Christian nation, in silence, you will be arrested.”
I want to make this point. I will give way later.
I think that Members need to stop and seriously ask themselves whether that is the sort of law that they wish to pass. The Government have an opportunity here. Is the Minister willing to say—perhaps he will want to intervene at this point—that the Government would exclude silent prayer from the Bill as an indication that the liberty of freedom of thought, of the freedom to have an opinion in one’s head, will be allowed? That would be the moderate thing for them to do.
Freedom of thought is a right enshrined in article 9 of the European convention on human rights and in article 18 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, while freedom of opinion is enshrined in article 10 of the convention. These are international rights which we should all support and defend to the very end, because they are about our right to think, to express ourselves and to maintain an opinion that we hold dear. Even if it is an objectionable opinion—even if a person does not believe in the God to whom we are praying—we are entitled to have that opinion, and to prevent that in any way is to remove a legitimate right. However, we have heard a justification in the House, and I really had to pinch myself when I heard it. The justification was that we should limit our thought and limit our opinion.
I am going to make this point. I promise I will give way after that.
Dr Huq stated very clearly that praying was not proper in certain places. The hon. Member is entitled to that opinion, but where is not the proper place to pray? Is here not the proper place to pray—will that be the next argument? Where ultimately is not the proper place to pray?
I would like the hon. Member to help me understand why it is particularly important that prayer must be carried out openly, publicly and ostentatiously. Most often, if we pray, no one else will know that we are doing it. He briefly referred to the Bible and to Daniel in the lion’s den. I draw his attention to Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5 and 6:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others…But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
Is it not possible to do that privately, without intimidating others by doing it ostentatiously and publicly?
The gospel of Matthew is a wonderful gospel—as a son of the manse, I know a little bit about this—but the reference I made was to Daniel, who was praying privately in his home. I did not talk about ostentatious public prayer. Maybe the Member should have used their ears and listened to the point that I made, which was about silent prayer and about freedom of thought in someone’s head, not freedom of outward expression. If the Member had listened, she would have got the answer to her point.
Despite the level of crime across this society—I think there were over 500 knife crimes last year—are we actually going to ask the police to get engaged and be detained in questioning people about what they are thinking in certain parts of the United Kingdom? That is a complete waste of police resources and police time, and it should not be done. When hon. Members stand up in this House and demand more police action in the future, it should be pointed out to them that constraining the police in this way and saying that they must chase after people who are silently thinking things, silently worshipping or silently praying is a total waste of police resources.
In Northern Ireland we have brought in a safe access zone law. I do not like that law—it was brought in by the Northern Ireland Assembly while I was a Member of this House—but it states that there must not be an unnecessary or disproportionate response from the police. Unfortunately, what we are doing in this House is bringing in disproportionate actions by the police when we should be moving away from them. Northern Ireland’s law gives the police at the right to use discretion and take steps to calm a protest, as opposed to stopping a protest. It also says that the Department of Health must maintain and regularly publish a list of all potential premises where the clinics could be taking place, so that people are aware of where they are so that they cannot, for example, be caught out wearing a T-shirt or a badge, or driving a car with a bumper sticker on it, in an area where it might give someone offence.
The point that the hon. Gentleman has just made is incredibly important. In the circumstances that I was talking about previously, the lady was arrested in Birmingham and the police arrive to interrogate and subsequently arrest her. Given the other crimes that were going on in Birmingham at that time, it is important to see that the police had clearly determined that the most important thing they had to do at that particular time was not to deal with knife crime or with people stealing tools out of other people’s vans to stop them earning a living, but to arrest and interrogate a woman who was silently praying outside a clinic that was closed. Surely that shows a sense of complete disproportionality on the part of the police.
Order. It is important that interventions are short, and I know that Ian Paisley will want to come to the conclusion of his remarks now, as he has been speaking for 10 minutes.
I will conclude now, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I agree with the point that the hon. Member has made. The arrest of Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was atrocious. It sends out a terrible message to women and to anyone who wishes to engage in silent prayer in this nation. I am glad that that attempt at a conviction was overturned by the court and thrown out. It is unfortunate that she has been arrested again today by another police officer saying, “What are you thinking? What are you praying?” That is wrong, and we need to stand up against that sort of harassment.
I rise to speak to amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5.
I recognise that there is a genuine problem that the Bill and the Lords amendments seek to address, of harassment, intimidation and offensive behaviour directed at women going into abortion clinics. I recognise that this requires policing and that it is appropriate for the authorities to stop harassment and intimidation. This House and the other place have decided that additional legislation, on top of what is already on the statute book, is required to enable that additional policing. All the arguments made by Dr Huq, who has campaigned so hard on this issue for so long, have been accepted by the House, and I do not think there is any particular value in unpicking her arguments. That debate has been had.
The question now before us, and the purpose of amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5, is about what is to happen in these safe access zones, as they are now to be called. I recognise that is the intention behind the Lords amendment, and the intention behind the original clause, but my concern is that, in asserting a general principle of something we do not want, and couching that desire in very broad terms, we are taking a momentous step. We are crossing an enormous river. The Rubicon was actually a very small stream, but it was a momentous step. When we criminalise prayer, private thought or, indeed, consensual conversations between two adults, we are doing something of enormous significance in our country and our democracy.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend says, but my concern is about the motivation for a person to silently pray there. What motivation do they have other than to be seen by a woman who is at her lowest ebb? It is not the best day of her life. In fact, it will be one of the worst days of her life.
I recognise that, but the difficulty is that none of us can know their motivation. I can accept that my hon. Friend’s judgment is that the motivation is pretty malign. The prayer might be well intentioned, but the attempt to dissuade a lady from accessing an abortion clinic is genuine. There is no doubt that is what is happening. My concern is about the principle of this law, how it will be applied and the precedent it sets in our democracy.
My concern is that the Bill authorises the police to ask exactly the question raised by my hon. Friend. It authorises them to go up to a private citizen standing on a street corner, not overtly harassing anyone, and to ask the question that the police asked the lady in Birmingham, “What are you praying about? What is in your head at this time?” They could see that she was not doing anything offensive, but they concluded that she was probably thinking something of which they disapproved, so they took steps to arrest her. I think we are taking a very concerning step as a country in authorising the police to act in that way.
I utterly respect the sincerity with which amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5 was moved and why my hon. Friend is supporting it. I am pleased to hear that Ian Paisley is against harassment, but that is the point of amendment (a). It does not say that any person engaged in consensual communication or silent prayer shall avoid harassment; it says that it shall not be taken as harassment. However ostentatiously someone is praying, or however aggressively they are seeking to open consensual communication with an individual going to a clinic, it shall not be taken to be harassment. It is a blank cheque for a person to behave in a harassing way, because they can defend themselves by saying, “Oh, but it says here that what I was doing shall not be taken as harassment.”
The behaviour that will not be taken as harassment is private prayer. Other actions that may be taken—obstructing a person walking down the street was what my hon. Friend suggested earlier—will be in scope. What should not be in scope is a person thinking something in their head. That is the only defence on which we are trying to insist, and I invite Members to consider whether they want to pass a law that will ban people from thinking something. Other forms of harassment or obstruction will be in scope of the law. So I do not think the intention is to stop people praying—I do not think that is what the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, the Government or indeed any of us want to do. We need to send a clear signal of the intention of Parliament through this amendment, and I commend my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer for tabling it. I ask Members to consider that if they vote against it, they are voting to ban private prayer. Of course it is a special case and we are talking about tiny zones, and of course we can all sympathise with the intention of the clause, but the point is the principle of this—
When we legislate, being specific matters. So let us be clear: the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Northampton South is not about private prayer, but about “silent prayer”. Silent prayer can be done in somebody’s face, can it not, whether or not what the person praying is thinking is private in their head? That shows the challenge here. This is not actually about prayer; it is about where it is taking place. So will Danny Kruger clarify, for the avoidance of doubt, that he has no problem with recognising that somebody praying in another person’s face, silent or not, is unwelcome?
The difficulty is with the private prayer—the silent prayer; that is what we are trying to protect. If the person is standing offensively in somebody’s face and trying to obstruct their access, of course they will come within scope. We are trying to protect people such as the lady who was standing quietly at the side, praying to herself, as far as we know. She might have been thinking about her shopping, but that was what the police were interested in; she was asked, “What are you doing standing over here quietly?”.
I am afraid to say that there was always going to be difficulty with this new law, because the police are going to be required to make all sorts of strange interpretations and judgments about why somebody is doing something. Nevertheless, in passing a law to create these zones we must consider people who are doing this utterly inoffensive thing, standing quietly at the side praying.
Let me just give the hon. Gentleman the example of Ealing, where we have had our zone since 2018—this is now its sixth year. Only three breaches have occurred and none has resulted in a conviction, because these people are usually law-abiding. Only one came close—I think it is still being legislated on and is probably sub judice—because it was done as a stunt. In reality, these things do not occur. People can pray elsewhere, and every royal medical college, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, as well as the British Medical Association and all medical opinion support this measure.
Okay, well, I will wind up now, because I think the point has been well rehearsed. My concern is with the principle we are setting here. Of course, everyone must have sympathy with these women, and we need to protect them from harassment, but where does this lead and what we are doing by saying that people should not be allowed to pray quietly on their own?
Policing by consent is central to how our criminal justice system works in the UK and the authority by which officers wield the power given to them. That is why this issue is challenging and why we are having this debate. It is seen as being about balancing the rights of protest in this situation with other rights to go about everyday legitimate business. It is important to take a balanced and sensitive approach.
Several legal minds here are much greater than mine. I am not a qualified lawyer, but I am standing here as the only former police officer participating in this debate. I know who the other two former police officers are and they are not here. I have approached this debate, these clauses and the Lords amendments by thinking about what would happen if I, as a police officer, went to attend a “spontaneous protest”, meaning that as a constable, the first person there, it would be on me to make the decisions about what was legitimate or not and about how I carried out my duties. I also thought about what would happen if I was part of a team of police officers policing a bigger protest, and about the instructions that I would be given by the silver and bronze commanders in relation to that protest and how they would tell me how to interpret the law.
I found it interesting when the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, who is no longer in his place, intervened on Joanna Cherry to say that he would explain that this is confusing. Police officers are dealing with an ambiguity in the moment all the time. If we create legislation in this place that is confusing and if we have not provided clarity, it is not surprising that police officers will be found not to be applying the law correctly.
Interestingly, Mr Davis, who is also no longer in his place, talked about the interviews that His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue undertook with police officers. I cannot totally repeat what the former silver public order commander to whom I am married called this Bill, but I can say that it was a pile of something. I will leave Members to speculate on what else he said. These are complex decisions to be made in real time, regardless of rank. Policing by consent is how we ensure that we carry out our duties safely.
Others have spoken about Lords amendment 5. It is not applicable in Scotland, and I look forward to similar legislation by means of a private Member’s Bill. It is important that it is now perceived to be ECHR compliant. My party will not be whipped on the amendment, so it will be down to personal preference, but if as a police officer I was dealing with, for example, a case of harassment in which the allegation was racial in nature, I would listen to the victim in relation to how I applied the legislation and whether I would press for a charge. The tendency is towards how the victim or the person subject to the behaviour feels. If it is silent prayer that takes place outside an abortion clinic and women going into the clinic interpret it as harassing, that suggests to me that an offence has been committed and action needs to be taken.
On Lords amendment 1, the serious disruption definition is clear and, I would argue, more easily determined by a police officer in the course of their duties. Arguably, the Government’s version of “more than minor” is more subjective and therefore more difficult for an officer to gauge. We are back to the skills, knowledge and behaviour of police officers and their capacity to deliver. My concern, as I have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill, including in Committee, is that we have put so much pressure and expectation on what we require police officers to do and this Bill will add another whole wheen—that is a Scottish word that means a load—of elements that they will require training to deliver. I continue to have concerns about the capacity to deliver that training and the ability to extract police officers to undergo that training so that they can implement the Bill. That is very problematic, and that is before we even come on to the issues of the erosion of trust that we have seen in the police service more generally in the past year.
On Lords amendment 6 and suspicionless stop and search, I will quote the words of Lord Paddick in the other place. He has handled with this Bill on behalf of the Liberal Democrats since Second Reading, and my colleagues and I are hugely grateful to him. He is a former Met commander and he knows what he is talking about. He said:
“Stop and search is a highly intrusive and potentially damaging tool if misused by the police. The fact that you are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police if you are black than if you are white where the police require reasonable suspicion, and 14 times more likely where the police do not require reasonable suspicion, presents a prima facie case that the police are misusing these powers.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
I understand that the House will not divide on Lords amendment 17, but it follows the arrest of journalists in Hertfordshire at a Just Stop Oil protest. If there is no need for the amendment, I would like to hear the Government outline what they will do to prevent the arrest of legitimate journalists and observers at protests in future. If we all care about democracy and freedom to protest and ensuring that those rights are applied, we need to have journalists and observers involved.
The Government accept that protection for journalists might helpfully be set out, and that is why Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 17 will substantively do what the Lords request, albeit in slightly different language.
I am pleased to hear that.
If Lords amendment 1 is disagreed to and Government amendment (a) to it is passed, I would disagree with the broadening of the definition of “serious disruption”. Whatever the Government may think of protesters, they are not terrorists, and applying similar legislation where no offence is committed is simply wrong.
As I said in my earlier intervention, the Government have accepted that serious disruption prevention orders can only be handed out by a court, following a conviction. The title of clause 20 is somewhat confusing, but we have accepted the point that there must be a conviction first.
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification, but the point I made while he was not in his place still stands: this is confusing. We are presenting confusing legislation to police officers to apply and potentially to take away people’s liberty accordingly.
Policing needs to be done with consent. This is knee-jerk legislation, as I have said throughout, to replace powers that already exist and that the police say they can utilise now. It also prevents the important discussions that take place between protest groups and police officers; we are going to create a chilling effect not only on the right to protest, but on the relationships that help us to enable legitimate protest. I think that is why the Lords rejected these clauses outright in their previous guise in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The Lords have attempted to ameliorate the worst excesses of this Bill, and I will certainly vote in support of keeping the Lords amendments in place.
I rise to speak to Lords amendment 5 and the amendments to it put forward by my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer.
Buffer zones are basically public spaces protection orders, extending a distance of 150 m. PSPOs, as they are called, are generally used for antisocial behaviour. We have three in Doncaster, apparently, and I have personally applied for one in Conisbrough in my constituency. We have a set of seating in the middle of town where we have people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, and beggars, and they make a nuisance of themselves with antisocial behaviour. They are killing the town centre. I have been refused a PSPO there, but I will continue, because I think it is the right thing to do.
Lords amendment 5 will put a mandatory buffer zone, a PSPO, around every single clinic in the country. Regardless of what we think about that, I want to tell people in this House and in my constituency what that will look like. The drunks and the people under the influence of drugs in Conisbrough are going to continue to be able to make a nuisance of themselves, damage the local economy and scare old and young people who want to go to the shops; yet a lady or a gentleman who has a real strong faith and believes they can help the people coming in to a clinic is not going to be able to do that.
Dr Huq talked about people praying and standing in front of people, and my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory asked why they have to do it there. Well, if that is the worst day of a woman’s life, and I accept that it probably is one of the worst days of a woman’s life, if she saw somebody there who was praying respectfully, who was there to help, and she knew they were there, she could ignore that lady or gentleman who was praying and just walk in—but, if it was the worst day of her life, she might want somebody just to turn to for that second. Also, if somebody is being coerced into going into one of those places to have a forced abortion, that lady or gentleman could be somebody who is there to help.
I agree with everybody else in this House that shouting, screaming and holding up placards is an awful thing to do and should not happen, but silent prayer and consensual conversations should not be banned. The papers will get hold of this in a year’s time: we are the party of law and order, but we will be arresting people for prayer and for conversations, while letting the people who are harassing the public in our towns and our shops continue to do so.
I ask all Conservative Members in this House to think about amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5, which my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South has put forward. It simply asks for people to be allowed to pray and to have those consensual conversations. Amendment (b) provides that, before we put this law in place, we carry out a review on it. That is what I am asking for.
I have immense respect for many people who have spoken in the debate. I am sorry that Mr Davis is no longer in his place. He and I might be in different political parties, but on issues of civil liberties, we often find common cause. I am not sure that my 15-year-old self would have thought that possible, but it is certainly true—for example, we are working, as Back-Bench Members of Parliament, to raise concerns about the restrictions on parliamentary sovereignty in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.
I have been very struck by the debate, which I believe crosses party political lines. I pay tribute to Sir Bernard Jenkin, who I knew as the hon. Member for Colchester back when I was that 15-year-old who could not conceive of points on which I might find common ground with Government Members. But there are such points, and this—speaking up for freedoms—is one.
I am very struck that the concept of freedom that has been articulated in the Chamber so far is a myopic one. That myopic freedom comes from a blind spot that I believe most of the Members in this Chamber must recognise when talking about access to abortion, which is exactly what we are talking about. By definition of who they are, they will never have been in the position of the women for whom those buffer zones make a difference, so their experience of the human rights at stake in the legislation, and of the issues that we face, is inevitably tempered by their own understanding, in which they focus on the idea that this is purely an issue of freedom of speech and fail to recognise that other, much-cherished right in this country: the right to privacy. My remarks will be very much about that and about how we cannot be a free society if women, just as much as men, are not able to exercise those rights equally.
I am very taken by the fact that it is International Women’s Day tomorrow. I have to say that I have become increasingly cynical about that day. It deflates me. We spend a year talking about how we are going to celebrate women, but precious little time working on advancing their rights. Well, I see Lords amendment 5 and opposition to amendment (a) as being about advancing women’s rights and doing what the suffragettes told us to do: “Deeds, not words”. Why do I see that? I see that because I think we must start by clarifying some of the myths that have been presented to the Chamber.
I listened respectfully to Andrew Lewer because this is the time and place for him to exercise that most important democratic right of freedom of speech. I have listened to many speakers talk about how we are somehow criminalising prayer. Let us be very clear for the avoidance of doubt: no prayer is being criminalised. Nothing in the Bill will do that, except, perhaps, for a gardener who is carrying a spade because they are praying that their carrots or green-sprouting broccoli will grow but who is stopped by the police—as clause 2 will allow—who argue that the gardener’s intent in carrying the spade is to dig a tunnel. The gardener’s prayer for the vegetables is secondary when they explain to the police why they were carrying a spade.
Let us be very clear: nothing in Lords amendment 5 criminalises prayer. It says what most people would recognise: that there is a time and a place for everything and a balance in those rights—in the freedom of speech to tell a woman that you do not think she has a right to make a choice over her own body, and her right to privacy. When she has made her choice, she should not be impeded.
Let us be honest about this: the people praying outside abortion clinics are not finding the right time and place for it. That is not just what I think; it is what the vast majority of the British public think because they recognise that when a woman has made that choice, she should not face someone trying to change her mind right up to the wire. She should be respected for her choice.
I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will intervene with some rhetorical flourish about the purpose of freedom in this place. What about the freedom of a woman to make her choice in peace? That is what the Lords amendment does. I will happily give way because I am sure that he wants to come in on that point.
The hon. Lady has provoked me to intervene and to be rhetorical as well, but I simply say this to her. She suggests that someone could be impeded by silence. Given that that is entirely irrational, will she answer this question: does she support the arrest and charging of a woman, as has happened? Does she endorse that, and does she want to see more of it?
It is an irony to me that Members of the party that once claimed to be the party of law and order are trying to argue against the law and order that a PSPO establishes.
For the avoidance of doubt, let me be clear that I am not arguing for the criminalisation of silence. My argument is about the location. The right hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous if he does not recognise the effect of somebody who disagrees so passionately with a woman’s right to privacy in making that choice standing there while she does it. He talked about some of the literary greats, so let us talk about Margaret Atwood and “Under His Eye.” That is what these people praying represent by being there at that most tender moment for a woman making that choice. It is their physical presence, not their praying, that is the issue.
If we respect people having different opinions on abortion when it comes to free speech, we also have respect that when someone has made that choice, they should not be repeatedly challenged for it. The Members who want to challenge those women by praying outside and supporting others who do so have no idea why those women are attending the clinics; they have no idea of the histories and stories. They can only listen to the countless testimonies that the women attending the clinics do find this harassing. That is why so many have called for the PSPOs. They do find it intimidating. That is not the right time and place.
In tabling the amendment, the hon. Member for Northampton South is attempting to complicate something that is very simple. I pay tribute to Baroness Sugg for tidying up our original amendment and clarifying where the 150-metre zone will be. In a very small zone around an abortion clinic, that is not the right time and place. People can pray—of course they can. Although I might disagree with the hon. Gentleman on whether that is still intimidating, I will defend to the hilt people’s right to pray. What I will not do is place that ahead of a woman’s right to privacy and say that a woman who has made the decision to have an abortion must continue to face these people, because somehow it is about their freedom of speech unencumbered.
We need to be honest and recognise that there will never be a point at which the people praying agree with the choice that a woman has made, so there is never going to be a point at which their prayers are welcome. There is never going to be a point at which those prayers are not designed to intimidate or to destabilise a very difficult decision. Look at the widespread evidence that shows that the people conducting these prayer marathons outside our abortion clinics are not acting simply to help women, and that they are not well intentioned. I think we can all make our own decision on what is well intentioned. Danny Kruger says it is not offensive, but I disagree. I think that when a woman has made a choice, to have someone try continually to undermine that choice is offensive. We both have a right in this place to make our argument. Where we do not have a right to make that argument is right outside an abortion clinic with a woman who just needs her right to privacy to be upheld.
The hon. Member for Northampton South talked about consensual contact, but that is very unclear. What if a protester walks up to a woman and asks her the time, and she tells them? Does that mean she has engaged in conversation with them, which will allow them to start talking to her about their views on abortion? What if they ask for directions? Will that undermine the provision? The people protesting outside clinics, especially the “40 Days for Life” people, boast about how their presence reduces the number of women having abortions. They say it makes the no-show rate for abortion appointments as high as 75%. This is not benign behaviour. They also claim that those of us who support a woman’s right to choose are “demonic”, and increasingly they suggest we are “satanic” in our support for a woman’s right to privacy. Let us be clear: amendment (a) would not make an abortion clinic buffer zone clearer; it would sabotage a buffer zone by introducing uncertainty about behaviour and about the simple concept of there being a right time and place.
I am conscious of the time available, so I just want to put on the record my gratitude not only to Baroness Sugg, but to my hon. Friend Dr Huq for all her work, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex, and organisations like Sister Supporter. They have stood up for the silent majority—the people who think it is not right to hassle a woman when she is making these choices. That is ultimately what we are here to say. When the vast majority of the public support buffer zones, and when those of us who will be in this position cannot speak freely, as a Scottish colleague raised, then we have a challenge in this place. Freedom of speech is not freedom of speech if 50% are living in fear of what might happen next. Margaret Atwood taught us that. She said that men are worried that women will laugh at them, and women are worried that men might kill them. Do not kill a woman’s right to her freedom. Do not kill a woman’s right to privacy. Let us not sabotage at the last minute abortion buffer zones by supporting amendment (a). We should support Lords amendment 5 and let everybody else move on with their life.
It is worth looking at what amendment (a) states. It states:
“No offence is committed under subsection (1) by a person engaged in consensual communication or in silent prayer”.
For the avoidance of doubt, amendment (a) goes on to say that nothing in it should allow people to be harassed or their decision to be changed, such as kneeling down and praying right in front of somebody’s face, or blocking the pavement, or indulging in any kind of harassing.
I am not going to give way to my hon. Friend, who has intervened many times already. I have been asked to speak very briefly.
It is worth looking at what this amendment is, and it is worth considering the question put by the police officer to the lady. The police officer asked her, “Are you praying?” In other words, there was nothing she was obviously doing that was harassment or in any way objectionable. The police officer had to actually go into her mind—she was just standing there; I do not think it is even clear that she was kneeling—and that is surely what is dangerous about the measure.
In speaking to this Chamber, I am going far beyond what that lady was doing. Of course I am not indulging in any objectionable behaviour by expressing my thoughts. I am not harassing anybody, but everybody in this Chamber in a sense is being forced to listen to me, and I have spent 39 years no doubt irritating people and even boring them. They cannot shut their ears, but this lady was not actually saying anything, and the policeman had to go up to her and ask what she was doing. If we are going to have a law—a criminal law—it has to be capable of being effective.
The reason George Orwell’s novel “1984” resonates so much with all of us is that the state was trying to regulate not just people’s actions but what goes on in their minds. That is why, ever since that novel was written, people have felt that probably the most advanced form of totalitarianism is one where the state is trying to regulate not simply people’s behaviour, but their minds. What the debate is about is that those who oppose my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer are determined to stop anybody indulging in any kind of protest, if it could be deemed to be some sort of protest, even if it is entirely silent.
The whole point of the Public Order Bill, as I understand it—this is why I support it—is that it does not outlaw peaceful protest. What the Government are addressing is people making that protest who are deliberately trying to obstruct the rights of other citizens by blocking roads or whatever. That is the point of the Bill. It has now been hijacked by people who want to stop completely silent peaceful protest.
The case of Livia Tossici-Bolt has not yet been mentioned. In the past few days she was told by council officers in Bournemouth that she would be fined simply for holding up a sign saying, “Here to talk if you want” inside a buffer zone. She was not holding up a sign with any graphic images, and she was not trying to intimidate anybody; she was simply saying, “Please, if you want to talk, I am here if you want any advice. This is a very difficult day for you.” For that she was stopped by the police. In other words, that lady was told that she could not offer other women who might, in some circumstances, be coerced into attending an abortion clinic, or who felt that they lacked the resources to complete a pregnancy, the opportunity to talk if they wanted to do so.
We must not criminalise such peaceful activity. Where are we going? Where will this stop? I believe—this is how I will conclude; I think that this is the shortest speech—that this is an entirely worthwhile, harmless, moderate amendment, and I hope that Members will support it.
I remain of the view that the Bill is draconian and anti-democratic, and represents a frightening lurch towards authoritarianism. Whether or not Members agree with me, most of us will accept that the concept of what constitutes serious disruption is central to the sweeping liberty-curtailing powers and offences that it contains.
The matter of protest banning orders rests on that definition, and the peaceful and often innocent conduct that the police would seemingly be able to criminalise as a result is breath-taking in its range. The Bill says that those orders can apply to people without a conviction—the Minister explained the Government amendment earlier—if someone has carried out activities or contributed to the carrying-out of activities by any other person related to a protest
“that resulted in, or were likely to result in, serious disruption”, among a range of other scenarios, on two or more occasions. Justice has stated:
“Given the extent of the powers contained within the Bill, it is essential that any definition should be placed at such a threshold as to minimise the possibility for abuse.”
I agree. The term “serious disruption” should be defined. Despite requests even from senior police officers for clarity in the Bill’s early stages, the Government had to be dragged to this point today. Looking at the Government’s vast and vague amendment on this issue, the reasons for not defining the term in the first place are clear. It would appear that their intention was always to set the bar at a frighteningly low level—and the bar could not be lower.
Serious disruption is “more than a minor” hindrance. That is a paradox if ever there was one. Apart from being dangerously vague, “more than a minor” hindrance is not serious disruption by any stretch of the imagination. More than a minor hindrance, as suggested by the Government, is having to cross to the other side of the road because someone is protesting on the pavement. It is a Deliveroo takeaway arriving 15 minutes later than someone would like. Those things might be annoying, but they are not serious disruption and they certainly do not warrant arrest.
I want to set this in context, as the Lords have attempted to do. The comparison in English common law is the definition of civil nuisance, which involves “substantial interference”. That is a very high bar, which has been defined by decades of case law on the matter. It is a world away from the low threshold that the Government propose in this measure.
I should make it clear that on the issue of blocking emergency vehicles—the Minister might try to cite that as a reason for the Government’s vague and dangerous amendment—of course that should be an offence, but it already is. The Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act 2006 contains two offences. First, the Act makes it an offence to obstruct or hinder certain emergency workers who are responding to emergency circumstances. Secondly, it makes it an offence to hinder or obstruct those who are assisting emergency workers responding to emergency circumstances. The Lords amendment provides a much more sensible definition of serious disruption. It states that serious disruption
“means causing significant harm to persons, organisations or the life of the community, in particular, where…it may result in significant delay to the delivery of a time-sensitive product…or…it may result in a prolonged disruption of access to any essential goods or any essential services”.
That complements “significant delay” in the delivery of goods and “prolonged disruption” of access to services, as set out in the Public Order Act 1986, as well as measures in the Emergency Workers (Obstruction) Act.
On stop and search, which colleagues have already mentioned, of course the police must have the ability, sometimes, to stop and search when people are reasonably suspected of various crimes. However, the danger of abuse lies in the threshold of “reasonable suspicion” being low or, worse, as in the case of this Bill, non-existent.
The Bill originally expanded both suspicion-based and suspicionless stop-and-search powers, meaning that the police could confiscate almost any protest-related item without reasonable suspicion at all. That includes mobile phones, placards and fliers. In fact, it includes anything that could be vaguely connected to a protest.
We already know the dangerous implications of such sweeping powers. Black people are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people and 14 times more likely to be when the police do not require reasonable suspicion at all. Even the Police Federation has raised concerns, saying that the Bill could leave officers “vulnerable to complaint”. It has also said:
“Reasonable Grounds has a firm legal basis, is tried and tested, and therefore affords reassurance to our colleagues engaged in these stops.”
To that end, Lords amendment 6 removes the clauses of the Bill that provide the police with new powers to stop and search without suspicion. I hope that colleagues will support that very reasonable amendment.
Finally, turning to serious disruption prevention orders, the Bill allows the court to ban a person who has simply taken part in two or more protests that caused “more than a minor” hindrance in a five-year period, as I outlined earlier. It will be a crime to breach an order, with a punishment of imprisonment, a fine or both. As I have set out, “more than a minor” hindrance could mean anything. It could be extremely minor, and the provisions will inhibit and restrict the ability of potentially hundreds of thousands of people from protesting and standing up for their civil liberties. It is draconian. Lords amendment 20 removes that clause allowing serious disruption prevention orders to be issued not on conviction. I hope that colleagues across the House will support these very reasonable amendments.
Thank you for selecting the amendments to Lords amendment 5, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would first like to thank my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer for bringing his amendments forward. He has put his finger on a couple of important principles about how we do law in this country and how we legislate in this House.
I should start by saying that this debate is absolutely not about abortion. My hon. Friend’s amendments also do not change the legislation regarding buffer zones. As has been said, that debate has happened in this House; they are in place. In fact, the powers providing for buffer zones around abortion clinics already exist. That point was made very well, I may say, by Dr Huq. She is not in her place, but she highlighted how, where buffer zones have been challenged, their presence has been upheld and people protesting within them have been moved on. They are both legal and, it would appear from her description, effective for their purpose.
We therefore have not only laws that provide for buffer zones around abortion clinics but some evidence of what those mean in practice. We have the evidence that there are laws that allow for people to be moved on. However, we also have something rather more disturbing: evidence of the way that law is being interpreted.
I would like to make two points about the law and how we approach it. As a Member coming to this House tasked with understanding the issues that we debate—a wide range of issues on all sorts of things—one of the first questions I ask myself, and often one of the first questions asked of me, is, “What evidence is there of the need for this?” I think that that question of necessity and proportionality is an important one, particularly in relation to amendment (b) to Lords amendment 5 tabled by my hon. Friend, which seeks a pause in the legislation until we have established such a need.
Certainly, before any kind of national provision is introduced, it is reasonable to ask, “What is the necessity, and is this proportional?” In 2018, it was established that that necessity was not there, so I have to ask myself how that has changed and why the measure is felt to be necessary now. Is there a material difference? I must confess that I am struggling to understand the objection to providing or securing that evidence to have the confidence that we are acting proportionally and out of necessity.
My second point on my hon. Friend’s amendments is about, effectively, the carve-out or provision for silent prayer. There is no support in this place, nor has there been throughout the passage of the Bill, for any intimidation or harassment of women seeking the services of an abortion clinic. That is an important point, because that is not what the amendments seek to achieve and we already have laws to deal with that.
We have evidence of an arrest that took place for the act of silent prayer. Amendment (a) seeks to make it clear that that is an inappropriate interpretation of our laws.
That seems to be the nub of the challenge. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, although he does not feel that silent prayer would intimidate him, plenty of users of the service feel that it is intimidating, so it is right that it is in scope?
The hon. Member has clearly read my notes, because I am coming to that exact point. In response to her earlier comments, I also say that I do not seek to put myself in the place of a woman who is seeking the services of an abortion clinic. I respect the fact that that is an incredibly difficult moment—a sensitive and vital moment—and I cannot seek to understand that from my lived experience, as she said.
Equally, however, as the hon. Member said, it is the presence of the person in that place that is objectionable, because we cannot know what silent prayer is. Hon. Members may well be silently praying that I wrap up my remarks so that we can move to the votes; I have no way of knowing. Prayer is not necessarily marked by a folding of hands, a closing of eyes, a bowing of the head or a thumbing of a rosary, and it is not necessarily marked by kneeling.
Indeed, the evidence from the abortion clinic with a buffer zone around it where the arrest took place is that the person was standing. When challenged, she was arrested on the basis that she was praying silently. There were no placards or graphic images, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton, and there was no shouting—there was nothing. That is the point of concern, because what is the basis for the arrest if it is just the presence of someone who is perhaps in the habit of praying silently?
The importance of the issue comes down to three things: thoughts, words and deeds. If our freedom to think, our freedom to speak and our freedom to act exist on a continuum, where we put the marker of where a freedom ends is a statement about our society. Do we place that marker just beyond the freedom to speak, effectively saying that we must watch our speech and what we say? I think we have already established through the laws of the land that we do that, because we do not allow people to speak freely without consideration.
What we have seen, however, through the implementation of existing local laws that the Bill seeks to make national, is an interpretation that says that we do not have freedom of thought. That is the point of my contribution and of the amendments of my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. Specifically, I support them because first, they are a helpful and sadly necessary clarification that we in this country enjoy freedom of thought and the freedom to practise silent prayer; and secondly, when we make laws, it is incumbent on us to pause to test the need for further legislation before introducing unnecessary legislation.
I rise to speak on Lords amendments 1, 5, 6 and 20, beginning with the definition of “serious disruption”.
Before I go into the detail, let me mention the publication in 2021 of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s now widely debated report looking at protests and how the police response was working. Matt Parr, Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, called for a “modest reset” of the balance between police powers and the right to protest in order to respond to the changing nature of the protests we were seeing, which were sometimes dangerous; people were taking more risks. The suggestions included far more measures that were non-legislative than legislative, such as better training for police, better understanding of the law and a more sophisticated response to protests. What has followed has been a series of escalations of more and more unnecessary legislation that the police have not asked for and that will not have an impact on the actual challenge.
We have gathered to debate public order legislation many times in this House, and while there have been numerous Ministers, I have been here every single time. For our part, we suggested a modest reset of the laws, as suggested by Her Majesty’s inspectorate, with amendments making injunctions easier for local organisations to apply for and with stronger punishment for obstructing the highway. Our sensible amendments were rejected by the Government in favour of this raft of legislation, which now finds itself in ping-pong, because the House of Lords is quite rightly saying that these proposals are not necessary.
What do the Government think their amendments to the Lords amendments will actually deliver? Their impact assessment is quite clear. Let us look, for example, at the new offence of locking on, which is going to change everything, we are told. Let me quote:
“the number of additional full custody years”— the number of prison years that will result from this new offence—
“lies within the range of zero to one”.
That is the impact this Bill will have: zero to one years of custodial sentences.
What about the serious disruption prevention orders we are debating today? How many custodial cases will they amount to? The answer is three to five. Well, that is all worth it then! The rights to be taken away, as Conservative and Opposition Members have so eloquently described, will be for three to five cases with custodial convictions a year.
The impact assessment is extraordinary.
Matt Parr of Her Majesty’s inspectorate clearly said that there was
“a wide variation in the number of specialist officers available for protest policing throughout England and Wales”, and that
“Non-specialist officers receive limited training in protest policing.”
He made several recommendations about increased and better training. Have the Government listened to these sensible concerns? Not a bit. Their impact assessment states that the police will need seven minutes to understand this entire new Bill and to implement it fairly—seven minutes. The truth is that they do not listen to the police and they do not listen to what is actually needed; they just want a headline.
To pause for a minute, today we have all been appalled by the offences David Carrick was guilty of in the run-up to the murder of Sarah Everard, and these appalling sexual crimes and this epidemic of violence against women and girls needs a proper response, yet the Government are prioritising this legislation over a victims Bill.
Laws already exist to tackle protest that the police use every day. Criminal damage is an offence, as are conspiracy to cause damage, trespass, aggravated trespass, public nuisance, breach of the peace and obstruction of a highway—I could go on. In April 2019, 1,148 Extinction Rebellion activists were arrested and more than 900 were charged. In October 2019, 1,800 protesters were arrested. Many have been fined, and many have gone to prison. The impact assessment for this Bill suggests a few hundred arrests; the police are already making thousands. The powers are there for the police to use.
Turning to the definition of “serious disruption”, we must be clear about the history. The Opposition asked for a definition of “serious disruption” long ago in debates on what is now the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. The Government said no, but then agreed to a definition in the Lords. It was not a very good one, and we tried to amend it. The police have asked us for greater clarity on the definition of “serious disruption” because the Government have drafted such poor legislation that it is important for them to interpret how and when they should and should not intervene. But the new definition appears to include as serious disruption situations such as if I have to step aside on a pavement to avoid a protestor. The police do not want to diminish people’s rights through this definition—they have said that time and again, and privately they think the Government are getting this wrong.
In the other place it was agreed that “prolonged disruption” was needed for a serious disruptive activity to have taken place, but the new Government amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 1 suggests that I would be causing serious disruption if I hindered an individual or organisation
“to more than a minor degree”.
That goes too far.
Does the shadow Minister agree that this provision is extraordinary, because there is often disruption around the Houses of Parliament when there is a protest and people march around Parliament Square and up to Trafalgar Square? That is a disruption, and is more than a minor disruption, but it is the type of disruption that most people in a free and democratic society can live with.
The hon. Gentleman has made many good points already this afternoon, and I entirely agree;
“more than a minor degree” is way too low a bar to allow these interventions. Many Members and many watching the debate would have fallen foul of this law.
The amendment is drawn so widely that it is almost meaningless. As the hon. Gentleman said, when there are protests on Whitehall, near Parliament Square, there can be large crowds, and banners and speeches, so they are noisy. In 1 Parliament Street, where my office is, we have to shut the windows, which is irritating, but we are not hindered to the extent that we expect police interference. There are so many scenarios that could come under the scope of this definition that would render it ludicrous.
If I chain myself to a tree to protest at a new road and a couple of people are unable to cross a road to go to the supermarket, is that more than a minor disruption, or not? We have to remember that serious disruption, however it is defined—and I argue that here it is defined without any legal certainty—does not have to happen for offences under the Bill to be committed. This sloppiness and breadth of drafting is unacceptable, and the police do not want it. They just want clarity, and this will not bring clarity.
Turning to suspicionless stop and search, the Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 6. The motion would reinsert wide-ranging powers for the police 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 office. If there is a large crowd in Parliament Square and a tourist gets caught up in it, they could be stopped; they could have no idea what is going on, and would be an offence to resist.
Stop and search is disproportionately used against black people in this country. Do Members on the Government Benches really want to pass legislation for powers that risk further damaging the relationship between the police and our communities? Instead of actually targeting serious gun crime, serious knife crime or terrorism, the Government are choosing to focus on stopping and searching people who may or may not be taking part in a protest. That is not proportionate.
Former police officers have warned that these powers risk further diminishing trust in public institutions. That will put the police in a difficult position, and it risks undermining the notion of policing by consent. Members of the other place were right to remove the powers to stop and search without suspicion, and the Government are wrong to put them back in.
We agree with what the Government have done with regard to the journalists clause and amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 17. The right to protest is a hard-won democratic freedom that many have fought for in our history, and many are fighting for it in other parts of the world. A free press is another hallmark of our democratic society. The amendment will not prevent the police from responding to someone who is causing trouble and happens to be a journalist, but, crucially, it will allow reporters to observe and report to the wider public about the happenings of a protest. Considering the scope, breadth and low bar of most of the powers in the Bill, reporting on their potential misuse or wrong application is even more important. That is a power that must be protected, so we welcome the Government’s amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 17.
We are fundamentally against the principle of serious disruption prevention orders. We do not agree with them on conviction and we certainly do not agree with them not on conviction. The Government have tabled a motion to disagree with Lords amendment 20 and tabled their own amendment in lieu. That reinstates but limits the ability to apply an SDPO to someone without a protest-related conviction. We welcome the fact that the Government have accepted that their initial draft was overreaching and unnecessary. However, we do not support the five-year conviction compromise that they suggest. Problems remain, in that police could still apply for a SDPO to prevent a person from carrying out activities that are merely likely to result in serious disruption to two or more individuals or an organisation. The Met police commissioner said that
“policing is not asking for new powers to constrain protests”, but SDPOs on conviction unfortunately remain in the Bill. An SDPO treats a peaceful protestor like the Government treat terrorists. Does the Minister really want to treat peaceful protestors, however annoying they may be, as serious criminals?
On buffer zones, the Opposition do not agree with amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5. It is important to remember that we have already voted on this issue in this place. We voted to introduce buffer zones and in the other place the Conservative peer Baroness Sugg did a very good job of tidying up the Bill. We have already voted in both Houses to introduce what we now call safe access zones. Lords amendment 5 is really important, creating a 150-metre safe access zone around abortion clinics to stop the intimidation and harassment of women and healthcare professionals. The proposed changes to the amendment would risk preventing people from getting the medical support they need.
Does the hon. Lady accept that the evidence from the abortion buffer zones that exist at present is that people are being arrested for silent prayer? That is a fact. If she does, does she then accept that amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5 is necessary to provide a provision for silent prayer?
I do not agree with that interpretation at all. We have public space protection orders around some abortion clinics now, and we are broadening that out. That has been voted for twice, in this House and in the other place. I believe very firmly that the changes proposed in amendment (a) would risk preventing people from getting the medical support they need. Let me explain why.
I am a person of faith. I have also walked into an abortion clinic. I pray, but I also know how intimidating it is to walk past people silently standing there with signs trying to communicate, trying to pray, trying to persuade women to change their mind. It is a balance that we strike in this place between a woman’s right to privacy and healthcare and everybody’s right to go about their business and do what they choose. This place has already struck that balance.
I will explain why I also believe the proposal would not work. It goes way beyond silent prayer. Amendment (a) states:
“No offence is committed under subsection (1) by a person engaged in consensual communication”.
What is “consensual communication”? How on earth can we define it? Members have said women should not be harassed. Everybody agrees with that, but one person’s consensual communication is another person’s harassment. We have taken some legal advice on the amendment. The Government, when considering whether to support it, should look at the wider implications it might have.
Just to make the obvious point, the whole purpose of the buffer zones legislation is to create an exclusion zone around abortion clinics so that people with views they want to express about the subject of abortion clinics will not be in contact with people going to use those services. Amendment (a) would drive a coach and horses through that whole process. The way it is worded would mean that people would be protected from accusations of harassment, because their actions
“shall not…be taken to be…harassment” whatever they may actually be doing, so long as they can call it silent prayer. That drives a coach and horses through what the House of Lords compromised on and what the House of Commons originally agreed to vote for and approve.
The hon. Member is completely right. The amendment also risks driving a coach and horses through all the protests legislation. If I am standing outside Parliament protesting and being annoying and loud, the police may want to intervene, but I might say, “Actually, I’m silently praying. Are you going to tell me I’m not?” How far does the amendment ride roughshod over all our definitions of protest? That is a question that the hon. Members who support it have not considered.
What the hon. Lady just said is completely and utterly wrong—the chuntering on the Government Benches proves that. We are banning people from praying—silently—in a Christian country. Can we let that sink in? This is ridiculous. I want all colleagues on the Government Benches to think about this: within a 150-metre zone of a clinic, people will not be allowed to silently pray. Regardless of the reasons behind that, we need to think carefully about what we are doing.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have voted in this House and the other place for the safe access zones. As someone who prays, I understand why we need to introduce that legislation. However, the amendment mentions not just silent prayer but “consensual communication”. How on earth do we define consensual communication? There is no definition.
We must be clear that nobody is banning praying. We are saying that there is a time and a place to do it appropriately, which balances with people’s human rights. There has been some concern that, somehow, the buffer zones will take up police resources. Does my hon. Friend agree that, actually, amending the buffer zone legislation—as the amendment intends—would mean that more police resource would be needed, because it would become so unclear what was and what was not harassment, even when women repeatedly say that praying in their face is not acceptable?
I completely agree. Having talked to the police for nearly three years in this role, I know that they want clarity. The amendment provides not clarity but unbelievable confusion, whereas a 150-metre zone provides clarity, and that is what the police want.
The Bill remains an affront to our rights. The Government’s own impact assessment shows that it will not have much effect. It is our job as parliamentarians to come up with laws that solve problems and really work. The Bill does not do that, so the Opposition will vote against the Government tonight. We agree with the Lords, and I urge every Member to look to their conscience and do the same.
As always, it is a great pleasure to follow my constituency neighbour, Sarah Jones. She has faced a number of Policing Ministers in her time, and I hope she faces many more during what I hope will be a very long tenure as shadow Minister.
We have heard some extremely thoughtful and well-considered contributions from both sides of the House on quite profound issues, touching as they do on conscience, free speech and a woman’s right to choose in relation to an abortion, as well as slightly more prosaic questions on policing protests. The objective of the Bill is to better balance the rights of individuals to protest—which this Government respect—with the rights of individuals to go about their daily lives without suffering from disruption. Those include the rights of parents to get their children to school, of people to get to hospital for vital treatment and of people to go to work without having their way impeded.
We have seen so many protests impeding the rights of the law-abiding majority, particularly in the latter half of 2022. There were 10-mile tailbacks on the M25. People glued themselves to roads in London and it took a long time to remove them. In December, we saw protesters walking slowly down streets, deliberately trying to cause as much disruption as possible—not so much exercising the right to protest as seeking to make a point by deliberately inconveniencing their fellow citizens. That is not something that this Government support, which is one reason why we are now legislating. The Metropolitan police have confirmed that between October and December last year they spent 13,600 officer shifts policing such protests, at a cost of nearly £10 million. That is time and money that would be much better spent elsewhere.
I turn to the definition of serious disruption in Lords amendment 1. Members across the House agree on the need to define it, and the Metropolitan police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council have argued for such a definition, but we do not think that Lords amendment 1 strikes quite the right balance. Instead, we have carefully studied an amendment tabled in the other place by Lord Hope of Craighead. It included a definition of serious disruption, but it was not voted on because another amendment was voted on first. We think that Lord Hope of Craighead, who is a Cross-Bench peer and a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, got it right by proposing a threshold of “more than minor” inconvenience. The minor inconvenience that the shadow Minister described would not be caught under such a provision, because the “more than minor” threshold would not be exceeded.
As one would expect of a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope of Craighead was not simply making the threshold up; he was referring to case law. I refer the House to the Court of Appeal judgment in the Colston statue case. At paragraphs 116 and 121 of his leading judgment, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, made it clear that where criminal damage is more than “minor or trivial”, it would be acceptable to consider the criminal law to override or trump the rights enshrined in articles 9, 10 and 11 of the ECHR.
Our definition of serious disruption has been proposed by a former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, a Cross-Bench peer, and it enshrines case law handed down by the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, no less. I therefore feel very comfortable in commending our amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
Will the Minister confirm something for the sake of clarity? In the past, major peaceful demonstrations such as anti-nuclear demonstrations have blocked roads, but it was done with the permission of the police. That would continue, would it not?
Yes, it would. My right hon. Friend pre-empts my next point, which I think an Opposition Member raised earlier. Where a protest has been authorised and licensed in advance by the police, of course these provisions will not be engaged. Protests such as the Iraq war protests aimed at the former Labour Government would, of course, be licensed. Protests against this Government would no doubt be licensed as well and could properly be held.
Jon Trickett, who I see is back in his place, made a point about whether the Bill could be used to disrupt strike action. I draw his attention and that of the House to the Bill’s original clauses 6 and 7, which as a result of the Lords amendments have been renumbered as clauses 7 and 8. Subsection (2)(b) of each clause makes it clear that it will be a defence to offences under the Bill that the act in question was undertaken
“in…furtherance of a trade dispute”, so trade union protests and anything to do with strikes are exempted from the provisions of the Bill.
I think that the definition we have set out is reasonable. The police have asked for it, the former Deputy President of the Supreme Court supports it, it backs up the case law and I strongly commend it to the House.
Lords amendments 2, 3 and 4 deal with tunnelling. They are clarificatory amendments, making it clear that the offence of causing serious disruption by being present in a tunnel, as defined by clause 4, is committed only if the tunnel has been created for the purposes of a protest. Lords amendments 10 and 16 relate to some clarifications involving the British Transport Police which we think are important. Lords amendments 6,7, 8, 9 and 36 pertain to so-called suspicionless stop and search.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to this subject, will he give way?
In just a moment.
As Stuart C. McDonald correctly said in an intervention, these so-called suspicionless stop and searches can only take place in the absence of personal suspicion, when an officer of the rank of inspector or above believes, or has reason to believe, that in the next 24 hours a number of offences may be committed in the locality. That reasonable belief is required before any suspicionless stop and search can take place, and even then it is time-bound to a period of 24 hours. We think that that is proportionate. We have heard some views from the police and, in particular, from the His Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, which has said: “On balance, our view is that, with appropriate guidance and robust and effective safeguards, the proposed stop and search powers would have the potential to improve police efficiency and effectiveness in preventing disruption and making the public safe.” So this is something that HMIC has supported.
I think we all accept that suspicionless stop and search can be triggered quite rightly, for example if there is a danger of terrorism, but the Bill now allows it to take place when, for instance, there could be a danger that someone somewhere might commit a public nuisance or lock themselves to a fence. That could lead to hundreds or even thousands of suspicionless searches, which is surely disproportionate.
I do not accept that. When there is a reasonable suspicion that in the next 24 hours offences may be committed which may themselves have a profoundly disruptive effect on members of the public, it is reasonable to prevent that. Let me point the hon. Gentleman to the example of the protests on the M25 last November, when a 10-mile tailback was caused. I suggest that preventing that would be a reasonable thing to do.
Lords amendment 17 deals with the question of journalists. As I have said previously, although the law as it stands does protect journalists—in fact, an apology rapidly followed the arrest of the journalist in Hertfordshire —the Government accept that clarification and reaffirmation of journalistic freedom is important, so we accept the spirit and the principle of the amendment. We have improved the wording slightly in our amendment in lieu, but we accept that journalists need special protection.
Lords amendments 18, 19 and 20 deal with serious disruption prevention orders. There has been some confusion over this, on both sides of the House, so I will reiterate the point for the purpose of complete clarity. The Government have accepted the point made in the Lords that a conviction is required before a serious disruption prevention order can be made. That is a significant concession. However, we do not accept Lords amendment 20, because clause 20—as formerly numbered —simply allows for an application to be made at a time after conviction, but a conviction must previously have taken place. We have therefore tabled an amendment in lieu.
I think it important to emphasise that there will be a free vote on buffer zones, at least on the Government side, because it concerns an issue of conscience, namely abortion. There is no Government position on this matter, and Members will vote according to their consciences. We have heard Members on both sides of the House speak about this issue passionately and with conviction.
I hear what the Minister says about that, and he has heard the strong opinions expressed from this side of the Chamber in favour of the freedom to pray silently. Speaking personally and for the guidance of the House, will he tell us whether he will be supporting the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer, which allows free and silent prayer?
My right hon. Friend is putting me on the spot a little bit. I would like to reiterate that the Government are neutral on this position. It is a free vote and there is no Government position, and in my capacity as a Government Minister I do not have a view. Obviously, as a Member of Parliament, I will be voting as an individual on this question. I do think, speaking personally, that women should be free to use these services without intimidation or harassment, which is why I voted for the amendment from Stella Creasy when it was first tabled, but I do not think the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South undermines that, particularly given the words in proposed subsection (3B), which say that prayer
“shall not, without more, be taken to” influence a person’s decision. So, personally, I will vote for that, but I emphasise again that the Government do not have a position and this is a free vote. We have heard some extremely thoughtful, well-considered, well-argued and sincerely held views on both sides, and Members will no doubt make up their own minds. up.
I respect the fact that the Minister has his own personal opinion. For the avoidance of doubt, can he confirm to the Chamber that this legislation, as amended in the Lords, is compliant with the European convention on human rights and that it does not criminalise praying but sets out boundaries for where it should occur?
I think we will ultimately have to defer to the Attorney General, but my understanding is that the legislation, as amended by the Lords and if amended by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South’s amendment, would in both cases be compliant with the European convention on human rights. Indeed, it is our opinion that the entire Bill is consistent with the European convention on human rights.
I think I have probably spoken for long enough—[Interruption.] Did someone say, “Hear, hear”? This Bill strikes the right balance between protecting the right to protest and making sure that our constituents can go about their day-to-day business without unreasonable hindrance, that parents can get their children to school, that patients can get to hospitals and that people can get to their place of work. That is the right balance, and I commend the Government amendments to the House.
Question put, That amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5 be made.
The House divided: Ayes 116, Noes 299.
Question accordingly negatived.
More than three hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (
Lords amendment 5 agreed to.
Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.